Bill Ness 12th (Yorkshire) Battalion Parachute Regiment
Today we have a guest post from Pen and Sword author James Goulty… Enjoy!
Towards the end of the First World War General William Mitchell, the noted air power theorist who commanded the US air forces in France during 1917-18, proposed the dropping of men from 1st US Infantry Division behind the German lines. However, the plan was shelved before it could be put into effect because the war ended. Subsequently, demonstrations of the deployment of paratroopers were held in the US but failed to receive official backing.
In contrast, in 1927 the Soviet Union was the first nation to deploy paratroopers in an active combat role during operations against tribesmen in Asia, and during the 1930s went on to establish an independent parachute division. Developments in the Soviet Union had been observed by an amazed Field Marshal Wavell, who later became the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East and then India. Yet the War Office in Britain was slow to fully appreciate the potential of airborne forces.
The concept received renewed consideration with the onset of the Second World War when the British authorities were alarmed by the dramatic successes of German airborne units, forged under the direction of General Kurt Student. In April 1940 these undertook an extensive part in the invasion of Norway and Denmark, and were later deployed against targets in Belgium. The Germans even envisaged that approximately 8,000 paratroopers would be used in the initial wave of Operation ‘Sealion,’ their proposed invasion of Britain.
On 22nd June 1940, the Prime Minister (Winston Churchill) issued an instruction to the Chief of Staff calling for the establishment of ‘a corps of at least five thousand parachute troops.’ By the end of that year General Sir Frederick Browning had been tasked with raising a fully functioning airborne division. This required the necessary logistical support and training organisation. Under the control of the RAF the Central Landing Establishment was formed at Ringway that comprised a Development Unit, Glider Training Squadron and Parachute School. Eventually, the British Army was able to field two complete airborne divisions during the Second World War. The 1st Airborne Division gained extensive operational experience in North Africa and Italy, prior to famously being deployed at Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden in September 1944. The 6th Airborne Division, with which Bill Ness served, was formed in Britain during 1943, and deployed on D-Day and in North-West Europe during 1944-45.
Bill was born and bred in Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne and left school at 14 years old to go and work for the Co-Operative Stores. He had originally wanted to be a plumber but his mother insisted that the Co-op offered steady, secure employment. As Bill recalled ‘in those days you didn’t argue with your parents and you did as they said.’ He was working for the Co-op at the start of the war, but once he was 17 years old he joined his local Home Guard unit.
Contrary, to the image portrayed by the popular BBC TV comedy ‘Dad’s Army,’ the Home Guard was not entirely populated by bungling idiots, although its early days were pretty chaotic while it was still classed as the Local Defence Volunteers. It was primarily intended for local defence against the threat of enemy seaborne and airborne invasion. However, as the historian S. P. Mackenzie explained, once that threat diminished, the Home Guard increasingly became a valuable source ‘of stand-in troops’ at a time when Britain’s overall manpower pool was depleted. Notably Home Guard units were especially useful in manning ant-aircraft guns and rocket batteries with Anti-Aircraft Command.
For Bill membership of the Home Guard proved an ‘inspiration.’ As a young lad it brought him into contact with several old soldiers, many of whom were veterans of the First World War with several medals. These men taught him a lot about army life, including respect for authority and that you didn’t question orders. As Bill explained, ‘always do as you were told. If you couldn’t salute smartly turn-about and just disappear.’ Similarly, he came to appreciate that ‘if you received an order that you knew was stupid, once again salute smartly and disappear. Never argue with anyone of superior rank. I learnt that before I went into the army.’
The Home Guard also gave Bill a foundation in basic military skills such as discipline, drill, handling small arms, fieldcraft and elementary tactics. As the Home Guard Manual 1941 stressed the aim was ‘to have available an organized body of men trained to offer stout resistance in every district, and to meet any military emergency until trained troops can be brought up.’
During 1942-43 Bill joined the army and was posted to Number 4 Infantry Training Centre at Brancepeth Castle, County Durham. This provided recruit training for the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment which he wanted to join, and the Durham Light Infantry. At the ITC all drafts underwent a six week course designed to turn civilians into soldiers. Bill remembered that it taught you ‘the rudiments of army life,’ although he had already experienced much of this with the Home Guard. There followed a further ten weeks of infantry training with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, after which Bill was officially classed as ‘a trained soldier.’
Bill and a comrade from Sheffield were held back owing to their young age. However, both were granted the rank of unpaid lance corporal with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. This was an unsettling time for Bill. Although he had successfully completed his training, he considered that he was too young and inexperienced for the role and responsibility he had been given. ‘Sometimes I was in trouble for overstepping the mark, other times I was in trouble for not stepping over the mark.’
When a company commander from 12th (Yorkshire) Battalion Parachute Regiment visited Bill’s unit seeking personnel for training as airborne soldiers he and his pal from Sheffield were enthusiastic and volunteered. The 12th Battalion became part of 5th Parachute Brigade that was assigned to the 6th Airborne Division, formed in the summer of 1943 under the command of General Sir Richard Gale. The British organisation stipulated that each airborne division should have two parachute brigades and one air-landing brigade as their main components. This was because as General Gale emphasised, ‘parachute infantry by their nature were lightly equipped, possessing neither anti-tank guns nor mechanical transport, both of which the air-landing battalions carried in their gliders. These more heavily equipped troops were of particular value in defence and gave depth to the general tactical layout.’
Initial airborne training occurred at a camp near Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, which was comparatively close to the Central Landing Establishment at Ringway on the other side of the Pennines. According to Hilary Saunders in The Red Beret, his history of the wartime Parachute Regiment, Hardwick ‘became for the parachute soldier ‘‘what Caterham is to the Brigade of Guards, a place of trial but not of error.’’ Bill found it completely different from his earlier training with a much stronger emphasis on physical fitness. There were also night exercises, often in poor weather, with little or no time to rest before staring work the next day. As he put it they really ‘took you to the limit.’ Essentially the training was designed to foster toughness, physical fitness, initiative and common sense that were vital perquisites for the airborne soldier to possess.
After this, parachute training commenced at Ringway, which ultimately entailed jumping from balloons and aircraft. It was important for men to overcome their fear, particularly when hurling themselves out of an aircraft, and arguably this was one of the greatest challenges facing most volunteers. Years later Bill admitted he sometimes found his training scary, although he came through it.
One aspect that he didn’t like was when learning the technique of parachute jumping and landing using a machine. ‘You put a belt on and as you jumped it started reversing while you jumped before easing up just as you hit the ground and rolled over.’ This was probably what Hilary Saunders described as the ‘Fan.’ A ‘steel cable, wound around a drum was attached to the harness of the jumper, who then leapt from a platform’ about 25 feet high onto a mat. The jumper’s weight caused the drum to revolve, ‘but its speed was checked by two vanes or fans, which revolved with it and thus created an air break.’ The idea being that a soldier would land with about the same force he would encounter during a real parachute jump.
During training aging Whitley bombers were predominately used to drop parachute troops, although later in his service Bill encountered the Stirling bomber and Dakota. In general the latter was preferred because as a purpose built cargo aircraft with a side entry/exit door it made the whole business of parachute drops much easier to accomplish than when using bombers converted for the role. According to one soldier quoted in By Air into Battle the Official Account of the British Airborne Divisions, on jumping from an aircraft ‘your legs are immediately blown into a horizontal position by the slipstream and you find yourself parallel to the ground.’ Then there is a ‘nibbling feeling at your shoulders’ just as the canopy opens with a jerk.
Bill encountered one night drop during training which proved very ‘queer as everything was still.’ Also he vividly recalled one of the RAF parachute instructors, a flight sergeant, who stated ‘it doesn’t matter if you fall out now you’re up as high as you can go.’ These parachute instructors were often characters and came from a variety of backgrounds. Ultimately they proved the unsung heroes in the creation of Britain’s wartime airborne forces owing to their important training role.
Men could refuse to jump during training without disgrace. However, once they had completed seven jumps and received their wings, it was an offence to do so, punishable by at least 56 days detention, and the ignominy of having their wings stripped off in front of their commanding officer.
Having passed parachute training and earned the right to wear the much coveted red beret which had been adopted by airborne units, Bill together with several soldiers from the Green Howards was posted to barracks at Lark Hill. Here trained infantrymen such as Bill formed a cadre for ‘C’ Company 12th Battalion Parachute Regiment as it was being brought up to its war establishment.
He soon became accustomed to a morning drink of ‘gunfire’ or tea and numerous training schemes. This included runs in full kit or G.1098, and culminated in major exercises that were to prepare his unit for its eventual deployment on D-Day (6th June 1944). One of the tasks that had to be mastered was conducting parachute jumps with men and specialised containers that carried weapons and ammunition. Given that parachute troops were by their nature comparatively lightly equipped, this was particularly important for them to perfect. It was not helped by the design of containers many of which split open on initial exercises. Bill recounted that it was vital to synchronize proceedings and have men and containers in the correct place so they didn’t collide on a drop. ‘Numbers 1 to 5 would jump, followed by container, container, container and then number 6.’ It became possible to drop weapons such as Bren guns and two-inch mortars in these containers, plus ammunition. A bag was also used that could be connected to parachutists and was capable of holding supplies of around 100 pounds in weight.
On D-Day the 6th Airborne Division was intended to be deployed in a five-mile strip between the Rivers Orne and Dives to secure the left flank of the seaborne landings, particularly against the threat of counter attack by German armoured reserves located in the Caen area. David Howarth in Dawn of D-Day neatly sums up the Division’s plan as follows:
12.20 A force in gliders to land on the Orne and canal bridges.
12.20 Pathfinders to drop by parachute, to mark out dropping zones for the main parachute forces.
12.50 Main parachute drop to begin. Objectives: to demolish the Dives bridges, reinforce the defence of the Orne and canal bridges, capture a coast defence battery, seize the territory between the rivers, and clear landing zones for the main glider force.
3.30 Main force of 72 gliders to land with anti-tank armament, transport and heavy equipment.
As part of this overall plan 5th Parachute Brigade under Brigadier J. H. N. Poett, were to land north of Ranville and capture the crossings over the Orne and Caen Canal near the villages of Benouville and Ranville. The Brigade was then to secure and hold the area around these villages and Le Bas de Ranville which was the target of the 12th Battalion. It was also necessary to clear and protect the landing zones near Benouville and Ranville so that the gliders transporting the rest of the Division could be landed safely later in the day.
As Bill prepared to exit the Stirling bomber which had flown him to Normandy on D-Day, he remembered thinking ‘the sooner we get out the better.’ Fortunately they hit the correct drop zone and with a sense of relief he began to recover from the jump and remove his parachute. ‘Wait till my mother finds out where I am. She will go bloody mad and give me a right coating!’
To help troops organize on the drop zone 12th Battalion had a soldier who would use a policeman’s whistle but unfortunately he was killed during the landing. Even so, Bill soon found himself ‘at the back of Ranville looking towards Caen.’ Le Bas de Ranville was taken comparatively easily and there the Battalion was able to rendezvous with numerous of its soldiers who had landed outside the drop zone and using their initiative made their way to the objective instead of attempting to find the drop zone. Having established a defensive perimeter, at dawn elements of ‘C’ Company under Captain (later Major) J. A. N. Sim engaged German units, including formidable self-propelled 88mm guns in an intense action for which he subsequently was awarded the Military Cross.
During the fighting that followed their landing, Bill recalled having to cover a flank with his mate ‘Stoney’ on the Bren gun. They were directed by Sergeant Milburn from Greenside, who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in the fierce fighting with Captain Sim, and was described by Bill as ‘a sergeant of the old school.’ Later Bill was given the job of acting as runner tasked with taking messages to Brigade HQ. He heard wail of the pipes as Lord Lovat’s Commando unit landed on the coast, not that far from where they were operating, although they were beyond visual range.
Bill’s unit later had to advance by leap frogging 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, from the air landing brigade of the 6th Airborne Division, as part of the move towards Caen. They would themselves then be leap frogged by the RUR. The order went out to trot and Bill observed ‘we were being fired on from across the canal but I did not realise it and some of the men started falling down. I thought what’s the matter with them before appreciating they had been shot.’
A while later as they moved towards Longueval, Bill was wounded by a mortar bomb. It fell in a small patch of the bocage countryside, where he and four other soldiers were positioned. One was killed and a fragment of the bomb sliced through the toe of Bill’s boot, injuring him badly in the foot so that he had to be taken to the Regimental Aid Post.
An artificer sergeant major in a jeep then arrived at the RAP and said:
‘Are you alright? You know what’s happening?’ ‘No, no what?’ Bill replied. He said ‘all walking wounded are going back to England. Can you walk?’ ‘Never mind walking’ I said, ‘I can bloody well run!’ He got me onto the jeep and some of the lads onto stretchers and we went up to the Casualty Clearing Station which was in the old brick works. A lad came up who had been hit in the face but they got him there carefully.
Eventually Bill was evacuated by a DUKW (an amphibious truck) which took him out to a Landing Ship Tank for the voyage back to England. It became come practice in Normandy that these comparatively large vessels would land their cargo of troops and vehicles at the beachhead and then taken on board casualties, some of whom even received treatment from medical staff while at sea. Back in England Bill was operated on to remove the mortar fragments from his foot. However, after a spell of recuperation he returned to the 12th Battalion while it was being deployed during the final stages of the break out from Normandy. As Hilary Saunders explained this was a relief for most paratroopers after the frustrations of over two months of defensive warfare that they had experienced since D-Day.
In September 1944 the entire Division was pulled out of Normandy and returned to Britain for a refit, respite or leave period, and training. By now the popular Dakota transport aircraft had become more widely available and was being deployed to drop parachute units. Bill was now a combat veteran and received a promotion to corporal which placed him in charge of a section.
Bill’s next period of action came in the Ardennes during the winter of 1944-45, in what has become termed the Battle of the Bulge. On 16th December 1944 the Germans mounted a thrust for Antwerp, initially taking the Allies by surprise. Panzer units strove to reach Stavelot, where there was a large Allied supply depot, and further south the Germans managed to create a gap in the Allied lines between St. Vith and Bastogne. The US 1st Army, under General Courtney Hodge was forced back along a 50 mile front, but further north the enemy offensive was halted. By 19th December the overall position had begun to stabilise for the Allies, helped in part by the German’s shortage of supplies, particularly petrol. Although the bulk of the fighting on the Allied side was conducted by the Americans, several British units were deployed to the Ardennes.
The 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades were rushed to the Continent at short notice, having conducted some strenuous training since September 1944, which included exercises in urban warfare. They were to cover the River Meuse and hold a defensive line between Dinant and Namur, before eventually going over to the offensive in January 1945. In that winter of 1944-45 Bill recalled being rushed to South Coast where his unit boarded the Queen Emma and set off across the Channel, only to be chased back into port by German E-Boats (equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Motor Torpedo Boats). Eventually, they did manage to cross, and in freezing weather endured a torrid journey by truck with little protection from the elements. As Bill remarked ‘sometimes officers would take turns to let a man sit in the cab of the truck in an effort to keep us warm.’
Initially there was limited if any fighting for the 12th Battalion, although the unit formed a succession of defensive perimeters. Subsequently, the Battalion and the rest of 5th Parachute Brigade endured a period of particularly grim fighting at Bure. It was during this that Bill witnessed first-hand an inspiring example of leadership that had a morale boosting effect on the men. One of their senior officers in a plummy voice said to a fellow officer with regard to artillery support: ‘Nigel I am not happy about the situation. Could you please give them a stonking [soldier’s term for an artillery barrage].’ As Bill put it hearing this and the manner in which it was delivered ‘did us the world of good.’
After the Ardennes 12th Parachute Battalion was deployed in Holland, notably conducting awkward patrols along the Maas. Not only was the weather cold and wet but mines posed a constant threat to infantry, particularly along the river banks. The Battalion and rest of the 5th Parachute Brigade performed well, and sometimes conducted company sized sweeps. For the most part from Bill’s perspective as a section leader, he remembered Holland during early 1945, as being dominated by ‘a bit of shelling and a few snipers. Nothing we couldn’t deal with.’
On one occasion a particularly interesting time was had when they handed over to an American unit that demanded to know where their tents were. The paratroopers spent some time attempting to explain to the Americans that British soldiers didn’t tend to have tents. As Bill recounted the American troops demanded: ‘Where’s your pup tents?’ He replied: ‘We sleep in the trench and it’s a three man trench so that means only one man gets up and the others get two hours sleep.’ As they left the position the Americans were busy putting up their tents, and Bill felt ‘you could imagine Jerry thinking what the hell is going on over there?’
During February 1945 the 6th Airborne Division returned to Britain and began preparing for its role in Operation Varsity, the crossing of the Rhine. Based on experience at Arnhem and elsewhere it was decided to transport all the airborne troops involved in a single lift. They would also be landing either by parachute or glider on top of their objective which would dispense with the need for an approach march, during which the enemy might have been able to hinder their progress. The airborne assault would occur in daylight to aid navigation and as Bill noted crucially they would be flying in with the ground forces already having commenced their operations. Once landed the 6th Airborne Division was to secure the northern flank of the 18th US Corps.
A witness to the drop talked of the roar of aircraft, sound of small arms fire, thumps of flak or anti-aircraft fire and wave upon wave of parachutists. The 12th Battalion had difficulty because its rendezvous was under heavy fire, but the situation improved when a platoon under Lieutenant P. Burkinshaw captured some German 88 mm guns that had been causing the main problem.
Subsequently, the 12th Battalion played a part in the advance to and fighting for Erle, during which Bill was wounded for a second time.
Moving forward because we were in the front line we sprayed them with bullets. The Germans were running away from us and we got over the top and crossed this trench. I was a section corporal by then and the officer had been killed and my sergeant had taken over the platoon. I looked back and nobody was getting up so I gave that well known word of command ‘Up on, Howay lads!’ Shortly afterwards we were point section as there was no time to swap over. A small tank came up and we followed behind it. The tank was hit, the officer in front of us had been killed and his batman [military servant] badly wounded. Sargent Kitchen said ‘Go back he has been hit.’ Then Lieutenant-Colonel (later General) Darling launched a full scale counter attack and we found we were in the middle of a Hitler Youth training camp.
During the fighting at Erle Bill received a bullet wound to his leg and was eventually evacuated to Bruge. The medical staff who treated him considered it wisest to leave the bullet in with a view to removing it after the war. For a few weeks Bill was posted to a convalescent depot where he was given a job once the authorities discovered his background in the grocery trade.
By VE-Day (8th May 1945) he had returned to Britain, and at Lark Hill was surprised to discover the stores were full of jungle green kit. Much to the displeasure of his mother, Bill was among those airborne soldiers posted to the Far East, at what proved to be the tail end of the war. By now he had been promoted sergeant. The 5th Parachute Brigade was to participate in Operation Zipper, the proposed invasion of Malaya, and when the atomic bombs were dropped and the surrender was signed with Japan it was in Singapore. Here duties included looking after part of the notorious Changi Gaol. Most of the Brigade was then sent to Java, as the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia), attempted to recover from the Japanese occupation during the war and Indonesian separatists sought to exploit the situation.
However, Bill did not go with them and was instead posted to India, still then part of the British Empire. This was an awkward period for the 12th Battalion as it absorbed new reinforcements who had to be brought up to standard as rapidly as possible. Similarly, there were several ‘barrack room lawyers’ within the ranks who with the war finally over saw no reason why they should have to remain in the army.
From India Bill was sent to Palestine, where the 12th Battalion was split up and he ended up with 4th (Wessex) Battalion. In the late 1940s the British Army was expected to keep the peace between Jews desperate for an independent state and the local Arab population. As Bill put it ‘we were piggy in the middle.’ Suppressing terrorism and maintaining law and order was a different experience for soldiers like him, who had been used to operations against the Axis Powers, and initially only joined the army owing to the war.
During one riot he was hit the face by a brick ‘I had my back to these Jewish rioters. Suddenly there was a cry ‘‘watch it’’ and I saw the brick and it split my eye completely open and I saw this little bloke who did it run off. I cried ‘‘you bastard!’’ It was bleeding like hell and opened up.’ The officer said ‘you were lucky. We were expecting you to get stabbed in the back.’
After Palestine Bill eventually returned to Britain during the harsh winter of 1947 and endured tough conditions at an old wartime camp, formerly used by the US military. On account of his experience and holding the necessary qualifications he was told that if he stayed on in the army he would make sergeant major. However, Bill had seen enough by then and did not feel he wanted to sign up for a further engagement with the Colours.
On leaving the army he went back to the Co-Op and went to work for an outlet in Byker. He found First World War veterans who worked for the Co-Op had similarly found it difficult initially in civilian life after returning from the military, and like him did not always feel that their sacrifice was fully recognised.
In the 1960’s Bill left the Co-Op and was employed by the Tyneside based engineering firm Parsons. For around 19-20 years he worked on machinery as a hand winder, before taking early retirement in the 1980s. He was granted a small pension from the army and received medical help, especially for his hearing, when he was referred to a doctor who has also, been in the Parachute Regiment. Today he is President of the West Jesmond Branch, Royal British Legion and Tyneside Parachute Regimental Association. He has many interests and particularly enjoys seeing his family, plus being active in a choir with his friend and fellow Second World War veteran George Henderson, who served in the Royal Navy. It was a privilege to meet Bill and below are listed the materials used to construct this account of his war/life experiences.
Interview with Bill Ness by James Goulty, at his home in Byker, 26/1/15
Anon, By Air into Battle the Official Account of the British Airborne Divisions (HMSO, 1945)
Anon, Home Guard Manual 1941 (Reproduced by Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006)
Gale, General Sir Richard A Call To Arms: An Autobiography (Hutchinson, 1968)
Howarth, David Dawn of D-Day (Odhams Press Ltd, 1960)
Mackenzie, S. P. The Home Guard: A Military and Political History (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Parkinson, Roger Encyclopaedia of Modern War (Granada Publishing Ltd, 1979)
Saunders, Hilary St. George The Red Beret (Odhams Press Ltd, 1958)
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