Monday, December 18, 2023

May 1944: Uncle Paul Learns to Jump out of Airplanes (STS 51)

After Uncle Paul finished up at Rhubana, he was sent down to Manchester in the central UK to one of the "other" SOE schools: parachuting at Specialist Training School (STS) 51.  

Manchester: red pin in central UK

Red pin marks Fulshaw Hall, where he stayed.

STS 51 was at the RAF Ringway (today, the Manchester Airport), which was where the RAF trained parachutists.

RAF Ringway in 1946. Source Britain from Above

Confusingly, his UKNA file lists both STS 51 and 51b, and I had to do some digging to understand the difference.  Denis Rigden in SOE Syllabus explained it pretty well:

It was provided at Ringway airfield, Manchester. The SOE students jumped alongside other trainees but they lodged an isolation from them in two secure houses (STSs 51a and 51b) near the airfield. At any one time the parachute school (STS 51) gave at least five days' training to the 70 SOE students, but many had their training stopped without warning and were sent to London for operational briefing after only two or three days at Ringway.
With a bit more digging, I found that Major C. J. Edwards, MBE commanded both STS 51a which was Dunham House, and STS 51b at Fulshaw Hall which is where Uncle Paul lived when he was learning to parachute.

STS 51b at Fulshaw Hall (pin at the bottom of the map)
is only 5 miles from STS 51 at RAF Ringway/Manchester Airport
(pin/gray area toward the top of the map).

Fulshaw in 1913 postcard. Public Domain.

Once a secret agent dormitory, now it's office space.
From the Wilmslow Website (link below)

Uncle Paul attended STS 51 twice, in May 1944, and again in February 1945 for additional training, though the file doesn't specify where he stayed the second time, or how long he was there.

Here's what they had to say about him in May of 1944:

There was a typo on the date, but it looks to me that he started the training on 14 or 15 May, 1944. When I blow up the high-resolution version, it looks to me like it had been 15, but the typist went back over it with a 4 a couple of times to make it darker, so I'm taking that as 14 May.  He left the school on or before the 19th (later in the file, it states that he arrived at STS 52 on 19 May).

Here's what they said in February of 1945 as he was preparing for his second SOE mission to Germany:

From the BBC SOE Training page in the links below: 
When undergoing parachute training at Ringway, students did at least two jumps, one from a plane and one from a static balloon. They were all equipped with a little spade attached to their leg, for the purpose of burying their parachute and SOE jump suit after they had landed. In the 'field' they had to jump from altitudes as low as 300-400 feet, and would hit the ground within 10-15 seconds. The plane's pilot was compelled to drop them at such low altitudes in order to avoid enemy radar detection.

It was a little hard to find more detailed descriptions of the training, but I finally found a bit more on this page:

Each RAF Parachute Jump Instructor (PJI) was in charge of a ‘stick’ of ten trainee parachutists at RAF Ringway. ‘Synthetic’ ground training was normally conducted in aircraft hangars using unconventional gymnastic-like apparatus to simulate the conditions a parachutist could expect to encounter from exiting the aircraft to flight and landing.

In one hangar there were mock-ups of the interior and jump-hole or door of all types of aircraft used for parachuting. The student was taught how to exit the aircraft.

In the other hangar were different types of ground equipment used to simulate landing. Trapeze swings simulated flight drills and students slid down chutes or jumped from platforms to practice parachute rolls on landing. The ‘Fan’, a platform apparatus 25-feet high, had a parachute harness connected to a ‘fan’ that used the body weight of the jumper to slow the rate of descent when he ‘jumped’ from the platform.

Certain devices such as the ‘Gallows’ and jumping from the backs of moving lorries to practice landings were discontinued due to excessive injury rates.

"Synthetic" ground training.
Paratrooper learning to land properly. Public Domain.
"Parachute Training at Ringway" by Patrick Hall, 1945.
See for bigger version.

In the Special Forces World War II Secret Operations Handbook by Stephen Hart and Chris Mann, they had this to say about the training:

Agents' first sessions were spent being dropped from special harnesses on to crash mats to simulate landings. This then progressed to jumping from a 23m (75ft) tower and then to a static balloon 213m (700ft) up. Finally, there came three daylight drops from an aircraft and two at night. The students needed to master basic parachute landing technique and learn the necessity of keeping both legs together to lessen the chance of breaking something.  This had to become instinctive as there would be no time to think when the time came for real.

Evidently there were even parachute songs used during training, mostly sung to common tunes, like "I'm Dreaming of a Soft Landing," sung to the tune of "White Christmas."  Here's a whole list of them:

SOE agents were given a different jumpsuit than RAF parachutists: they used an easy-to-get-out-of suit (hence its off-color nickname "the striptease suit"). It was made of either white or camo canvas with lots of zippers and pockets.  It was designed to be worn over civilian clothes, and big enough to accommodate two great coats underneath it.  They carried a spade with them and buried the suit, helmet, and chute when they reached the ground.

Surviving example of a striptease suit.

Note: The source of the four jumpsuit images above is:  

Surviving suit in a museum. See Warrelics site for source.

Ringway Links:

Fulshaw Links:

Parachute Training Links:
SOE Jumpsuit (the "Striptease" suit):

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