The Central Landing School, RAF Ringway, 1940 – 1942

On June 5, 1947, the eve of the third anniversary of the 6th British Airborne Division’s landing in Normandy, my uncle John Alldridge of the Manchester Evening News reviewed the achievements of the establishment responsible for training parachutists in the early 1940s – Jerry F

Jerry F, Going Postal
General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), inspecting parachute troops at the Central Landing Establishment at RAF Ringway near Manchester, December 1940.
General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff,
Taylor (Mr), War Office official photographer
Public domain

Between midnight of June 5 and dawn of June 6, 1944, six thousand men of the British 6th Airborne Division dropped into France.

They went down through the great globes of bursting red and purple flak as coolly as if they were carrying out a large-scale exercise on Salisbury Plain.

On May 17, 1944, a few days before he led his 6th Airborne Division into action, Major-General Richard Gale wrote a letter of thanks to the men and women of the R.A.F. parachute school at Ringway:

“Ringway has always and will always mean much to us. It is, in fact, our spiritual home. Way back in those early days things began to happen at the C.L.S. [Central Landing School] and the Parachute Training School and we have grown much since and have reached our manhood. But what we are today is largely what we were created by you at the beginning. We had merely endeavoured to live up to a standard you set for us. I hope we shall always do you credit.”

‘Way back in those early days things began to happen . . . ‘

It began on another sultry June morning four years earlier, when Pilot Officer Louis Strange, D.S.O., M.C., D.F.C. – sometime Lieutenant-Colonel and ace pilot in the old Royal Flying Corps – was called to a conference at the War Office.

It was a desperate time for Britain. Only a few days before France had surrendered and the invasion of the British Isles by air and land forces of overwhelming strength appeared to be imminent and inevitable.

Yet at this critical moment the seeds of victory were being sown there in Whitehall. Winston Churchill, with remarkable vision and optimism, had seen in the German use of parachute troops at Rotterdam a weapon of tremendous potential power. He had therefore directed “that immediate action be taken to raise a force of five thousand parachute soldiers on commando lines.” And to Louis Strange was assigned the task of forming a school for training those parachute troops.

Jerry F, Going Postal
Louis A Strange.
12 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps,
IWM Collections
Public domain

By the end of June, 1940 a site for the school had been decided on – Manchester Corporation’s civil airport at Ringway. The airport at Ringway had been chosen for no better reason than that it was well away from operational areas.

The new unit was to be a combined services establishment with the title of ‘The Central Landing School.’ and R.A.F. and Army Personnel were to work together on the staff. The R.A.F. was to be responsible for the air side of development and training, and the Army for the military subjects.

The operational employment of the men after their training had been completed was to be initiated by the War Office, but the actual planning and carrying out of such operations was the responsibility of the Director of Combined Operations.

This looked all very well on paper. But at that time relations between the Army and the R.A.F. were more than a little strained. The R.A.F., engaged to the full in fighting the Battle of Britain, was frankly resentful that its extremely limited resources should be further taxed for what seemed to be a purely military adventure.

This difference of opinion had an immediate effect on the type of men detailed to serve as an embryo training staff. While the soldier-instructors were all exceptionally fine picked men, almost without exception holding the rank of sergeant and above, the R.A.F.’s contribution were fabric workers who had been employed in the parachute section at Henlow, and only a few of them held N.C.O. rank. And yet it was from this band of eager but underpaid volunteers that the magnificent staff of the R.A.F parachute instructors came eventually into being.

Writing of those early beginnings Group Captain Maurice Newnharn, who was to become commandant of the school, gives a good idea of the difficulties experienced by those pioneer jumpers;

“As these aircraft (Whitleys) were monoplanes, and had no struts or other means bv which ardent parachutists could clamber about on their wings, an alternative arrangement had to be devised. This was neatly done by removing the rear gun-turret equipment and forming in its place a small open cockpit in the extreme tail of the aircraft.

“There was just room for two men to stand in this forlorn compartment – an instructor and a pupil – each held equally grimly to a strong steel bar conveniently placed for just that purpose. Instructions were transmitted from the pilot by means of red and green signal lights.”

In this way make-shift work went on. On July 9 the first pupils arrived at Ringway and commenced a course of ground training. They were men of ‘B’ and ‘C’ troop of No 2 Commando. And on July 13, 1940, the first parachute descent was made at Tatton Park.

One at a time men crawled on their hands and knees to a gap in the fuselage the size of a large coal-hole and were whipped away into space. These were the first of 400,000 descents to be made by a 28 foot “Irving” parachute over Ringway.

The officers on the staff of the school in those days would have shocked the ‘Whitehall Warriors’ of a generation earlier. On them the lives of thousands of British soldiers were to depend. There was Leslie Irvin, pioneer parachutist and parachute designer. There was J. E. M. Williams, who had been a professional parachutist working with Sir Alan Cobham’s air circus. There was Pilot Officer Kronfeld, one of the most experienced glider pilots and designers of pre-war days.

Later on they were to be joined by Flying Officer Charles Agate, a gunnery leader who transferred from bombers to learn parachuting. He made his first jump on the day be arrived and finished the war as Ringway’s top scorer with a record of more than fourteen hundred jumps. On one occasion Agate made 16 jumps on one day, which may well be a world’s record.

In spite of unsuitable aircraft and makeshift equipment casualties at the beginning were not heavy, though on July 25 the school had to record its first fatality. The parachute of Driver Evans, of the R.A.S.C., failed to open. He fell straight to the ground and was killed instantly. The first man bad given his life in the cause of military parachuting at Ringway.

Towards the end of 1940 it was felt that it was time Ringway was given a chance to justify its existence. The small and earnest band of parachute enthusiasts were eager for a ‘show.’

The chance came in February,1941. A team of volunteers – including one very gallant Italian civilian – prepared to make an airborne attack on the Apulia Aqueduct, in Southern Italy. A full-scale model of part of the aqueduct was erected in Tatton Park and on February 1 a full dress rehearsal was carried out. Several of the men were blown into high trees, where they dangled helplessly until rescued by the Knutsford Fire Brigade.

A week later eight Whitleys carrying the intrepid party left Ringway for Malta, the base of the operation. On the night of the 10th the attack was mounted. Strategically the attempt was a failure. The aqueduct was breached, but not destroyed. All the members of the raiding party were captured. The gallant Italian, Picchi, was executed as a traitor. But the Italian radio screamed that their homeland had been attacked. And the world now knew that Britain possessed a force of military parachutists.

In April of that same year Ringway got official recognition. In a gale of gusting wind the school put on a show for an audience of very important people, including the Prime Minister and heads of the Services. Five decrepit old Whitlevs to drop 40 parachutists; a total fighting strength of 400 semi-trained parachutists on parade. Not much, perhaps. But the beginning of great things to come.

Even that great moment had its awkward humour. Into the microphone called Wing Commander Sir Nigel Norman to the flight formation leader: “Are you ready to take off’.”

After a moment’s pause the reply came back loud enough for all to hear: “No. I’m not ready to take off. Five of the b——s have fainted.”

But in the summer and autumn of 1941 things began to speed up. On November I the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the First Parachute Brigade arrived in Heald Green railway station en route for Ringway and parachute training. Seventeen officers, two warrant officers, 22 sergeants, and 228 other ranks. The first organised units of Britain’s airborne forces.

They got cracking almost at once. Busses took them along the eight miles of twisting roads from Ringway to Tatton Park to make their first 700-feet drop from the old barrage balloon, known affectionately to thousands of Ringway old boys as Bessie.

At the end of 12 days’ training 1,773 parachute descents – from aircraft this time – had been made. Only two men failed the course. And the coveted badge with its blue wings and white parachute was presented to each man as he completed his seventh jump.

Throughout the bitter winter of 1941-42 the war went on. They were jumping at night now – and in the early dusk artificially thickened by the industrial fogs which drifted across from Manchester. For the instructors the work was new and frightening. Serious injuries were a daily occurrence, and death in a particularly unpleasant form became a too familiar visitor. In 60 days five men were killed through their parachutes failing to open properly.

A special ward at Davyhulme Military Hospital was practically devoted to Ringway casualties, and it was a familiar sight to see officers, both instructors and pupils, hobbling about the mess in plaster casts.

But in those two months a thousand men had completed their basic training and joined the four or five hundred which comprised the original battalion, now expanding into the First Parachute Brigade.

They had another kind of pupil to train now, known laconically as the ‘special.’ These were civilians from all the occupied nations of Europe who had bravely volunteered to do work as secret agents behind the lines. A good many of the ‘specials’ were men of middle age who had led sedentary lives and were therefore not in fit physical condition.

Since there was no time to train them them the hard way it was thought that dropping them in water would make a softer landing. A suitable ‘dropping zone’ was found in Rostherne Mere a mile or two from Tatton Park, a hundred feet deep in parts and very cold in winter. Soon these drops became almost a game with the staff of the school, and ranking visitors were invited to “drop in” – an invitation which was readily accepted.

With the North African invasion now almost out of the planning stage orders came for Ringway to prepare for action.

During the summer the War Office had decided to convert certain existing battalions into parachute battalions. The first regiments to provide paratroopers were the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. And in August the 6th (Royal Welch) Parachute Battalion arrived at Ringway for special training, to be followed shortly by the 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion.

Soon Scots and Welch were singing the school’s rollicking jumping song “Jumping Through the Hole”:

“One morning very early,
Damp and cold and dark,
They took me in a so called bus,
Out to Tatton Park.
In keeping with the weather
Said I to one and all
‘I take a dim and misty view
Of jumping through the hole.’”

In North Africa and onwards in Sicily the landing was the British airborne forces’ first full-scale taste of war.

And throughout the summer, autumn and winter of 1940 and the spring of 1941 the hangar-gymnasium was home to more than it had ever been before; a thousand men at a time being housed and trained at Ringway. The prelude was over. Men of all nations were here – Dutchmen, Norwegians, Czechs and Poles.

The curtain was going up. It went up with a bang on that morning of June 6, 1944; it went up again on that famous morning in September when Britain’s airborne army took Arnhem. Twenty-five instructors went with them.

They came back, those instructors, to tell how their pupils leapt out above the flat Dutch fields and shouted: “Give our love to Ringway – we’ll be up to see them soon.”


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Jerry F 2022