6th - 7th May. 21st Independent Parachute Company Annual Dinner, Newark, Notts
Background to the Event
In Arnhem in 1999, some of Summer of 44 were fortunate to make contact with veterans of the 21st Independent Parachute Company, correspondence over the following months from this contact led to the honour of being invited to their dinner on Saturday 6th May 2000.
The 21st Ind Para Coy Club generously offered us six places which we immediately filled (and could have over again). In return we offered to put on a display of World War Two clothing and equipment. This offer was taken up and we found ourselves due to put on a display next to the modern day pathfinders from the Parachute Regiment for the day on Saturday.
Summer of 44 arrived at 09:30 in Newark, the adopted home of the 21st . After checking in, we were ushered through into the Dining room, a pleasant sun-room conveniently adjacent to the bar. Many of the veterans and their families were enjoying a hearty breakfast and we soon found ourselves receiving a welcoming coffee and some grub too. Introductions were quickly made and we started setting out our display. It immediately became painfully obvious we should have brought our vehicles too.
Before long we had everything laid out on a couple of tables, a PIAT, some No 4's, a MK 5 Sten, a Bren, a WS18, WS38, WS46, valves and headsets, manuals, grenades, personal kit, 37 Patt webbing, Airborne Pattern BD Trousers, BD Blouses, Dennison Smocks, Helmets and more
Almost immediately we had a swarm of veterans reminiscing, examining the equipment and recollecting the incidents of their youth. Stories of Parachuting Mishaps, Lucky Escapes, "Borrowed" equipment, recruiting procedures, innovative designs and ultimately the Arnhem operation. Some of the veterans had their own treasures to show us, original XXI (21st) Shoulder titles, AB64's, Wings and more. Promises of help with our research, addresses and telephone numbers exchanged.
Inevitably there were items we had not got, some because we had forgotten, others because we had not thought them relevant. One surprising item was the MK2 Sten gun. Articles, film and popular belief led us to believe the 21st were almost completely issued with the MK5 Sten, this proved to be an incorrect assumption, time and time again the veterans picked up the MK5 and the comment was nearly always "had one like this, but it didn't have the wooden bits and it had a metal "T" bar stock" the MK2 Sten!!!
Another error the 21st veterans corrected was our belief the 21st had used drop containers for some of their equipment. We discovered that the 21st had been responsible for developing the leg bag for carrying weapons and equipment. At no time during the Arnhem operation did any of the 21st use containers, they were all required to carry all of their equipment. This decision was reached to avoid problems occurring from lost containers, or containers in trees.
The group CO of the time, Major Landers, advocated completely the use of leg bags and other methods for ensuring heavy equipment was dropped with the troops and not independently. Landers constantly strove to discover means of dropping different loads and tested the mechanisms himself many times. One such test was to drop with a 3in mortar base plate, things did not go well and Landers suffered two broken legs. The cause quite simply was due to the weight of the plate. In a normal drop the loaded leg bag will swing such that it lands in a different spot to the parachutist. Major Landers unfortunately found the mortar base plate was too heavy, the increased weight caused a faster descent and the lack of oscillation resulted with him landing on top of the base plate.
At 13:30 the 21st started their AGM, this gave us a breather to pop out around town for a spot of shopping. A couple of interesting goodies were acquired and we returned just as the AGM ended. The most notable items acquired were a bakelite tea caddie, a service bible and a Royal Engineers Cap Badge, Kings Crown, ER VIII a rare item since few cap badges were made and issued before Edward VIII abdicated.
Further interesting chats with veterans followed the AGM until we packed up to prepare for the dinner at 18:30.
A major event in our group history - the first time we've ever been to the same event in suits rather than battle dress difficult to recognise some people.
The meal commenced, we had had seats kindly reserved. More stories, loads of wine and some nice food . The meal ended with a toast to the Queen, to the Prince of Wales and to fallen comrades. Then came the raffle between us we had purchased a fair few raffle tickets and not surprisingly we won a prize then another, then another . It started to get embarrassing so rather than keep winning we had to quietly hand our tickets over to some of the veterans around us. But what a raffle, some of the best raffle prizes we have seen in a long time, the favourite was by far Whiskey. After the meal it was Jackets off and some more wine eventually crashing into bed around 02:00 on Sunday morning.
Considering all and our abilities at other events, we all made it downstairs before the 10:00 breakfast deadline though one of us had seconds to spare, and due to a lack of spare shirts looked like he'd escaped from the Manchester United football squad.
After a yummy breakfast, it was off to church, a short walk across town to the local Parish Church.
Not only had Summer of 44 been invited to the Dinner, but we were also privileged to be invited to the Annual remembrance service as well.
The service was a private event, and with the exception of one veteran's son, all were veterans and their wives. The service was conducted by an RAF Chaplain from a local airbase. The reading from the book of Revelations was made by one of the two surviving officers. During the last hymn we walked through to the 21st Independent Parachute Company memorial, a carved gilt inscribed tablet set into the wall panelling, surrounded by flowers and memorials to members of the 21st Independent Parachute Company, the Sherwood Foresters and the King's School. In this corner of the church we then held prayers for the fallen and the service ended.
It is clear the Veterans are very proud of "their" parish Church, and they have every right to be, a strong and splendid building reflecting the local history so well.
Outside the Church we made our farewells to some veterans who were not returning to the hotel. Adjacent to the Church, on the other side of the market square sits yet another splendid building (Newark has many), the Town Hall, and yet another fascinating story. Just prior to operations in Norway, the 21st realised they had not got a Union Jack to take with them, a panic was on to find one. A daring raid was made to remove the flag from the roof of the town hall, this was borrowed and taken to Norway. The flag survived, found its way into a private collection and was recently presented to the British Airborne Museum in Aldershot. Perhaps one day we will see its return to its rightful home of Newark, to hang proudly with the other ancient standards over the memorial in the church.
Back at the hotel we sat in the sun for more photos, more stories and tea. It was time to go reluctantly we headed for home, a fantastic weekend away.
We have made some great contacts and some good new friends. Individual offers of private photos, copies of documentation and further contact for the future, Beltring and Arnhem.