The day of the parashot

A few days after Xmas, I felt like I should be getting back into reading something thesis-related, but at the same time I still felt like I was still in holiday mode. So I compromised and read something on topic, but a bit lighter than my usual academic fare, namely Waiting for Hitler: Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion by Midge Gillies (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007). The name suggests that it's along the lines of the 'forgotten voices' type of book that seem to be everywhere lately, but I couldn't say because I haven't actually read any of them. While it's certainly heavy on quoting 'ordinary' people (Mass-Observation diarists, Dunkirk veterans, internees) and, I'm sure, doesn't break any new historiographical ground, it's based on a lot of research, is well-written, and easily moves between the big picture and the small one. I learned a lot about a topic I don't know much about, namely the British home front from the start of the Norwegian campaign in April 1940, to the start of the Blitz in September. It's easy for me to focus too much on the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, but in some ways the period leading up to them is more interesting, because people didn't know what was going to happen next and that's often when fears come out to play.

One of the aspects of Waiting for Hitler I appreciated was Gillies' attention to rumours and panics as an index of the insecurity of the British people as they prepared for a possible German invasion. These are fascinating. For example, the slit trenches being dug in Hyde Park were said to be for mass burials in the aftermath of air raids, not protection from bombs. Troops practicing machine-gunning a buoy in a Cornish harbour turned into the accidental death of a boy by machine-gun fire the next day, and then the massacre of dozens of children on the beach the next, strafed by German aeroplanes. Rumours turned the deputy Labour leader Arthur Greenwood into a traitor locked in the Tower, and pencils and chocolates into the poisoned weapons of fifth columnists. In Southampton, the smell from a pickling plant was responsible for a minor panic, when somebody thought it might be poison gas:

ARP wardens paraded in gas masks, while hairdressers slammed their windows and told customers to keep their heads in washbasins.1

It may sound silly, but it wasn't really, because the government's ARP literature warned people to be wary of strange smells as possible evidence of a gas attack.

Stories abounded of new German weapons. For example:

there were tales of German experiments with a cobweb-like material that they had tested over France in 1939. The substance, which they released in large white balloon-like capsules, had covered several square kilometres and clung to people's hands and faces. In another version it was reported that the substance had appeared over Britain, but it turned out that this was gossamer produced by spiders mating in mid-air.2

Most of these weapons didn't exist, but the rumours helped explain to those who passed them on why so many armies were crumbling so quickly before the German onslaught. One of the weapons was quite real, however: the paratrooper.

German paratroopers had featured in the invasion of Denmark and Norway, where they were used to secure airfields as forward Luftwaffe bases or to land occupation forces. Airborne units were also used to capture key fortifications and bridges in Holland and Belgium (in particular, the state-of-the-art Fort Eben-Emael). These spectacular operations seemed to provide a crucial part of the explanation for the stunning success of the German army's blitzkrieg, and naturally the thought arose -- no doubt helped along by the extensive press coverage -- that paratroopers might next fall on Britain. This was particularly worrying because much of the army was in France with the British Expeditionary Force.

Hence the invention of the 'parashot', one of the crop of new war words. A parashot was simply somebody standing guard in a field or somewhere all night, with a weapon such as a shotgun, waiting for a parachutist to come down. Some parashots took up the task spontaneously, but most joined the Local Defence Volunteers, later renamed the Home Guard. What I didn't realise was that the LDV was announced as early as 14 May, just 4 days after the start of the German offensive in the West. Somehow, I had it in my head that it was a post-Dunkirk affair, only a few weeks later, which would make sense: the BEF had survived, but only just; it had lost all of its equipment; the French had surrendered (or were soon about to). Invasion seemed probable and there was little to stand in the Germans' way. On 14 May, however, the Allied forces, though shocked by the speed of the German advance, were still intact; the BEF wasn't yet in retreat. For anyone who remembered the miracle on the Marne in 1914 (ie, all of the senior military and political leaders), to start planning for defeat might have seemed premature. It seems clear that the new menace of the paratrooper helps explain the new zeal for an army of part-timers, schemes for which had been kicked around Whitehall since early in the war. In his BBC broadcast calling for volunteers for the LDV, Anthony Eden, the newly installed Secretary of State for War, opened by discussing at length the new danger:

I want to speak to you to-night about the form of warfare which the Germans have been employing so extensively against Holland and Belgium -- namely, the dropping of troops by parachute behind the main defensive lines.3

He then explained the way in which such parachute raids would be carried out:

The troops arrive by aeroplane -- but let it be remembered that any such aeroplane seeking to penetrate here would have to do so in the teeth of the anti-aircraft defences of this country. If such penetration is effected, the parachutists are then dropped, it may be by day, it may be by night. These troops are specially armed, equipped, and some of them have undergone specialised training. Their function is to seize important points, such as aerodromes, power stations, villages, railway junctions and telephone exchanges, either for the purpose of destroying them at once, or of holding them until the arrival of reinforcements. The purpose of the parachute attack is to disorganise and confuse, as a preparation for the landing of troops by aircraft.4

As well as activities of the contemporary fifth column across the Channel, this strongly resembles the supposed plans of the secret army of German tourists or immigrants so characteristic of the invasion scare novels before 1914, but I'll let that pass. Eden assured his listeners that plans had been made against to defend against such an attack, however just to be on the safe side ...

We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of 17 and 65, to come forward now and offer their service in order to make assurance doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the "Local Defence Volunteers". This name, Local Defence Volunteers, describes its duties in three words.5

That the government would feel it necessary to call for (it hoped) 150,000 or so volunteers for a second-string army shows how unnerved it was by the blitzkrieg. That 750,000 men would in fact volunteer within the first month shows how unnerved they were. There's lots of anecdotal evidence to support this, particularly near the south and east coasts -- golfers seem to have been particularly concerned that their greens might be perfect landing grounds for gliders, though perhaps this was because an invasion would interrupt their game! Rumours, urban legends practically, of spies parachuting into the country and traveling about disguised as nuns were rife (the give-away was supposedly their hairy arms).

And, on at least one occasion, paratroopers were actually seen floating from the sky:

The concept of the German storm-trooper descending from the sky was so vividly etched on people's imaginations that it led to a nationwide optical illusion on the stormy Thursday following the invasion of Holland [16 May]. Such was the hysteria about aerial attack that several people mistook silver barrage balloons lit up by flashes of lightning for parachutists. The sightings gained credibility because the Evening Standard had reported that some Germans wore sky-blue uniforms and used transparent parachutes that allowed them to drift to earth invisibly.6

Unfortunately, Gillies doesn't give any references for this, and the extent of the sightings is unclear.7 But such a panic fits perfectly into the precedent set by the phantom airships three decades earlier: people are told that strange new enemies are coming by air; they scan the sky anxiously, paying closer attention to it than they normally would; they then see something unfamiliar or under unusual conditions and assume it's the terrible new weapon they've been warned about.8 And it's an air panic too, even if it doesn't involve Zeppelins or bombers.

So it looks like I've got yet more material to try and cram into my thesis somehow. Bigger is better, right?


  1. Gillies, Waiting for Hitler, 159. 

  2. Ibid., 160. 

  3. The Times, 15 May 1940, p. 3. The full text is online

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Gillies, Waiting for Hitler, 60. 

  7. It's 'a nationwide optical illusion', yet only involves 'several people'. James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the Second World War (Stroud: Sutton, 2003) has a chapter on the paratrooper panic and hairy nuns, but doesn't appear to mention this particular incident. 

  8. It's true that the phantom airships in 1909 and 1912-3 were seen in peacetime. I would argue that, coming off the back the intense Anglo-German naval rivalry, the spy mania, the invasion novels and all the rest of it, some people felt virtually under siege by Germany already. There's a degree of circularity in that argument -- but I think the loop is broken by the fact that non-existent airships were seen during the First World War itself. 

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16 thoughts on “The day of the parashot

  1. Chris Williams

    Have you read Gilbert's edition of Churchill's papers? I read all the May-July 1940 ones when I was looking into the background for that Mers el Kebir radio show. WSC was also a bit loopy that summer - he kept on pestering Ironside to create special units of soldiers in cars with machine-guns and grenades, called in Churchillian fashion 'Leopards', who would be able to turn up quick.

    There's also a revealing exchange WRT the LDV, when GHQ point out that being ununiformed, they are likely to be shot as spies if caught, the knock-on effect of this would be to make it hard or impossible for them or even regular troops to surrender. Churchill's reply was that if it came to that, he didn't really care about their ability to surrender easily, nor did he care about the Hague Conventions. He was ready to go down fighting - the phrase 'choke on our own blood' appears more than twice.

    Angels of Mons? Snow on their boots? By 1939 the atrocity story - even the true ones - had been discredited. But the wild rumours, on the other hand, seemed to emerge in 1939 where they'd left off in 1914.

  2. Have you read Glyn Prysor, ‘The 'Fifth Column' and the British Experience of Retreat, 1940’, War In History, 12 (2005), pp. 418-447? There's a lot in that about how rumours and panic about paratroopers and Fifth Columnists undermined the morale of the BEF.

    You could also argue that it's surprising that the LDV was set up so late, as the war had already been on for a while, and the idea of a home defence force had precedents in WWI. On the other hand maybe it isn't, because in peacetime it was expected that home defence would be left to the Territorials, but in both world wars they ended up being sent overseas along with the regulars.

  3. Post author

    Chris:

    No, I haven't, not lately anyway. It all sounds very Churchill. But I did come across a letter signed by Churchill (as Air Minister) at LHCMA. Not at all relevant to anything, but it made me think 'cool!'

    I previously thought that the rumours and myths of the Second World War couldn't match those of the First for variety or number. I'm starting to revise that opinion ...

    Gavin:

    I think I did see that when it came out. Sounds like fun. One thing I notice from Hayward's book is that the Army at home thought there were fifth columnists active in Britain -- evidence of sabotage and secret signaling to enemy aircraft, that sort of thing. Once the belief is held, all sorts of information is assimilated to it as confirmation, even mundane things which wouldn't raise an eyebrow outside of a war. The francs tireurs belief of the German armies invading Belgium in 1914 led to something similar.

    Browsing through S. P. Mackenzie's The Home Guard (on Google Books, is that cheating?), there were a number of similar schemes proposed as early as October 1939. But the Navy felt confident about its ability to deal with any invasion or raid so it was never felt necessary. There's a page missing in the Google Books preview which appears the decision itself, but the prospect of having to guard the huge number of potential targets behind the coast with regulars was clearly a strong motivation.

  4. (...tries desperately not to write post-length comment...)

    Did you know the only Battle of Britain VC was shot by a Home Guardsman with a shotgun after he'd bailed out of his stricken plane? You probably did. That is definitely one for the 'I thought my day was bad but...' list.

  5. Post author

    LOL, no I didn't know that! See, the system works.

    (…tries desperately not to write post-length comment…)

    Aw, come on, you know you want to ...

  6. Jakob

    Was that Tom Gleave? So as well as being hideously burned, he then was shot on top of that? Frankly, any medal is warranted after that...

  7. Well....
    For me, one of the crucial things that you highlight here is the importance of chronology in understanding reactions to the crises of 1940. You're absolutely right that it all tends to get bundled together into one big event, and it's important to unpackage that if we want to appreciate the mixture of fear, panic, desperation and resolution with which Britons responded. John Campbell's article ‘Facing the German Airborne Threat to the United Kingdom, 1939-1942’, War in History 4, 4 (1997), 411-433 is quite good on this I think - he points out that since the British didn't have much experience of airborne warfare, even the War Office found it quite hard to judge how serious any German threat was. Whilst they assessed, reasonably accurately, the problems that would face any paratroop landing (dispersion, lack of heavy weapons, the need for air superiority), they were more concerned by the use of glider and airlanding forces. These seemed able to land more concentrated forces with less warning - and, it seemed, maybe even without that much specialist training. Here, I think, you can see the impact of the British intelligence failure over Scandinavia. The overestimation of German capabilities and planning took some time to get over.

  8. Post author

    Sorry, didn't mean to twist your arm, Dan! Well, actually I suppose I did -- I partly had your phoney war talk in mind when I wrote the post so I'm glad to have your thoughts. It's interesting that you say that the chronology usually isn't made clear enough. I actually wasn't sure if it was actually the way this period has been written about, or whether it's my fault as a reader. I mean I'm sure I must have come across sentences like 'On 14 May, Eden broadcast an appeal for volunteers ...' etc, and maybe it's just my usual focus on the air war and Sealion that made my eyes slide over it. Whichever, reading that section of Gillies' book was a real OMG! moment for me.

    Thanks for the Campbell reference. It's interesting that the WO was more worried about gliders and airlandings. I did get that impression from Gillies, actually, but it also seemed that the public fears were much more about paratroopers. I think they seemed more insidious somehow. Somewhat akin to 'enemy in our midst' spy fears from the pre-WWI period -- paratroopers could drop from the sky and land anywhere, even your own backyard! And if nobody saw them land then they could potentially pretend to be one of us and do god knows what mischief. Whereas gliders and airlanded troops by their nature would be used more like regular units, to concentrate and capture objectives by force. Of course paratroopers would have been used like that too, but I'm not sure that the public understanding went that far.

  9. The best thing about an insidious threat, of course, is that just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't there. And it's interesting to me how many wartime myths about German paratroopers are about them being disguised. I wonder if this is really about a fear of aerial assault, or a fear of the enemy within, or both? Time to watch my copy of Miss Grant Answers the Door and find out what to do if the foe appears!

  10. Chris Williams

    Spoiler alert for 'Miss Grant Goes To The Door'

    Sohot him wtih the ptisol you jsut took from the bdoy of a daed Gemarn ariamn. If none to hand, adopt plan b.

  11. Chris Williams

    Hey, I bunged in loads of anti-spoiler lines just then but the clever software deleted them all. Soz.

  12. Post author

    Dan:

    I think it could well be both -- I'm reminded (as ever) of the phantom airships. The 1909 scare was more about fear of being spied upon than the fear of being bombed; the 1913 one was the other way around. But fears are slippery things and no doubt slipped from one to the other very easily.

    Chris:

    You're forgiven, I'll have forgotten the spoiler by the time I get to see it, if ever.

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  14. john thurston

    Ref Parashots. I am at present transcribing my fathers diaries which date 1932 to 1954 (& beyond) they cover most of his service in the Metropolitan police as Pc & then Ps. The entry 1st June 1940 reads :- YC Sec. 2pm,
    ( ie, Cheshunt Police Station, late turn 2pm). issued 42 Canadian Ross rifles & uniforms to YC Parashots. still evacuating troops from Flanders, very good & brave work.
    There are many comments regarding the war, both to do with his work and
    family. As a child under 3, I can still remember him making mock up rifles in the shed from old floorboards & broom handles, helped by me sanding them down. These were apparently used to train in drill those to be issued weapons.
    I hope you find this interesting although rather late for your thesis.
    John.

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