The Lost Parachute Tower
The parachute tower of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa) who were based at Largo House, Upper Largo, Fife, is shrouded in mystery and lore. As members of the brigade died off, the location of the tower got lost and forgotten (and even "re-located" to a place it had never existed).
75 years later I found the location and base of the tower after 3 days hard searching.
Location Of The Parachute Tower
It is widely reported (mainly on the internet) that the parachute training tower for The 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa) was at Largo House in Upper Largo, Fife, Scotland. This is simply not true!
I spent more hours than I would admit trying to locate where the tower used to be located. I'm going to tell you the towers location now, but please read the detail further below before you visit it.
Top Secret - The Towers Actual Location!
The parachute tower that The 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa) trained at was located beside Lundie Tower, Pilmuir Road, Lundin Links, Fife. this is roughly 2 miles away from Largo House, Fife. I would love to know why it was sited there, any clues?
Due to the location of the tower base, it's possible that you may be trespassing on a farmers field in order to see the tower base. I will leave the matter with you, but be warned, the residents at the nearby house may not take to kindly to you being there..
When Was The Parachute Tower Built?
According to the date of this photo (23 Sept 1941), the parachute training tower already existed: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205302626
If the tower existed before formal formation of the parachute brigade, It's a fair assumption that the parachute training tower was built initially for the 4th Polish Cadre Rifle Brigade. This indicates that even before the Brigade changed its name to a "parachute" brigade, there were already plans in place to have parachute trained polish soldiers.
Parachute Tower Design
A parachute tower (that looked a lot like a crane) was built in 1941 by the Chief Command Staff, besides Lundin Tower in Lundin Links, on the Pilmuir Road side of Lundin Tower. The tower cost £500 to build and was 100 feet high (Some reports say 75 ft, maybe the head of the arm was 25ft high, meaning the jump was from 75ft but the actual height of the crane was 100ft?). It's purpose was to simulate parachute descent.
Some say the parachute training tower of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa) was built to Polish engineer Iwanowski's specification. Other statements confirm that the design of the tower was then copied back in Poland.
Either way, history supports the fact that subsequent parachute towers in both the UK and the USA followed the specification of the "Largo House" parachute tower.
Using The Parachute Tower
After climbing the ladders to the top (exhausting!) you would be fitted into a harness and then hung under a parachute that was attached by cable to the arm of the tower. A button was pressed and the steel cable would run out, but there would be no sensation of falling. The big balloon parachute on the training tower was fondly called "Dumbo" by the poles, presumably with reference to the ears on Dumbo the Elephant.
At points in the descent the instructor would stop the cable and using a megaphone would relay instructions to you.
Military observers were astounded at the low altitude of the drop, the parachutists making contact with the ground in less than one minute. Of course, that was not without consequence, many trainees on the parachute tower broke their legs or injured their knees as a consequence of not getting the landing right.
Many of the ideas produced at this site were then copied and used at RAF Ringway.
The Poles Background In Parachuting
Before 1939 in Poland, parachute training already existed. It was introduced by Liga Obrony Powietrznej i Przeciwgazowej in multiple locations within Poland. Historical records show that in 1937 Liga Obrony Powietrznej i Przeciwgazowej put on an event that had well over 100,000 spectators who came to watch the parachutists descend.
Initially, it was regarded as a popular Polish sport but in 1936 it was catching the eye of the Polish military who were seeing the tactical possibilities and had already commenced a physical training program for parachuting. At that point Parachute descent towers were designed so that the recruits could learn how to descend and land.
By 1937 the polish military had developed parachute courses covering physical training, descent, overcoming fear, developing courage and of course completing military missions. The following year a test exercise was done and Polish parachutists managed to land in enemy territory carrying out subversive acts by destroying power installations, travel networks and communications.
So efficient were these recruits that by spring 1939 a PTC (Parachute Training Center) or as it is known in Polish "Wojskowy Osrodek Spadochronowy" ("WOS" for short) had been established at Bydgoszcz. Initially, a mere 80 recruits went through the course.
However, upon the Germans invading west Poland in Sept 1939, the PTC ended up getting abandoned and parachute training as such ended in Poland. Some of the recruits headed west to fight in France, which coincidentally is where General Sikorski was starting to form a Polish Army.
General Sikorski now had a problem. He needed his troops in France and the ones in Poland to be in constant contact with each other and himself. Sending a messenger overland was not an option, so he happened upon the idea of using parachutists to deliver messages. So around November 1939 onwards he decided to carry this out, however obtaining aircraft to carry this out was proving impossible. The France collapsed and Sikorski ended up having to evacuate the Polish Army as well as the Polish Government to the UK.
Meantime, in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Churchill ordered the British Army to start training parachutists. It was at this point he formed the SOE (Special Operations Executive). The one decision coupled with the other then allowed for parachute training of Polish soldiers (formerly exiled in the USSR) to commence.
The objectives of the Polish parachutists were:
- To organise and train parachutists for land combat in Poland (i.e the Warsaw Uprising)
- To ensure continuity of communications and assist A.K (Armia Krakowa) i.e "The Polish Underground"
You can read more about what was going on in this time period here.
Although General Sosabowski is widely regarded as being the founder of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade, this is up for question as on 14 October 1940 General Sikorski proposed "to prepare as large a part as possible of the Polish Army for the possibility of being transported by air to Poland to give direct support and protection to the Polish uprising".
It looks likely that General Sosabowski was merely acting on Sikorski's instructions and vision, however it is notable that on 4 October 1940, prior to Sikorski's announcement above, Geneal Sosabowski ordered "In connection with planned parachute training courses for soldiers of the Polish army in England, please supply a list of candidates for such courses, both officers and other ranks, by the 8th instant 12:00 hours" - It was at this point the call went out to the Polish soldiers in transit in the Middle East for Polish recruits.
General Sosabowski then recruited 2 of the instructors from the Polish Parachute tower in Bydgoszcz who by now were instructors at RAF Ringway. These 2 instructors (Leuitenant Jerzy Gorecki and Leuitenant Julian Gebolys). A group of trained parachutists from RAF Ringway were then sent on a mission by Sosabowski, however the mission failed and the plane crashed. It was at this point that the story in Fife takes up with the 4th Rifle Cadre Broigade (stationed at Largo House) being sent down to RAF Ringway for training. So, to cap, General Sosabowski had already had involvement with parachute training and parachutist missions from RAF Ringway, all this happened prior to him coming up to Fife (A fact no in many history books).
It would appear that the first parachute training tower in the UK was the one at Lundin Links, Fife. Later on, another one was built at RAF Ringway. If my interpretation of facts is correct, this means the first recruits at RAF Ringway (circa 1940) did not have a tower to practice from so must have used other methods. History books then state that what was learned on building the towers was then taken back to Poland, however I beg to differ as there is no evidence of this.
Live Parachute Jumps
Some accounts say that actual parachute jumps were done by the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa) only in Ringway.
However, photos exists showing the parachute jumps being done over Kincraig Point, Elie on Sundays (i.e these photos are not the initial exercise that was done at Kincraig Point, but rather routine jumps done weekly)
Physical training as such ceased at circa Ringway circa 1941 and was instead carried out at Largo House in preparation of the actual jump.
Every member of the Brigade was a weapons encyclopedia and would know allied and enemy heavy artillery and weapons.
He was also a trained engineer for destruction purposes and was able to use all types of armoured vehicles. He would also be a perfect map reader and trained in Commando tactics.
How Much Was A Parachutist Paid?
Perhaps, like me, you thought that the Polish troops were either volunteers or conscripts and that it was not paid work. Not so. An account from Rymazeski tells us that when the Polish Army was based in the Middle East the call went out for volunteers to join. He states that many joined "because the pay was better".
At that time (late 1941), parachute unit members in the UK British Army were receiving 4 shillings a day "danger money". General Sosabowski was well aware of this and so put in a request to General Sikorski (who was the Commander In Chief) to have similar pay for the members of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade.
Eventually, agreement was arrived at and the full pay became available for fully qualified parachutists who were combat ready. Those that were training though, received 2 shillings a day from the day that training commenced (pay was backdated as applicable). Upon passing and being combat ready they went up to the full amount of 8 shillings a day.
If the soldiers condition changed at any time i.e unable to parachute due to injury etc, then the pay was stopped. Similarly, if he no longer served in the parachute brigade then the pay was stopped on the day he left.
To ensure that the funds paid to the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade were used wisely, General Sosabowski had each parachutist undertake a full 7 hour physical assessment once per month along with a "field assessment" that lasted 2 hours.
As if this wasn't enough, once every quarter they also were re-assessed and did;
- A 3km march
- Ditch jumping (where the ditch was 2.5 meters wide)
- 6 jumps from a parachute tower (or 1 jump using the balloon or an aeroplane jump)
The parachutists were initially paid monthly in arrears (for officers) and every 10 days in arrears for all other ranks. In time, this was simplified to just one payment on the 11th each month.
Fund For Poles Fighting In Poland
Although the pay for being a parachutist with the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade was better than other posts in the army, the Polish men did not keep this to themselves.
Instead, they all contribute 20% of the pay to something called the "Fund For Poles Fighting In Poland". This money was used to provide necessary items to the Poles still fighting from inside Poland.
General Sosabowski initiated this when he issued a Special Order on 29th March 1943:
"I have ordered payment of the current and outstanding parachute supplement. I wish to state, on this occasion, that we did not join the parachute brigade and go through all the necessary training for the purpose of this supplement.
In fact, most of us completed the training before there was a possibility of getting this supplement."
In total, this fund raised over £5500 in donations from the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade.
Accommodation Of Trainee Parachuters
Over 5500 troops (made up of Poles, members of the Norwegian Independent Parachute Company, French, Dutch, Belgian, Czech and British troops) went through training at Largo House in Upper Largo, Fife. Only 2613 of them belonged to the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade (1 Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa).
Where did they all stay?
There were Nissen huts to the east and also rear of Largo House. One of these Nissen huts at the rear was a kitchen for the troops.
Officers were billeted (assigned temporary accomodation) with families in the villages (predominantly Elie and also parts of Leven) whilst the men were billeted in large houses such as Beach Hotel, Marine Hotel, Queens Hotel, Golf Hotel, Earlshall, The Marn and Earlsferry House. We have seen accounts of the men even staying in Leslie, Fife.
No photo's have yet been obtained of the Nissen huts. If you know of any, please let us know!
How A Dead Artists Drawing Gave Me A Clue
Sorry for the clickbait title! - Like everyone, I believed the parachute tower to be at Largo House and so I went around Largo House grounds looking for evidence of it. Coming home empty-handed and despondent I made it my mission to nail it's location, here is the story of how with help from a friend I located it ...
A Clue - A Tower - But Where?
There are only around 5 pictures on the internet of the parachute tower. All of them mention "Largo House". None of them have any landmarks in the background making identification of the site impossible.
Then I came across this artists sketch.
I know artists take artistic interpretations on things, so was sceptical of the tower in the background, believing (wrongly) that the parachute tower was in the grounds of Largo House and that the artist had just added artistic licence to the picture by including a historic tower.
Can you guess what I did next?
The Picture That Started It All
Getting Warm - Naming That Historic Tower
Driving Without Noticing
I live just a few miles away from Largo House and have done so for around 40 years. The roads around Largo House are fairly familiar to me as are landmarks, yet, this tower in the above picture, I just could not place it.
So good old Google came to the rescue. I think I typed in something like "Historic tower Largo". A minutes browsing of Google images and I located the picture opposite.
Bingo! The un-identified historic tower was apparently "Lundie Tower" (Lundin Tower).
Another quick google and I had its approximate address: Pilmuir Road, Lundin Links, Fife, Scotland.
Now, this address is around 3 miles away from Largo House, so all descriptions of the parachute tower being at Largo House were definitely wrong!
Do you know how many times I drove past Lundie Tower and never even noticed its existence? If I had, then finding the parachute tower would have happened a lot quicker. A well, lesson learned, be more observant of scenery when driving!
The Postcard That Gave Me A Clue
This Is All We Had To Work With On Locating The Exact Base Of The Parachute Tower
This is where I think I took leave of my senses trying to trace that parachute tower! Total obsession overwhelmed me, I HAD to find that parachute tower location after all that was where MY GRANDAD trained...To find the tower, in some strange sense, would be to get closer to the grandfather that I barely knew..
The pictures below formed part of the investigation I did with a colleague in trying to establish the exact geo-location of the parachute tower base. We must have spent 50 hours and 1000 swapped messages online discussing these picture lol.
Let's look at the few well-known pictures online and appreciate what few clues we had to work on when trying to locate the tower.
The only possible clue in this picture is the chimney pot between the 2 chaps on the right. As there are plenty of chimney pots in Fife I didn't think this picture would get us very far....or would it??? Keep reading below to find out how that chimney pot helped us..
Note the wall in the lower right, the tree scape and the hill-line, Based on the prior picture, the person taking this photo was standing with their back to the building with the chimney pot on it.
I believe this photo to have been taken not at the Lundin Links parachute training tower but rather in the grounds of Largo House. The ground and trees are consistent with old images of Largo House circa 1930
A great photo but devoid of any landmarks to identify the locale. You get an idea of what I was up against in trying to locate that parachute tower!
Another rare photo of the parachute tower. Notice the position of the crane arm compared to the "Lundin Church" picture below.
The Parachute Tower 75 Years On - 1943 Versus 2017
Photo 3 was the killer photo that allowed us to understand where the parachute tower base was and how long the arm on it was. I've tried to re-create the angles the original pictures were shot from all the years ago. I do believe, based on elevation alone, that there was another platform of some description where most of the well-known pictures were taken from.
Original Photo 1
This sketch was drawn by Edward Bawden. He was a prominent war artist and because we know his movements in the war we can accurately say this was sketched in 1943
Recreated Photo 1
An attempt at recreating the angle of the artist sketch. Note the grass "square" that has grown over the concrete base of the parachute tower.
Original Photo 2
I believe the tree in far corner is not the same one you see in the recreated shot. I'm told thats a new tree, the old one was cut down.
Recreated Photo 2
7000 men trained here. All that remains of the parachute tower is the concrete base. Slight bit of concrete peeking through the grass on the right.
The PERFECT Reference Point - Lundin Tower Church
When we found this little church (seats about 12!) at Lundin Tower, we knew we had the perfect reference point. We now know the cranes arm point out towards the church and can accurately guess the length of the crane arm based on where the parachuters landed.
What an EXCITING moment it was when we matched up the original picture to the still standing church.
Note how the line of the hill has gotten higher and changed. I suppose with thousands of ploughings of the field, the landscape must change somewhat.
Original Photo 3
This is a video shot that lasts all of 3 seconds in some random YouTube video. It takes someone excited by the history of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade to recognise it for what it was. That was a very happy discovery for me!
Recreated Photo 3
What a stunning little (former) church this is! It's abandoned now, but very recognisable as the one from the original picture. Originally it seated about 12 people. It was then converted to a dovecote, even the birds have left it now.
Okay, so by this point we knew that the parachute tower was located by Lundie Tower and that the arm pointed towards the church in this picture. Between "Re-created photo 3" and that earlier picture featuring the chimney pot we were able to estimate the distance from the church to the base of the crane. This allowed us to look at satellite pictures of the local and start to zero down on the area to within a few feet. The satellite photos we viewed were taken when crops were in full growth making the grass base not too visible.
When we compare this photo to "Exhibit 5" it is immediately clear that the arm of the parachute tower rotated (possibly to adapt to wind etc?)
What a happy moment it was when I walked through the field towards the estimated location and ended up tripping over the base of the tower on the way.
A Rare Video Of The Parachute Tower & Malpy Gaj
This is the video that helped us nail the location of the base and the orientation of the tower arm. If you have not got time to view the entire video, start at 17:15 for shots of Largo House training, Malpy Gaj and training at the parachute tower.
I Even Told Google Where The Parachute Tower Was!
It was an exciting day today (17 Jan 2018) when I put a pin on Google maps thus making public the exact location of the base of the Polish Parachute Tower base. This pin I dedicate to my Grandfather, Wladyslaw Hoscik who trained there as well as the 7000 other men who trained. Their determination to overcome all odds and undergo massive amounts of physical duress is inspiring.
Surprisingly not often talked about is the gliders that were part of the training program.
At the back of The Golf Hotel in Elie, on the gold course, were a number of gliders that were towed into the sky from RAF Leuchars. The parachuters would then practice exiting from these over Kincraig point, particularly on a Sunday. Families would often go down to that area to watch the training.
Behind the school was the fuselage of a Whiteley bomber which was also used to practice exiting from the aircraft. Even after the war the fuselage remained and many photographs of people were taken there as it was considered a landmark.
Role At Arnheim
"In the run up to operation Market Garden", it became very apparent that there was a drastic shortage of air transport and as a consequence the mission of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade would be at stake.
To combat this, gliders were built with glider training taking place (including how to exit from a glider and parachute into combat). This training took place in North East Fife, mainly behind the Beach Hotel in Elie (The 2nd Battalion of The 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade were stationed at this hotel).
A Live Working Parachute Tower In Katowice Poland
And a Pretty Decent Tune Too!
At 0:20 you can see footage of the Katowice Parachute Tower (which is at the top of this page), this tower is near identical to the one that existed at Lundin Links, Fife, it also helps you understand what the parachuters went through as part of their training.
Commemorating The Parachute Tower Site
The parachute tower site beside Lundin Tower, Pilmuir Road, Lundin Links, Fife, Scotland is where around 7000 men trained. Your relative, my grandfather and others trained there. After years of oppression under Stalin, they came to the UK, To Largo House, they faced their fears, endured massive physical pain in training and even serious injury. To have a relative with this type of stamina has to be remembered.
Currently, the concrete base is overgrown, forgotten, lost even. Yet it endures nonetheless and will still be here in 500 years, perhaps totally forgotten. This is part of your history, it deserves to be recognised as a landmark.
I believe this site deserves better. It deserves to be recognised as the site where 7000 young men, previously deported to the USSR & malnourished, underwent extreme physical training to fight for what they believe in. War is awful, achieves little and should never be commemorated. But we have to acknowledge the efforts these men made, the pain they endured, the fear they conquered.
Following a meeting in January 2018 with Provost Jim Leishman and local councillors in Fife, the matter is currently being investigated and discussed. Watch this space!
This site, the parachute base, deserves better. It is the legacy of thousands of families throughout the world.