First In, The Airborne Pathfinders, A History of the 21st Independent Parachute Company, 1942-1946

The short history of paratroops leaves many areas inadequately covered by historians. This book reviews one specialist unit within the British Parachute Forces. This account is illuminating because it not only provides a very welcome history of the unit, but sheds light on some of their specialist missions – Highly Recommended.

NAME: First In, The Airborne Pathfinders, A History of the 21st 
Independent Parachute Company, 1942-1946
FILE: R2520
AUTHOR: Ron Kent
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword, Frontline
BINDING: hard back
PAGES:  218
PRICE: £19.99
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWII, World War 2, World War II, Second World War, RAF, 
Glider Regiment, paratroops, light infantry, DC-3, C-47, Drop Zone, 
advanced party, special missions

ISBN: 978-1-84832-946-1

IMAGE: B2520jpg
DESCRIPTION: The short history of paratroops leaves many areas 
inadequately covered by historians. This book reviews one specialist 
unit within the British Parachute Forces. This account is 
illuminating because it not only provides a very welcome history of 
the unit, but sheds light on some of their specialist missions - 
Highly Recommended.

The parachute, in its current form, dates from WWI, where it was 
mainly restricted to observers in captive observation balloons. Some 
use was made of this escape system by German flyers, but the British 
considered that its issue to fighter pilots would only encourage them 
to avoid a fight and bail out, condemning hundreds to a terrible 
death, trapped in burning aircraft. Exactly who thought of using the 
parachute to vertically insert troops will probably never be agreed. 
The Soviets certainly trained large numbers of airborne troops but 
many were expected to jump off the wings of low flying aircraft 
without a parachute in the hope that the snow would break their fall. 
Germany established an elite force within the Luftwaffe to operate as 
light infantry, delivered by glider and parachute, making spectacular 
use of them during the invasion of neutral Belgium and Holland where 
they were used to take out enemy forts and seize bridges ahead of the 
advance of ground troops. Britain did not take paratroops seriously 
until 1940 when there was a desperate search, under strong orders 
from Churchill, to find ways of making life difficult for the Germans 
until Britain was strong enough with its allies to land regular 
troops in Europe in the numbers required to defeat the Germans.

By any measure, the parachute, as we know it today, is little more 
than 100 years old. Its use to vertically insert troops is little 
more than 90 years old, and British use for paratroops is little 
more than 75 years old. Glider delivery of troops is not much more 
than 80 years old. As a result, the organization of units and the 
development of tactics for the deployment of parachute and glider 
troops developed very quickly from the late 1930s. Although the 
parachute continues in use today, even after the advent of 
helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft, the glider was very short 
lived. Whether the glider returns to service remains to be seen but 
some military specialists have argued for its use in Special Forces 
operations as a very stealthy aircraft with no infrared emissions, 
minimal radar signature, silence and flexibility for some special 
missions. It can be argued that it is already in service in the form 
of one-man switch-blade platforms that can be used by special units 
for some Hi Lo missions to enable the user to make pin-point silent 
landings after dropping for more than 20,000 ft.

Given the rapid development of airborne troops in the pre-helicopter 
age, the size of paratroop forces and their successes is amazing. 
That some of the more specialist units have received little notice 
is therefore perhaps unsurprising.

Initially, very highly trained troops were employed by the Germans 
in small numbers to attack bridges and Belgian fortresses. They made 
use mainly of assault gliders that were unique to the Luftwaffe at 
the time. Their novelty assured surprise. No one had expected a 
vertical insertion of small numbers of demolition troops on 
fortifications that consequently had no defence against that form of 
attack. As a result, accuracy of delivery was not an issue. Very 
extensive training had addressed the issue and the relatively small 
number of gliders and paratroops involved removed the issues of the 
size of landing grounds and location relative to the targets. The 
Germans landed literally on top of the target and started using 
explosives to kill enemy soldiers inside the fortresses and destroy 
the structures.

Several British officers had studied the German attacks in Belgium 
and saw significant opportunities for a British airborne force. They 
might have faced strong opposition from traditional soldiers, but it 
was an idea made to appeal to Churchill and the pugnacious spirit in 
Britain following the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk. Parachute 
silk might have been more difficult to find, but assault gliders were 
made of wood and canvass in reasonably plentiful supply and requiring 
skills that were already  known to the aircraft industry and many 
craftsmen and women who could be assigned easily to the job of 
building gliders. The British enthusiastically embraced the idea of 
building large airborne formations and very rapidly overtook the 
German lead in this area of warfare. After the attacks on Belgium, 
the Luftwaffe used airborne troops in large numbers to attack Crete, 
where they could achieve air superiority but, thereafter, and partly 
due to the very high losses in the Crete invasion, the Luftwaffe was 
to use its airborne forces as ground troops. The British however 
started to develop some very ambitious plans, including designing 
tanks and guns that could be delivered by assault and transport 
gliders, and selecting obsolescent bombers to be used as glider tugs 
to tow the gliders, large and small, from the British and North 
African airfields to the landing grounds in Axis and occupied Europe. 
The availability of the DC-3 Dakota/C-47 also provided the idea 
transport aircraft to carry large numbers of paratroopers, while 
modified bombers and other transport aircraft were impressed to allow 
for very large airborne units.

All of this activity did present some challenges. Once very large 
numbers of men and equipment were assigned to airborne forces it 
presented all sorts of difficulties in training and logistics. To 
meet these challenges, the use of very large airborne attack forces 
meant that they were trained more basically to land together in 
relatively large landing grounds, but it still left the need for 
highly trained special units to mark landing grounds for the main 
force and tackle missions that had very special requirements.

The author has described very ably how and why 21st Independent 
Parachute Company became one of these special units and the missions 
given to them, from marking landing grounds to hunting down Gestapo 
and SS officers who were attempting to disguise themselves as 
ordinary German soldiers and flee. The illustration by photo-plate 
section includes rare images.

By reading this book many will suddenly find answers to questions 
from reading about the main airborne force units. Without 
pathfinders to mark and hold designated landing zones for the main 
force, the huge airborne operations in Sicily, Italy, France, the 
Netherlands and Germany would not have been possible and the result 
would have been very much higher casualties in land force frontal 
attack. Arnheim is often held up as a failure and caution for the 
use of airborne troops, but even here there were significant 
achievements and many were due to the services of pathfinders. The 
only problem that was difficult to resolve for large drops and glider 
landings was finding adequate areas of flat ground near to the target 
to accept large gliders in large numbers. 

Arnheim is an example of suitable landing grounds for gliders being 
some distance from the target, the size of force needed being too 
large to fit into a single wave of assault and paratroop aircraft, 
and very poor communications unable to ensure that the latest 
situation was known and that men and supplies were not dropped onto 
landing grounds retaken by the enemy. Much has been made of the fact 
that the SS Panzer Division refitting at Arnheim had not been 
identified and only reserve units were thought to be in the area. It 
did not help, but the basic reasons making victory unlikely were 
logistics and surprise. The first wave did reach their objectives and 
did hold them longer than called for. The landings failed overall 
because of the failure to land everyone in the first phase and for 
the 'Garden' ground forces to make faster progress to relieve the 

Also, the glider was a one way trip and after delivering its cargo, 
it just cluttered the landing zone for later waves of gliders. It 
may have been less of an issue for paratroops, but even they required 
enough space to permit safe landings. The US had been appraised of 
the British experiences and embraced airborne forces and mass drops/
landings with as much enthusiasm. Although it came too late for 
practical employment, the US developed systems that allowed a tug 
aircraft to overfly a landing zone and snatch a glider from the 
ground, cleaning up the LZ and allowing the glider to be checked and 
sent back with another load. It was not until the Berlin Airlift that 
this technique was used with some regularity and by then the 
helicopter was starting to provide the maturity to carry out many of 
the tasks and clamshell door transports were being built to operate 
from small rough airstrips and paradrop cargoes of supply pallets, 
guns and vehicles, including armoured vehicles. More recently, the 
tilt-rotor has come of age and offers potential for much further