History – British Pathfinders of WWII

Featured Image: British Paratroopers synchronize watched in advance of Operation Tonga (Courtesy of Wikipedia).

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Being a Pathfinder is among the hardest and most difficult tasks for any infantryman or soldier to attempt. Beginning first with being part of a small portion of society, the military, and smaller still, the Airborne, Pathfinders are a unique breed. Defined as those soldiers who drop into enemy areas to set up drop or landing zones and facilitate airborne or air-mobile operations, this is a group of men who undoubtedly have the discipline and courage to do what few others have done.

From the British perspective, the need was identified in the Second World War for small groups of parachute soldiers to insert themselves ahead of the main force for the purpose of marking and preparing drop zones for larger groups of regular parachute infantrymen and their attached combat support (signals, engineers, etc). To give an example of the size of these units, just two companies set up the beacons and airheads necessary to land two entire divisions (the 1st and 6th Airborne) in anticipation of the D-Day invasion. Respectively, these were the 21st and 22nd Independent Parachute Companies. The 21st Independent Parachute Company’s first operations came in Sicily, before the opening phases of Operation Husky, capturing bridges and preparing the invasion path for those paratroopers that would participate.

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During the Normandy campaign, the 21st and 22nd Independent Parachute Companies participated in the actions in advance of Operation Overlord. With regards to Operation Market Garden, where the 21st would suffer heavy casualties during its encirclement and entrapment during the Battle of Arnhem.

The 22nd would go on to serve as a regular rifle infantry unit throughout the remainder of the Normandy and advance to the Rhine campaigns, although it participated in Operation Varsity.

Being a Pathfinder required very select skills. Knowledge of weapons, small unit tactics as well as how to harass and delay the enemy were all necessary. Advance signals elements needed to know how to call and organize the landings of massive amounts of Allied parachute forces. This was done in concert with the knowledge that such forces were dropping into enemy territory, well in advance of friendly forces or support.

-Wolfe

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