Skip to main content

Parachute Regiment

Volume 934: debated on Thursday 30 June 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Snape.]

12.47 a.m.

It is a great privilege for me tonight to speak, albeit to a thin House, on a subject that I believe to be of the greatest possible importance to the House and the country. If the Minister had been at Wembley tonight, he would have seen many young people parading before Her Majesty the Queen and showing themselves ready, willing and able to serve their country.

It is right that I should declare my interest in this matter. I had the honour to serve in the Parachute Regiment for six years, and I declare that freely and with pride.

This debate was due to be held a week ago, on 22nd June—and had it been held then, it would have been on the anniversary of the date 37 years before when Sir Winston Churchill called for the formation of a parachute corps. He not only called for the formation of a corps but demanded that it be established, because he recognised the need. I am sorry, therefore, that we did not hold this debate on that night.

I have no reason to parade before the House the history of the Parachute Regiment. I shall only remind the House that wherever the regiment has fought it has fought well and with honour, and wherever it has fought it has been in an action where it has been decisive that the regiment should fight and where decisions have been taken on the field of battle.

I shall not parade the honours of the regiment. We all know of its exploits in Bruneval, Sicily, North Africa and Normandy. If we think of Arnhem and the crossing of the Rhine, that is sufficient to bear witness to the fact that it is a regiment that has been worthy of note in the past.

Last Thursday night there was a gathering of past and present members of the Parachute Regiment. On that occasion it was a "full house" of those who had come together to see the premiere of the film "A Bridge Too Far". They came together on that occassion with very mixed feelings. I was delighted to be one of those present and to feel the pride that our regiment has achieved in the past. We had a great concern for the state of our regiment and an even greater concern for its future if the present trends continue.

In the last war our regiment built up a most wonderful spirit and élan, something which no other regiment, other than the Royal Marine Commando, has achieved. I thing it can truly be said that the Parachute Regiment has served this country well in any field in which we were required.

My mind goes back to Borneo, Radfan, Suez—and now, of course, we think of Northern Ireland. Wherever there has been a problem for this country in the post-war period, the Parachute Regiment has not only been ready and willing to serve, but has been the spearhead of any force that we have been able to put into the field.

Since the last war many thousands of young men have served in what was the 16th Airborne Division and in the Territorial division which was drawn from volunteers up and down the country who came together week in, week out, year in and year out, and who formed a reserve of which we could be truly proud. The area from which people were drawn to that reserve force ranged from Southampton to London, Durham, Liverpool and Glasgow. I admit that it was, to my deep regret, a Conservative Government who disbanded that division and turned it into a brigade. That was a shameful day. It was an action that was wrong for a Conservative or any other Government.

We have left vast areas of potential reserve forces untapped, because those people who do not particularly want to be involved in what I would term the good Territorial Army reserve forces. They want to be doing something more exciting and want to be involved in parachuting. Many of those young men who could be in the Reserve forces are now not in them.

From 1940 onwards the red beret became not just our badge—the badge of the elite of those who had special signi-finance in terms of our forces—but it was carried to other countries. Wherever one looks in the world today there is no airborne force that does not have that red beret as its badge, singling it out from other and mundane forces—and I mean that in the nicest possible sense—which also serve but not in the same way and not with the same élan and spirit as we have in the airborne forces.

That was and is the case. We have an elite force. What worries me about the present situation is that we have seen during the last year that the Government are determined and intent upon destroying the 16th Parachute Brigade and turning it into just one parachute battalion. The Government have said firmly that they will not allow the 44th Parachute Brigade as a reserve formation to continue as it is and that it will be reduced to just three parachute battalions. The Government have said that those who have been supporting that brigade will disappear and will no longer be airborne soldiers.

If there were a case for such action, I could understand it, but I have searched everywhere to see whether there is another country adopting the same attitude. The Russians have seven airborne divisions, the Belgians have one, the Germans have one, the United States have one plus, and we now have one regular parachute battalion. That puts us on a par with the Belgians, and that is not to decry the Belgians. However, in terms of what we can contribute to the defence of the Western world it is surely wrong that we should be in such a situation.

It may be—and I ask the Minister to comment on this—that that state of affairs is not much out of line with other facets of the Government's defence policy. I hope that the Minister will say why this is so and why such an elite force should be destroyed just because some people think that the day of the parachutist is over.

Being charitable, I say it is very much a question of being penny wise and pound foolish to destroy the morale of an elite corps such as the Parachute Regiment. Being uncharitable, I say that the termites —and I do not care where they come from—are in the wood and are determined to destroy that which is worth while and can stand us in good stead. They are prepared to destroy that for the sake of a more egalitarian Army. But surely we do not wish to have that.

I know that this is not a question of Government policy. It is not just within the Ministry, but in the Services, too, that one can find people who say that the day of the airborne soldier is past. They may have a case. There are none of the great armadas of planes flying in as they did in the past, but do we need a strong, mobile and efficient force that can react quickly? If the answer is "Yes", why on earth do we not bring the airborne forces together and capitalise on these forces in the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom by creating a new type of mobile Ace force, similar to the existing Ace force, but with the significant difference that the force drawn from NATO would have an adequate reserve in the shape of 44th Parachute Brigade?

It is criminal that the brigade should be broken up at the behest of we know not whom and that those who have worn the red beret for years should be stripped of it and told that they are no longer airborne soldiers and must therefore go back to the blue beret.

It is destructive to morale and unnecessary to deplete our Reserves at a time when we desperately need to increase and improve the standard and efficiency of our Reserves. I have always believed that we need a weapon of opportunity that is ready to meet the unexpected. I hope that the Minister will agree that at this time in the affairs of NATO we desperately need to be ready for the unexpected and, by deliberately breaking up our airborne content, we are proposing to lay ourselves open to the unexpected that may overthrow us if we are not careful.

We have about 60,000 reservists in TAVR. If we were courageous and saw that we needed more Reserve forces, we could look towards expansion of these territorial forces and a growth back to what was 16th Airborne Division with nine parachute battalions, which would provide for us a Reserve at a low cost relative to its value in the field and which would undoubtedly stand us in good stead in discussions with our NATO allies.

I am sorry that I have not had the support of my hon. Friend—and I say "hon. Friend" advisedly—the Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw), because he commanded one of our great territorial battalions of the Parachute Regiment. He has apologised for not being here. If he had been with us, he would have borne witness to the courage, spirit, strength and the battle-readiness of his battalion and all other parachute Reserve battalions.

I ask the Minister to consider again whether he is right to cut back on parachute forces. The Government have already changed their minds about the 4th Royal Marine Commando. I hope that they will consider their decision, first, to break up the Regular Parachute brigade and, secondly, to break up the 44th Parachute Brigade. The Minister might say that this is not to happen and that it will still retain its parachute capability. That is not so. It is being broken up.

Time and again people ask me why Members of Parliament do not stand up, speak their minds and tell them what is happening. Tonight, in terms of crucial matters concerning the defence of our country, I have tried to do just that.

The Parachute Regiment is a very young regiment, but it is very proud with a rich tradition of loyalty and service. It is on the rack. Men who have proudly worn the red beret for many years are now being denied that privilege.

My appeal tonight is not to the Government, because, however sympathetic the Minister might be, I shall have short shrift from him. My appeal is over his head to the people of the country, in the towns and villages, many hundreds of thousands of whom have worn the red beret with pride and who now see its destruction—I do not care at whose behest that is. It is happening and it must not come to pass without a protest being lodged by me and by many hundreds of others who have had the honour to serve in that regiment.

1.3 a.m.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer) for giving us the opportunity to discuss the rôle of the Parachute Regiment. The debate, although postponed, comes at an opportune time with the opening of the film "A Bridge too Far", reminding us all of the distinguished history of the Parachute Regiment, which in the short space of 35 years has made the red beret a byword for toughness and bravery.

I was one of those on the other side of the river who hoped to relieve the airborne forces but unfortunately never got through. Historians will argue why that happened. As to the film itself, it is, thank goodness, no part of my job to comment on its portrayal of events and characters, a task I leave cheerfully to critics, the surviving participants and the correspondence columns of The Times, where the truth of the saying that hindsight is the only exact science is daily demonstrated.

It might be helpful if I were to remind the House briefly of the composition and rôle of our airborne or parachute capability since the last war. Up to 1948 we had one regular airborne division, the 6th, which was then reduced, under a Tory Government, to one brigade, the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade. The term "independent" was dropped eventually in line with the revised terminology throughout the Army. The brigade consisted of three battalions, a separate parachute company, armour, artillery and engineering supporting units and units and sub-units of various supporting services.

This brigade, of which at least two of the infantry battalions were parachute-trained, eventually comprised the Army elements of the United Kingdom Joint Airborne Task Force from 1971 to 1975. The priority rôle for this formation has remained an airborne one during the period in question, though it has rarely been used in that rôle. It has been used frequently, however, in a normal infantry rôle, and it is as well to remind ourselves that the Parachute Regiment is primarily an infantry regiment with the additional specialist capability of being delivered to its operational area by parachute. Equally, one has to remember that because it has to be comparatively lightly equipped, by comparison, for example, with an air or sea landed force, it requires follow-up support as rapidly as possible. Thus there are limitations as well as advantages inherent in a parachute capability. That, of course, was one of the prime lessons of Arnhem, as of other major airborne operations of the last war.

The Minister said that the battalions are lightly equipped and therefore not able to operate as infantry battalions in the true sense. It is my understanding that the present situation is that two of the three battalions are operating strictly in an infantry rôle and therefore are equipped up to the standard of the normal infantry battalion and operate, if I may use the old-fashioned term, as heavy artillery. Is that correct?

That is true, but the hon. Member is missing my point. When the battalions are landed by parachute they cannot operate as a normal infantry battalion without quick support.

Following the defence review in 1974, as the hon. Member will recall, it was decided to abandon the United Kingdom Joint Airborne Task Force concept, since its land forces had never been fully equipped for the highly-mobile armoured and mechanised operations in a NATO environment, and, in common with all brigades in the Army, the 16th Parachute Brigade ceased to exist with the elimination of the brigade headquarters level of command. However, the three battalions of the Parachute Regiment continue in being, and each battalion in turn undertakes an active airborne commitment as part of the 6th Field Force, which in April 1978 assumes the United Kingdom Mobile Force rôle. The two battalions not performing this rôle at any given time take on other infantry rôles. The parachute-trained supporting arms and services units for whom a parachute rôle is no longer appropriate are being given new tasks or, in some cases, disbanded, with their personnel absorbed into other units of their parent arm or service.

In the Territorial Army there existed one airborne division from 1947 up to 1956, when the airborne element was reduced to one brigade, the present 44 Parachute Brigade (Volunteers). This formation, though with a parachute capability, did not have a primary parachuting rôle in recent years and does not have it now though, by training, it retained the ability to be so employed should it be required. It can provide reinforcements for the regular battalions.

The hon. Member will be aware that this brigade is due to disband shortly, but I stress that the three volunteer parachute battalions continue to exist as part of the Parachute Regiment and will continue to receive parachute training. In parallel with their regular Army counterparts, the supporting arms and service units which no longer have a parachute rôle are being allotted new operational tasks.

There is a continuing evolutionary process in military doctrine and tactics and changing concepts require consequent changes in organisation and rôles. I am sure that I need not remind the hon. Member of the increasing emphasis on the armoured and mechanised aspects of modern warfare in a general war setting and of the increased sophistication of air and anti-air weapon systems.

Can the Minister give me an undertaking that he will give me a firm accounting of the cost saving that has been achieved by the break-up of 44 Parachute Brigade? I should very much like to have that information— not tonight, but in the next week or so.

I am not prepared to give any firm undertakings at this time of the morning, but I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's request.

Because of the changes I have described, there was in the early 1970s a requirement to re-examine our total force structure and the individual rôles of its component parts. This process was under way when the defence review became necessary and absorbed the former study. The process of matching requirements to resources led to a decision that, while it was desirable to retain a parachute capability, it was acceptable to reduce it to the level we have announced—that is, one battalion group as an integral part of the new United Kingdom Mobile Force, 6th Field Force. The hon. Member will appreciate that I cannot be to specific about this battalion group's rôle, which in practice will depend on the decision of the military commander or commanders to whom it may be allotted.

The hon. Gentleman has properly reminded us of the massive parachute capability of the Warsaw Pact forces, which is indeed large and effective. To me this is just a further example of the improving Warsaw Pact capability to fight a blitzkrieg war.

However, I do not conclude from that that we must, or indeed need, to match the Warsaw Pact strength for strength and formation for formation, since NATO's prime rôle is defensive: Rather, we need to ensure that if its forces do land, we have the means to defeat them, and I would remind the hon. Member that a large proportion of the reinforcements which we send to BAOR have just this rôle—to supplement existing, in-place forces tasked with guarding vulnerable points behind the lines against possible parachute or otherwise delivered assaults. I am confident that should these materialise a rough reception will be accorded them.

As one of the most distinguished Members of this House, Sir Winston Churchill, once remarked, the Army is not a joint stock company. Armies, or at least the British Army, must be run with a judicious mixture of head and heart. It is run solely by the head, we may end up with a spiritless piece of machinery. If it is run solely by the heart, we end up sending cavalry against tanks. Times change and military rôles change with them. Fusiliers lose their fusils, lancers their lances; grenades and rifles are not confined to grenadiers and riflemen. But the retention of these distinguished names and traditions is important to the British Army, and long may it remain so.

So it is with the Parachute Regiment. The three Regular and three volunteer battalions remain in their present form. The rôle and structure of our parachute capability has been changed to suit the changing times, and will no doubt change further as time goes on. In the meantime, a requirement exists for parachute capability, and we intend to retain it. There will thus remain an opportunity for young men of the necessary physical and mental fitness to accept the challenge of parachuting into action.

While it is a perfectly proper tradition that Ministers should never reveal the military advice they have received, I think I can assure the hon. Member that if I were in danger of letting this slip by, that distinguished Colonel Commandant of the Parachute Regiment, the Chief of jog my memory.

the General Staff, is always at hand to

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past One o'clock.