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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The 663 Musketeers

The British paratrooper hefted his Bren Gun and glanced at his watch; it was just after 0410 local time (0710 GMT) as his transport plane churned along. Glancing up towards the cockpit he could see the sun rising in a blistering dawn. Out of the door he could only see sea, but very shortly the land would appear. Around him were a few faces of the people he knew, but most of the others were soldiers who he’d only seen about the battalion and not members of his own company. At 0415 the paratroopers started to shuffle out of the door. They were dropping directly onto their target, from an altitude of around 600ft, there was no time for a reserve chute, and he would only be in the air for a few seconds. Around him were some 663 Paras bailing out of planes in the same few seconds. Below him was the sandy airfield of El Gamil, Egypt. The drop was the opening move of Operation Musketeer, which today we call the Suez Conflict in 1956. 

Para's jumping from a RAF Hastings out over El Gamil

The air plan for the drop was in itself a masterpiece. Surprise had to be total, so the drop had to be directly onto the target. This meant that no Pathfinders could be deployed to guide the transport fleet in. A Canberra bomber would precede the strike and drop a marker flare in position to give the planes a start point for the drop. The Canberra would then circle the location broadcasting the beacon for the aircraft to home in on, a not entirely risk-free occupation as the Canberra would be circling in day light over an airfield with AA guns. 

Para's jumping during an exercise in 1953

The marker bomb would signify the start of the drop zone. As the planes passed over it, they would release their paratroopers, and the stick of men would be laid across the airfield. One of the confusions from drops was intermixing of men on the ground. A parachute unit had to sort itself out into its platoons from the mass of men, and then head out on its mission. However, with a drop directly onto the target this meant wasting time that they could not afford, especially as the airfield was swept by bunkers with machine guns in. Thus, a new plan was hatched. The companies were split into six-man groups and spread amongst the transports. Crucially the group would be in the same place in the stick. Thus, the first six men out of each aircraft would be from the same company. This allowed rapid reorganisation as the companies would be landing in the same rough area. On the day it took just ten minutes to get all the companies on the ground and fighting.

The scene on the ground at El Gamil. Behind the Parachute is the control building.

Across the airfield there had been oil drums, filled with sand dotted around to act as anti-landing devices. This did give the Paras a small amount of cover. But arriving with total surprise at dawn meant that in very short order the airfield was taken. The Egyptian defenders had fought but were largely in accurate with their fire and unable to muster enough fire to stop the Paras seizing their objectives such as the control tower (which was burning from an earlier air raid). There were several casualties during the drop, one was a civilian. Peter Woods, a reporter from the Daily Mirror had lied and said he was a qualified parachutist. When he hit for the first time, he sprained both ankles and instead of getting the scoop he wanted, he was confined to the battalion aid post for the entirety of the operation. Egyptian fire continued to be aimed at the attackers. One bunker was smashed by a bazooka, which killed two and resulted in nine POW’s. Elsewhere one of the companies had dropped directly onto the Egyptian positions The Paras quickly over ran the surprised Egyptians. 15 minutes from the start of the drop the forward air observation team was up and operating, guiding in air strikes. In total it took just 30 minutes to secure the entire airbase. 

Digging in at El Gamil, one can see one of the anti-landing oil drums being used as a table.

Now the Paras began to move further afield. There was a sewage farm that neighboured the airfield, and this was secured by a platoon, with support from one of the six M40 105mm recoilless rifles the battalion’s anti-tank platoon was armed with. Of note was it demolishing a house which contained an enemy observation point that was directing mortar fire onto the airfield.

Looking out across the cemetery

Beyond the sewage farm was the biggest threat. There was a cemetery, which held a large enemy force of infantry, who also had support from a 6-pounder, a number of medium mortars, a pair of 3.7-inch AA guns and most critically of all, three SU-100 tank destroyers. One company was sent to hold the flank with the sewage farm, while a second pushed through the farm to the cemetery. Although the company sent forward reached the cemetery, they were running low on ammunition and pulled back for the evening.  

A captured Egyptian 3.7-inch gun

The following morning the Egyptians launched an air strike with a single MIG. This caused a single lightly wounded Para, who had the bad luck to be hit by one of the spent cases falling from the plane as it flew overhead firing. The assault was launched on the cemetery, but it was found to be abandoned. The 3.7-inch guns were subsequently listed as captured, as were the three SU-100’s. However, it is said in some secondary sources that one of the SU-100’s was knocked out in combat by the Paras. 

One of the SU-100's captured by the Para's.

Shortly afterward the Paratroopers were relieved by the Royal Marines who stormed ashore on the 6th, and were loaded onboard a ship and returned to Cyprus. The Paras had suffered four killed, 29 wounded and four lightly wounded so they stayed in action. As well as they aforementioned pieces of equipment, they had also captured seven medium machine guns, four mortars and a pair of Universal Carriers.



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