The British Parachute Battalion, circa 1942 to 1943
The Parachute Battalion was a significantly smaller unit than its infantry equivalent, standing at a little over 600 all ranks compared to some 800 men in the standard Infantry Battalion.
The Parachute Battalion, circa 1942 to 1943
Battalion Headquarters (5 Officers, 22 men)
Headquarter Company (5 Officers, 164 men), comprised of;
Company Headquarters (1 Officer, 10 men)
Intelligence Section (1 Officer, 10 men)
Signals Platoon (1 Officer, 26 men)
Mortar Platoon (1 Officer, 36 men)
Protective Section (6 men)
Administrative Platoon (1 Officer, 76 men)
Three Rifle Companies (5 Officers, 134 men), each comprised of;
Company HQ (2 Officers, 12 men)
Two Mortar Detachments, each (8 men)
Anti-tank Section (7 men)
Three Rifle Platoons, each comprised of;
Platoon HQ (1 Officer, 3 men)
Three Sections, each comprised of 10 men
Total Strength of 613 all ranks (25 Officers and 588 men)
The Battalion was very lightly equipped, its heaviest weapons being the 3-inch mortar. As with other similar Airborne units its role was to use surprise to seize or destroy vital objectives ahead of the arrival of the main force. Swift relief or massive reinforcement were required, as if left unaided the lightly armed Paratroops would soon be overwhelmed.
The elements of the Battalion
Battalion Headquarters - like the Infantry version contained the Battalion Staff (Lieutenant-colonel, Major, Captain and Lieutenant), plus the attached Medical Officer. The remainder of the strength was provided by NCOs, Regimental Police and the obligatory batmen and orderlies.
Intelligence Section – all British Battalions included a number of personnel to undertake intelligence duties under the direction of the unit Intelligence Officer. They were normally part of Battalion HQ, but in this case formed a separate section.
Signals Platoon - served the same function as in the Infantry Battalion. It members were provided with 8 airborne bicycles to supplement their message carrying capabilities.
Mortar Platoon – the Mortar Platoon served four 3-inch mortars and provided the Battalion with its heaviest concentration of firepower.
Protective Section – this small group was armed with a pair of Bren guns and an anti-tank rifle to provide the vulnerable HQ detachment with some support.
Administrative Platoon - as with the Infantry, the Admin Platoon collected the various tradesmen and attached personnel needed to support the unit in non-combat areas. It also included a decent sized motor pool which unfortunately could not be taken into action.
The Rifle Company - the early Rifle Companies contained several unusual aspects, eventually becoming much like the Infantry equivalent, but on closer inspection there were a number of notable differences. However, the basis remained the ten man Rifle Section.
The Parachute Section was a much more powerful unit than the Infantry version. As a reflection of the need for it to act more independently it was commanded by a Sergeant, with a Corporal as his second-in-command. The overall layout remained seemingly as a Section Commander, six man rifle group and three man gun group. It was in the firepower department the differences really showed. Throughout the war, the gun group served a single Bren light machine gun, but added to this was the stripped down airborne version of the 2-inch mortar, which was much lighter than the standard model. Crucially though, the 1942 tables state each 2-inch mortarman carried just six rounds for his weapon, all of which were smoke. That would indicate the mortar did not play a serious role in the fire fight, although as far as I am aware it was capable of firing high explosive rounds.
There were sufficient Lance-corporals for one per Section. I had imagined he was a member of the mortar team, but if this played a less significant role it would seem unlikely. Perhaps the Lance-corporal still commanded the gun group, while the Corporal was a member of the rifle group? The Section carried two pistols, .45 cal US issue Colts, two Sten guns and six rifles. The pistols no doubt armed the mortarman and Bren gunner, though I would suggest the former actually adopted a Sten. The Sergeant would then carry one of the Sten guns, the Corporal the other (if indeed he lead the rifle group) and the balance rifles. Each Section also had a grenade discharger cup for one rifle, but these fell out of favour mid-war.
The Platoon comprised three such Sections, plus a small Headquarters element. The 1st or 2nd Lieutenant, Sergeant, Batman and runner were all carried over from the Infantry. However, the issue of a 2-inch mortar to each Rifle Section meant there was no need for a further team at HQ, reducing strength to thirty four all ranks. Each Platoon initially had a Boys anti-tank rifle. The Officer was provided with a pistol, the Sergeant a Sten, the two men each a rifle.
The three Platoons served under a small Company HQ, commanded by a Major with a Captain as his second-in-command. Added to the usual NCOs and runners were three attached medics. During 1942-1943, each Company also had some additional fire support elements. The most important of these was a pair of 3-inch mortars. The Anti-tank Section is one of those curiosities these tables can throw up. Each Section was supposed to serve a single weapon called a Smith gun. This was not something I had ever come across in my research. Dr Steve Bull kindly forwarded me this link to a description of the Smith Gun, and it would seem safe to assume it was never fired in anger!
The issue of personal weapons to the Battalion is worthy of comment. I had personally doubted the extent to which the British Army issued the Sten submachine gun to the average Rifle Company. However, each Parachute Battalion was provided a 'pool reserve' of Sten guns. In the 1942 tables this was massive 429 weapons. That was sufficient for at least every other man to be so armed. Rifle Section commanders were normally armed with the Sten, but how many others in his unit were similarly so is impossible to determine and likely varied widely within the Battalion.
The above organisation was used by Parachute Battalions in their first major actions in North Africa and during the invasion of Italy. It proved reliable enough to undergo only minor amendments in preparation for the Normandy campaign.
The British Army
The British Infantry Battalion
British Divisional Organisations