In past posts, I have given general overviews on various topics. This was done in hopes that if a topic is found interesting, this encourages the reader to then look into topics much more closely. However, my last post on how allied airborne troops came about during WWII produced a question on how the Canadian Army was involved. So this month I will describe the creation and exploits of the Canadian 1st Para Battalion.
Colonel E.L.M. Burns fought endlessly for its creation. The idea was quashed several times as command saw no relevance to the home army. This changed as German U-boats began travelling up the St. Lawrence river. Given the enormous size of the country, Col. Burns suggested that paratroops would be the ideal way to deposit a quick reaction force to any German incursion in any part of the country. The incredible successes German airborne troops saw at the start of hostilities, along with the formation of the American and British airborne divisions, encouraged the Canadians to form the Canadian 1st parachute battalion on July 1st, 1942. The 2nd Para was formed later that year. This formed the Canadian contingent of the special service force.
Canadian commanders were very smart in designing the initial training for this new army; they looked at how all the previous armies had begun and took the best from all to come up with an excellent training regime. The first inductees were split into two, one half sent to Fort Benning, USA. The other half was sent to RAF Ringway,UK. Once the Army had finalized the Canadian training manual, the Canadian paratroops were all sent and trained at CFB Shilo, Manitoba.
The 1st Parachute Regiment finished training and were shipped to Europe in July 1943. Upon arrival in England, they came under the command of the 3rd Para Brigade of the British 6th Airborne Division. The following year was spent doing training jumps and land exercises in preparation for the upcoming invasion of Europe.
For the Paratroops of the Allied forces, they began the fight on June 5th, 1944. The target for the Canadian 1st battalion were the bridges at Dives and Varavilk. They were dropped from a total of 50 aircraft. Each man carried a specially designed knife, rope (to help in descent from trees), an escape kit with French Francs and enough rations for 48 hours. All of this plus their regular kit which weighed upwards of 70lbs. Secondary to their primary targets was the protection of the flanks of the British 9th Battalion as they attacked the Merville Batteries.
The Battalion landed between 0100-0130 6th June 1944, becoming the first Canadian troops to set foot on French soil. By mid day 6th June 1944, the Battalion had reached every one of their objectives. This despite the overwhelming confusion created by the poor weather and missed dropped zones. During the first days of the invasion, segments of the Battalion surrendered to the troops of the Das Fuhrer SS Division. It was these Canadian troops, with a mix of other allied soldiers (approximately 50 in total) who were murdered by the SS. The fight for Normandy ended for the Battalion on Aug 26th, 1944. They had lost a total of 367 men. It had become evident during the battle for Caen that future training had to include urban fighting techniques, something that all troops today must learn. At the time, this training was done at Bulford, UK
December ’44 saw the Battalion return to mainland Europe to counter the latest German offensive, what we now know as “The Battle of the Bulge”. They played only a small part in this battle as they arrived during the last few day of fighting. From Belgium, they were moved to the Netherlands in preparation for the crossing of the Rhine. During this time they maintained an active defensive line. They also managed to keep up considerable patrol activity. This ended Feb 23rd ’44 when the Battalion returned to the UK.
27th March 1945 saw the largest airborne operation of the war, as the allies crossed the Rhine into Germany. A total of 40,000 troops were dropped by 1500 aircraft and gliders. For this operation the Battalion was attached to the British 6th Division. This, the last major battle of WWII, saw the defeat of the elite 1st Fallshirmkorp in just 36 hours. In the following 37 days, the Battalion helped push the front lines 285 miles further east into Germany. On the way, they encountered one of the many reasons they were fighting in the form of the Bergen-Belson concentration camp, one of hundreds of such camps soon to be discovered throughout Europe. The Battalion was also the only Canadian troops to meet with forward elements of the Soviet army. This happened at Wismar on 2nd May 1945. The war ended 6 days later.
The Battalion returned to Canada on the 21st June 1945, arriving to a warm welcome at Halifax. A few short months later, 30th September, 1945, the unit was officially disbanded. One final note, during the Battalion’s time in Europe, one Victoria Cross was awarded to Corporal Fredrick George Topham. He won his medal during the fight for Wessel, close to the Rhine river on 24th March ’45.