At the beginning of March 1942 Canadians had two and a half years of World War II behind them. The tremendous losses suffered by the Allies had led to the darkest period of the war. Ours was a soldering family. My brother David was a colonel in command of one of the large Royal Canadian Artillery fortresses set up on Nova Scotia coast to protect our harbours against submarine attacks. Hugh was a sergeant in a similar fortress. Frank was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable protecting the high north. I was a corporal in the Canadian Dental Corps with nearly two years of soldering under my belt and had recently celebrated my eighteenth birthday. Yes like many others I had lied about my age when enlisting. Stationed in a fortress just outside our home town on Cape Breton Island I was permitted to live at home.
Early in the morning on the last day of February, Hugh arrived home on a two weeks furlough. After breakfast all of us who were home huddled round the radio waiting for the latest news. Suddenly the newscaster came on with a gripping announcement about a Major Frost who on the night of 27th February dropped with his company of British Paratroopers behind the French coast near a small town named Bruneval. They invaded a huge estate occupied by the Germans, dismantled a radar station, carted off a heavy load of the latest enemy technology and made for the beaches where they were picked up by the Royal Navy. This was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal war.
Hugh became excited about this new arm of the service and a couple of days later he told me that when his leave was over he would try to transfer to the British Army and volunteer for paratroop training. Shortly after Hugh fell ill and nearly died, he recovered but was forced to return to civilian life.
I was transferred to Halifax and was about to be promoted to sergeant when a Part Two Orders call went out to all units of the Canadian Army. All unit commanders were ordered to release any soldiers who volunteered and could qualify for paratroop training. As an eighteen year old sergeant with nearly two years training as a dentist's chair assistant I had a lot to loose including my stripes by transferring out. But the lure of the unknown was too great I had to go!
On December 22nd 1942 I found myself, a private soldier, on a train bound for Fort Benning, Georgia to begin parachute training. Seven months later I was on a ship embarking for the war in Europe. On my return to Canada in June 1945 I was twenty one year old veteran with over four years of service, two and a half of which were in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which went into action with the British 6th Airborne Division. Two years after my return during a class at university I could hardly focus on what was going on around me. No matter how much I wanted to concentrate on the subject matter I was cursed with a conglomeration of past patrols, vicious battles, lonely famished and thirsty deadly tired night watches and horrible scenes of war racing through my mind. To ease my frustration I began to scribble some distracting notes.
Once C Company departed for its airport at Harwell the remainder of the battalion moved to Down Ampney airport and went through much the same experiences as the Advance Party. They brought their previously fitted parachutes out of the C-47 transports parked them beside the runways they would take off from and checked each other's equipment. After all the equipment was checked there was another waiting period before boarding. The paratroopers' greatest concern was still whether or not the aircrews could drop them accurately on the chosen Drop Zones in Normandy. Our loads were so heavy we were able to get up into the plane only with great difficulty. Soon we were at full throttle and it seemed to us skimming the last stretch of smooth runway.
As we proceeded across the Channel most men were taken up with their own thoughts. Occasionally some kibitzing broke the tension. I was jumper number fifteen in Lieutenant Philippe Rousseau's stick. Suddenly we ran into a lot of anti aircraft fire from the defences along the Atlantic Wall and our airplane was jinking and dodging all over the place. As we crossed the coast the airplane suddenly lurched upward jolting many of us to our knees. A brilliant white flash below lit up our aircraft’s cabin. Since we were only about four hundred feet up we took this to be the flashes from our own exploding bombs which we knew were to be dropped as we crossed the beaches in the hope it would fool the enemy into believing we were just another bombing raid crossing into France. As I went through the door I was faced with a column of anti aircraft tracer fire in close proximity between the exit and the tip of the port wing that was horrible. In half a second I had fallen away from the tracers and was thankful I was not hit.
By 01:15 hours on June 6th 1944 five hundred and twenty-seven men of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were on the ground in France. The D-Day landing for the 6th British Airborne Division was in full swing. To say that the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Drop was a disaster is to understate the situation. Over a hundred and forty soldiers were spread out close to the coast of France near Colleville-Sur-Orne, sixteen kilometres west of the Drop Zone at Varaville, to Octeville-Montvilliers, and fourteen kilometres northeast of Le Havre. It was a distance of over ninety kilometres of coastline as the crow flies and over one hundred by road.
Most of the soldiers were in the department of Calvados, a few were in Eure and a few more were farther away in Seine Maritime around the Seine estuary below Paris. Another group of about two hundred and twenty was wallowing in "Satan's Quadrangle" Of the remaining hundred and seventy only eighty to a hundred had been put on or near the Drop Zone. The remainder were scattered throughout the Bois de Bavent and St. Come Forest.
They had been briefed, trained and prepared to recognize landmarks that would set them off on specific routes from Drop Zone V to accomplish their several special tasks, now eighty-five percent could recognize nothing! The unfamiliar territory and unplanned obstructions made linking up with each other difficult and in many cases impossible! Me from individual sticks ran into widely varied troubles when they came up against flooded canals, thick forests, thicker hedgerows, widespread flooding and ground elevations shifts from low to high or vice versa. Not to mention enemy patrols which were out to locate and liquidate them. Its effect on the soldiers might have been even worse had they known how widespread the scattering was. They had so much faith in the aircrews that chaos to them meant the chaos of battle, not error by the flyers.
For many, feelings of despair began to intrude and with good reason. When they found themselves misplaced - and even worse as they continued to find others who were also misplaced - uncertainty about the battalion's ability to achieve its goals crept in. Some also felt that if they could not reach their objectives on time they would be letting their friends down - contributing to their failure to achieve their goals. Above all they needed time but there was not time, time had run out. Yet, when we look back now, it is apparent that shortly after the drop the scattering of the Battalion produced a positive phenomenon. The very traits of character which motivated the men to volunteer for parachute training to begin with - which saw them through the severity, rigours and fears of their period in the "Frying Pan" at Fort Benning, Camp Shilo and Salisbury Plain - now impelled them to respond the new adversity which added resources of resolution, determination and just plain guts. The very threat of defeat evidently summoned from the distant reaches of their collective being an escalation of fortitude - "a rising of courage".
Excerpts from a Rising of Courage by Dan Hartigan
On the evening on 5 June 1944 the battalion was transported to France in fifty aircraft. Each man carried a knife, toggle rope, escape kit with French currency, and two 24-hour ration packs in addition to their normal equipment, in all totalling 70 pounds. The battalion landed one hour in advance of the rest of the brigade in order to secure the Drop zone (DZ). Thereafter they were ordered to destroy road bridges over the river Dives and its tributaries at Varaville, then neutralize strongpoints at the crossroads.
In addition, the Canadians were to protect the left (southern) flank of the 9th Battalion, Parachute Regiment during that unit's attack on the Merville Battery, afterwards seizing a position astride the Le Mesnil crossroads, a vital position at the centre of the ridge.
Lieutenant Colonel Bradbrooke issued the following orders to his company commanders: C Company (Major H.M. MacLeod) was to secure the DZ, destroy the enemy headquarters (HQ), secure the SE corner of the DZ, destroy the radio station at Varaville, and blow the bridge over the Divette stream in Varaville. C Coy would then join the battalion at Le Mesnil cross roads.
A Company (Major D. Wilkins) would protect the left flank of 9th Btn during their attack on the Merville Battery and then cover 9th Battalion's advance to the Le Plein feature. They would seize and hold the Le Mesnil cross roads.
B Company (Major C. Fuller) was to destroy the bridge over the river Dives within two hours of landing and deny the area to the enemy until ordered to withdraw to Le Mesnil cross roads.
The Battalion landed between 0100 and 0130 hours on June 6, becoming the first Canadian unit on the ground in France. For different reasons, including adverse weather conditions and poor visibility, the soldiers were scattered, at times quite far from the planned drop zone. By mid-day, and in spite of German resistance, the men of the battalion had achieved all their objectives; the bridges on the Dives and Divette in Varaville and Robehomme were cut, the left flank of the 9th Parachute Battalion at Merville was secure, and the crossroads at Le Mesnil was taken. In the following days, the Canadians were later involved in ground operations to strengthen the bridgehead and support the advance of Allied troops towards the Seine River.
On 23 August 1944 Lieutenant Colonel Bradbrooke was appointed to the General Staff at Canadian Military Headquarters in London with Major Eadie taking temporary control of the battalion. Three days later, on 26 August 1944, the 6th Airborne Division was pulled from the line in Normandy. 27 officers and 516 men from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion took part in the Battle of Normandy and the unit suffered 367 casualties. Of those casualties, 5 officers and 76 men were killed or died of wounds. The unit had to be re-organized and retrained in order to regain its strength and combat-readiness. The Battle of Normandy had brought a major change to the way the war was fought. Airborne troops needed new training to prepare for an offensive role, including street fighting and capturing enemy positions. On 6 September the Battalion left Normandy and returned to the Bulford training camp in the United Kingdom. While there, Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Nicklin became battalion commander.
In December 1944, the Battalion was again sent to mainland Europe on Christmas Day they sailed for Belgium, to counter the German offensive in the Ardennes what became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
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