78 years ago today on August 15th 1944, the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion jumped into southern France as part of Operation Dragoon (Operation Rugby for the Airborne component). The operation was a to supplement the Normandy invasion. Originally planned to coincide with Normandy, then cancelled due to a lack of resources to support both operations. As the ports and mulberry harbors began to clog in the north the plan was reconsidered and eventually launched in August.
Since the only other complete Airborne divisions were already engaged in Operation Overlord, Units destined for the 17th and those that had not yet been assigned to a division were gathered together into the First Airborne Task Force. The job of the task force was to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the landing beaches. While not the most famous unit it included some famous names such as William Yarborough and the First Special Service Force.
That’s probably enough history, go read the links to get a better grasp of the operation. Now lets get to the gear.
The uniform was the M1942 Parachutist or jump uniform. Most of the web gear was the fairly standard mix of M1936. There were riggers pouches for the M1 Garand enblocs but the majority of web gear seems to have been standard M1923 cartridge belts from the photos. Most if not all the M1936 suspenders the troopers wore seem to have been reinforced. If you look closely you can see the extra webbing behind the D rings. The M1943 folding shovel looks to have been the more common but the M1910 T-handle was still seen. Occasionally M1A1 training gasmask bags or Thompson drum mag pouches are seen being used to carry extra ammo. Another interesting tid bit is that this is one of the only units that I’ve seen that had their trench/fighting knives attached to their suspenders.
In contrast to previous operations all units in the First Airborne Task Force applied copious amounts of camouflage to their uniforms (I’m not sure about the British regiment though). This was at the direction of Major General Robert T Frederick, the former commander of the First Special Service Force.
**A quick side note before I go any further, I leaned heavily on the Foxhole Fashion post about this unit so I STRONGLY encourage you to go read his article as he did some fantastic work and research.**
**M1 Pencil also helped me a lot too. I went over the camo color’s and styles with him and he helped me dial it in. So he’s another one I leaned on and STRONGLY encourage you to go poke around.**
The camouflage was a mix of aircraft paint sprayed directly onto the paratroopers. A box was placed over their heads and the paint sprayed over them and their gear. The first color was interior zinc chromate green in large swaths then exterior black paint in tighter lines.
Unique to the 551st was their use of a palm tree painted on their helmets as a unit symbol, reminiscent of their long time in Panama before heading to Europe. Most seem Seem to be using 2″ square netting but some have the so call “spider net on there as well. After the jump some even use pieces of parachute silk as helmet covers.
Below this trooper is using a Thompson magazine bag and regular M1 Carbine pouches. This is a good shot of a “spider net” and palm tree as well.
Another item unique to the 551st are the rigger pouches for the M1 Garand enblocs. They 5 enblocs in individual pockets with a single flap. Check out Foxhole Fashion’s post for a detailed look at them. There was also a 5 cell/pock rigger pouch for 20 round Thompson magazines as well. While both are very cool pouches and unique I didn’t see too many in photos. Most equipment was standard issue.
Another modification that I noticed in photos was the use of reinforced M1936 suspenders. While the 82nd/101st in Normandy are seen using the felt pads on their suspenders the 551st had extra webbing sewn to theirs. While not as cushy as felt it is a lot more practical as the felt tends to move around a lot.
One thing that I was a little surprised at were the number of Service Boots or “Double Buckle” boots in use. The ubiquitous Jump boot is the most commonly seen but the double buckle is definitely there in substantial numbers.
It’s is unclear when this picture was taken. I believe is would be later on after they moved up into the Maritime Alps but it is a pretty cool gear set up so I included it. He has his carbine pouches on his suspenders as well as his knife. Surprisingly Joerg has on an HBT jacket instead of the regular Paratrooper jacket.
Stay tuned as the next post will reach unheard of levels of nerd-dom.
Some of the sources I used. There were also a pair of facebook groups I found that had a lot of these photos.
Nice write up and equipment set up.
What was done to the 551st at the Bulge and after was criminal.
Sorry, for some reason your comment only now popped up for me.
Thanks, and yeah it was a real shame how they just got effectively erased and then what few records they did have tossed. Granted that is mostly do to the fact they were a small unit without some of the dedicated resources of a larger unit to keep records.
I have had several comments here disappear into the ether and never get posted. This is the first one that has showed up almost two weeks later.
I think it was personal on the behalf of Ridgeway and Gavin.
All of the separate Airborne units were disbanded at the same time to use as replacements for the other divisions. All of them were allowed to go back to Mourmelon to close out their records correctly, except the 551st. The surviving battalion officers requested to be able to do so but were told they couldn’t be spared.
I believe that it was done on purpose.
Nice write up. I would suggest you find a copy of Michel De Trez’s First Airborne Task Force, as it has some amazing photos in it that detail the gear, but it’s a hard book to find and pretty expensive these days. And I love that you found the youtube vids of the camo process. There are also a handful of books that were written about the 551st, although I’m drawing a blank on the titles/authors. Another good one, if you can find it is “Paratroopers Odyssey” although I think that was more about the 517th, if i recall correctly.
As for the rigger made pouches, there was a guy (10+ years ago) that made a bunch of reproductions of rigger made items. Wish i would have gotten a set or two of these when I was still reenacting. In all my time looking, I’ve only ever come across ONE rigger made pouch, and it appeared to be the 101st/82nd D-Day type of pouch. 11th AB riggers also made some other items that weren’t standard issue, but similar to Operation Dragoon rigger made pouches.
Double buckle boots started to see more use in late 44/early 45. Quite a few 101st guys had DBB when sent to Bastogne, but again, If i recall correctly, were mostly issued to the glider riders.
I’d love copy of Trez’s book but like you said they are hard to find and when found cost a pretty penny. I was real tempted to buy some rigger pouches (found a guy online making them) but didn’t want to drop sizeable money on something I likely would not use ever again.
The whole endeavor started off as a poll with the IG followers to pick a unit outside of the regular 82nd/101st to do a project on.
We did something similar with my unit as there was an over-representation of the 101/82 at most events. We still did those impressions at some of the bigger events, but smaller ones, we would do 509 in North Africa, 551/517 in So. France, and 503/11th AB in the pacific. It was fun and we met a number of Vets that were in those units that would be surprised that we weren’t all 101 or 82. But that was back when those guys still around in significant numbers, may they rest in peace.