Excerpted from The Royal Ulster Rifles, vol. 3 1919-1948, by Charles Graves (Times Printing Co., 1950)
The outbreak of the War found the Royal Ulster Rifles were stationed in India.
Towards the end of October 1941, Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, the Commanding Officer, was informed that the Infantry battalions of the Brigade were to be converted to an airborne role. This news was duly made known to the Battalion, and its effect can only be described as electric. The general delight was only relieved by the pathetic and unsuccessful efforts of certain officers to have their postings to India cancelled. The fact that these postings were the result of voluntary application rendered the occasion hilarious for other whose wish to fight in the Far East was not so strong.
The immediate result of the Battalion’s new role was scarcely noticeable, however. Airborne forces were not much more than an idea, although considerable progress had been made in training and equipping parachute battalions. Early in November the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant left for Manchester to undertake a glider flight from a neighboring airfield. On arrival, all three Commanding Officers of the Brigade took off in a Hotspur glider. Intense alarm was experienced by the remainder of the party, anxiously awaiting their turn, when the glider proceeded to crash-land in an adjoining ploughed field. Investigation showed that this almost disastrous mishap was due to a faulty tow-rope. No one was seriously hurt, though in view of the importance of the human freight it is possible that the doctrine of tactical loading received its birth on this occasion. On December 7, the Battalion arrived in the Newbury area, the primary object being to concentrate what was now the 1st Air-landing Brigade near Nether Avon Airfield, which was then being used for all glider training. On conversion to the airborne role everyone was given an opportunity to transfer to another unit if desired. No records are now available to show how many took advantage of this offer, but they were very few indeed.
Early in 1942, an order was issued by the Headquarters of the 1st Airborne Division to the effect that, to ensure the highest possible standard, no other rank would be allowed to remain in the Division if his conduct were assessed at less than "Good." The wisdom or otherwise of this order is not under discussion, but the effect on the Battalion was very serious. Being a regular unit and having, even at this date, a high proportion of long-servicemen, it was naturally to be expected that on a check of conduct sheets – under the terms of King’s Regulations – a number of Riflemen would be assessed as having characters below the standard required. Suffice it to say that about one hundred and forty men left the Battalion and were posted to other units of the Royal Ulster Rifles. The departure of these men can only be described as pathetic. At least one Rifleman, whose worth was undoubted, approached the Adjutant in actual tears at the railway station to ask whether even at that late hour a reprieve could not be granted.
The loss of this large number of trained soldiers, the majority of whom were good soldiers too was happily offset to a certain extent by the arrival of a quite excellent draft of young soldiers from the 70th Battalion. This draft was probably the best ever received by the 1st during the war and reflected the greatest possible credit on the 70th. Training progressed steadily, if slowly. A certain amount of flying was possible and within a few months every one of the Battalion had experienced at least on glider flight. In those days flying was, however, a much more nerve-racking business than it became later. The Hotspur glider was uncomfortable; the passengers were confined in a restricted space and could see little or nothing of the ground. Crashes, luckily never fatal for the Battalion, were frequent, and the arrival of a sub-unit at its destination was always problematical.
All this meant not only a great deal of re-equipment, but little or no collective training. However, the first jeeps arrived in April 1942, at about the same time the maroon beret was introduced. A month later the Battalion was moved to Bulford Fields Camp, the worst it had yet encountered. However, the proximity to Nether Avon made training simpler and the availability of ranges made it easier to continue normal training. It was only now that real airborne training began for the 1st Battalion. Horsa gliders made air-landing exercises easy. Both officers and men swiftly became accustomed to their role, which seemed particularly suited to the Irish.
The orginal C Coy, 1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles in WWII
Weeks slipped past into months as the Battalion continued with its training. All officers and men were looking forward to the day when they could put to the test against the Germans all the various lessons they had learned since 1940. Then, as the day for the attack on Europe drew near, the pace quickened and training took place on a more realistic role. In the early part of 1943, Lieutenant-Colonel R.J.H. Carson took over command from Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell.
During the period of waiting much of the surplus energy of the troops was naturally devoted to games and the Battalion figured prominently in all the major events. At football, it lost only three matches during the whole season of 1943 and won the Divisional Cup by five goals to three after a replay. The boxing team suffered only one defeat in four years – when it was beaten by the 2nd Battalion the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the final of the Divisional Boxing Competition. In the Divisional and individual cross country championships the RUR team came home in second place out of sixteen. In the News of the World road relay race it was third in a record entry of thirty-one teams.
In January 1944, a portion of the troops went down to Ilfracombe and either practiced or learned swimming. This was a pleasant change from routine training and in addition was bound to prove of real value in the not too distant future. During the early part of the year, a number of officer and men had to pleasure of visiting and doing a short attachment to an American Division. In return a similar party visited the Battalion.