The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was formed in July 1942.
It became a crack fighting unit, confident in its abilities and extremely well led by first rate officers and NCO's. Platoon Sergeant R.F. Anderson described the paratroopers this way; "We were strong, disciplined and proud. It was an outfit of quite superior individuals." The 1st CPB jumped into combat twice, both times in extremely critical and decisive battles.
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was formed in July, 1942. The initial formation was made up of officers and NCO’s hand picked from army units across Canada and Britain. The Battalion first trained at Fort Benning, Georgia in the U.S. then Shilo, Manitoba and after arriving in England, completed its training on the Salisbury Plain.
One of its officers described the Battalion this way; "We were elite troops and we knew it. We were highly trained and had tremendous morale. We were strong, disciplined and proud."
Platoon Sergeant R.F. Anderson described the paratroopers this way; "It was an outfit of quite superior individuals." The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion jumped into combat twice, each time participating in extremely critical and decisive battles.
Their first test under fire was the night of 5–6 June 1944, D Day, where the Battalion would land behind German lines. The second drop was the Battle of the Rhineland, where the Battalion was among the first assault troops on the eastern shore of the Rhine River, which would be the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
At ten minutes after midnight, 6 June 1944, C Company of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was among the first of the Allied Paratroopers to land in Normandy. They were dropped from converted bombers to let the Germans believe that the flight was just another bombing raid. The remainder of the Battalion, part of the 6th British Airborne Division, jumped approximately an hour later.
The drops did not go as planned. Many of the paratroopers were dropped far from their drop zones and scattered like leaves in the wind, which resulted in the capture of many Canadians. C Company managed to take most of its objectives by destroying bridges over the Dives River, as well as a German bunker, while another company destroyed a coastal gun battery. As the paratroopers located each other, the Battalion took up its position at the Le Mesnil Crossroads east of the vital Orne River and Caen Canal bridges, with the objective of denying German access to the bridges.
At Le Mesnil, the paratroopers fought the Germans for eleven days and Battalion strength was now only 300 men, but they held the position. D Day had cost the Battalion 117 casualties, including 20 killed and another 84 captured.
Instead of being withdrawn as expected, to be dropped somewhere else, the British 6th Airborne Division, which included the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, fought as an infantry division for almost three months. When the Battalion was finally pulled out of Normandy, it was little more than 50% strength, but it has won all its battles.
On 5 June, 2003, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Association returned to their first battle site at Le Mesnil Crossroads in Normandy. Association President Jan de Vries offers his recollections of D–Day below:
“5 June, 1944: Afternoon; windy; raining. My Battalion Company “C” arrived at Harwell airfield in the UK. “C” Company was the assault company to lead the Battalion and Division into France by one half hour. We marched to the lined up aircraft and found our parachutes that were fitted the day before. Most of the men in each of the ten-man sticks (a stick is a group of Paratroops in a plane who are to jump) relieved themselves on the field. Then we loaded up our equipment, weapons, ammunition and rations.
In my case, as a bombardier in a section of ten men, I carried a Sten gun, seven spare magazines, four spare magazines for the Bren gunner, a two-inch mortar and six bombs, grenades of every type, rations for two days, wire cutters, trenching tool, gas mask and water bottle. I think I went in with about 80 pounds of equipment. All this was covered over with a disposable sleeveless cloth smock to avoid the parachute lines snagging on the equipment. We put on our parachutes and were helped into the aircraft.
The Albemarle bomber that was converted to troop carrier, had a limit of ten men; low head room. A bomber was chosen to make the Germans think it was just another bombing raid.
I sat facing the tail of the plane, knees to the back of the man in front. It was a noisy flight due to the aircraft motors. There was very little talking as we approached the French coast. What everyone was thinking, I have no idea. All I recall of my own thoughts was that I would be able to carry out my orders and not let my comrades down.
We could see flashes of exploding anti-aircraft fire as we crossed the coast. We were bounced side to side as the pilot tried to avoid the anti-aircraft fire.
Someone called out, “Red light” and a rush of activity took place. The first two men opened the two halves of the cover of the bath tub sized hole and hooked them to the sides of the aircraft. The first two men to jump, straddled the hole, feet placed one foot at each side; the third and fourth sat at each end with legs in the hole. The rest of the stick squirmed as close as possible and waited for the green light.
It seemed forever, but the green light came on; about 0010 on 6 June. I believe I was number 8 or 9. I dove out the hole worried about being at a distance from the other men in the stick.
It was very dark as I was dropping and I was looking for the ground when I landed with a thump. I had no idea where I was. I could hear aircraft above so I headed in the direction they were flying assuming they were coming from the coast. I would hear the sound of footsteps or talking. I knew they were German patrols, since our men would have been quiet. I tried to figure out what went wrong; why I was alone in a place where I could not recognize any features we had studied.
Just before daylight I met three men from my platoon moving along a hedgerow. We came under fire a couple of times and saw our first dead body. We finally arrived late in the day at our high ground defense position, Le Mesnil Crossroads and reported to Company headquarters.
Out of 120 men in “C” Company who were to carry out the objectives only thirty-five landed on the drop zone. The rest were scattered, like myself or captured or killed. Some straggled in for days if they had managed to evade the Germans.
The 35 men led by officers and NCO’s blew the two bridges, captured a German bunker and strong point, blew up a signal terminal and engaged a German headquarters while the rest of the Battalion and Division arrived.
My first order on arrival at our defense position was to locate where the Germans were. This I proceeded to do walking on the field side of the hedge. About halfway down the field I saw one of our snipers laying at the edge of the field, his rifle pointing to a bush at the far side of the field. He did not answer my call as I approached. I went to step over him when I saw he was dead; a bullet hole in his forehead.
I bent low and moved faster. Further along, looking through a hedgerow, I saw what appeared to be some kind of headquarters with many Germans milling around. I quickly returned to our lines and reported the location of the Germans and where I had found our dead sniper. The information must have quickly been sent to the Navy in the Channel. It wasn’t much later that we could hear the big navy shells whistling overhead. On a subsequent patrol I found that the house the Germans had used as a headquarters was destroyed, and no sign of German troops.”