Another chapter from “Special Assignment” by my uncle John Alldridge
(published in 1960 and now long out of print)
There comes a moment in every good reporter’s life when he has to take a chance. A desperate chance. When that moment comes he must make a snap decision, shut his eyes, hold on, and hope for the best.
That thought was passing through the mind of Peter Woods as he sat on the verandah of the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia one night in October, 1956.
Sitting there on the verandah, where the night air was heady with the scent of jasmine and the music of a Strauss waltz played softly, it was hard to believe that outside in the darkness an invasion force was at readiness, awaiting the order to take off.
They had been waiting for weeks. And in the bar of the Ledra Palace where most of the correspondents gathered, nerves were stretched to breaking point.
Every man there was representing a newspaper which claimed to be first with the news. Every man knew that his paper would expect him to be the first man in with the invasion and the first man out with the first eye-witness account. And every man knew that the chance of getting such a story was a thousand-to-one against.
A few lucky ones might be invited to the last-minute top-level briefing before the glider planes and assault craft took off. For the rest, it would mean sitting and waiting hour after hour, until some Army or Air Force P.R.O. was ready to hand out the stale news.
Out there alone on the verandah Peter Woods of the Daily Mirror curled his long legs round a basket chair and hammered away at the problem. As he had hammered away at it for weeks.
The answer always came out the same: the only way to get the only story that mattered was to go in with the first wave. But the first wave would be airborne. Tough young paratroopers were going to drop on Gemel Airport, outside Port Said, and hold it until the seaborne forces could break through and relieve them.
That much everyone knew.
The answer, then, was very simple. All he had to do was to go along with the paratroops and drop with them. It had been done before. Leonard Mosley, of the Daily Express had dropped into Normandy with the 6th Airborne Division on D-1.
But there was one slight difference. Mosley had been a trained paratrooper, officially attached to the Airborne force. Young Woods had never jumped in his life from anything higher than a garden wall.
A small, hand-picked invasion force has no room for passengers. Least of all up there among the first ‘sticks’ of paratroops. But could he thumb a lift to battle? Would some soft-hearted battalion commander agree to take him along
It was worth trying anyway. He had nothing to lose – except his neck….
And so, while the rest of us argued and complained, the young Peter Woods slipped off into the darkness. To find out for himself.
To his amazement it worked like a charm. Almost at once he found a Paratrooper colonel who said he could join the party if he was so set on it.
“Of course, you’ve jumped before?” said the colonel, casually.
“Of course,” echoed Peter, suddenly feeling about 6 inches high.
“Well. Better take a quick ‘refresher’ before you go. Don’t want you breaking your neck before you’ve got your story, what?”
Hollowly, Peter agreed that would be a pity.
The ‘refresher course’ must have been one of the shortest on record.
“I was taken to a ‘mock-up’ of an aircraft on the 3rd Dorset’s camp at Nicosia Airport,” Peter remembers.
“An R.A.F. sergeant went through the motions of jumping out of an aircraft; and I watched him; and then I tried to copy him as well as I could. I must have done all right. Because he said I obviously hadn’t forgotten the procedure! I thought that pretty good, since I’d never done it before!”
After that there was nothing more to do but wait. It seemed like a lifetime. But actually it was only eighteen hours.
They took off from Nicosia Airport just before dawn on November 5th. Guy Fawkes Day, thought Peter ruefully. And plenty of fireworks ahead.
The flight from Cyprus to Egypt took about two hours. Ample time for Peter to check his reactions and that of his companions.
“I must say to start with I was feeling very jumpy. But very soon the immense confidence of those lads in the aircraft steadied me. They were enormously cheerful and matter-of-fact. Most of them settled down to sleep the moment we took off. It was stuffy in there. And I had quite forgotten my fears and had begun to doze myself when I saw the Stick Commander get to his feet, call us to attention, and hold up his fingers. From my rushed briefing I knew that meant we had only another fifteen minutes to go. And I began to feel that queer tugging around my stomach muscles again.
“For the next five minutes we were so busy checking our parachutes and our lines and so forth that I had no time to think. Then the Stick Commander held up his fingers again. Only ten minutes to go now.
“Then the door of the aircraft was pulled out and a mighty rushing wind blew in and there was a tremendous noise. By that time we were standing up with our steel helmets on and waiting for the green light to flash on over the door.”
And so for the next four heart-stopping, stomach-shaking minutes as the aircraft steadily approached the dropping zone Peter waited with his left foot pointed forward, ready for the ‘tunnel’ which takes the long file of paratroopers up from the rear of the aircraft to the exit.
I have often wondered how it must feel – that first drop into space. This is how Peter remembers it:
“After what seems like seconds – in fact, of course it is only a split-second – you throw away the stick-line of the man in front of you, throw it down the aircraft to make sure that his parachute is cleared, and there you are at the door yourself.
“You clutch your right-hand trouser leg with your right hand and cross your left hand over and grip your wrist so that you are in a rigid position as you go out upright.
“I think at that moment my brain went numb. I can remember falling out of the aircraft. And I can remember thinking I must have got the drill right. But I can’t remember the parachute opening at all. I’d been told there would be a sharp break when the ‘chute opened. But I can’t remember it.
“The next thing I do remember is the rushing of air and the wonderful, peaceful sensation of floating down and down and down in the bright sunshine. Until I realised that there was an awful lot of noise going on. And that the noise was anti-aircraft fire.
“On the ground the Egyptians had several companies of troops stationed over the airfield. They were expecting the attack and I heard two sharp cracks near my ear and I looked down. To my horror I saw what appeared to be a small Egyptian soldier lying on the ground and firing up at me.
“It was a strange feeling. I remember I felt quite hurt that he should be aiming at me personally. And that he meant it!
“I had been dreading hitting the ground.
“After all, I’m 15 stone and six-feet-four and that doesn’t make for good parachuting. But luckily I landed on the sand off the tarmac of the airfield. Consequently, by professional standards, it was a “soft” landing. But to me it seemed awfully hard.”
Once down and – to his slight amazement – still alive and in one piece Woods, the paratrooper, became Woods the reporter again. Now he had only one thought – get undercover and get that ‘story’ written as quickly as possible.
“The noise and the dust and the confusion going on all around me was most discouraging. I wanted to get behind a wall – preferably a very thick one. So I made it like a hare for the control tower of the airfield and got myself well dug in there in the garage of one of the out-buildings which the battalion had taken over as a casualty clearing station.”
And there, in a blood-stained notebook, among the cries of the wounded and the dull thud-thud of the mortar bursts, Peter Woods scribbled the story that was to go round the world. Here it is: as it was reprinted in 100 newspapers. Three hundred words that stand for one newspaperman’s cool wits and steady nerves:
Port Said Airfield, Nov 5. (Delayed).
As the guns of Russian-built tanks poured shells into the area of British paratroops hiding on the fringe of Port Said tonight there came a wireless message from the Egyptians proposing surrender.
The message came over the air after a day of heavy fighting on a narrow peninsula where I parachuted with the troops early this morning. But as I write this now, sitting on the floor of a bloody casualty clearing station in one of the Port Said buildings we captured soon after dawn, there has been no acceptance of the proposals.
Orders issued by the commander of the British carrier fleet lying off the Egyptian coast at dusk tonight were for planes, which have been strafing the town defenders all day, to hold their fire but to continue low sorties over the area throughout the night. No one knows yet whether the Egyptian proposal is a ruse to re-form forces.
Soon after dawn the great armada arrived over the dropping zone and out we went. But as the sky became littered with white, black, green, and khaki parachutes, anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, tanks and small arms made the air around us a screeching, crackling hell of lead.
As I dropped towards the runway strewn with barrels I saw Egyptian troops in slit trenches point their rifles towards me and start shooting. Everywhere they were waiting for us, but calmly, just as though it was a practice jump, our men unhitched their weapon containers and made for the airfield’s control tower which was the rendezvous point.
Round us as we walked across the sandy airfield, shells and mortar bombs fell. Men went down and their comrades picked them up – and walked resolutely on. Within thirty minutes, as they re-formed and began to push towards defenders, the casualty clearing station was filled with wounded men.
They lay on stretchers – reservists, National Service men, and Regulars alike – some with shattered limbs, others with rent bodies. But not one of them complained. Time and time again stretcher-bearers went out into the shell-battered runways to bring in their injured comrades.
Undercover of rocket fire from naval jet fighters, who were talked down on to targets by leading troops, the battalion began to advance. Back came prisoners, frightened little men jabbering all the English they knew. All-day long the battle raged as the ‘Red Devils’ pushed on against known odds of five to one.
Then from buildings in Port Said itself came the ominous crump of heavy tanks in the town. Tonight it is known that there are many new Russian-built So-100s, with their massive guns, hidden there. And under their withering fire the paratroopers are pinned down with only a few anti-tank guns to reply with. The battalion’s commander, Brigadier Butler, told me: “There are many more tanks than we thought. We are only moving slowly.”
But that was only half of it. For having written his story Woods now had to get it out. And that, too, called for some pretty fast thinking. Let Woods tell it in his own way:
“That afternoon at great danger to themselves helicopters were able to start landing on the airfield and the more seriously wounded were being taken off and flown back to aircraft carriers which had been converted into hospital ships.
“I persuaded the Brigadier who had jumped with the battalion to let me go in one of the helicopters. The Brigadier was very good about it. I was not displacing a wounded man; I still counted as a civilian; and so – as far as he was concerned – I was free to fly out at my own risk.
“So I was flown back to H.M.S. Eagle where I gave my rather blood-stained notebook to the censor who did his bit on it. From the Eagle it was radioed to Cyprus; and from there to London.”
That was how the first story came out of Suez. For twenty-four hours there was no more first-hand news from the battle.
Woods had got that rare thing, a ‘World-beat’. He had beaten the world by twenty-four hours. And he had done it by seeing his chance. And taking it. . . .
Notes (courtesy Wikipedia)
Peter Holmes Woods (7 November 1930 – 22 March 1995) was a British journalist, reporter and newsreader. He was one of the BBC’s best-known broadcasters of his day. He was also the biological father of BBC broadcaster Justin Webb.
In 1956 while a reporter for a British national newspaper Woods dropped by parachute with 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment and landed under fire at El Gamil Airfield near Port Said during the Suez Crisis. He was the only civilian to drop with British parachute forces in the conflict.
Jerry F 2022