The Brecon Beacons

March 7, 2012


The British Army’s conventional airborne element consisted of the Parachute Regiment, made up of three battalions, and an assortment of supporting arms such as Engineers, Artillery, Field Ambulance, Signals etc. The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, The Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Transportation Squadron, all of whom were also parachute trained, were co-located in the same barracks area.

The soldiers who were members of the three battalions had enlisted directly into the Parachute Regiment, while the corps personnel volunteered from their parent units to join the Para Brigade Logistic Regiment, where they performed their normal trades and skills, but as airborne soldiers. Both types went through a rigorous but separate selection process over several weeks. The two-part contingent made up 16 Parachute Brigade.

From Day One each individual in the infantry component was the proud owner of the Red Beret, although the real kudos, in the form of the coveted wings, did not materialise until after jump training. A member of the airborne who had not yet received his wings was known as a “penguin”. Soldiers not in The Brigade, or sans airborne training , were universally known as “Crap Hats”. This derogatory epithet was applied equally to corps personnel undergoing airborne training and the rest of the Army.

Members of The Regiment participated in the specialised airborne training after completing basic infantry training and would go through as complete cadres. The corps soldiers would be subjected to the same selection process, i.e. the same extreme physical training as inflicted on the regimental personnel, but apart, unless circumstances and justification warranted otherwise. The two factions did come together on occasion.

Milling, where two relatively equally matched, in size and weight, individuals would be fitted with boxing gloves and for three minutes, standing toe to toe, would attempt to batter the living daylights out of each other without ducking, weaving or feinting, was one. Ideally, it would be a soldier from each component.

The other occasion, I remember, was the selection process in the Brecon Beacons, the wildest and most mountainous area of Wales.

Both groups were ferried out there by truck to spend a working week on stretcher races, forced marches, convoluted map reading exercises and a final competitive mock battle. The spirit in which this was conducted eschewed any semblance of play-acting.

Our platoon was ordered to “locate and destroy” the Para Regiment soldiers, also on final selection, who were scattered along the crest of Pen y Fan mountain, on the evasion phase of their exercise.

After slogging our way to summit, shrouded in mist, in the very early morning, which was still dark, we had paused to regroup when a solitary voice called out from thick haze,
“Any one Para can beat two Crap Hats.” Our selected leader made a spontaneous decision and responded,
“You’re on!”

Two of our group were ordered to advance and disappeared into the fog while the remainder waited, rather nervously, if I recall. Within minutes, there were sounds of physical combat accompanied by bad language then — silence.

A few moments later, the same voice, breathless, called out,”Any one Para can beat four Crap Hats!”
Four of our guys were ordered forward immediately and rapidly were lost to sight. Almost at once, the noise of a ruckus reached us then, the surprising and intimidating silence that followed was interrupted by the challenge, “Any one Para can beat the lot of you Crap Hats.”

Just as the remnants of our group surged forward, one of our earlier warriors returned, breaking from the mist, hatless, epaulettes torn, nose bloodied and the sleeve ripped from his combat jacket to fall on all fours before us.

“Don’t go in there, lads, it’s a trap,” he gasped, holding up a shaky, detaining palm,” there’s two of the bastards!”

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