By Félix A. Alejos Cutuli
The Brigada Paracaidista “Almogávares” (BRIPAC) is one of the Spanish Army élite infantry units. Heirs of the Tercios, which dominated the European battlefields for two centuries, the men and woman forming this unit are a veritable crucible of all military virtues, as they have demonstrated at every opportunity that have been presented. The Brigade takes its sobriquet from the Almogávares, light infantry units from 13th and 15th centuries that participated in the Reconquista and also fought in defense of the Byzantine Empire.
SmallArmsoftheWorld.com was recently invited to visit the unit’s museum inside the Brigade’s Base Príncipe at Paracuellos de Jarama, near Madrid. The museum is a tribute to the men and women who have served under the BRIPAC and the military virtues they have incarnated, through a collection of documents and military objects related to the missions they did accomplish.
The museum’s door is guarded by two Yugoslav triple AA M52 cannons, brought back from several tours of duty to that country as part of the international peace force. Also, there is a reproduction of the “Bomb of Ivanica,” deactivated by BRIPAC’s sappers in 1999. That was a huge IED whose core was formed by six 500 kg aviation bombs that blocked the road between Trevijne and Dubrovnik and effectively closed the frontier between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Inside the museum the visitor is greeted by a sculptured eagle, a trophy from a parachute competition, surrounded by flags and pennants from the unit. The hall below it hosts a display dedicated to the brigade’s parachute drop unit, the men and women who make possible the safe descent of men and materials, plus some early HALO-HAHO equipment. Further on, the visitor finds the guidons and banners of the Brigade’s sub-units, together with the different Spanish Army’s parachute wings and insignia (locally known as rokiskis). Also on display are photographs and memorabilia of the first parachute units, including pictures of the first combat jumps. Next to this hallway is a projections room that, at the time of our visit, displayed black and white footage of a live fire assault exercise, applying liberal doses of small arms fire, plus light mortars and flamethrowers, in very close proximity to the troops.
Next the visitor is met by the main hall’s custodian: a mannequin. Outfitted as an original Almogávar warrior of the 13th to 15th centuries, he introduces a chronological history of the unit, starting with the creation, back in 1954, of the I Bandera Paraciaidista (I Parachute Battalion, Bandera is the Spanish army term for an élite Infantry battalion), named “Roger de Flor” in memory of an Almogávar commander. The first parachute jump of the Spanish Army was on February 23, 1954, from old Junkers and Savoia planes using T-6 parachutes.
The year 1955 saw the first fatality in a parachute accident as well as the formation of the II Bandera Paracaidista “Roger de Lauria” (another prominent Almogávar leader) and the creation of the group of parachute battalions. In 1956 the I Bandera was deployed to the territory of Sidi-Ifni (North West Africa) where the Spanish Army parachutists would get their baptism of fire and suffer the first combat losses. Soon both Banderas were reunited at the zone, its members demonstrating the highest levels of every military virtue. They performed combat jumps under fire at Fort Tiluin and Erkunt, from ancient Junkers-52 transport planes supported by old Heinkel 111 bombers. The price paid for these and many more acts of valor until the end of the conflict in 1958 was 37 fatalities and 70 wounded.
Small arms in use at the time were Astra and Star pistols and Star Z-45 submachine guns in 9mm Largo, Mauser rifles of the Spanish 1943 pattern and FAO automatic rifles and Alfa Machine guns, all in 7.92mm, plus a handful of the then new CETME assault rifles towards the end of the period.
1960 witnessed the formation of the III Bandera Paracaidista “Ortíz de Zárate,” named in memory of a lieutenant fallen in combat in Ifni, and the Instruction Company. The first two parachute battalions were ordered to the Spanish Sahara in 1961 to reestablish normality after the detection of some irregular bands operating there.
The BRIPAC was created in February 14, 1968. The Parachute Instruction Battalion was created in 1971 in order to segregate non operative tasks.
In 1975 the parachutists returned to the Spanish Sahara, where they saw some combat, sustaining one fatality by enemy action.
Being an elite unit, BRIPAC has seen a lot of international cooperation, both at combined exercises, especially during the Cold War, developing very close ties with parachute units of the United States, France, Germany and Portugal, and at international missions under diverse transnational authorities. Both are amply represented in the museum.
A little known episode was the Spanish participation in the Vietnam War. From 1966 to 1973 the Spanish Army Medical Corps (including BRIPAC personnel) provided the technical staffs for a U.S. Army Hospital in South Vietnam. The Brigade has joined almost every international mission participated in by Spain, the most important ones have been the participation in operation Provide Comfort/Alfa-Kilo to Iraq’s Kurdistan in support of the Kurdish people, rotations to former Yugoslavia as part of different international contingents, mainly to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, deployments to Afghanistan under ISAF and to Lebanon as part of Operation Libre Hidalgo, this last one is kind of closing a circle, as the historical character giving his name to I Bandera, Roger de Flor, was once a sergeant of the Order of the Temple, who took part in the defense of the city of Acre, now in Israel and not very far away from the Spanish area of deployment. Regrettably, the Brigade has suffered fatalities and casualties in all of these missions, often by enemy action.
As could be expected, the museum displays a complete set of the different parachutes and parachutist's uniforms used by the Spanish Army, plus a nice collection of miniatures, representing both the parachute unit's activities as well as the aircrafts supporting their activities. There’s also a display of light weapons both those used by the Spanish parachute units throughout its history as well as war trophies captured from the enemies or confiscated while participating in international missions.
Reserved is a special mention to the “Honor Shrine” commemorating the unit's men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice. It’s composed of a set of sculptures, the main one representing a fallen parachutist striving with his canopy and a series of walls engraved with the names of the fallen on duty which counts 47 fallen in combat, 71 in parachute accidents and 65 in other acts of service.
The exhibits are completed by a series of glassed displays dedicated to salient members of the unit.
Being part of an active military unit, the museum is not open to the public and we are grateful for the opportunity and hospitality shown to us.
The Spanish Army website keeps a page dedicated to the Brigade and its museum: www.ejercito.mde.es/unidades/Madrid/bripacii/
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