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When is a Para not a Para?

You can earn a maroon beret but still not be in the Parachute Regiment! Confused? Let us explain.

Some people don’t realise that just because a soldier wears the legendary maroon beret of the airborne forces it doesn’t actually mean he’s a Para.

In the British Army you don’t have to be in the Parachute Regiment to wear the famous red beret, you just need to be serving in an airborne unit, of which there are more than just The Parachute Regiment. But, just having a maroon beret, affectionately referred to as the ‘Maroon Machine’, doesn’t mean you are a parachutist either. For that you will need to have first passed the physically and mentally challenging Pre-Parachute Selection Course, better known as P Company, consisting of 8 tough tests over 7 days.

Only after passing this course will you be eligible for the parachutists course. In order to gain your ‘wings’ you must complete the Basic Parachute Course held by No 1 Parachute Training School at RAF Brize Norton. For a combat role unit, such as The Parachute Regiment, you are required to carry out 6 parachute descents from an aircraft at 1000 feet with a full equipment load, including 1 at night. Other units with a limited combat role are required to conduct 4 descents including 1 at night. Once qualified most parachute jumps will be from 600 feet, day or night, but on operations this can be as low as 250 feet. 

In the Second World War, the course was held at RAF Ringway and soldiers had to first jump out of a barrage balloon and then complete 5 jumps from an aircraft. Training locations and the number of jumps required have changed over the years and the ‘Balloon Jump’ was phased out in the late 1990’s. 

So, once you have been assigned to an airborne unit, are wearing the ‘Maroon Machine’, have passed P Coy, completed parachute jump training (so have your wings) are you then finally considered a Para? The simple answer is still NO.

Some other regiments in the British Army require their soldiers to undergo this training so that they can perform their unique roles as part of an airborne force. For example, 23 Parachute Engineer Regiment is an airborne unit of the Royal Engineers and, as part of 16 Air Assault Brigade Combat Team, they are capable of operating alongside the Parachute Regiment. Whilst they wear a maroon beret, have passed P Company, have completed their wings course and are therefore part of the airborne forces, they are still considered Engineers and not Para’s. 

So how on earth can you tell who is a Para and who isn’t? The easiest way to tell is to look closely at the badge on their beret. Without the famous Parachute Regiment cap badge you are, technically, not a Para. For some we are talking semantics here, but not for people serving with the famed unit. If you ask a soldier from the Parachute Regiment, what is a ‘true’ Para, they will likely explain it is someone who joined the Parachute Regiment on day one, completed the Combat Infantryman Course at the Parachute Regiment Depot, (or the officer course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst), passed P Company, completed their wings course, and, most importantly, wears the coveted Parachute Regiment cap badge.

King Charles III is the Colonel-In-Chief of the Parachute Regiment and has been since 1977. He completed officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and, at his own request, attended and passed the Basic Parachute Course when he was 23 years old. He did this as he believed he could not look the soldiers in the eye, or wear the maroon beret, unless he completed the course. Whilst he wears the maroon beret, the Parachute Regiment cap badge, the parachutist wings and is considered to be an Airborne King, he was perhaps understandably, exempt from doing P Company so, technically, even he is not truly a Para! 

The cap badge shown below is the newest cap badge of the Parachute Regiment and is only slightly different to the previous one. The Queens Crown has been replaced with the Kings Crown to reflect the change of Monarch. 

The first episode of Season 2 podcast Amazing War Stories is called The Demolition Men of D-Day and features a team of Parachute Engineers who have dropped behind enemy lines on D-day to blow up some key bridges. Listen to their mission here:

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