1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
With tension in the Pacific rapidly growing throughout 1941, and with German U-boats venturing in the St. Lawrence the following year, National Defence Headquarters reviewed its response strategy in case of an enemy attack on Canadian soil. The successes of British and German paratroopers led HQ to the conclusion that airborne troops could play a key role in defending remote areas, and even help retake positions taken by enemy paratrooper units.
On that basis, the Canadian Army created the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion on July 1st, 1942. After the British model, the battalion was comprised of a HQ, a Headquarters company, and of three rifle companies, 26 officers and 590 men of all ranks.
The initial call for volunteers, targeting men who already had infantry experience, was disappointing. Soldiers in training were concerned that serving with a parachute company would limit them to territorial defence, a prospect of little appeal for young men eager for action. A second call, directed at active forces, i.e. at those who had already signed up for service overseas, changed dramatically that image: the paratrooper mystique, the possibility of joining an elite corps, fired the imagination of young recruits looking for excitement and adventure.
Paratrooper training began at Fort Benning, Georgia, until the construction of a Canadian facility at Camp Shilo, Manitoba, was completed. The four-week training programme at Fort Benning aimed first at developing physical stamina and discipline, then at familiarizing recruits with the equipment and jump techniques. Jumping exercises first used a 10-metre tower, tall enough to give the impression of a great height. Then trainees move to a 75-metre tower, and finally jump from planes. To be qualified, a recruit must make at least five successful jumps from a plane.
On December 7th, 1942, 97 recruits, under Capt Beckett, left Fort Benning for additional training at Fort Harrison, Montana. They make up the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion, a unit that was later integrated with the First Special Service Force, a Canada-U.S. shock unit better known as the “Devil’s Brigade”.
Starting April 15th, 1943, the 1st Battalion starts training at Camp Shilo, where a 75-metre tower, like the one at Fort Benning, has just been completed. Training follows essentially the U.S. programme and an attempt is made at recreating combat conditions that paratroopers are expected to encounter. Unfortunately, the nearest airfield is at Rivers, 64 km away, and recruits have to get there first.
As the possibility of an invasion of Canada appears less and less realistic, starting in 1943, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion is attached to the British 6th Airborne Division, to take part in the attack against Germany. At the end of July 1943, 31 officers and 548 men, fully trained and equipped, leave for England aboard Queen Elizabeth. Their battalion is now part of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, under Brig S. James Hill; the Brigade also includes two British battalions, the 8th and 9th.
In England, more training awaits the Canadians, this time at Carter Barracks in Bulford, near Salisbury. The men need to work on their physical performance and take part in combat exercises at the battalion and at the brigade level.
Brig S. James Hill is a strong believer in the importance of optimal physical and mental condition, as the key to survival in an action context. His programme is a simple one, based on four principles:
Speed: Speed in action: paratroopers must move twice as fast as anybody else must on the operation theatre; speed in decision making: paratroopers must always be ten minutes ahead of others.
Simplicity: Simplicity allows speed and eliminates the possibility of mistakes.
Control: Tight control is essential to optimize resources and keep units organized, since paratroopers battalions are small units (some 500 men) and have little ammunition. They may also find themselves scattered over the drop zone.
Fire Effect: A paratrooper must also be a sharpshooter and proficient with a wide range of weapons, including those of the enemy. And as paratroopers carry little ammunition and equipment they must make sure that their fire is on target. They go by the following: wait until you see the white of their eyes before shooting.
To meet Brig Hill’s standards, paratroopers must follow a demanding regime of foot races, forced marches and combat exercises. In August and September 1943, they run 8 km every morning. Each battalion must pass the following test: an 80-km march with full gear within 18 hours. The 1st Canadian Battalion makes it on November 19th, 1943. Then, until April 1944, it takes part in major combat exercices, simulating a landing on French shores. On May 24th, 1944, the battalion leaves Bulford for the Down Ampney transit camp. They are ready to fight.
Airborne troops are elite troops; they may rapidly deployed behind enemy lines to prepare the ground for advancing land forces. Once dropped, paratroopers units operate as infantry units and are under the same command.
As a battalion within the British 6th Airborne Division, Canadians took part in several major operations on the European theatre. In the night of 5th to 6th June 1944, they crossed the Channel to be dropped on the East flank of the landing area a few hours before the assault. For different reasons, including adverse weather conditions and poor visibility, the soldiers were scattered, at times quite far from the planned drop zone. Nevertheless, and in spite of German resistance, the men of the 1st Canadian Parachute battalion achieved their goals: to cut the bridges on the Dives and Divette Rivers in Varaville and Robehomme, to protect the left flank of the 9th Parachute Battalion as it attacked the German artillery position in Merville, to take a strategic position at a crossroad in Le Mesnil. The Canadian Battalion was later involved in ground operations to strengthen the bridgehead and support the advance of Allied troops towards the Seine River. On September 6th, 1944, they left Normandy and returned to the Bulford training camp.
‘C’ Company had been given the task of clearing out the enemy garrison at Varaville. Given the size of the force represented by ‘C’ Company, the undertaking was formidable. At the Chateau de Varaville, a 75 mm anti-tank gun and fortifications, which included bunkers and trenches, had been established to control the road intersection. This was manned by a much larger force than had been anticipated…
– John A. Willes, Out of the Clouds
Of the 27 officers and 516 men from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who took part in the Battle of Normandy, 24 officers and 343 men gave their lives. 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. In December 1944, paratroopers are ready once more and, on Christmas Day, sail for Belgium. They take part in the battle of the Ardennes and, between January 22nd and February 19th, 1945, are tasked with holding an Allied position near Roermond, Netherlands, on the Maas River.
On March 23rd, 1945, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion takes part in the crossing of the Rhine, operation code name “Varsity”. The battalion is part of a concentration of paratroopers and gliders under U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, whose objective is to capture and hold a wooded area above the point where the bulk of Allied troops should cross the river. They must stop German artillery from preventing that passage and oppose any reinforcement from the east. German troops put up a fierce resistance and, despite its indomitable courage, the 1st Battalion incurs heavy losses.
Having succeeded in that mission, the 6th Airborne Division, with its Canadian Battalion, is ordered to head towards the plains of Northern Germany and the Baltic sea, together with the British 2nd Army. In trucks, on tanks, and at time, on foot, Canadian paratroopers break through enemy defence lines and cross the Dortmund-Ems Canal in Ladbergen, the Weser near Celle, and then the Elbe in Lauenbourg. Beyond that point, German troops offer hardly any resistance and often surrender without fighting. War is drawing to an end. But, under the command of Brig Hill, the 3rd Parachute Brigade increases its pace; its goal: to get to Wismar on the shore of the Baltic Sea before the Russians. The Canadians, under Lt-Col Fraser Eadie, reach Wismar on May 2nd, 1945, two hours before the Russian Army, with which they make contact. Six days later, the War was over.
The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion came home in June. After a 30-day rest, men were ordered to report to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. But the war in the Pacific is drawing to an end as well and there will be no further use for 1st Parachute Battalion. Men are transferred to permanent units or return to civilian life.
- John A. Willes, Out of the Clouds, The History of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 1995.
- Dan Hartigan, A Rising of Courage, Canada’s Paratroops in the Liberation of Normandy, Calgary, Drop Zone Publishers, 2000.