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Brief History of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion

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Battalion Origins

Parachute jump

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, perhaps more than any other individual Canadian military unit, had a unique and untried origin. At the time of the Second World War, most Canadian regiments were recruited from a particular geographical area and subsequently ended up with a distinctly regional flavour. In the spring of 1942 when National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) proposed the formation of an airborne battalion, its initial defined purpose was as a home defence quick-strike force that could be rapidly dropped into any part of the country to repel invading forces. The recruiting plan initiated a drive for volunteers from existing units and formations that stretched across the country. The end result being that there were recruits from all of the Canadian provinces, and even some who had previously come up from the United States to get into the action.
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Training

In the summer of 1942, NDHQ determined, after much deliberation, that an airborne unit, consisting of one battalion, would join the Canadian war establishment. This authorization meant that the groundwork was thus in place to begin the complicated process of training and equipping an airborne unit, the first of its kind in the Canadian Army. There were many obstacles that would have to be overcome, but the most serious was the lack of suitable training facilities in Canada. The initial recruitment for the unit took place in England and the first group of Canadian paratroopers, consisting of 25 officers and 60 other ranks, was trained at Ringway, the RAF parachute training facility. The lack of a suitable training facility in Canada meant that it was necessary to look to the United States while a Canadian parachute training centre was hastily constructed at Camp Shilo, Manitoba. Arrangements were made with the U.S. Army that would allow prospective Canadian paratroopers to train at the parachute school in Fort Benning, Georgia. The first course was set to begin in August 1942 and would last for four weeks, which was the standard time period for American trainees. The course was divided up into four stages, each of which lasted for one week. After the first group completed the course, a new one was to begin every week thereafter until the construction of Camp Shilo was completed.

Williams at Camp Shilo

After six months in Fort Benning, and having qualified over 600 paratroopers, the Battalion returned to Canada to take up residence in the newly completed S14 Canadian Parachute Training School at Camp Shilo in March 1943.

The Canadian Army did not have the infrastructure in place to support an airborne unit, nor did it make sense to put it in place for one battalion. In the spring of 1943, the British Army was in the process bringing up to strength the newly created 6th British Airborne Division. It was suggested at NDHQ that the Canadian battalion could be offered to serve with the British division. The British welcomed the offer and readily accepted. In April 1943, NDHQ made the necessary arrangements to authorize the integration of the Battalion into the 6th British Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, under Brigadier S.J.L. Hill.

In July 1943, the Battalion sailed for the United Kingdom to begin its inclusion into the new division. In order to fully integrate into the Division, a number of changes would have to be made to bring the unit up to operational readiness. The Battalion would now be required to use British equipment and to jump under the British parachute system, which was different in many ways to the American method. All the paratroopers who had qualified in the United States or at Camp Shilo were required to successfully complete a one-week conversion course at the RAF Parachute Training School at Ringway.
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D-Day and Normandy

For the soldiers of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, the long road to action ended when they were shipped to a transit camp in Down Ampney in May 1944 to make final preparations for the invasion of France. In order to protect the secrecy of the invasion plans, they were confined to the camp and spent the majority of their two-week stay studying models and photographs of the Normandy countryside. Each soldier spent time going over what was expected not only of their individual companies and platoons, but also of the Battalion as a whole and indeed what role it was to play in the brigade and divisional plans. It was highly unusual for soldiers to be briefed in such detail. The Battalion was to be flown into France by No. 38 Group, RAF, flying Albemarles and by No. 46 Group, RAF, flying Dakotas.

As part of the 21st Army Group, the combined Anglo-Canadian element of the Allied invading forces under General B.L. Montgomery, the 6th Airborne Division was to play a leading role in the invasion of France. Under the leadership of Major-General R.N. Gale, the Division was assigned the formidable task of protecting the left flank of Sword Beach, the main landing beach for the British 3rd Division. The paratroopers were to secure the high ground between the Orne and Dives Rivers and hold it until relieved by seaborne forces as they advanced from the invasion beaches. The 3rd Brigade was to destroy five bridges across the Dives and one across the Divette, deny the Germans main road access to the divisional area and, finally, destroy the substantial coastal defence batteries at Merville. Successful completion of these tasks would prevent the enemy’s reserves from reaching the divisional area.

J. Ross

Objectives allocated to the Canadians, who were to be among the first to land, included securing Drop Zone “V” for the Brigade group through the destruction of the German headquarters in the area, destroying a bridge at Varaville and securing the village, demolition of a bridge at Robehomme, providing cover to the 9th Battalion which was allotted the task of silencing the Merville Battery, and finally, to take and hold the high ground at a crossroads known as Le Mesnil.

For the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, and indeed for most of the 3rd Brigade, the D-Day landings did not get off to an auspicious start. The vast majority of the Battalion was dropped nowhere near the DZ. Most of the Canadians landed miles away from where they were supposed to be dropped. To make matters worse, the area had been flooded by the Germans to discourage airborne landings. Dropping into water at night, overloaded with equipment and weapons, was a recipe for disaster.

In spite of the fact that the Battalion was dropped in a very erratic and widespread fashion (they had also lost a great deal of their equipment), they somehow managed, even with their diminished numbers, to achieve all of their assigned tasks on D-Day (as did the entire 3rd Brigade). This was a testament to the high level of training and initiative achieved by the individual soldiers and of the effectiveness of the advanced briefings for all ranks.

By early July, the Battalion routine had settled into one of rest and static warfare as the Canadians made their contribution to the overall plan to defend the Normandy bridgehead. In early September 1944, after suffering over 350 casualties since D-Day, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which had acquitted itself well in its first combat experience, was pulled from the front lines with the rest of the 6th Airborne Division and returned to England to refit for the next airborne operation.
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Return to England

During three months of fighting in Normandy, the Battalion suffered staggering battle losses totalling 24 officers and 343 other ranks, well over half of their wartime establishment. Upon their return to Carter Barracks in early September 1944, the depleted ranks of the Battalion were given a twelve-day leave. Special trains were organized to allow the men some choice of destinations for their much-needed rest. After returning from leave, the Battalion would begin the overwhelming task of internal reorganization in order to be fully prepared for the next airborne operation.

Major Jeff Nicklin, a former star football player with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who had jumped into Normandy as the second in command of the Battalion and been evacuated with multiple wounds, rejoined the unit. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and assumed the position of Commanding Officer. Lt-Col. Bradbrooke, who had led the Battalion into Normandy, had received a staff appointment and had left the Battalion while they were still in Normandy. Nicklin was given the difficult task of refitting and reorganizing the unit to bring it back up to full fighting capacity.

Emphasis was once again placed on advanced weapons training with a strong focus on the rifle, Sten, Bren, Vickers, grenades, mortars and PIAT. The construction of booby traps was another area where the men received advanced training.
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The Ardennes

Just before Christmas 1944, the Battalion received word that a return to active duty on the continent was imminent. The 6th Airborne Division was put on short notice and was to be prepared to move on six hours notice. The Germans had taken advantage of the poor weather conditions, which grounded the Allied air forces, to launch a massive counteroffensive through the Ardennes region of Belgium. The objective was to advance to the vital port of Antwerp, thus cutting off the main port being used to supply the Allied armies. If Antwerp were to fall, the American and British forces in Western Europe would be cut off from each other. To accomplish this goal, Hitler amassed a formidable fighting force of three German Armies comprised of twenty-five divisions. The German assault, launched on 16 December 1944 against only six American divisions, was initially successful. The German armour advanced for ten days, covering nearly sixty miles before finally being halted just short of the River Meuse. British and American reinforcements were rushed into the area to help stem the tide and once this was accomplished, to once again take the initiative and regain the lost territory. Allied commanders decided that the 6th Airborne Division would be best utilized to help regain some of the territory that was lost. Bad weather and logistical problems prevented an airborne drop, forcing a sea crossing to Belgium.

Patterson

After enjoying two Christmas dinners, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was moved to a transit camp and on Christmas Eve left Folkestone to cross the Channel, landing at Ostend, Belgium, on Christmas Day. The seas were rough and many of the men, jammed into every nook and cranny of the ship, were violently seasick. By 26 December, the Allies had stalled the German offensive, which resulted in a delay in the Battalion being deployed. The Canadians were finally moved to the village of Rochefort, Belgium, where they took up positions on a small tributary of the Meuse River. With the majority of the heavy fighting over, this sector of the front was relatively quiet. The battle now for the men would be with Mother Nature. Conditions were grim as this was one of the coldest winters on record for this region. The men lacked proper cold weather clothing and boots and had to use their ingenuity and initiative to find ways to keep warm.

On 22 January 1945, after a rest period that included an issue of boots and warm clothing, the Battalion was ordered to take up positions in Holland on the west bank of the Maas River around the village of Buggenum. Once again, it was a relatively quiet sector. The Canadians were under constant observation and there was steady mortar and machine gun fire, but casualties were relatively light. Both sides began sending patrols across the river, but this did not result in heavy losses for either side.

In late February, the Battalion was relieved by American forces and pulled out of the front line to return to England to prepare for what most of the men were hoping would be another vital airborne operation, the crossing of the final barrier into Germany, the Rhine River.
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The Rhine Drop

As part of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, the 6th Airborne Division, along with the United States 17th Airborne Division, was to play a key role in overcoming the final obstacle that would lead to the defeat of Nazi Germany: the crossing of the Rhine River and the occupation of the vital Ruhr industrial area. By the early spring of 1945, the Allies had defeated the Germans to the west of the Rhine and were now in a favourable position to launch an assault across the river. Code-named Operation Plunder and scheduled for 24 March 1945, the plan called for a colossal artillery and aerial bombardment followed by a river crossing between Rees and Rheinberg. The airborne element of the operation, code-named Varsity, called for a massive daylight drop – the largest airborne operation of the war – and was scheduled to take place at 1000 hrs, after the initial river crossing was completed. This would allow the artillery massed on the west bank of the Rhine to fire at will in the early hours of the operation without fear of hampering the airborne elements. A daytime drop would also help to ensure that the troopers were dropped more accurately, a lesson learned after the scattered night drop at Normandy. The airborne armada, with 1,700 aircraft towing 1,300 gliders and delivering 14,000 men, would consist of both paratroopers and glider- borne troops. Landing approximately five miles beyond the riverbank, they were to seize and hold the high ground, disrupt the Germans defensive reaction to the crossing, and prevent reinforcements from reaching the bridgehead. The plan called for a link-up of ground and airborne troops on the first day of operations. The tragic losses at Arnhem were not lost on the planners.

Williams in Germany

The weather on the day of the operation was near perfect, with only the smoky haze from the artillery bombardment obscuring the view from the air. After what must have been a fitful sleep (reveille was set for 0200 hrs), and a hearty breakfast, thirty-five C-47’s of the IX Troop Carrier Command of the USAAF took off from Chipping Ongar airfield at 0730 hrs and formed up for the two-hour flight to the DZ. The Canadians were scheduled to drop at just past 1000 hrs. It was expected that the Battalion would be landing on a hot DZ, experiencing heavy flak and crossfire from the firmly entrenched German positions.

Despite the fact that the weather was clear and that the drop was in broad daylight, once again there were many who landed some distance from the intended target. Flak over the area was heavy and many of the aircraft failed to throttle back over the DZ, which resulted in a scattered drop, mostly to the east. Notwithstanding this, all of the Canadian companies were able to organize themselves and take their objectives within two hours of the landing. No doubt the exceptional leadership and battle experience helped tremendously with the reorganization on the ground.

Once dug in, the Battalion was successful in beating off the inevitable German probes and counterattacks, which began almost immediately. The Canadians were facing a tough and resourceful enemy, including battle- hardened paratroopers who were now fighting for their homeland.
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The Run to Wismar

During the night of 25/26 March, after their great success on the DZ, it was eerily quiet in and around the Battalion positions. As daylight approached, squads were detailed to make a sweep of the DZ and the surrounding areas to pick up equipment and to look for casualties. By 1000 hrs, the unit received orders that they would hear often in the weeks to come, they were moving out. On this particular day it was to an assembly area where the brigade could regroup and plan for the next phase of the operation. This began early on the morning of 27 March when they were ordered to advance towards the Issel River, which was reached and crossed with little opposition. Finally, at 0945 hrs the Germans made an appearance when the Battalion came under fire from a nearby wood. With aid from artillery fire, as well as an armoured squadron comprised of both tanks and armoured cars, the Canadians were able to overcome the German resistance by early afternoon. After consolidating their position and setting up a defensive perimeter, they dug in for the night. The following morning they were on the move by 0800 hrs, once again facing little enemy opposition. This pattern of advance, sometimes on foot, but often by truck and on the back of tanks, was to become the mantra for the Battalion over the next six weeks.

Brigadier Hill’s 3rd Brigade had been given the task of spearheading the Allied drive to the northeastern part of Germany, and he had every intention of completing his assigned mission. His plan was simple and effective; he would use the three Battalions at his disposal, the British 8th and 9th Battalions of the Parachute Regiment as well as the Canadians, in a series of leapfrog manoeuvres. One battalion would take the lead, press on as far as they could, consolidate a defensive position, and then one of the other battalions would pass through their positions and move on to the next objective. In this manner they were able to cover huge distances. On 3 April alone, the Canadians covered an astonishing 40 miles.

Fairborne showing off a captured Foke-Wolf

In many cases, towns were taken unopposed, but there were a few that required sustained action to overcome the defenders. The first of these tests came on the advance of 30 March when the Battalion reached the town of Greven, some thirty-five miles beyond Coesfeld. By the time they arrived, it was starting to get dark, but there was a key bridge over the Dortmund-Ems Canal that had to be taken intact. A Company was to be the first to go in and they were able to take the bridge relatively easily. Unfortunately, they captured the wrong bridge and the Germans were able to destroy the main one before it could be taken. The bridge that had been captured was only suitable for foot traffic. Nevertheless, the town was occupied and a foothold across the canal was available to the Brigade.

The relative ease with which they were able to take many of the towns and villages was a result of a number of factors. First, some elements of the German Army encountered were not of the same calibre as those that were faced in Normandy and Belgium. In many cases, the Germans were reduced to using units of the Volkssturm, a type of German national militia that had been hastily organized towards the end of the war. Many of the Volkssturm units consisted of old men and young boys, as the recruiting age had been set at between 16 and 60 years of age. Their will to fight was not always as strong as some of the regular army units. Also, many of the enemy units were cut off by the rapid Allied advances and had run out of key supplies, such as ammunition and fuel. They were simply unable to continue the fight. Finally, most Germans, civilians and soldiers alike, recognized that the war was lost and that it was preferable to fall under the sphere of the western Allies rather than the Russians.

The Battalion won the race to Wismar, the Russians ultimate objective. First contact with the Stalin’s armies was on the night of 2/3 May when C Company encountered a small patrol. Many more formal meetings and discussions followed in the days after. Relations were cordial between the two sides, but there were instances of tension in what had become in essence, a battle of wills between east and west. The Russians had not expected to find the town occupied, but it was made perfectly clear that the Canadians had no intention of relinquishing their positions. Things settled down to a peaceful coexistence and for all intents and purposes, the war in Europe was over for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.
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POWs

Through seven months of intensive front line fighting, eighty officers and men of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were taken prisoner by the Germans. The parachute drop into Normandy on D-Day accounted for by far the largest number of prisoners. Due to the scattered nature of the drop, many of the men landed in isolated areas and were unable to link up with other members of their company and never had a chance to reach unit positions. Even when the men were able to form up into small groups, they faced a formidable task in finding their way back to the Battalion positions. Most did not know where they had been dropped, and wandering about in the dark French countryside was a hazardous undertaking. It was easy for the men to stumble into German positions and be taken prisoner.

Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks faced by prisoners was the mental battle of coming to grips with the knowledge that they did not know when they would regain their freedom. A civilian who is sentenced to two years in prison for committing a crime has an achievable and defined goal: survive in prison for two years. Soldiers that were captured had no idea when, or even if, their side would attain ultimate victory. Consequently, the POWs had no idea when they would be released. Towards the end of the war, there was a sense that victory would eventually come, but not knowing was the difficult part. Fortunately for the Canadian paratroopers taken prisoner in Normandy, their time in the camps was short and most managed to get through the experience and still maintain their health, and in many cases, even a sense of humour.
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Homecoming

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had the unique distinction of celebrating VE Day with both the Russians and the British in Wismar. The end of the war was somewhat anticlimactic as the fighting had been over for almost a week when the official surrender was announced. Wismar was a large town and offered many amenities that the Battalion had not seen in a while. Accommodations for the men were in houses or other buildings that offered shelter and possibly even a clean bed for sleeping. But given the no fraternization policy with the Germans, it was necessary to keep the troops busy with other forms of entertainment. The YMCA helped with this by providing sports equipment and other organized activities. The Battalion’s stay in Wismar was, however, short lived as they were ordered back to England and were back in Carter Barracks by 21 May 1945, when they were given nine days leave.

Hellerud with souvenir

Just three days into their leave, word went out that all members of the unit were to return to Carter Barracks at once. Many were concerned that this could only mean another airborne operation was being planned. But their fears were unfounded, as they soon learned that the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been selected as the first Canadian unit to return to Canada. This was quite an honour when one considers that there were Canadian units that had been overseas since the beginning of the war. The Commander of the 3rd Brigade, Brigadier James Hill, DSO, MC, had a particular fondness for the Canadians under his command. Their repatriation brought to an end their relationship with the 6th Airborne Division, which had flourished for nearly two years. After an emotional send off, attended by most of the senior officers of the Division, the Battalion was moved to a holding camp and set sail on the Ile de France, arriving in Halifax on 21 June 1945, just six weeks after VE Day.
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