Planning began in earnest with the Canadian Military Headquarters
sending two groups of potential paratroopers, one each to the Airborne schools
of the American and British Armies, both of which already had well-established
training programs. The goal was to
combine the best aspects of both the American and British systems in an attempt
to create the best system of airborne troopers to meet Canada’s needs.
The initial group that traveled to Fort Benning in the United States consisted of 7 Officers and 20 other ranks, including the unit’s first Commanding Officer, Major H.D. Proctor (left).
American system consisted of four stages, each stage one week in duration and
teaching a different aspect of airborne training.
The focus was on harsh instructing in an attempt to weed out those that
were not strong enough to meet the high expectations of the Airborne soldier.
Any hesitation on the part of the trainee meant immediate dismissal.
Training was done using a variety of training equipment including 250
foot high towers and the American T-5 parachute assembly jumping from C-47
Dakota aircraft. Five jumps were
required to earn your jump wings. The
first casualty of the young Parachute Battalion occurred during their first
training jumps when Major Proctor was killed on September 7, 1942 when
his rigging lines were severed by a following transport aircraft.
Lt. Col. G.F.P. Bradbrooke (left).
Took over command of the unit following the death of Major Proctor.
He would lead the unit until the end of Operations in Normandy June 14, 1944.
The RAF Ringway group was larger, consisting of 25 officers and 60 other
ranks. The British system was
vastly different from that of the Americans, only lasting sixteen days. The course was more intensive, focusing on skills necessary
in the airborne descent. The system
was also different in that the instructors aim was to help along the trainee
building up their confidence to complete the task at hand.
The trainees also needed to complete seven jumps, not the five in the
American system, two from static balloons and five from aircraft.
It was decided to continue Airborne training for Canadian soldiers at
Fort Benning while a Canadian parachute training centre was being built at Camp
Shilo, Manitoba. The first class of
54 recruits arrived in Fort Benning to commence their training on October 10,
1942, then another class of 55 candidates every week following.
Training continued throughout the fall reasonably well, but there were some problems in recruiting members for the new Parachute Battalion, largely due to the fact that many did not want to volunteer for a unit who’s primary role was considered to be home defence. This fact was brought home when a call for recruits for a new 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion (to become the Canadian Contingent of the 1st Special Service Force) resulted in a large number of soldiers volunteering for this newly formed Battalion, mostly because of the promise that this new unit would see service before the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion would.
problem was addressed by requiring all new recruits to go “active” before
transfer, thereby allowing the unit to be available for overseas service should
it be required. It seemed to have
worked, because a second call for recruits for the 2 Cdn Para Btn made in the
spring of 1943 was unsuccessful in recruiting many for this second battalion.
The facilities at Camp Shilo were finally ready by early spring and the
Canadian Paratroopers left Fort Benning on March 22, 1943 having qualified 34
officers and 575 other ranks as parachute qualified.
The parachute training started at Fort Benning continued at Camp Shilo
while the Battalion aimed to improve on the skills they had already learned.
The die was set for the unit’s future when, on April 7, 1943 Canada agreed to contribute the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion to a new British Parachute Division that was being formed. They would be fighting as a part of the British 3rd Brigade, 6th Airborne Division under Brigadier J. Hill as brigade commander with Major-General Gale commanding the division. The Canadian Paratroopers boarded their ship bound for the U.K. on July 23, 1943 with 30 officers and 543 other ranks and landed in Greenock, Scotland July 28.
When the Canadians arrived in England it was of utmost importance that they started immediate conversion to the British method of parachuting, which was quite different than that of the U.S.-style system the Battalion had been using previously. The biggest difference was in the parachute system used. In the U.S. and Canada the unit used the American T-5 assembly, but now that they were a part of the British 6 Airborne Division they needed to be trained on the British X-type parachute. The main, and most obvious difference, was the absence of any reserve parachute on the British X-type. This was due to several reasons, largely because the British jumped from a much lower altitude than the Americans did, not allowing adequate time to use a reserve should it be needed. The other reason was the British commonly jumped from a hole in the floor of a converted bomber (usually from where the belly turret was removed) and a trooper with a reserve chute would simply not have fit through the opening.
The unit needed to bring itself up to British training standards in several other areas as well, including qualifying soldiers as heavy machine gun, mortar and anti-tank rifle teams, in wireless operations and intelligence. There were also 50 troopers that were sent for training in the use of the new leg kit bag that gained so much notoriety on the D-Day jumps, both with British and American jumpers.
The Canadians took to the training in earnest. Their first Brigade-level exercise was “Exercise Schemozzle”, November 9-10, 1943. Its intended role, in forecasting events to come, was to see the effectiveness of units separated from the main force during a simulated drop. The exercise was deemed a success as all companies managed to complete their objectives even with their scattered nature.
There were several more exercises the Battalion participated in over the late fall/early winter, all preparing the men for the inevitable. On January 5, 1944 the 6 Airborne Division was mobilized for operations within Europe. Mobilization Order #98, the order for 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was issued on February 23, 1943 mobilizing the battalion for operations in Europe and to be ready no later than February 29.
The Battalion, sensing their imminent deployment to the continent, picked up the pace of training. They completed their first Battalion-level drop, Exercise Manitoba on January 20, 1944. The main points of this exercise, was to practice co-operation with 38 Group RAF, to see if they could land the entire Battalion on the DZ within 5 minutes of the first jumper leaving the plane, then clear the DZ within 15 minutes.
Following their first successful Battalion-level drop January 20, the Battalion participated in the first Brigade-sized drop on February 7-8, called “Exercise Co-Operation”. The goals were much the same as Exercise Manitoba, co-operation between 38 Group RAF and 435 Group Transport Carrier Command, USAAF as well as to see if they could get all 1,370 paratroopers landed on the DZ within 10 minutes and have the area cleared within 30 minutes.
With several more successful exercises under their belt the Battalion made their final preparations for the impending invasion of France. On May 24, 1944 the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion loaded onto transport and left Camp Bulford for their transit camp in the vicinity of Down Ampney. It was there that they would soon learn their fate.
Baptism of Fire... D-Day
The Invasion of Hitler's Fortress Europe
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in Normandy
Lt. Col. G.F.P. Bradbrooke collected his Battalion on May 31 to unveil to them their role in the invasion of France, “Operation Overlord”. The plan laid out was as follows:
C Company was tasked to lead the airborne forces into battle, heading out a half-hour prior to the rest of the division to secure drop zone “V” and place Eureka beacons to mark the DZ. After completing that task they were to head into the nearby town of Varaville where they were to destroy communications, headquarters and defensive positions in the town, as well as to guard Engineer elements who were tasked to blow the main bridge. Upon successful completion of their tasks they were to then defend the town against enemy movement until relieved by the 1st Special Service Brigade who were landing later that morning and would quickly make their way inland. After being relieved they were to fall back to the unit’s positions at the Le Mesnil cross roads and set up defensive positions.
A Company was to jump with the main body of the attack. They were tasked to protect the British 9th Parachute Battalion in their attack on the Merville Battery as well as clear the town of Gonneville sur Merville. After the successful completion of their tasks they were to escort the 9th Para Btn to Le Plein then make their way to the Battalion’s positions at the Le Mesnil Crossroads.
B Company was to jump with the main body of the attack as well. Their main task was to escort and protect engineer elements tasked to blow the bridges in Robehomme and then occupy road and track junctions.
They were to hold until destruction of the Robehomme Bridge could be affected, at which point they were to make their way back to the Battalion position at Le Mesnil.
The Battalion paraded for the last time before the invasion at 1930 hrs, June 5 before loading transport to their respective airfields. C Coy, heading off early with the Pathfinder elements went to Harwell Airport, the rest of the Battalion to the airfield at Down Ampney. At 2230 hrs, C Coy lifted off for France, with the rest of the Battalion lifting off at 2245 hrs to head for their respective tasks.
At between 0020 and 0029 hrs on June 6, 1944 the troopers of C Company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion became the first Canadians into battle, Ptes. Bismutka and Swim being the first ones to tumble from their aircraft. As is widely known the paratroopers were widely dispersed that night. Major H.M. MacLeod had less than fifty of his Company present when he decided he could wait no longer and set out to complete his assigned tasks.
The DZ was quickly secured and C Coy then moved towards Varaville. Maj. MacLeod, with no other options, decided to split his small band into two sections. One section was tasked to secure and hold the bridge in Varaville, the other section, commanded by the Major, was to move towards the Grand Chateau in Varaville where they were to eliminate the enemy from their headquarters located therein.
Upon reaching the Chateau the Canadians almost immediately came under fire from the Germans defending the building. The Paratroopers holed themselves up in the Gatehouse of the Chateau while they felt out the enemy and prepared their attack. At approximately 0300 hrs a German Anti-Tank gun, hidden in the grounds of the Chateau, fired at the gatehouse which killed six of the Canadians, including Maj. MacLeod, the first major casualties suffered by the Battalion in the war.
Re-enforcement’s continued to trickle in throughout the course of the battle, and by 1030 hrs the German resistance had surrendered. The Canadians took 80 Germans prisoner, at a rate of almost 2 Germans for every Canadian involved in the battle. By 1500 hrs elements of the British 6th Commando Cycle Troop reached Varaville thereby relieving C Company who moved towards their Battalion’s position at the Le Mesnil Crossroads.
A Company did not fare any better than C Coy on their drop. By 0600 hrs only 2 officers and 20 other ranks had assembled at the RV and so the small band of Paratroopers decided to make their way towards the Merville Battery and their assigned tasks.
They arrived at the Merville Battery as the 9th Para Btn was securing their position. After ensuring the battery was destroyed the members of A Coy, being led by Lt. Clancy, provided point and flank protection for the 9th Para Btn delivering them safely, and without great incident, to Le Plein, before A Coy themselves moved off towards Le Mesnil.
B Company suffered a similar fate. Lt. Toseland only had about 20 all ranks at the RV point when he decided to move his small force to Robehomme to attempt to complete their D-Day objectives. When they arrived at the bridge they met a mixed group of Canadian and British paratroopers and began to set up defensive positions to await the arrival of the engineers who would blow the bridge. By 0300 hrs the engineers had not yet shown up so Lt. Toseland made the decision to attempt to destroy the bridge using whatever explosives the men under his command had. Unfortunately, the strength of the blast was not enough to completely destroy the bridge, although the structure was severely weakened it still stood until the engineers finally arrived a short time later to complete the task of destroying the bridge. Having successfully completed their task Lt. Toseland led his band of Paratroopers on a cautious trip back to the Battalion positions at Le Mesnil.
The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had a very successful first 24 hours, having achieved all their pre-set goals with complete success. Unfortunately this success did not come without a price, counting 116 all ranks out of the 541 that jumped either killed, wounded or taken prisoner, while a great number were still missing.
Operations in Normandy continued with the Canadians vigorously defending the crossroads at Le Mesnil until 17 June. They were involved in some very severe action, the most notable being the attack on the Chateau St-Come at Breville. A German garrison was centred on this position giving stiff resistance to the British troops looking to clear the area. It was apparent by the afternoon of 12 June that help was badly needed and so Brigadier Hill rounded up elements of C and HQ Companies to help relieve the beleaguered Brits at the Chateau.
The fighting was savage raging for several hours. The Germans had self propelled guns backing their attack and in several locations the Germans actually penetrated the paratrooper’s perimeter, including several instances of hand-to-hand fighting between the combatants. The ferocity of the Canadians fighting, combined with assistance from naval and artillery batteries forced the Germans to fall back and abandon their position at the Chateau which was secured by the evening.
The fighting continued and by the time the Canadians were finally relieved at Le Mesnil they had suffered 10 dead and 109 wounded in the 10 days of fighting for the crossroads.
During the period of July 4 to the July 20, when the Battalion was in an extended rest position they were re-enforced by 7 officers and 100 other ranks from an infantry re-enforcement depot. None of the men were airborne qualified, it was decided that since 1 Cdn Para Btn current ops were simply those of a ground war there was no necessity to have jump-trained re-enforcement’s.
After their leave period the Canadians went back on the line in a defensive in Normandy. “Operation Paddle” saw the Canadians again mobilized for offensive operations on August 16. The 6 Airborne Division was tasked to harass enemy rear guard in a drive to the Seine River focusing on the enemy’s right flank.
The first action by the Canadians was at 0800 hrs when they were tasked to clear the Germans from the Bois-de-Bures. The going was tough due to the many booby traps the enemy had set up to delay any pursuing forces but by nightfall the Battalion had crossed the Dives and had managed to engage the enemy’s rear guard. Two days later, during “Operation Paddle II” the Battalion was given another difficult task, to capture the four bridges over the St Samson Dives sur mer Canal.
The attack was put in at 2300 hrs on August 18 with each company tasked to a different bridge. A Company was the only unit to capture its bridge completely intact and duly named it Canada Bridge and decorated their new “trophy” with the Canadian Parachute badge. By August 19 the area between the Dives River and St Samson Dives sur mer Canal were completely controlled by the 3rd Parachute Brigade.
At this point operations in Normandy began to slow down for the Canadians. On August 23 Lt. Col. Bradbrooke was appointed to the General Staff at CMHQ in London with Maj. Eadie taking temporary control of the Battalion with Maj. Nicklin on medical leave.
August 26 saw Maj. General Gale drafting a “Special Order of the Day” thanking his troops for their hard work as the 6 Airborne Division was pulled from the line. During operations in July and August of 1944 the Battalion suffered 14 other ranks killed, 24 wounded. Of the 547 who jumped into Normandy only 197 made the return trip to Bulford.
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion’s record in Normandy was impeccable. They never retreated, abandoned nor lost ground they defended, and as part of the 6 Airborne Division managed to liberate more than 400 square miles of French countryside and captured more than 1,000 German prisoners. Also, of the 60 officers and men decorated in the 6 Airborne Division 8 were from 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 2 Officers and 6 other ranks.
September 1 all non-paratrooper re-enforcement’s were taken off strength, orders to return to England had arrived by September 2, and the Battalion boarded the ship bound for their wartime home, Bulford, on the 6th.
Lt. Col. J.A. Nicklin (left).
Served as Commanding Officer of 1 Can Para Bn. from September 8, 1944 until he was killed in action during Operation Varsity on March 24, 1945.
THE ARDENNES and HOLLAND
On December 16, 1944 up to 24 German divisions smashed a wedge between the Americans and the British in the Ardennes Forest beginning the famous "Battle of the Bulge". The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was called up to service on December 23, 1944.
The British 6th Airborne was slated to jump into the Ardennes to assist in the battle but foggy conditions prevented this. The men were transported by ship from Folestone to Ostende on Christmas Eve. On Boxing Day the Battalion was in Rumes Belgium awaiting orders to move. Because the soldiers were hastily transported they were not equipped the necessary winter clothing needed to keep them warm during one of the coldest Belgium winters in years.
There are reports of men wrapping their feet with burlap to keep them from freezing. While on the move through the town of Bande the men discovered one of the many atrocities that took place during the war. 37 old men, children and women were herded into the basement of a house and subsequently shot and exploded by grenades. The Canadians were told by locals that the crime was committed by the SS and 14th Panzer Grenadiers.
On January 22, 1945 the men arrived in Holland and dug in along the Mass River near the towns of Buggenham, Numhem, Roggel and Haelen. Battalion HQ was set up at Aldenghoor Castle. For close to the next month many dangerous overnight and 24 hour patrols were sent across the river either by boats or by crossing the remnants of the bridge at Buggenum. On February 26, 1945 the Battalion was returned to Carter Barracks in England.
THE RHINE DROP
The Invasion of Germany
On February 25, 1945 the men of the British 6 Airborne Division were given their briefing by Major-General Matthew B. Ridgeway commander of the XVII US. The British 6 Airborne and the American 17th Airborne along with the 1st Allied Airborne Army would drop into a DZ 6 miles by 5 miles to destroy German defences against the approaching allied ground forces.
The job of the 3rd Brigade (8th, 9th including 1 Can Para totalling 2,200 men) was to destroy gun-pits and fortifications in the village of Bergerfürth and to take the ridge south of town called "Schnepfenberg". The 3rd's DZ would be 800 yards by 1000 yards and expected to be met with STIFF resistance. Arial photographs taken earlier totalled 712 ack-ack guns and 114 heavy guns. Along with the guns came German Fallshirmjager ( which translates to Paratrooper Hunter as the German Paratroopers were know as), 1 Battalion of the 6th Infantry Regiment and 1 Battalion of the 46th Infantry Regiment both Regiments being attached to the 30th Infantry Division and 1000 troops with the 84th Infantry Division. The total operation would be carried out using C-46 aircraft, 540 C-47 aircraft and 1,300 gliders.
On March 24, 1945 the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion awoke at 2:00am And made their way to the airfield where they would disembark at dawn. Unlike D Day, which was a night drop, Operation Varsity was a day drop. This could prove to be very hazardous because it made the paratroopers extremely vulnerable to heavy ground fire.
The Battalion War Diary stated that 1 Can Para was widely spread on the drop. However this does not match observations by those that were there. Brigadier James Hill (OC of the British 6 Airborne) states that the drop took a total of 6 minutes and was dead on target. The accuracy of the drop was also confirmed by Lt.Col. George Hewetson (OC of the 8th Battalion).
The DZ proved to be an EXTREMELY hazardous place. The area was caught in a triple crossfire from the west, north and from a copse of trees in the middle of the DZ. It was during this initial battle on the DZ that Corporal Frederick Topham earned himself the Victoria Cross, the only member of 1 Can Para Bn to do so.
The fire from the ground was so intense that many soldiers never even survived the drop to be able to fight.
Sadly, this was the case of Lt. Col Jeff Nicklin the O.C. of 1 Can Para Bn. Lt. Col Nicklin was found hanging in a tree, boot soles clean, with multiple gun shot wounds to the abdomen.
Lt. Col. G.F. Eadie (left).
The last Unit Commander served from March 24, 1945 after the death of Lt. Col. Nicklin and was O.C. of 1 Can Para Bn. until the Unit disbanded in August 31, 1945 at Fort Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario.
Despite the heavy losses, the 6th Airborne took 4000 German prisoners in two days. Of the 1300 gliders approximately 50% (650) were destroyed with 40% casualties and 100 pilots killed. Even though the area was heavily bombed before the drop, it did little to destroy the determined German opposition.
What of 1 Can Para you ask?
Well, C Coy jumped first and were the first ever Canadian unit to enter Germany. Their objectives were taken within half an hour.
A Coy's objectives were taken within an hour and a half with 70% strength. B Coy's objectives were also taken in a half an hour. At 3:00pm recce units of the 15th Scottish Division met with the Battalion. Overall, the drop was a great success, however it came at a huge price. 1 Can Para Bn lost 67 officers and men, the 6th British Airborne had 1,084 dead or wounded, over all the Allies lost 2,500 men and the Germans lost 1,000.
On March 26-27, 1945, 1 Can Para Bn began to move from Bergerfürth. The higher command realized that the German army was finished. 1 Can Para was ordered to move as deep into Germany as they could, securing as much territory as possible so the advancing Russians would not conquer the whole of Germany. For the next 6 weeks the men of 1 Can Para covered 300 miles, on foot, by bike, by tank and arrived in Wismar Germany, on the Baltic on May 2, 1945.
This is where they met the Red Army, the only Canadian unit to do so. On May 8, 1945 the war in Europe ended.
Later in May, 1 Can Para was moved back to their base at Carter Barracks in Bulford England.
They were able to secure passage on the Isle de France on May 31, 1945. The men arrived in Halifax on the 21st of June to a hero's welcome. They were the first Canadian unit to be repatriated. From here leave was given and the men returned to their families. They were reassembled at Camp Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on August 31, 1945. Each man was offered the choice of discharge or service in the war in the Pacific. Japan surrendered in August 1945 so there would be no men from 1 Can Para fighting in the Pacific.
On September 30, 1945 the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was officially disbanded.
The soldiers of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were the most skilled Canadian soldiers to fight in World War II. While on active duty, they NEVER failed to complete a mission. They NEVER surrendered or lost an objective once taken. They were among the FIRST allied soldiers in Europe. They were the ONLY Canadian unit to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and they advanced deeper into Germany than ANY Canadian unit during WWII.
LEST WE FORGET