Favoured Irregulars

Andy Beckett

  • Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper by Helen Parr
    Allen Lane, 382 pp, £20.00, September 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 28894 8

Sentimentality about soldiering can be a powerful thing in countries where few people have ever done it. In the United Kingdom, the last national servicemen were demobbed 55 years ago. According to the latest figures, the armed forces have 192,130 personnel, including part-time volunteers – less than 0.3 per cent of the population. The number of full-time servicemen and women has halved since the Falklands War in 1982, and has been falling steadily for much longer. Yet the status of the armed forces in wider society has risen sharply, to a level that can feel uncomfortable to anyone with reservations about military violence. The annual pressure on public figures to wear Remembrance Day poppies; the reverence surrounding parades and flypasts; the acclaim for plays such as Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, about Scottish soldiers in Iraq; the ease with which most newspapers and politicians use military metaphors and support armed conflicts; and the efforts to shout down and delegitimise those who don’t, such as Jeremy Corbyn – all these are signs of a country that has come to see military service, especially in wartime, as an extraordinary occupation, which should not be scrutinised too hard.

Helen Parr’s book is, in part, an attempt to describe how this change came about, through the history of a once infamous, now mythologised section of the army, the Parachute Regiment. The book is also a symptom of that change. Parr isn’t an ex-servicewoman or a professional military historian, but a lecturer in international relations at Keele University, ‘not accustomed to a military mindset’, as she puts it. Yet by the end of her book, much of this critical distance has disappeared, and Parr describes the Paras as ‘the finest regiment on earth’.

It was founded in 1940. ‘Winston Churchill requested a corps of parachutists,’ Parr writes. ‘He wanted them because the Germans had them.’ Air warfare was still relatively novel, and it excited politicians and military planners. Soldiers who could jump out of planes, drift silently to earth under cover of darkness, and launch surprise attacks behind enemy lines, would be a potent innovation in an era of increasingly mobile warfare. The courage and ability to improvise that were required – paratroopers would have to land and fight largely where the wind took them – also promised to create a new kind of soldier: ‘bands of favoured irregulars’, as Churchill described them after the war, with ‘unconventional attire’ and a ‘free and easy bearing’.

The reality of airborne soldiery was less romantic. The difficulty of co-ordinating mass descents by night meant the Paras were often dropped in daylight, and spotted and shot at as they floated down, virtually defenceless. Delivering heavy weapons by parachute was impractical, which meant the Paras could be only lightly armed. Their scattered arrival in battle meant they often got lost; or, isolated in small groups, they might be outnumbered and picked off. Most fatally, a belief in the Paras’ supposedly unique fighting qualities, which individual soldiers and the regiment did much to encourage, meant that over-ambitious strategies were devised for the Paras by the army hierarchy.

At Arnhem in Holland in 1944, the regiment fought the archetypal battle of its pre-Falklands history, attempting to seize and hold a supposedly vital group of bridges inside German-held territory against a much larger enemy force, which had tanks and far better access to supplies. After a few days of ferocious but doomed resistance, barely a fifth of the Paras survived and avoided capture. Antony Beevor, in Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, describes the over-elaborate airborne assault as ‘a very bad plan right from the start’.[*]

Beevor’s intricate account covers the involvement of American and Polish troops and Dutch resistance fighters as well as the Paras, who on the way to their famous defeat took Benzedrine tablets as stimulants and drank rusty water from radiators in one of the disintegrating buildings they were defending. Parr provides only a brief, rather broadbrush and confusing account of the complex battle. But she lucidly lays out its consequences for the regiment’s collective psychology. The Paras emerged from Arnhem with their belief in themselves as elite warriors not diminished but enhanced. Yet they also needed to win a big battle to prove their value to everyone else.

That moment would be a long time coming. For the best part of forty years after the Second World War, the regiment, like much of the army, found itself either on bloodless Cold War duties, or on unheroic, claustrophobic counter-insurgency operations: first in faraway former colonies that were of limited interest to the British media and public, such as Aden and Borneo; and then in Northern Ireland. With their aggression and self-regard, the Paras were not well suited to often hostile civilian environments such as Derry and Belfast. ‘In November 1971,’ Parr writes, ‘after a mother of eleven was blinded by a rubber bullet, the Guardian reported: “Undoubtedly the regiment is one of the most hated by Catholics in troubled areas … It has a reputation for unnecessary brutality.”’ For the same reason, according to an unnamed journalist quoted by Parr, the Paras were ‘almost uniformly disliked by the other army units in Northern Ireland’. My father was in another regiment during the 1970s and 1980s, and briefly served in Ulster; he would give me eye-rolling or cautionary looks when the subject of the Paras came up. And yet, Parr goes on, ‘the Paras themselves often enjoyed their notoriety’ and ‘regarded complaints against them with a degree of pride’.

In Derry on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, the soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians, killing 14 of them. Parr gives the massacre more space than Arnhem. She then describes how the Paras’ reputation fell further during the rest of the 1970s. ‘Paras = evil bastards’ read one piece of graffiti in Belfast; at the same time, dozens of these supposedly elite soldiers were killed in IRA ambushes. In 1977 – because of defence cuts, and because of their unpopularity with the rest of the army – the Paras were reduced to three battalions of around 2700 men. By the late 1970s, away from Ulster, the wider army culture was becoming less warlike. The postcolonial conflicts were largely over, to be replaced by peacekeeping operations, or helping the government cope with strikes. Some in the British military wondered whether they needed the Paras at all.

After Parr’s cool, at times critical summary of the Paras’ early history, the feel of her book changes. She explores who joined the regiment and why, and how it turned them into Paras. Her uncle Dave signed up for the selection process in 1980. She was five at the time, and he was 17, a wiry boy from a small town in Suffolk, who liked skateboarding and cross-country running. He had been working in a pea factory since leaving school. He shared a bedroom with one of his brothers in the family bungalow, and liked to escape into the countryside, where, as Parr puts it, he acquired ‘the ability to endure … rain, mud and wind’. He also liked male company, drinking and fighting. ‘Dave’s ambition was to join the SAS,’ she writes. ‘He saw the Paras as his first step towards it.’ His best friend’s father had been in the regiment. A cousin had been killed at Arnhem.

Parr sketches her uncle clearly but sparsely. She is scrupulous about evidence, always differentiating between what she knows and what she thinks is true but can’t say for certain. The evidence is often potent: letters from Dave to his parents, interviews with former Paras who served alongside him. But there isn’t much of it, so for long stretches he disappears, and the book becomes a vivid if predictable collage of other soldiers’ experiences. It isn’t surprising, given the long history of soldiery as an occupation of last resort, that many of those joining the Paras as privates in the 1970s and 1980s ‘came from backgrounds of deprivation and domestic violence’. The training regime is tough, as you’d expect; many drop out, and those that remain have been stripped down and rebuilt as fighting machines, their heads full of camaraderie and regimental history. At this point the book seems unsure whether it wants to be a work of history, memoir, novelistic non-fiction, sociology, anthropology, or all of them at once. Then Argentina invades the Falklands, and Parr – like the Paras – at last has somewhere to focus her energies.

Her uncle’s battalion, 2 Para, sailed for the islands on 26 April 1982, a few weeks after the first units of the task force. Its commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Herbert ‘H’ Jones. The son of a rich American and a Welsh nurse, Jones had been educated at Eton, where he had ‘spent a lot of time alone’, Parr writes, ‘reading war books and developing strongly held notions of valour’. In 1982 he cut short a family skiing holiday to lobby for his battalion to be included in the avenging British army.

Parr’s big-picture account of the war and its British political dimension is standard stuff: Margaret Thatcher’s use of the crisis to rescue her premiership, her manipulative description of the task force as ‘our boys’, the islands’ challenging weather and terrain, the huge difficulty of keeping the wet, cold British troops properly supplied. Less heroic, more ambiguous aspects of the campaign – the way it was hampered by Thatcher and her circle’s previous lack of interest in defence matters; the way the failure of similar free-market economic policies in Britain and Argentina made both governments desperate and bellicose – are barely mentioned.

But the descriptions of actual combat, woven from interviews with ex-Paras and extracts of veterans’ published memoirs, are intimate, intense, sometimes hard to read, and often revelatory:

I’d come round the corner of a big rock, there was an Argentinian there, and he just came straight at me, bringing his weapon up, he didn’t have a bayonet fitted, he obviously had his safety catch off ready to fire a round, and I just bayoneted him straight in, and took him … flicked him on the floor, you have to twist [the bayonet] to get it back out again … [I] pulled it out, picked his weapon up, threw that away, and then just moved on.

Parr also compiles Paras’ descriptions of their feelings in battle. Omnipotence: ‘The enemy soldier literally flew through the air and the tracer ignited as it passed through him … From that moment [we] believed we were invincible.’ Panic: ‘[I was] so absolutely petrified … knowing that they are trying to kill me.’ Childish excitement: ‘In our mind when we fired [rocket launchers] … was always the film Rambo, he fires the [rocket] into the cave, and there’s a big explosion.’ Horror: ‘The artillery shell had landed right close to him … he had no hands, and his face was completely missing.’ The high after winning a battle: ‘You were … drunk on happiness.’ And the studied calm that follows: ‘We took up new positions in sangars built by the Argentines, where we began to brew tea and eat chocolate, as if breakfasting on a hill covered in unburied corpses was something we did every day.’

Rather than arrange the material in neat emotional or narrative arcs, Parr piles it up almost randomly, into an awful, thrilling labyrinth, for readers to pick their way through for as long as they can manage. The structure echoes the jumbled landscape of Falklands mountaintops, with their rocky clefts and dead-ends, which Argentinian defenders cleverly exploited; and also the frequent chaos of the battles themselves.

Some of the chaos was the fault of the British commanders. As at Arnhem, they often made optimistic plans for the Paras, and then expected the soldiers to sort out any problems for themselves. In May 1982, near the tiny settlement of Goose Green, ‘H’ Jones led a Para assault of questionable strategic value against a larger Argentinian force, which had access to ground-attack aircraft, artillery guns and napalm. If you go to Goose Green you can immediately see what a risky battleground it was: a long, treeless, sloping isthmus, with the Argentinian trenches in a commanding position at the top of the slope. But Jones was impatient for his battalion to win a famous Para victory. The night before, he didn’t give his fellow officers ‘time to talk about key parts of the battle plan’. The next morning, when the Paras got stuck on the slope, in broad daylight, under lethal Argentinian fire, Jones rejected suggestions from junior officers that he make his plan of attack more subtle. ‘Don’t tell me how to run my battle,’ he said. Shortly afterwards, he was killed. The Paras won the battle without him, but it was close.

Dave Parr, too, was shot at Goose Green:

The round … hit Dave’s webbing, exploded his water bottle, [went] through a pouch and followed the curve of the inside of his belt. Around his navel was a burnt ring, but, [according to another Para] ‘Unbelievably, the bullet came to rest without breaking his skin, exactly in his belly button.’

Bruised and shaken up, he agreed to be evacuated to a field hospital. An ex-soldier who was in a ward there with him tells Helen Parr that her uncle ‘was concerned that he had used up his luck: he was worried about having to go back out there.’ But after a couple of days, he did. ‘Dave knew his life in the battalion would be over if he did not return.’ A fortnight later, on the final night of the war, as he was helping to assault one of the last remaining Argentinian positions above Port Stanley, he was killed.

Parr first depicts his death, which wasn’t fully explained at the time, as ‘just chance … the sum of everyday movements that brought his body to collide with the trajectory of the shell’; and then a second time, in unflinching physical detail. These passages have a great emotional charge, which lingers for the rest of the book as Parr explores the consequences of the war for veterans and the bereaved.

Gareth Jones was 17, and was alone in the family house, revising for his A-levels. His 19-year-old brother was a private with 3 Para … ‘I saw a black Vauxhall Chevette pull up outside, with a military number plate … I thought … no. No, no, no.’ The doorbell rang. Gareth opened the door and a tall man stood there. Gareth explained that his parents were both out and would not be back until late … The man said he would wait in the car … There was nothing Gareth could do. ‘I went and sat in the chair and looked at the telly.’

Some of the soldiers who came back from the war found they couldn’t settle at home, and left again within days. They converged spontaneously on the Yorkshire moors and camped out together for days, using their gear from the war, and talked and thought. In America, post-traumatic stress disorder had already been accepted as a problem for military veterans, after the Vietnam War. But in Britain in 1982, the Parachute Regiment still saw what it called ‘battle shock’ as ‘a temporary condition that could be alleviated by a cup of tea … and a soothing word’. In 1993, a psychological survey of Paras who had served in the Falklands found that a third of respondents had severe PTSD. In 1997, on the 15th anniversary of the war, the regiment ‘spoke openly for the first time about the emotional scars of combat’.

Parr’s book is less powerful when it argues that the conflict transformed Britain. Was the war really a ‘crucible into which 1970s British life was poured and came out altered’? By 1982, the more individualistic, more materialistic society conventionally associated with the 1980s had already been forming for at least a dozen years. Jeremy Seabrook, in What Went Wrong? (1978), his book about the decline of working-class support for the Labour Party, describes the young people of Wigan as ‘anchored in a culture of commodities’. ‘The stridency of the marketplace,’ he concluded, had become ‘the most significant influence’ on working-class attitudes. The drama and awful cost of the Falklands War, and its role in Thatcher’s premiership, have given it too much prominence in the modern story of Britain, over fundamental but quieter shifts in civilian life. Parr does provide one brilliant, bleak example of the war’s effect on wider society, however. ‘Perhaps the most common post-Falklands occupation’ for Paras, she writes, ‘was private security … for celebrities … bankers, financiers, or overseas investors’. Many of the soldiers who helped save Thatcher in the South Atlantic ended up as the bored bodyguards of Thatcherism’s winners.

That said, at least one Para who fought in the war had a much larger impact on the civilian world afterwards. Corporal Mark Burnett transformed himself into a TV producer, and among other dog-eat-dog reality shows created The Apprentice, decisively reviving the flagging celebrity of Donald Trump in the process. Parr doesn’t mention Burnett – a big omission, but perhaps an understandable one. Any connection between the Para ethos and Trump’s gung-ho presidency might well have been too much to contemplate for a book as sensitive as this one.

In 2012, Parr went to the Falklands with her father, Dave’s brother. In her account of the trip she observes that the islands have become much richer since the war, but doesn’t mention that the wealth has been created by statist economic policies which have been forbidden in Britain since Thatcher’s election. (Nor does she ask any of the 2900 islanders how it feels to live in a place that cost 255 British – and 649 Argentinian – lives to recapture.) She and her father drive to the spot where her uncle ‘might have died’. On a windy ridge, next to an old shell hole, they build a carefully tapering memorial cairn. They use slabs of stone from a former Argentinian fortification nearby. When they are finished, ‘the physical trace of that Argentine’s bunker [is] gone,’ Parr writes. ‘This land was British land, reclaimed with British blood.’ Her journey from military agnostic to military patriot is complete.

[*] Viking, 480 pp., £25, May 2018, 978 0 670 91866 9.