(1) The following amendment, dealing with the casualties suffered by the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion on June 6, 1944, should be read in conjunction with paragraph #40 of this report
(2) This breakdown of casualty figures has been compiled by the Officer in charge of the War Diaries, the Historical Section of the Canadian Military Headquarters (CMHQ), from information contained on the ‘battle casualty statistic cards’ maintained by the Casualty Section, Overseas Canadian Records Office
(3) Casualties for June 6, 1944, were as follow, presumed Killed 2; Killed 18; Missing 91; Wounded 6.
This figure ‘Missing’ 91, includes 10 listed as ‘now safe’ and 81 listed as ‘Prisoner of War’ repatriated now.
The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in France
June 6, 1944 – September 4, 1944
(1) This report is the story in the outline of the participation of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in the Allied Invasion of France. The period covered is from D Day, Jun 6, 1944, to the unit’s return to England on Sep 6, 1944. The formation of the unit, and the problems arising out of its early training in the USA, Canada, and the UK, will be briefly discussed in another report soon to be published on the EUCMH’s website.
(2) After its arrival in the UK on Jul 28, 1943, under the command of LCol G.F.P. Bradbrook, the Battalion had 10 months’ extensive training in preparation for the airborne phase of the Allied assault. During this period of training, and subsequent during action in France, the unit formed part of the British 3rd Parachute Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division. The latter formation was included in Gen Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group including the British and the Canadian components of the Allied forces that invaded France. The following brief account will inevitably make frequent reference to the activities of the British formations under whose command the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion served, in order that the relationship of the unit to the operation as a whole may be clearly established.
(3) Material for this report has been drawn from the Unit War Diary, substantially supplement by the War Diary of the British 3rd Parachute Brigade, and from sitreps and statements of officers who participated in the airborne assault.
General Plan of the Invasion
(4) The general plan of the Allied invasion of France in Operation Overlord is described in the report ‘Canadian Participation in the Operations on northwest Europe 1944’, Part 1, The Assault and Subsequent Operations of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armored Brigade. In a very condensed form, the initial Joint Plan visualized a night attack by Bombers, in very great strength, followed by a large-scale attack by airborne troops. The latter would be preceded and prepare for the main Seaborne invasion, which would take place under the cover of further air support and tremendous naval bombardment. The general area of the attack was that portion of the North-Eastern coast of Normandy in the vicinity of Carentan, Bayeux and Caen.
Formation and Unit Objectives
(5) The airborne attack comprised 2 major operations. In the Western sector, on the right of the Allied landing, near the beaches in front of Carentan and Vareville, 2 American Airborne Divisions, the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 101st Airborne Division, were to make a descent in preparation for the Seaborne landings in that area. In the Eastern sector, allocated to British and Canadian forces, the 6th Airborne Division, forming part of the 1st Corps of the 2nd British Army, was given the important task of protecting the left flank of 3 British Infantry Divisions, which was to land on the beach West of Ouistreham and to capture Caen by H +22. The 6th Airborne Division was to deny the enemy use of the area between the Orne River and the Dives River North of the road Troarn – Sannerville – Colombelles and to hold this bridgehead until the Seaborne reinforcements arrived. During the period of planning, the code name ‘Neptune’ was given to the Seaborne assault phase of the projected operations in the British sector.
(6) Formations in the 6th Airborne Division (Gen R.N. Gale), were the 3rd Parachute Brigade Group (including the 1st Canadian Paratrooper Battalion), the 5th Parachute Brigade Group, the 6th Air Landing Brigade Group and then 1st Air Landing Recce Regiment. Brought under command of Operation Neptune was the 1st Special Service Brigade. Each of these five forces was assigned important tasks within the divisional area. The 5th Parachute Brigade (7, 12, and 13th Parachute Battalions), in the role of securing a link with 3 British Infantry Divisions were ordered to seize and hold the 2 bridges, over the Caen Canal in Colombelles and Benouville as well as the Orne River in the vicinity of Benouville, then establish a bridgehead in the Ranville area.
Immediately to the South, the 6th Air Landing Brigade Group (R.U.R and Oxf Bucks) was to come down on a landing zone West of Amfreville and to secure a firm base area between Escoville and the Orne River. Making a glider landing East of Ranville late on D Day, the Air Landing Recce Regiment was to strike Southwards beyond the divisional boundary, with the intention of establishing a base at Cagny from which further offensive operations East and Southeast could be carried out.
To the North the Commandos of the Seaborne 1st Special Service Brigade (3, 4, 6th Commandos, and the 45th (RM) Command), landing on the Ouistreham beaches, were assigned the task of mopping up the coastal area between the Orne and the Dives Rivers as far South as Le Plein – Varaville. The job of preventing the entry into the area of enemy reinforcements from the East by demolishing 6 bridges across the Dives River and one of its tributaries, the Divette River, and by denying the use of all main roads within the divisional area, was given to the 3rd Parachute Brigade (Gen Stanley J. Hill. In addition, the brigade was made responsible for silencing an enemy coast defense battery at Merville.
(7) Division of the objectives of the 3rd Parachute Brigade between its component units saw the 9th Parachute Battalion being given the road-denial tasks in the North (including the destruction of the Merville Battery), the 8th Parachute Battalion receiving the bridge-blowing assignments in the Southeast part of the area, and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (LCol Bradbrooke) being assigned the operations in the Eastern and Central sector, in Robehomme – Varaville – Le Mesnil triangle. The specific tasks of the Canadian unit as enumerated in the 3rd Parachute Brigade Operation Order was as follow: (a) Secure and protect the Drop Zone during the landing of the Brigade group by the destruction of the enemy HQs area at Varaville and neutralization if enemy occupying houses in the area; (b) Destroy the bridge at Varaville by H +2 and cover the demolitions until relieved by the 1st Special Service Brigade. Not before H +5; (c) Destroy the bridges at Robehomme by and at (199739) H +2 and cover the demolitions. (Note that on the 1:25.000 map, there is no indication of the area of the existence of any bridge or need for one at (199739). Nor does the account of the operation in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion’s War Diary make any reference to the destruction of such a bridge. It may be assumed that this was one of a number of small bridges over ditches within the B Co’s area).
(d) Cover the move to an assault on the Merville Battery by the 9th Parachute Battalion from interference from the South; (e) Seize and hold the area around the road junction at (141728). This road junction topped the narrow Le Plein – Bois de Bavent ridge, a strategic feature, 180 feet high, dividing the Orne River and Dives River valleys. Possession of this thickly wooded ridge would protect the Benouville bridges, and prevent enemy observation of the Ranville bridgehead. (WD 1st Cdn Para Bn, Jun 44, ‘Appreciation of Situation by Brig Hill, Apr 14, 1944’). Because of these factors, the vicinity of the crossroads was selected as the site of the 3rd Parachute Brigade Command Post, with HQs of the 3 battalions grouped around it.
Of the above tasks for the 1st Canadian Para Bn, (a) (b) was assigned to Charlie Co, (c) and (d) to Baker Co, and (f) to Able Co. (Historical Section File AEF/1 Cdn Para Bn/C/I/, Folio N°III (c): 1 Cdn Para Bn O.O. N°1, May 28, 1944).
The Assault (June 6 1944)
(8) After a postponement of 24 hours because of unfavorable weather, the Allied invasion of France began in the early hours of Jun 6, 1944. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had enplaned late on Jun 5, in two sections. Charlie Co, moving with the Advanced Brigade HQS to neutralize opposition on the DZ took off in 12 Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle airplanes from the Harwell Airfield between Oxford and Reading at 2230. The remainder of the battalion left from Down Ampney, between Swindon and Cirencester, at 2325, traveling in 38 C-47 Douglas Skytrains, 3 of which towed gliders, carrying jeeps and trailers loaded with ammunition and signals equipment. Each paratrooper carried normal equipment, including a fighting knife, a toggle rope, an escape kit with French currency, and 2 24-hours rations. In all, a man’s load amounted to approximately 70 pounds (35 Kg). A special duty party from 1st Canadian Parachute Training Company attended the battalion to the concentration area and relieved it of various administrative tasks during the final stages of preparation for the assault.
(9) The Canadian descent from the sky upon the fields and woods on Normandy was made between 0100 and 0130 on D Day. Comparatively few of the men hit the designed DZ. Although flying conditions were good, and landmarks clearly visible, the dispersion was very bad, and the actual dropping zone extended over a general area ten times the size of that originally projected. This apparently faulty air navigation might have had far more unfortunate results than actually ensued. Its result was seen in the large number of paratroopers captured from the battalion on the first day.
Two platoons of Baker Co dropped West of Robehomme, 2 miles from their prescribed DZ. One stick of 10 men from Charlie Co dropped West of the Orne River, below Ouistreham, more than 4 miles from its intended target. These paratroopers were fortunate in making their way to rejoin the battalion on the following day. That so many did return safely to their unit speaks well for their individual initiative and the thoroughness of the briefing given all ranks prior to departure from England. Among the Vickers and Mortar Platoons, there was an unexpectedly heavy wastage in weapons. Machine guns and mortars were carried in special kit bags, many of which tore loose during the jump and were lost (WD, 1 Cdn Para Bn, June 6, 1944).
(10 In spite of its initial dispersion, the battalion achieved surprise, and all objectives were speedily attained. Charlie Co, having secured the DZ, demolished the bridge across the Divette River at Varaville and engaged a German strongpoint just west of the town. This position, which had to be cleared to secure the DZ, proved much more strongly held than had been expected.
By 1030, the enemy pillbox had surrendered, but not before a large number of Canadian casualties had been sustained. Its capitulation was largely brought about by the effect of our PIAT (Projectile Infantry Anti Tank) bombs, according to the evidence of a Canadian mortar detachment commander, who had landed on the top of the enemy position and temporarily been held prisoner.
The reduction of this post and the destruction of the Merville Battery by the 9th Parachute Battalion removed the two strongest local enemy threats to the security of the brigade area. At 1500, bicycle troops of the 6th Commando arrived and Charlie Co proceeded to the battalion area at Le Mesnil. Meanwhile, the other companies had had little difficulty in achieving their objectives. Able Co, having covered the flank of the 9th Parachute Battalion in its successful assault on the bomb-shattered bunker of the Merville Battery (86 Halifax and 13 Lancasters of 6 Groups of the Royal Canadian Air Force, formed the major part of a force which dropped a full bomb load on the target prior the assault) and it’s subsequent withdrawal to Le Plein, rejoined its battalion at the Le Mesnil – Bavent crossroads at 1530.
Blowing its bridge across the Dives River at Robehomme by Bake Co established a defensive position and observation post on the Robehomme Hill. It remained there for a day and a half, after which the withdrawal, under German pressure, of the 6th Commando from Varaville compelled the removal of the company from its exposed forward site. It was called back under cover of darkness on the night of June 7-8 and reached the Battalion HQs at 0330 on the morning of June 8.
Progress During D Day
(11) The Canadian Battalion’s initial success was characteristic of that achieved by the 3rd Paratrooper Brigade and by the 6th Airborne Division as a whole. All bridges from Troan to Varaville had been blown by the 3rd Paratrooper Brigade’s units. By 1200 on D Day, the important bridges crossing the Caen Canal and the Orne River west of Ranville had been captured intact by the 5th Paratrooper Brigade, and by 2100 the 2 airborne battalions of the 6th Air Landing Brigade (1. R.U.R and 2 Oxf Bucks) had made successful glider landings.
The 1st Air Landing Recce Regiment was reported to have probed to the outskirts of Caen before rejoining the 6th Airborne Division. Divisional F.D.Ls. had been established trough Longueval, Escoville, and along the main road running Southeast to, but excluding, Troarn. Continual attacks from the South had all been held (Gist Sec File, AEF/1 Cdn Para Bn/C/H, 6th Airborne Division Sitrep N°3, June 7, 1944). The first round had been won, and now it was a question of holding on until the Seaborne reinforcements should arrive.
The aerial phase of their initial assault behind them, the members of the 1st Cdn Para Bn were destined to operate solely as infantry troops for the remainders of their stay in France. Nine months were to elapse before they again used parachutes to drop into action. In the meantime, they put into practice the lessons they learned during the months of preparation in England. And in the difficult weeks that followed D Day, when enemy infantry and sometimes tank and SP attack had to be met with an inferior weight of firepower, the insistence that had been placed upon intensive weapon-training at Bulford proved itself a worth-while investment.
The Le Mesnil Crossroads (June 7/17 1944)
(12) The morning of D +1 found the 1st Cdn Para Bn (less Baker Co being still in Robehomme) concentrated astride the Le Mesnil crossroads protecting the Brigade’s HQs. 3 mortars that had arrived by sea, replacing to some extent those lost during the parachute descent, were set up in position in the brickworks near the crossroads and manned by the mortar platoon. The expected counter-attack materialized in the early morning hours when German infantry of the 857 and 858.Grenadier Regiments of the 346.Division, supported by Self Propelled guns and a number of Mark IV tanks, attacked the forward companies’ positions.
A surprise effect was achieved by the mortars, which found an ideal target in the infantry grouped along the road, and the heavy casualties inflicted upon the enemy considerably exceeded the Canadian losses in the engagement. With the support this mortar gave to the battalion’s infantry sections, the attack was repulsed, and the rest of the day was quiet save for activity by enemy snipers. This reverse inflicted upon enemy armor by lightly armed airborne forces is a directly notable incident.
(13) For the next 10 days events followed a fairly regular and unchanging pattern. Small-scale attacks of 1 or 2 platoons strength on our part secured points of vantage on the edge of the defense area, and helped to stabilize the brigade front. In these operations, artillery support was given by naval bombardment FROM the cruiser Arethusa? and one destroyer (Naval Artillery Support 3rd Parachute Brigade – Appx A, to 3 Para Bge O.O. N°1), and from field batteries of the 3rd British Division Artillery, which came in support of the 6th Airborne Division early on D Day (302-FA Battery came under command – Trace X to the 3rd Para Bde O.O. N°1).
Constant patrolling, 24 hours of the day, was maintained by the battalion in attempts to obtain information about enemy dispositions and movements. In general, these patrols were unable to probe very deeply into the opposing defense before they found themselves pinned down by superior numbers, and were forced to return to their own lines.
During the whole of this period shelling and mortaring of the battalion and brigade positions continued without inflicting many casualties, and enemy snipers in trees and hedgerows proved nuisance factor until they were winkled out. More unpleasant was the shooting up of the Brigade’s HQs and the Main Dressing Station by Typhoons on June 13, when 2 Canadian officers were wounded and a French female civilian killed (WD, 3 para Bde, June 13, 1944).
(14). Generally speaking, the opposition encountered by the Canadian Battalion during its first ten days in France had not been severe. The enemy appeared to have few troops in the areas attacked. Most of the prisoners taken by the 3rd Parachute Brigade on D Day were Poles and Russians (ibid June 7, 1944). Later in the fighting interrogation of Polish deserters disclosed that the 857. and 858.Grenadier-Regiments (346.Infantry-Division), the formation facing the 3rd Parachute Brigade front, were reinforced early in July by drafts from a coast defense regiment near Boulogne. Enemy sections were reported as being so arranged that to each Pole there were about 8 Germans.
The latter handled all automatic weapons (WD, 1 Cdn Para Bn, Aug 1944, Appx N°3 Interrogation Report, Aug 11, 1944). But the Germans took full advantage of cover and used their infantry weapons with persistence and skill during their frequent attacks upon the Canadian position. A British War Correspondent (Guy Byam) gives a graphic account of the force of the enemy’s counter-attacks in the early days of the assault: while operations proceeded on the beaches and on the other side of the river and canal, the Germans came at us with tanks and men, again and again. At night he pushed patrols forward, probing and seeking out our weak spots. Every day men died, men were wounded, and our ranks thinned. But the Germans got nowhere. Dead Germans were to be found in the woods along the lines, in the cornfields, everywhere. The enemy left also burned out tanks and smashed mortars. Sometimes we were shelled for long periods, and the blast stripped the trees and splattered into slit trenches where it killed men. (The BBC War Correspondent, Guy Byam, ‘A Great Feat of Arms’ Radio Times, Vol 84, N°1086, Jul 21, 1944).
(Doc Snafu) On Feb 3, 1945, Guy Byam was killed when the B-17 Bomber ‘The Rose of York’ crashed after a daylight raid on Berlin. Byam, 26, was on board of this US 8-USAAF Flying Fortress. The bomber was damaged by the German FLAK over Berlin and disappeared over the North Sea. In the early years of the war, Byam saw action with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and Combined Operations but was wounded and invalided out. He joined the BBC’s War Reporting Unit in April 1944. Two months later he parachuted into Normandy with the 6th British Airborne Division on D-Day and his reports made him a household name. A listener wrote after his death: ‘All looked forward to hearing his enthusiastic and youthful voice in the 9 o’clock news’.
(15) Maintenance of formations of the 6th Airborne Division with supplies and ammunition was effectively carried out, after the first day’s fighting, from the Divisional Maintenance Area Ranville. When the paratroopers jumped on D Day, all personnel carried rations for 48 hours and ammunition for 36 hours. A brigade dump of ammunition dropped from aircraft at the time of the initial assault was formed by BRASCO at the Brigade HQs (WD 1 Cdn Para Bn, June 1944: Adm Order N°1, May 29, 1944).
During the night of June 6-7, a resupply drop from 50 planes took place at the Divisional Maintenance Area, 2 miles to the rear of the Canadian position, and for the next 2 weeks maintenance air missions, without meeting serious opposition from enemy fighter planes, effectively handled the matter of resupply the 6th Airborne Division (Hist Sec file, AEF/1 Cdn Para Bn/C/H, 6th Airborne Division Sitreps 2-27).
In and Out of the Line (June 20 – July 21)
(16) Within a week from D Day, defenses in the 3rd Paratrooper Brigade area had been strengthened by the arrival of the Seaborne reinforcements (the 3rd Para Bge War Diary notes the arrival on June 10 of units of the 153rd Brigade of the 51st (H) Division, -5/7 Gordons and 1 Gordons in the 8th Parachute Battalion area, and 5 Black Watch in the area of the 9th Parachute Battalion). To the North of the Canadian position, German resistance at Breville had been overcome, and the whole Brigade front from Le Plein to the Bois de Bavent stabilized. Montgomery had reported: we have won the battle of the beaches, and in the British sector Operation Overlord had entered its second phase, the defense of the Normandy bridgehead. On June 17, the 3rd Parachute Brigade was relieved in the line by the 5th Parachute Brigade, which had been defending the Southern approaches to the Ranville bridgehead.
(17) For 3 days the brigade remained in the Ranville – Herouvillette area, the 1st Cdn Para Bn occupying positions just outside the village of Ranville. The only enemy activity was occasional shelling of the main road that ran through the village, and the Canadians enjoyed their first relaxation since D Day. Then, on June 20, they moved to a rest area by the Orne River, near Ecarde. During their 5 days’ stay, they were blessed with fine warm weather, and parties were daily organized for bathing in the Orne.
An Army cinema at Luc-sur-Mer provided welcome entertainment. Sight-seeing tours were arranged to enable all ranks to visit the beaches at Ouistreham, the scene of the landing of 3 British Infantry Divisions, where they might learn something more of the vast scale on which Overlord was patterned.
(18) On June 25, the 3rd Parachute Brigade returned to Le Mesnil crossroads, the Canadian Battalion relieving the 13th Parachute Battalion at its former position. The week that followed saw an intensifying of enemy fire upon the brigade area and the Canadian casualty list mounted as a result of long-range artillery shells, harassing mortar fire, sniping, and on two occasions at least, close-range 75-MM AT bursts. because the closely wooded country did not allow long vision OPs, it was difficult to observe fire, and ranging by the battalion mortars in their counter-fire had to be done by sounds (impacts listening) or map reference.
Vigorous patrolling continued in an attempt to pinpoint enemy positions, but the result gained was generally meager and unsatisfactory (WD, 1 Cdn Para Bn, June 27, 1944). Both sides had developed strong defensive positions, supplemented by wiring and roadblocks. By the week of July, when the 3rd Parachute Brigade was relieved by the 5th Parachute Brigade, the situation on the ridge had become one completely static warfare.
(19) From Jul 4 to Jul 21, the battalion again enjoyed a respite from fighting when it moved to the Divisional Rest Area on the Orne River. The first week was spent in cleaning up and resting after the tour of duty in the line. Progress towards a complete mental and physical recovery was aided by the rumors that the Division was shortly to return to England to reform and refit (ibid: Jul 12, 1944). The cheering news of the fall of Caen (Jul 9) and American success in St Lô (Jul 18) suggested that the period of static warfare was ending, and from their battalion area, the Canadians saw, pouring across the Orne River on newly constructed pontoon bridges, the huge masses of armor and troops that were taking part in the big push Southwards.
During this period the unit was reinforced by the arrival of 7 officers and 100 other ranks from the Canadian Base Reinforcement Battalion. This was a welcome addition to the fighting strength of the Parachute Battalion which has sustained 300 casualties since D Day (para #40). The fact that these reinforcements were not trained paratroopers mattered little. Indeed, for the role in which the battalion was to be engaged during the remainder of its stay in France, well-trained and equipped infantrymen provided the most valuable acquisition that could have been supplied.
Bavent Woods – Bures Woods (July 21 – August 17)
(20) The battalion’s hope for an early return to England were not to be realized. On July 21, the 3rd Parachute Brigade returned to the line, moving to an area immediately South of the 5th Parachute Brigade, which continued to man the Le Mesnil position. The new brigade area extended along the western edge of the thickly timbered Bois de Bavent, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion relieving the 12th Devons in their position astride the Le Mesnil – Troarn road. The weather had broken, and heavy rain had flooded the countryside, necessitating the immediate digging of new slit trenches at the end of the wood. That night, the battalion was issued with its first rum ration.
(21) After an uneventful week in the line, the Canadians were relieved on July 27 by the 8th Parachute Battalion and returned to the Orne River for a further short rest period. On the last day of July, the Battalion rejoined the 3rd Parachute Brigade, taking over the positions of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of the 51st Highland Division west of the Bois de Bures. (The Battalion War Diary gives a map reference 1000 meters to the east, but such position is not borne out by current patrol reports appended to the August War Diary). The 3rd Parachute Brigade still held its place in the center of the eastern line. To its left, the other formations of the 6th Airborne Division extended in order to the mouth of the Orne River – units of the 1st Special Service Brigade along the ridge north of Le Mesnil crossroads; 6th Air Landing Brigade between them and Breville and the 4th Special Service Brigade completing the line from Le Plein to Sallenelles.
On its right, the 6th Airborne Division was flanked by the 146th Brigade and other formations of the 49th Infantry Division, bending south and west through Demouville towards Caen. The remaining divisions of the 1st British Corps, the 3rd British Infantry Division, and the 51st Highland Division were in the rear west of the Orne River (WD, GS, 8D, 1st Canadian Army, August 1944: Location Statement 1st Canadian Army, August 1, 1944).
Since July 23, when the 1st Canadian Army took over the eastern Normandy sector, the 1st British Corps had been under Canadian operational command (WD, GSOps, 1st Canadian Army, Appx 79) and on the day on which the 1 Canadian Parachute Battalion returned to the line at the Bois de Bures (Jul 31), the 1st Canadian Army assumed command of the 2nd Canadian Corps in the Caen area. Thus the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, while still part of a British Brigade, a British Division and a British Corps, came for the first time under command of the 1st Canadian Army.
(22) For the first half of August, the situation of the 6th Airborne Division’s front saw little change. The Canadian Battalion continued to send out patrols, but only meager information about the enemy was obtained (WD, 1 Cdn Para Bn, Aug 6, 1944). Propaganda broadcasts by means of amplifiers were arranged by the Brigade HQs, to encourage deserters, from whom identifications of enemy units might be made. Polish deserters later stated that the Germans dismissed the general contents of these broadcasts as incorrect in view of a few inaccuracies which were contained in the remarks about their own positions and strengths. (WD, 1 Cdn Para Bn, Aug 44, Appx 3, Interrogation Report, Aug 15, 1944).
Daily exchanges of artillery and mortar fire took place, the German shells and bombs usually landing accurately upon the battalion positions. On Aug 15, enemy aircraft bombed the area to the South of the Canadian position. The tempo of the German artillery fire increased. Patrols probing into the Bois de Bures that night and the next day encountered no enemy. It looked as though the long period of static warfare were over. On the evening of Aug 16, the unit received orders to advance the next day.
(23) The forward move which all ranks of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been waiting for 10 weeks, and which in 10 days thereafter was to carry them 40 miles onwards to the mouth of the Seine River (30 miles as the crow flies) began early on the morning of Aug 17, as part of an operation that set in motion the whole line held by the 1st British Corps. On the right flank of the 1st Canadian Army, Falaise had fallen on Aug 16; the pivot of the enemy’s whole position in Normandy had been smashed, and a large part of his army was encircled and being destroyed, while the remainder retreated eastward.
As its share of the general Allied offensive, the 1st British Corps, whose boundary with the 2nd Canadian Corps ran approximately along the line northing 50, through St Pierre-sur-Dives, was directed to advance on Lisieux (WD, GSOps, HQ 1st Cdn Army, Appx 66, GS Memo, 16 August 1944).
The Eastward Advance – August 17 – August 26
(24) The corps front stretched from the mouth of the Orne River to St Pierre-sur-Dives and was held by the British 51st Division (Highlanders) and the 7th British Armoured Division (south), the British 49th Division (center) and the 6th Airborne Division (north). The 6th Airborne was practically in the same positions it had seized on D Day, from Sallenelles to the outskirts of Troarn. The Belgian Brigade Piron (Light Brigade) and the Royal Netherlands Brigade (Princess Irene) had come under command in the Amfreville – Breville area), while southwards along the ridge Le Plein – Bois de Bavent were stationed, in order, the 6th Air Landing Brigade, the 1st Special Service Brigade, the 3rd Parachute Battalion, the 4th Special Service Brigade. In reserve at Ranville was the 5th Parachute Brigade. (For a note on the Employment of the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade and the Belgian Light Piron Brigade as well as their organization, see the 1st Canadian Army Instr. N°9d. August 2, 1944. WD, GS, Ops HQ 1 Cdn Army August 1944, Appx 7).
In the plan for the Division’s advance, the 4th Special Service Brigade was to push form a firm base North of Toufferville; on the left flank, the 6th Air Landing Brigade was to push towards Cabourg, at the mouth of the Dives River; in the center, the 1st Special service Brigade was directed on Bavent – Varaville; while on the right the 3rd Parachute Brigade was ordered to seize and hold Bures (WD, 3 Para Bn, Aug 44, 3 Para Bde OO Exercise ‘Paddle’ Aug 9, 1944).
(25) The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was given initially a reserve role in Operation Paddle (the name given to the 3rd Parachute Brigade’s advance on Aug 17, 1944). This Operation commenced at 0300. While the 8th and the 9th Parachute Battalions completed the occupation of Bures by 0700, without encountering opposition, the Canadian Battalion took over a larger section of the brigade front, and at 0800, began a sweep through the Bois de Bavent (shown as Bois de Bures on the 1:25,000 sheets). The enemy, who for 10 weeks had held the wood so tenaciously, haw now withdrawn, but not without leaving behind AP mines and Booby Traps that delayed Baker Co in their advance and added 10 more casualties to the Canadians. Bridges across the Dives River at Bures had been demolished, but the late afternoon a passable route had been constructed by the 3rd Canadian Parachute Battalion’s Royal Engineer Sqn, and all the units of the brigade crossed before nightfall. By 2100, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion having advanced 3 miles along the railway running north-east from Bures, had made contact with the enemy at Plain Lugan and taken up positions for the night there. The 8th Parachute Battalion was at Goustranville, the 9th Parachute Battalion in reserve was, with the Brigade HQs, at St Richer.
(26) The lack of comparative-lightness of enemy resistance encountered by the 3rd Parachute Brigade on the first day, and in general during the whole period of the advance to the Seine River, underlines the instructions of the GOC, 6th British Airborne Division, given to the Brigade prior to the commencement of the Operation Paddle, (advance if and when it is certain that the enemy was withdrawing) (ibid: Appx A2, Report on 3 Para Bde Operation Paddle).
The lightly equipped formations of the 6th Airborne which had very little armor at its disposal (para #46), were not intended to drive against heavily armed enemy forces nor to storm strongly held positions. Their part in the general eastward advance now beginning was rather to keep contact with a retreating army, driving his rearguards back, and mopping up isolated pockets of resistance as these were encountered.
(27) Further progress of the 3rd Parachute Brigade was halted by the enemy’s destruction of the bridge across the St Samsom – Dives-sur-Mer canal. This canal parallels the Dives River in a general northeasterly direction, swinging north to cut across the Troarn – Dozulé road 1000 yards east of Goustranville. But the map showed 4 bridges crossing the canal at 400 yards intervals, the northernmost one carrying the railway line from Troarn just west of its junction with the mainline running south from Dives-sur-Mer.
The 1st Canadian Parachute was ordered to seize the four bridge positions, and to ascertain whether any were passable to infantry and vehicles.
(28) Hour zero was set at 2145, Aug 18. At 2030, the unit left Plain Lugan to form up at the crossroads west of Gourstranville. The attack went in on schedule, and by 2220, Charlie Co had seized the railway bridge. The southernmost bridge was taken by Able Co, who named it Canada Bridge. By 2350, all bridges were in hands of the Canadians, who continued to hold them through the night.
150 prisoners of war were taken, and the Brigade report on the operation refers to: the Canadian battalion as having successfully liquidated two enemy companies in well-fortified positions. (ibid: Appx. A2, Report on 3 Para Bde Operation Paddle II). Considering the nature of the task casualties were surprisingly light.
(29) The railway bridge partially demolished, was found to be passable to infantry. Shortly after midnight, the 9th Parachute battalion crossed, in four feet of water, and by 0245, had seized the railway line and routed the balance of the enemy battalion. Heavy German shelling and mortaring came from dominating high ground further east, but in the course of the morning, the 5th Parachute Brigade went through, crossing by the Canada Bridge to the south followed by the 1st and the 4th Special Service Brigades.
That night, the GOC, 6th Airborne Division congratulated the units of the 3rd Parachute Brigade on their exploits during Operation Paddle and Operation Paddle II. The Brigade had indeed made a good showing.
In the first 3 days of its advance, it had successfully driven the enemy rearguards from the ‘island’ enclosed by the Dives River and the Canal, and it had overcome difficult obstacles with a loss to the German of an entire unit, the 744.Grenadier-Regiment (711.Infantry-Division).
(30) While the 1st and the 4th Special Service Brigades pushed forward to clear the Dozulé area of the enemy, units of the 3rd Parachute Brigade remained for 2 days in the Goustranville area, the Canadians holding their defensive positions at the 4 captured bridges. Enemy shelling on both days (Aug 19-20) caused a few casualties, and enemy aircraft dropped some bombs on the first night, without however causing damage. On the morning of Aug 21, the Brigade started to move forward on foot towards Annebault, passing through the 2 Special Service Brigades at Dozulé.
Their role as infantry must have been unpleasantly driven home to the parachute troops as they proceeded through pouring rain along a road that was being shelled heavily. No contact was made with the retreating enemy until the evening. While the Brigade administrative area was established at Le Bourg at 1800, the 8th Parachute Battalion pushed forward to capture Annebault and the 1st Parachute battalion swung north to engage a resistance point on high ground at La Vallée Tantot. The Canadians encountered 81-MM Mortar fire and SP guns, and, unable to make further progress, dug in for the night. By morning, the enemy had retreated, and the Battalion returned to the main road at Annebault, rejoining the other brigade units half-a-mile west of la Haie Tondue at 1000 (Aug 22).
(31) It was now the 3rd Parachute Brigade’s turn to halt while the 5th Parachute Brigade pushed through to Pont-L’Evêque. For 48 hours, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion rested, while all personnel took advantage of the respite to do their washing and generally prepare themselves for further action.
On Aug 23, Gen K. Stuart, Chief of Staff, visited the unit, and Col Bradbrooke relinquished command to take a staff appointment (GSO I, (Air) 38th Group RAF). For the short period, Maj G.F. Eadie acted as Commanding Officer and on Sept 8, Col J.A. Nicklin assumed command.
(32) On Aug 24, the 1st CA sent the following warning order to the 1st British Corps: S.D. 45, Warning Order. The 6-A/B will prepare to move into the British 21st Army Group afternoon on Aug 30. Further instructions follow to a later date. All information. (WD, GS, SD, 1st Canadian Army, Aug 44, Appx 275). The message is significant in pointing to the approaching end of the 6-A/B’s role in the 1st Canadian Army’s rapid move drive eastwards across Normandy. The Army’s main axis of advance was swinging more and more sharply towards the north, as the 1st US Army came up from the south, moving in upon the enemy’s last precarious foothold on the left bank of the Seine River at Elbeuf. As the narrowing front moved forward, the 6th Airborne Division’s sector on the left flank of the 1st British Corps, and therefore on the extreme left of the entire 21st Army Group, had developed into a diminishing triangle whose forward apex ran into the sea at the mouth of the Seine River. It seemed that only a few more days would be required for the airborne unit to complete their task.
(33) While the units of the 3rd Parachute Brigade rested between Annebault and La Haie Tondue, other formations of the 6th Airborne Division had forced their way across the Touques River in 2 places. The 5th Parachute Brigade, after overcoming stiff opposition at Pont-L’Evêque, was on the morning of Aug 24 well along the road to St Benoît-D’Hébertot, while the 6th Air Landing Brigade, which since Aug 17 had been making its way steadily along the coastal flank, followed closely by the Belgian Piron Brigade, was now over the river and into Bonneville-sur-Touques. It was time for further leap-frogging.
(34) At 1000, Aug 22, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion took the road again, as the 3rd Parachute Brigade swung north to make a wide sweep around Pont-L’Evêque and follow the 6th Air Kanding Brigade across the Touques River at Bonneville-sur-Touques. For the first 5 miles, the unit had a welcome that relied upon marching as lorries carried them as far as Vauville. Then the Canadians marched eastward in the rain to St Gatien. There was an hour’s halt at Tourgeville for the mid-day meal, and a further delay at Touques where the Canadians Battalion had to cross the river by ferry, but the day’s objective was reached at 1830. The only enemy opposition encountered during the day was at the outskirts of St Gatien, when a German SP gun fired 8 rounds, without however inflicting any casualties.
The battalion spent the night in the town, having advanced 14 miles that day. On the morning of Aug 25, they were on the road again by 0800 and 2 hours later, after passing through St Benoît-D’Hébertot, had reached La Moderie on the outskirts of Beuzeville, where they halted.
(35) A strong enemy position in Beuzeville was holding up the Brigade’s advance. The 8th Parachute Battalion attacked the south side of the town, while the 9th Parachute Battalion moved in from the north-west. Both battalions were successful in dislodging the enemy by late afternoon. At 1900, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was called on to move forward and to push on to Mon Maugher. Skirting Beuzeville on the west side the Canadians, now off the main road, traveled by track and footpath through the woods and across open fields. By 2300, they had got no further than, a point still 4 miles from Mon Maugher. Here, they stopped for 4 hours, at first light pushing on again to their destination, which they reached at 0740. Companies took up defensive positions, but no enemy was seen. Nor were any more enemy elements encountered by the Canadians during the remainder of their stay in France.
(36) Nightfall of Aug 26 found the units of the 3rd Parachute Brigade resting in the Beuzeville area. The remaining formations of the 6th Airborne Division, the 5th Parachute Brigade; the Royal Netherlands Group (Princess Irene); the 4th Special service Brigade; the 1st Special Service Brigade, the 1st Belgian Group (Brigade Piron) and the 6th Air Landing Brigade were grouped in that order along the left bank of the Risle River from Pont-Audemer to its junction with the Seine River at Berville-sur-Mer (WD, SD, 1st Cdn Army, Aug 44, Appx 324, Location Statement). On the Division’s right, brigades of the 49th British Infantry Division were closed in around Pont-Audemer, ready to take over or pass through the positions of the airborne formations. On Aug 28, orders were given to the 6th Airborne Division to move into the 21st Army Group Reserve. Les the 1st and the 4th Special Services brigades, it was done on the afternoon of Aug 30.
(37) It was no mean feat that the units of the 6th Airborne Division had accomplished since the beginning of their campaign in the early hours of D Day. In all phases of the operation – the initial assault, when in spite of dispersal they had speedily gained all their objectives; the long and trying period of holding the area between the Orne and the Dives Rivers in the face of frequent and determined attacks by a more heavily armed opponent; and the final rapid advance to the Risle River, during which a very inadequate scale of transport had failed to keep them from maintaining contact with the retreating enemy – in all these phases they had borne themselves well.
(38) For a week, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion rested at Mon Maugher. Personnel was allowed to visit Beuzeville, 25% of the unit strength at a time. On Sep 4, TCVs carried the battalion to Concentration Area N°60 near Arromanches, and embarkation took place 2 days later. By late afternoon, Sep 7, all the troopers were back at Bulford, in the barracks they had left 3 months before. From Sep 12 to Sep 24, the entire battalion was on leave. On its return, general training became the order of the day, a role that was to continue for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion until a Christmas Day embarkation at Folkestone marked the beginning of another chapter in the unit’s history.
Casualties and Decorations
(39) The casualties tool exacted for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion during its stay in France was heavy but not much heavier than had been anticipated. The War Office forecast of invasion activity for the 6th British Airborne Division had estimated that wastage for the 1st month would be at a double intense rate, i.e., 50% of the War Establishment for officers and 40% for the other ranks. (CMHQ file 1/Para/ Tps/1: Col J.G.K Strahy to DAG, CMHQ, May 15 44). As was to be excepted, the number of casualties sustained during the early days of the operation far exceeded losses for the remaining time that the unit was in France. During the first 12 days of fighting, up to the time of the battalion’s first removal from the line, officer casualties amounted to 59% of War Establishment, the other ranks 39% (WE strength was 31 officers and 587 other ranks). Subsequent losses were on a considerably lower scale.
(40) The following table, compiled from Records Officer Casualty Reports, shows casualties suffered by the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion for 3 significant periods of the total operation. The Prisoner of War losses in the first period was all sustained on D Day.
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Casualties
Jun 6, 1944 – Sep 6, 1944 KIA, Officers 5, Other ranks 43. WIA, Officers 10, Other ranks 103. MIA, Officer 0, Other ranks 3. POW, Officers 3, Other ranks 82. Total casualties, Officers 18, Other ranks 231.
Jun 18, 1944 – Jul 4, 1944 KIA, Officer 0, Other ranks 13. WIA, Officers 4, Other ranks 32. MIA, Officer 0, Other ranks 0. POW, Officers 0, Other ranks 0. Total casualties, Officers 4, Other ranks 45.
Jul 5, 1944 – Sep 6, 1944 KIA, Officers 0, Other ranks 10. WIA, Officers 2, Other ranks 49. MIA, Officer 0, Other ranks 7. POW, Officers 0, Other ranks 1. Total casualties, Officers 2, Other ranks 67.
KIA, Officers 5, Other ranks 66. WIA, Officers 16, Other ranks 184. MIA, Officer 0, Other ranks 10. POW, Officers 3, Other ranks 83. Total casualties, Officers 34, Other ranks 343.
(41) The deficiencies in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion’s strength caused by these casualties were successfully met from unit reinforcements for the first 3 weeks of fighting. But during July, the source of supply dwindled, and the difficulty of obtaining replacements is reflected in the battalion’s diminishing strength returns. On Aug 5, the unit’s strength reached its lowest figure of the campaign, 17 officers and 315 other ranks. There was a little improvement during the month, and when the battalion returned to England at the beginning of September there was a strength deficiency of 5 officers and 242 other ranks (CMHQ, File 24/AEF/1/5, AG Stats Letter, May 5, 1945).
(42) 60 different officers and men of the 6th Airborne Division decorated in the field by FM Bernard Montgomery shortly after D Day,5 were members of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, Capt J.P. Hanson (Military Cross); Capt P.R. Griffin (Military Cross); Sgt G.H Morgan (D.136859)(Military Medal); Cpl Wm. Noval (B.146477)(Military Medal); LCpl R.A. Geddes (B.101038)(Military Medal). The Military Medal was also won but awarded posthumously by Sgt J.A. Lacasse (B.3047) (Died of Wounds); Pvt W.B. Ducker (F.25504) (Died of Wounds) and Sgt W.P. Minard (Status Unknown).
(43) These awards were earned in two actions. Charlie Co attack on the enemy position at Varaville on D Day and the assault by Baker Co east of Le Mesnil crossroads on June 8. In the Varaville engagement, Capt Hanson (2 I/C Charlie Co), took command of the company when its commander, Maj H.M. McLeod was killed. Although he was himself wounded, he successfully led the action that resulted in the taking of the German bunker and the enemy Headquarters, inflicting many casualties and taking 40 prisoners. Pvt Ducker, a medical orderly attached to Charlie Co under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire gave medical assistance to the Company Commander and 3 others fatally injured when a German 75-MM shell detonated the Canadian PIAT ammunition dump, caring for them until certain that they were beyond aid (WD, 1 Cdn Para Bn, June 6 44). In the same action; Sgt Minard displayed exceptional qualities of leadership and initiative in commanding his platoon when its officer was killed. On Jun 13, he again distinguished himself when he exercised a steadying influence on his platoon during the relief by his company of part of 5 Black Watch, who were being strongly attacked at the Château South of Breville.
(44) On the morning of June 8, after his company’s return from Robehomme, Capt Griffin led one and a half platoon of Baker Co to assault a group of strongly held buildings in the Bois de Bavent, east of the crossroads at Le Mesnil. The enemy was driven out with heavy casualties, and a counter-attack with superior forces was successfully held off. Sgt Lacasse and Sgt Morgan won their decorations at the same time. The former though twice wounded, led his section across an open field swept by fire, to knock out an enemy LMG position; the latter displayed skill, initiative, and complete disregard of his own personal safety as he conducted his platoon’s successful assault upon the occupied buildings. In the same action, Cpl Noval and LCpl Geddes (at this time both being private soldiers), operating as a Bren gun and sniper team to give covering fire, accounted between then for less than 25 Germans (CMHQ File 21/Gen/8, Citations, France).
(45) Two major awards were won by personnel of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion during the operation at Goustranville on Aug 18, 1944 (para #28). Capt J.A. Clancy was awarded the Military Cross, the citation noting his behavior on that day as but one example of ‘his devotion to duty and outstanding gallantry’ throughout the entire campaign in Normandy. As acting as 2 I/C of Able Co, he led a platoon in the assault against the southern bridge. By the momentum of his attack in the face of strong machine-gun fire the bridge, which was vital to this Brigade, was captured before the enemy could destroy it. In the same engagement Sgt G.W. Green (B.62282), an acting platoon commander in Able Co, reorganized his platoon when it suffered heavy casualties and led his men in 2 attacks that resulted in the killing and capture of more than 25 Germans. Although severely wounded, Sgt Green continued to control his platoon until he was able to hand over to his Company Commander. For this action, and for the inspiration to his men through the campaign up to that time, he was awarded the Military Medal.
C.P. Stacey, Colonel
Canadian Military Headquarters