Delivering the Vickers machine gun to the parachutists of the Parachute Battalions required one of three approaches.
Using standard ‘Containers, Light Equipment’ (CLE) it was possible to drop heavier equipment directly from the aircraft alongside the parachutists. The containers were originally plywood but then a metal tube with a crash pad at one end and the parachute attached to the other. Issued in three Marks, they were all approximately six feet (1.8 metres) long and weighed between 46 and 62kg when empty. They could contain around 100kg of stores and were secured by latched on the outside. They attached to the aircraft using a cradle that wrapped around the container and then fixed to the loading rails, or bomb rails, of the aircraft.
The containers were coloured to indicate their loads (ammunition, fuel, food, medical supplies etc.) and for night operations that used small lights to show where they had dropped.
The Parachute Battalions used the standard Mk I Vickers machine gun. Loading this and a ‘first-line’ of ammunition into containers required the right balance of weight and ensuring that as few as possible containers were used so the stores were not spread out across a whole dropping zone.
It’s not know for certain how the loads were distributed on operations; however, Paradata (Airborne Assault Archive) provides some photos of loads possibly for trials purposes but likely to have been used in this manner on operations.
The above image shows the gun and tripod being transported along with the condenser tube and can, as well as 500 (or possibly, but unlikely, 600) rounds in belted ammunition. There are then three Lee-Enfield rifles and ammunition for those in bandoliers. This load appears to be the complete equipment for the No 1, No 2 and No 3 who would then carry the tripod, the gun and the ammunition and can respectively.
The interesting points in this photo are the inclusion of a mix of Short-Magazine, Lee-Enfield No 1 Mk III rifles and a single No 4. This indicates that it’s a trial load and not an operational service load.
The inclusion of stripless ammunition belts is expected; however, it is not boxed at all and the 600 rounds would indicate that there are two belts of 250 rounds each and single length of cut belt of 100 rounds.
The next container photo shown above contains 11 boxes of ammunition. Those shown are the H29 liners that were disposable and were factory sealed. This is a total of 2,750 rounds of ammunition. There is also one 1937 pattern haversack, presumably containing personal equipment. The other items of Vickers equipment is a single spare barrel carried loose.
Other equipment for the rest of the machine gun section is shown in the above load of eight rifles and bandoliers of ammunition for them. These are delivered alongside three further boxes of ammunition for the Vickers and a spare barrel. The boxes shown in this case are the No 8 belt box which was out of operational service by the time of the British airborne operations that included the Vickers machine gun.
There is also a range-finder included in those load. It’s not in a protective case so is likely to have become damaged during a drop.
A post-war (1959) photo from the Paradata source shows a canvas weapons case being used to carry the Vickers machine gun alongside a 1944 pattern haversack and blanket. These soft weapons cases required extra packaging. For some reason, the muzzle attachment has been removed from the gun for packing – possibly due to the length of the gun.
Resupply of ammunition was delivered in panniers. These were made of wicker and this material absorbed much of the impact of landing. They were dropped in a harness attached to a parachute. A very universal piece of equipment, they were pushed out of the doors of transport aircraft or through bomb bays of converted bombers.
The above photo shows another trials photo. This shows a pannier loaded with six H29 boxes, each contained 2 boxes of stripless ammunition in liners (500 rounds each box), giving a total of 3000 rounds. In addition, there are two boxes of .455-inch revolver ammunition. These were replaced in operational service by the .38-inch revolver from the outbreak of the Second World War so it’s unclear why this was being shown but presumably it was all that was available at the trials establishment.
Legbags and valises
To reduce the risk of separating the guns and equipment from then men who needed to use them, legbags and valises were used to attach the equipment directly to the parachutists themselves.
Commonly just referred to as a ‘legbag’, the airborne kitbag attached to the leg of the parachutist and remained their as they jumped out of the aircraft. It was them lowered on a rope, attached to their parachute harness, and would dangle below them as they descended to the ground. It could also be attached to the chest for exiting the aircraft and lowered from there.
The tripod was dropped in the kitbag and it’s assumed that ammunition and the condenser can was also dropped in kitbags with other members of the section.
The gun was carried in a modified valise for the Bren light machine gun. The valise was a thick felt wrap and it was bound with the suspension line from a rifle valise and then attached to the parachute harness.
It was strapped across the chest to jump. It was carried diagonally when going through the door of the aircraft and then allowed to sit horizontally across the chest for landing. Because it had 20 feet of rope, it could also be lowered and dangle below the parachutist.
It’s known that the valise was used in the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945 by the 6th Airborne Division and there are photos of the Canadian Parachute Battalion carrying them from the dropping zones in their valises; however, they are not mentioned in accounts prior to this. It’s therefore possible that they were dropped in kitbags but left extended from the top of the back and padded with valises, or just dropped in containers.
- Air Ministry (1945) Air Publication 2453. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
- Harclerode, P (1990) Go To It! An Illustrated History of the 6th Airborne Division. London: Bloomsbury Publications Limited.
- Paradata (2019) CLE MKIII CONTAINING AMMUNITION, C1943. Duxford: Airborne Assault. Available from: https://www.paradata.org.uk/media/9173 Accessed 18 September 2019.
- Paradata (2019) CLE CONTAINING EIGHT RIFLES AND OTHER EQUIPMENT, C1943. Duxford: Airborne Assault. Available from: https://www.paradata.org.uk/media/9180 Accessed 18 September 2019.
- Paradata (2019) CLE CONTAINING NUMBER 4 RIFLES AND AMMUNITION, C1944. Duxford: Airborne Assault. Available from: https://www.paradata.org.uk/media/9105 Accessed 18 September 2019.
- Paradata (2019) CLE CONTAINING VARIOUS WEAPONRY AND AMMUNITION, INCLUDING VICKERS GUN AND TRIPOD. Duxford: Airborne Assault. Available from: https://www.paradata.org.uk/media/9177 Accessed 18 September 2019.
- Paradata (2019) CONTAINER LIGHT EQUIPMENT (CLE) Duxford: Airborne Assault. Available from: https://www.paradata.org.uk/article/container-light-equipment-cle Accessed 18 September 2019.
- Paradata (2019) VICKERS MEDIUM MACHINE GUN, AATDC TRAILS, JULY 1959. Duxford: Airborne Assault. Available from: https://www.paradata.org.uk/media/8085 Accessed 18 September 2019.
- War Office (1951) The Second World War 1939-1945. Army. Airborne Forces. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.