Red Devil: Mark Urban Interviewed

Mark Urban

In his latest book, Mark Urban has taken on the story of the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War.
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Mark Urban, how do you juggle this, an authorised history of the Parachute Regiment in World War II, with what is a full-on job at Newsnight?

Well, it’s certainly not easy. You’re right, it is a full-on job. Because my day is back to front and I’m working in the evening when most people are at home, opening a bottle of wine and reading and playing with the kids or whatever, it does mean that I tend to have the mornings free, which is useful for research time. There does come a moment when I need to write a book and get the first draft down, and at that moment, I take unpaid leave from the BBC.

Normally I factor in about two months for that, depending on how I think the book is going to be, to just sit down and methodically just get it down in first draft form. And then, once again, once you’ve done that, the editing process and re-visiting and re-drafting can be done on the weekends and mornings and other times. It is a labour of love, certainly, to work in this way. I sometimes say it’s a bit like me driving a cab in terms of being a second job and adding to the general stresses and strains of modern life.

Is the Parachute Regiment, like the SAS, careful about their reputation in history books?

I’m sure the Parachute Regiment is keen to protect reputation in a day-to-day sense, like when some dreadful things happen on exercise and people are drunk and whatever. I’m sure they’re sensitive to that. I think the key point here, though, is, these episodes pass from living history into deeper history. Now, the Airborne Museum at Duxford were very quick to tell me when we started, because obviously the focus was on the 2nd Battalion, particularly in the context of Arnhem, but very quick to tell me they are not aware of any surviving member of the 2nd Battalion who dropped to Arnhem, which obviously a shame, but there it is. There are some Arnhem survivors, clearly, who are still alive, but from the 2nd Battalion at Arnhem, they said, we don’t think there are any left now. So one can quibble about. Well, yeah, there’s a handful from the 9th or the 12th battalions in Normandy or whatever. I mean, yes, of course there are still some survivors left of the wartime Parachute Regiment, but there’s very few, sadly.

Even those that do survive today, they are passing on very quickly. So this history, I think, is now moving into a slightly different category. And they said from the outset, actually, “tell it like it is.” We’re quite prepared for you to discuss subjects like people’s nerves going, running away or surrendering or stuff like that, in circumstances where they might have fought on all of those quite sensitive topics, which, for example, if you look at some of the books produced soon after the war, like The Red Berets, which is a very good book. But it treads carefully over some of those subjects because so many of the people involved in those operations were still alive. And I think we’ve passed on from that now. And I think from the point of view of Penguin and the museum, they’d read the tank war book, which did deal pretty frankly with things like circumstances like guys bailing out of tanks through fear that they were about to be knocked out by tigers or whatever. Or indeed shooting Germans who were attempting to surrender. And how that happened a few times and what the circumstances were and whether it was or wasn’t a kind of dubious act.

The vital bridge at Arnhem.

These subjects were dealt with pretty frankly in the book. So I think they knew that I would deal pretty straight on. there is, for example, an exploration in the book of whether or not General Gale, who was the commander of the 6th Airborne Division which landed very successfully on D-Day and did a fantastic job, But whether he had given an order that they shouldn’t take prisoners. And that’s dealt with in the book. It’s pretty clear that in his pep-talks to some of the units, he did say that. He did say on that first night or whatever, “don’t mess about, don’t take prisoners.” In other words, that getting to their objectives superseded all other interests. Now, obviously, you’re looking back on that, 80 years on, that seems like a pretty dubious order to give people. But I also discussed through looking at some of the cases where prisoners either were killed or were not, the fact that clearly many soldiers didn’t take that order literally and hundreds of German prisoners were taken in the first 24 hours. That kind of thing is quite a complex subject. I think I think it is true to say that as it passes from living history into deeper history, one can have a more frank discussion about it.

What was the genesis of the Airborne Division, because it was raised quite late on. As you mention in the book the Germans had done it, the Americans, and even the Italians. Why were we so late? And greatest respect to Italians by the way.

One of the things about the Italian forces in the 1930s, they were very innovative in certain respects. People write about their naval frogmen and they were innovators in military parachuting as well. The only three countries that have taken it really seriously in the inter-war years were the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy. And they all had significant airborne forces in being at the start of the war. And of course, the Germans in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Greece, used airborne landings very successfully as part of their blitzkrieg formula, particularly for so called coup-de-main operations, stroke of the hand, whatever you want to translate it. But the idea being that you would drop ahead of advancing troops and seize a key bridge, or neutralise a key strong point in the case of Belgium, and that would make the wider advance go more quickly and more smoothly. So, yes, they were all invested in it in the 1930s in a substantial way. The British had not done that. And really the genesis of the creation of the parachute regiment and airborne forces more widely was in June of 1940 when Churchill issued an order saying we need a core of parachutists.

And he suggested it would be about 5000 soldiers. Now, one of the interesting things that happened then is what didn’t happen, which was then basically an enormous amount of time wasting by the RAF that didn’t really want to give the army the aeroplanes to bring to fruition Churchill’s vision. The army did start to form units, and critically, just over a year after Churchill’s order, they put this army-wide appeal out for volunteers. And they got a couple of thousand characters, a lot of them quite extraordinary, coming forward. So you had a mobilised army in the millions, but you had them looking for around 2000 who were keen to get into action or to volunteer for something special and dangerous and different. So a pretty extraordinary band of people came forward.

Now to Operation Market Garden. I get the sense that with the number of operations being planned for the area around Arnhem and Holland, that the senior commanders have this airborne division and they want to use it, and it’s a bit like they’ve got this hammer and everything looks like a nail and therefore Market Garden takes place. It is extraordinary to me that the whole operation went ahead.

 I think your reading of it is very fair. They had 16 or 17 plans. Operating Market was the 17th plan that was drawn up after D-Day for possibly using the First Airborne Division, which had come back from North Africa, but it hadn’t done the D-Day landings. That job was done by a different one, the 6th Airborne Division. So they were all yearning to get into action. And from fairly soon after the D-Day landings, they were thinking, “oh, maybe we could drop behind the Germans in Normandy and stop them getting away, or maybe we could drop in the west of France or maybe we could drop on the Belgian borders and once again stop them getting away or take advantage.”

 There was a feeling that we’ve got these highly trained British and American airborne divisions and they could make a big strategic difference if we get this right. But time and again, that sort of sweet spot between the time it would take to actually prepare an effective and worthwhile operation, and events not changing on the ground so quickly, would mean they were rendered useless. That planning, they got on the wrong side of that equation. Time after time, events just moved on too quickly for them to stop the Germans retreating out of Normandy or the various other ideas they had. So eventually, when the idea of dropping to take the three bridges occurred in early September, it was spun up. There were guys who were just so fed up. One staff officer who, in his Imperial War Museum interview, says, “I had spent three years being buggered about and I was damned if I wasn’t going to go on this operation.” And then, fantastically, he said, “if they’d asked us to drop in Berlin and wait for the arrival of the Red Army, we would have done it.” Which is just extraordinary. Of course, that is post-war hyperbole, but I think it speaks to their determination to just get into action.

I think there was a slightly odd duality about this and a sort of gallows humour as well, because a lot of them realised that these plans were pretty dubious. I mean, at the briefing for Operation Comet, which was a previous version of the Operation Market plan to seize those bridges, but to do it just with a British airborne division, one of the officers turned to the other who had been given this job of rushing onto a bridge and taking it, and said, “a Victoria Cross or a wooden cross, old boy.” Another guy, a subaltern in the 2nd Parachute Battalion wrote in his diary after their briefing for Operation Comet, “It all seems like a rather elaborate way of committing suicide.”

They knew it was dangerous, and yet at the same time, many of them absolutely yearned for it. There had been this shorthand used in the 2nd Battalion mess for a good year before Operation Market: “The bloodbath we’ve got to get to the bloodbath.” And they would use it in a gallows humour way, as being something that, yes, would be terrible and intensely risky for them personally, but they didn’t intend to miss it. So there it is, there’s the attitude, that duality of it.


Mark Urban is a journalist, broadcaster and historian, and the author of Red Devils: The Trailblazers of the Parachute Regiment in World War Two. You can listen to an extended interview with Mark on the Aspects of History Podcast.