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Airlanding Brigades

Page Created
January 16th, 2024
Last Updated
January 18th, 2024
British Flag
Additional Information
Order of Battle
1st Airborne Corps
October 10th, 1941
April 15th, 1946
Theater of Operations
  • Sicily, Italy
  • Normandy, France
  • Arnhem, The Netherlands
  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Norway
Organisational History

An airlanding brigade is a specialised military airborne unit designed for rapid deployment and combat operations using glider-borne infantry. These brigades are typically part of airborne divisions and are distinct from parachute units, as their personnel and equipment are delivered to the battlefield inside gliders rather than by parachuting from aircraft.

In response to the effectiveness of German airborne operations in the Battle of France, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructs the War Office to evaluate the feasibility of creating a force comprising 5,000 parachute troops. Subsequently, on June 22nd, 1940, No. 2 Commando is assigned to parachute roles and is later re-designated as the 11th Special Air Service Battalion on November 21st, 1940, incorporating both parachute and glider wings. This unit eventually becomes the 1st Parachute Battalion.

The Central Landing Establishment is established at Ringway airfield near Manchester on June 21st,1940. Its primary responsibility is to train parachute troops, but it also explores the potential of gliders for troop deployment. Simultaneously, the Ministry of Aircraft Production engages General Aircraft Limited to design and manufacture a glider suitable for this role. This leads to the creation of the General Aircraft Hotspur, an aircraft capable of transporting eight soldiers, utilised for both combat and training purposes.

The War Office decides to expand the airborne force following the successful execution of Operation Colossus, the first British airborne raid. This expansion includes the formation of the Parachute Regiment and plans to transform several infantry battalions into parachute and glider infantry battalions. On May 31st, 1941, a joint memorandum from the Army and Royal Air Force, endorsed by the Chiefs-of-Staff and Churchill, recommends the establishment of two parachute brigades, one stationed in England and the other in the Middle East, along with the creation of a force.

The existing 11th Special Air Service Battalion is renamed as the 1st Parachute Battalion. Along with the newly formed 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions, it creates the 1st Parachute Brigade. This brigade, commanded by Brigadier Richard Nelson Gale, marks the beginning of Britain’s new airborne formations. The 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions are comprised of volunteers aged between twenty-two and thirty-two, drawn from existing infantry units, with a limit of ten volunteers from any single unit.

In October 1941, Brigadier Frederick Arthur Montague “Boy” Browning is promoted to major general and appointed as the Commander of Parachute and Airborne Troops. He is tasked with forming a headquarters dedicated to the development and training of airborne forces.

1st Airlanding Brigade

Under the command of Brigadier George Hopkinson, the 1st Airlanding Brigade Group forms on October 10th, 1941 through the re-designation of the 31st Independent Infantry Brigade. This brigade has recently returned to the United Kingdom after training in mountain warfare in British India. Upon its formation, the brigade comprises the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment, the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the 1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles, and their supporting units. Men in the battalions unsuitable for airborne service are weeded out and replaced by volunteers.

Also assigned to the 1st Airlanding Brigade are the 1st Airlanding Reconnaissance Squadron, Royal Armoured Corps, the 9th Field Company (Airborne), Royal Engineers, the 223rd Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery and the 458th Light Battery, Royal Artillery.

By the end of that year, Major-General Frederick Arthur Montague “Boy” Browning’s command evolves into the headquarters of the 1st Airborne Division.

6th Airlanding Brigade

On April 23rd, 1943, the War Office authorises the formation of a second airborne division, the 6th Airborne. This division includes the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades and the 6th Airlanding Brigade, thereby establishing the standard British structure for an airborne division, consisting of two parachute and one airlanding brigades. In May 1943, Brigadier Hugh Kindersley is appointed as the first Commanding Officer of the airlanding brigade. He oversees two experienced battalions transferred from the 1st Airlanding Brigade: the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the 1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles. These battalions are complemented by a new addition to the airborne forces, the 12th Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, a hostilities-only unit formed during the war, serving as the brigade’s third infantry battalion.

Other units assigned to the 6th Airlanding brigade around the same time include the 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, the 249th (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers, and the 195th (Airlanding) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps.

Operation Husky

In June 1943, the 1st Airborne Division, along with the 1st Airlanding Brigade, departs England for North Africa. At this point, the brigade comprises just two battalions: the 1st Border Regiment and the 2nd South Staffordshire Regiment. Brigadier Philip “Pip” Hicks takes command of the brigade, following the promotion of Brigadier Hopkinson to major-general. Major-General Hopkinson assumes command of the 1st Airborne Division, succeeding Major-General Browning.

On July 9th, 1943 the 1st Airlanding Brigade participates in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. After their deployment, the brigade is withdrawn back to North Africa July 13th, 1943. During the landings in Sicily, the 1st Airlanding Brigade suffers the heaviest losses of all the British units involved at that time. The losses amount to 313 killed and 174 missing or wounded.

After its service in the Mediterranean, the brigade returns to Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, where it receives reinforcement with the arrival of the 7th Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers in November/December 1943, a 2nd Line Territorial Army unit, which has been on home defence duties in the Orkney and Shetland islands.

Operation Overlord

From June to December 1943, the 6th Airlanding Brigade, as a component of the 6th Airborne Division, is engaged in extensive preparation and training for operations. The training encompasses all levels, from section to division, and includes both day and night exercises.

In April 1944, under the command of I Airborne Corps, the brigade participates in Exercise Mush. This three-day exercise, conducted in the counties of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Wiltshire, involves the entire 6th Airborne Division landing by air. Unbeknownst to the troops, this exercise serves as a full-scale rehearsal for the division’s role in the upcoming Allied invasion of Normandy.

In the Normandy invasion, the 6th Airborne Division’s is set to land in the early hours of June 6th, 1944 in a Coup de Main to conquer the bridges over the Caen Channel and the Orne River, Operation Tonga, Operation Mallard and resupply mission Operation Rob Roy one day later. Their mission is to secure the left flank of the invasion area, between the rivers Orne and Dives. After completing their assault orders, activities are primarily restricted to minor skirmishes and patrolling. This routine continues until the night of June 13th, 1944, when the brigade is relieved by units from the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. Subsequently, the brigade is repositioned to the area of Breville, positioned between the 5th Parachute Brigade and the commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade. In this location, the brigade maintains a defensive posture until mid-August, focusing on conducting patrols to engage and retain the attention of German forces.

On August 7th, 1944, the 6th Airborne Division receives orders to shift to an offensive mode, targeting the mouth of the River Seine. Now under the command of Brigadier Edwin Flavell, the 6th Airlanding Brigade is augmented with the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade and the Royal Netherlands Motorised Infantry Brigade. Together, they form the left flank of the division’s advance along the French coast, while the rest of the division progresses further inland.

The advance of the 6th Airlanding Brigade commences on August 17th, 1944, along two axes. In the of nine days of combat to follow, the 6th Airborne Division advances 72 kilometres, capturing 1,000 kilometres² of territory and takes over 1,000 German soldiers prisoner. With it ending their Normandy campaign.

Since landing on June 6th, 1944, the 6th Airlanding Brigade specifically incurs 115 fatalities during the campaign. Following these events, the brigade is withdrawn from France and embarks for England at the beginning of September.

During the Normandy landings, the 1st Airlanding Brigade and with it the 1st Airborne Division holds the role of a strategic reserve, ready to deploy wherever needed to support the invasion.

In England, the 6th Airlanding Brigade enters a phase of recruitment and training, focusing particularly on urban combat, including house-to-house and street fighting in the bombed areas of Southampton and Birmingham. This training culminates in Exercise Eve, an assault on the River Thames, designed to simulate a crossing of the River Rhine in Germany.

In the period July and the beginning of September, over 15 planned airborne missions into France and Belgium are cancelled, a decision largely due to the rapid pace of the Allied advance.

Operation Market Garden

Meanwhile, the 1st Airborne Division and 1st Airlanding Brigade are assigned to Operation Market Garden in Arnhem, the Netherlands. This operation involves three airborne divisions tasked with capturing bridges for subsequent use by the British Second Army.

Due to a shortage of transport aircraft, it would take three days to fully transport the 1st Airborne Division to Arnhem. The plan outlines that the majority of the 1st Airlanding Brigade and the 1st Parachute Brigade are to land on the first day. The 1st Parachute Brigade is tasked with advancing towards Arnhem to capture the bridges over the Lower Rhine, while the 1st Airlanding Brigade is responsible for securing the drop zones for the units scheduled to arrive on the second and third days.

Once all units of the division have arrived, the 1st Airlanding Brigade is planned to establish defensive positions to the west of Arnhem. The units of the 1st Airlanding Brigade scheduled to arrive on the second lift include two companies, plus one mortar, one machine gun, and one anti-tank platoon from the Staffordshire Regiment, in addition to three platoons and sections from the mortar, machine gun, and anti-tank platoons of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Additionally, the contingent from the Border Regiment is expected to contribute a further eight platoons.

On September 17th, 1944, they successfully land near Arnhem, with only 12 gliders failing to arrive due to technical issues. The brigade’s task is to secure the three landing grounds while the 1st Parachute Brigade moves towards Arnhem to capture bridges over the Lower Rhine.

Brigadier Philip Hugh Whitby Hicks takes command of the division temporarily when Divisional commander Major-General Roy Urquhart is reported missing. The brigade encounters strong German resistance, and logistical challenges include delayed reinforcements due to bad weather in England. Despite fierce fighting and some successful objectives, they face overwhelming German forces.

Throughout the operation, the brigade and other Allied forces engage in continuous combat, marked by small-scale assaults, mortar, and artillery attacks. Heroic actions, including two Victoria Crosses awarded to members of the South Staffordshire Regiment, exemplify their bravery. However, the Allies face a dire situation against a well-entrenched enemy.

By September 25th, with the situation becoming untenable, a decision is made to evacuate the surviving Allied forces in Operation Berlin. Of the 2,526 men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade who left England for Operation Market Garden, 230 are killed, 476 are evacuated, and 1,822 are reported as missing or prisoners of war.

Ardennes Offensive

As December approaches, the 6th Airlanding Brigade is preparing for Christmas leave when news arrives of the German offensive in the Ardennes. Being part of the First Allied Airborne Army, the 6th Airborne Division is a component of the strategic reserve for the Allied forces in northwest Europe. While the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions are already stationed at Rheims in northern France, the 6th Airborne is dispatched by sea to Belgium to bolster the defence. The Battle of the Bulge, involving 29 German and 33 Allied divisions, becomes the largest single battle on the Western Front during the war.

On Christmas Day, the 6th Airborne Division moves to position itself in front of the German advance’s spearhead; by Boxing Day, they reach their designated spots in the defensive line between Dinant and Namur. The 3rd Parachute Brigade is positioned on the left, the 5th Parachute Brigade on the right, with the 6th Airlanding Brigade in reserve. Over the subsequent days, the German advance is halted and then pushed back.

By the end of January 1945, the 6th Airlanding Brigade crosses into the Netherlands. There, the division is tasked with securing the area along the River Maas, between Venlo and Roermond. The brigade conducts patrols on both sides of the river, engaging the German 7. Fallschirmjäger Division.

Near the end of February, the 6th Airborne Division returns to England to prepare for another airborne operation: the crossing of the River Rhine into Germany.

Operation Varsity

In Operation Varsity, the British 6th Airborne Division, under the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps led by Major General Matthew Ridgway, operates alongside Major General William Miley’s U.S. 17th Airborne Division. The 6th Airlanding Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier Hugh Bellamy, is tasked with several objectives. The 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, landing in the north, aims to secure the bridges over the river Issel. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles targets the main road bridge over the river from Hamminkeln to Brunen, while the 12th Devonshire Regiment is assigned to capture the town of Hamminkeln.

The division’s two parachute brigades are on the ground before the 6th Airlanding Brigade begins landing at 10:30 on March 24th, 1945. They face intense German anti-aircraft fire, resulting in approximately 40 percent casualties in personnel and 50 percent in equipment. Despite this, by 11:00, the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 1st Royal Ulster Rifles have secured their objectives. The 12th Devonshire Regiment, landing amid a German armoured formation, manage to regroup and commence their attack on Hamminkeln at 11:35, securing the town by 12:00.

At midnight, the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry faces an attack by German tanks and infantry, losing and then recapturing a position at the eastern side of the road bridge. Another attack two hours later threatens to capture the bridge, prompting Brigadier Bellamy to order its destruction. Throughout the night, German infantry attempts to infiltrate the brigade’s positions. At 05:30, German armour approaches, leading to a call for close air support from Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter bombers, which destroy several tanks. The main road bridge, held by the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, repels an attack at 07:00 by infantry and two tanks, with the division’s anti-tank guns destroying the tanks.

Later in the day, infantry from the 15th Scottish Infantry Division, supported by tanks, advance to the divisional area and take over the 6th Airlanding Brigade’s position. Concurrently, the division receives orders to prepare for an eastward advance from dawn on March 26th, 1945.

Advance into Germany

On March 26th, 1945, the 6th Airlanding Brigade advances further into Germany, with the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and the 12th Devonshire Regiment leading the way. The primary resistance comes from German rearguard actions, and by evening, they reach Rhade, followed by Limbeck the next day. At dawn on April 2nd, 1945, they cross the Dortmund–Ems Canal, facing only artillery fire as opposition. Later that day, they encounter more resistance upon reaching Lengerich.

By April 4th, 1945, the 6th Airlanding Brigade is advancing rapidly, supported by the 4th (Armoured) Battalion, Grenadier Guards, which is part of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade. Steinhuder Meer is reached on April 10th, 1945, and in the following days, Ulzen and Lüneburg are captured. By May 2nd, 1945, the brigade arrives at the river Elbe. Anticipating strong defences, the division launches an immediate attack to surprise the defenders. The attack is successful, and they cross the river over a pontoon bridge left intact by retreating German forces. That afternoon, the leading elements of the 3rd Parachute Brigade reach Mecklenburg, where they make contact with the advancing Russian Army from the east.

Later that day, the 6th Airlanding Brigade reaches Wismar on the Baltic Sea, where they remain until May 7th, 1945. On this day, they receive news of the German surrender, marking a significant moment in the European theatre of World War II.


Following the Battle of Arnhem, replacements start to arrive to replenish the 1st Airlanding Brigade, bringing it back up to strength. Among these replacements is Brigadier Roger Bower, who replaces the injured Brigadier Hicks.

In May 1945, the 1st Airborne Division, including the 1st Airlanding Brigade, along with the Special Air Service Brigade and an ad hoc brigade formed from the divisional artillery, is dispatched to Norway. Their mission is to disarm the German occupation forces. Upon entering Norway, the division is tasked with maintaining law and order in its occupied areas, ensuring German units adhere to the surrender terms, securing and protecting captured airfields, and preventing sabotage of essential military and civilian structures.

The 1st Airlanding Brigade lands near Oslo, Norway’s capital, and takes control of the city. Brigadier Bower assumes the role of Commander, Oslo Area, for the duration of the division’s presence in Norway. Oslo is a strategic choice, being not only the Norwegian capital but also the center of both Norwegian and German administration.

The brigade returns to the United Kingdom in August 1945. Following this, the 1st Airborne Division is disbanded, and the airlanding battalions revert to conventional infantry roles.

War in the East

By the end of May 1945, the 6th Airborne Division is withdrawn from Germany and returns to England. The initial plan is to deploy them to India, where they are to form an airborne corps alongside the 44th Indian Airborne Division. In fact, the division’s advance party, centred around the 5th Parachute Brigade, had already arrived in India.

However, following the Japanese surrender, these plans undergo a significant change. In the post-war restructuring of the British Army, there is a requirement for only one airborne division, and the 6th Airborne Division is selected to remain operational. Subsequently reinforced by the inclusion of the 2nd Parachute Brigade, the division is redeployed to the Middle East, serving as the Imperial Strategic Reserve.