As the son of an Army officer and the 5th generation of his family to be officers in the British Army it was natural that John Waddy was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, then a school primarily for the sons of Army officers. From there he was sent as a cadet at the RMC Sandhurst (at that time they were referred to as Gentleman Cadets - GCs!)
In July 1939 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry – his family’s Regiment. After a 2 month spell with 1st KSLI in the UK he was posted to the 1st Bn Somerset LI, then serving in India. He left the UK on 3rd September on the first convoy of the war, via the Mediterranean and Suez Canal, to Bombay. The first job on board paint the ship an Atlantic liner grey. He arrived at Multan in the Punjab as the battalion moved up from Poona, and found its reputation as the hottest station in the British Empire well founded! The battalion (commanded by the future Field Marshall Harding) was a frontier reserve battalion. He went twice to the North West Frontier for training. After nearly 2 years of soldiering in the Raj (little had changed since the days of Kipling) and after attending the usual young officers’ courses of instruction around India, it was obvious that he was going to get stuck in this rut for the rest of the war.
The chance came in August 1941 with a call for volunteers to form a British Parachute Battalion together with an Indian and a Gurkha Battalion. Understandably, 15 officers and 350 men of the Somerset battalion volunteered. Two officers and 80 men were selected and John was one of them! After an intelligence course at Karachi he was ordered to join the 151 Parachute Battalion then forming in Delhi in October/ November 1941 as the battalion Intelligence Officer.
The Indian Air Landing School (ALS) had just been set up at Delhi with rudimentary equipment, only 14 chutes and 2 or 3 ancient Vickers Valencias, an ugly biplane bomber. He completed his parachute course at the ALS and gained his wings on 6th December 1941 (Pearl Harbour Day). Parachuting was a bit primitive in India at the time; not long after qualifying on the very first para exercise near Meerut one man was killed and John was injured and in a coma for 3 days. Due to the inadequate equipment, with few aircraft (some had been taken to evacuate civilians from Burma) the rate of parachutists training was slow. This caused some loss of morale and discipline in the battalion although as infantry the battalion was well trained. Later in ’42 more chutes and some aircraft came, and parachuting was stepped up but with inadequate parachute courses, Indian manufactured chutes and indifferent packing there were a number of parachute fatalities. A stick of 8 officers had to give a demonstration jump to show that it was still safe!
Eventually the battalion was sent to the Middle East in Oct ’42 as the nucleus of the 4th Parachute Brigade, to be formed in Egypt, for operations in Greece and the Balkans. One ME Parachute School at Kabrit was also rudimentary but with a few more aircraft – Wellington, Hudson and a C53. A whole battalion was refreshed and converted to these aircraft during December 1942.
John was briefly adjutant of the now renumbered 156 Parachute Battalion. The change in number for reasons of Intelligence cover plans, but he soon became Brigade Intelligence Officer of the forming HQ 4th Parachute Brigade under Brigadier Shan Hackett, first in Egypt and then in Palestine with 156 Battalion and the new 10th and 11th Battalions.
156 Battalion had to find officers and NCOs to help start the 11th Battalion. Also as the MELF had more lenient standards for overseas service, the 156th lost some 150 Warrant Officers, NCOs and men with long overseas service in India- some with 14 years service! This was a serious loss but reinforcements came in from units of the 8th Army.
Parachuting demonstrations for GHQ and for recruiting volunteers were carried out by the battalion. In February 1943 the Brigade moved to Palestine to secure battle training facilities with the help of an American C47 squadron from Texas. Many interesting parachute exercises were carried out in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Cyprus.
In June ’43 the Brigade less the 11th Battalion deployed first to Tripoli and then to Tunisia to camp near Kairouan and to join 1st Airborne Division newly arrived from the UK. As Brigade Intelligence Officer he helped to plan various operations in Italy which didn’t come off. He led a patrol to search for the remnants of a German Division thought to be still in the Tunisian hills.
On 5th September the Brigade sailed in USN and RN cruisers to capture the port of Taranto with 156 Bn and Brigade HQ in the lead; there followed several interesting weeks advancing north east to Bari and then Foggia against a skilful rearguard action of the 1st German Parachute Division.
In October he was promoted to Major to command B Coy 156 Para Bn. The Division sailed from Italy in a huge convoy returning to the UK in late November to be billeted in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. After a long Christmas leave the battalion, now at Melton Mowbray, trained hard for the coming invasion of Europe and were disappointed not to take part in the D Day operations. Throughout the summer of 1944, with the rest of the Division, they trained, stood to for operations and repeatedly stood down; until eventually they were launched on the huge and ambitious Operation Market Garden. They took off in 33 USAAF C47 aircraft at 12:00 hrs on 18th September. Five of the Brigade’s aircraft were shot down on the run in, one of them to starboard of his aircraft. John was standing in the doorway of his aircraft and watched the stricken aircraft pass underneath completely ablaze before it crashed and exploded in a fireball. The DZ was held partly by the enemy and was on fire. The battalion RV’d rapidly and had to wait for further orders, due to the earlier plans going astray. With B Coy leading, 156 Bn left the DZ at 17:00 hours heading for Arnhem. He was wounded in the fighting in the Johanna Hoeve woods and wounded twice more whilst in the Tafelberg Main Dressing Station and taken prisoner. After 2 months in hospital in Apeldoorn, he was transferred to a prison hospital in Stalag VIIa at Moosburg in Southern Bavaria, where in late April after a pitched battle with German troops the camp was liberated by American soldiers under the command of General Patton on 29 April 1945. (See also the separate written account by John Waddy of his time at Arnhem.)
On his return to the UK, John married Ann on 14 July 1945. He then joined HQ 3 Para Brigade and in September was sent to Palestine. In October 1945 he was posted to 9 Para Bn and involved until March 1948 dealing with the Jewish terrorist threat. He was shot and wounded by the Haifa IZL in July 1947.
At the time there was a rule that regular officers could only serve a 3 year tour in the Parachute Regiment. So having done nearly 8 years he was posted to a boring assignment with 2 Bn Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in Athens. In August 1948 he was posted to ‘rest’ at HQ 43(Wessex) Division in Taunton – his home town. From there he went to the Staff College at Camberley and then on to a posting at HQ 1st Infantry Division in Egypt/ Libya, where he was involved in planning for the invasion of Persia and then Cairo. By July 1952 he was at last due for promotion to substantive Major and in September 1952 was posted to 1st Somerset Light Infantry and sailed to Malaya. Here he spent a year or so as a company commander in the Selanga Jungles and mentioned in dispatches.
He spent an interesting year at the RAF Staff College in 1954 but following this, in the usual Army way, instead of being posted to an Air Staff job found himself posted as training major for a Somerset Light Infantry TA battalion. He found this a “boring time with a nit picking solicitor as CO!” Frustrated he volunteered for a return to the Parachute Regiment and was posted on exchange to the Canadian Joint Air Training Centre in Manitoba. He found this a fascinating and interesting 2 years being involved in the Canadian Parachute world with exciting summer and winter exercises.
In 1958 the Parachute Regiment was allowed to have its own permanent cadre of officers, he volunteered and was accepted, and in July was posted as 2ic of 2 Para Bn in Jordan and then Cyprus, where they planned for operations against Iraq.
In October 1960 he was posted to command the Parachute Regiment’s Depot at Aldershot. He found this an interesting and rewarding term. He started, without official permission, the Parachute Regiment Battle Camp at Brecon (which later became the Infantry Battle School), and the Junior Parachute Coy (now sadly disbanded).
In October 1962 he was posted as Chief Instructor at the Small Arms School in Hythe. An organisation he considered to be thoroughly hide bound. The next posting in October 1964 proved far more interesting as he was appointed as Colonel SAS (later Commander of the SAS Group) and assumed responsibility for all three SAS Regiments (21,22 and 23). By Christmas 1967 he found himself in Washington DC on the Army staff for liaison with American Airborne, Infantry, Aviation and Special Forces; the last 5 months of this posting was based at Fort Benning Infantry School. There followed a 6 months Senior Officers’ War Course at the RN College Greenwich which he regarded as “interesting but not necessary”
In September 1970 he had an opportune move to Saigon as Defence Adviser at the British Embassy. He found this a fascinating and exciting time, seeing a lot of the war around Vietnam. The previous 2 years in the USA proved invaluable, as he met many senior US Army officers again, who opened their doors to him. It was like having a front seat in the stalls at somebody else’s war! Towards the end of his posting the North Vietnamese Army launched a 14 Division assault against their southern neighbours. His wife Ann, as in all other postings, played a full part in Embassy life. The change in American political will was evident during John’s stay: on his arrival there were 500,000 American military personnel in Vietnam; on his departure their presence had been reduced to 150,000. After Vietnam he was posted to the Joint Warfare Establishment at Old Sarum. Although he found it an interesting job, old ideas and inertia at the MOD negated any progress.
In 1974 he was told that he would not be promoted any further because he did not have enough experience! (Presumably this referred to time served in Whitehall rather than on the battlefield!). With further career progression limited, John resigned and became Military Adviser to Westland Helicopters, a post which he held for 15 years until 1989. He found this a very interesting but frustrating role as the Army was not interested at that time in fully exploiting the potential of the helicopter. It took another decade after John’s retirement before the Army attitude significantly changed.
In 1976 he took 6 months leave from the Westland post to act as military adviser for the famous film ‘A Bridge Too Far’ directed by Richard Attenborough. While the film broadly portrays the events correctly there are historical inaccuracies. There was little John Waddy, John Frost or Richard Attenborough could do about this since the film was primarily intended for US consumption and major changes to the script were not permitted. There is some subtle evidence of John Waddy’s contribution on celluloid. By way of example prior to one scene Edward Fox, who portrayed General Horrocks, asked John how the officers referred to their drivers – “Did you call them by their first name?” “Oh no, never” replied John “always by their surname”. After this exchange Edward Fox filmed the scene where he is driven into the square to the Town Hall to deliver the briefing (“This is a story you will tell your grandchildren, and mightily bored they’ll be!”). On dismounting from his jeep he turns to the driver and says “Thank you Waddy!”
He is a published author (Tour of the Arnhem Battlefields) and a recognised authority on Arnhem. From 1982 to 1996 he led a team of Arnhem veterans to talk to the students of the Army Staff College on their battlefield tours at Arnhem. Along with Major Tony Hibbert, he continued this role when the tours were restarted by the Army Division of the Defence Academy in 2008.