(41-) Reorganization of the 1-CPB on the ground was speedily achieved with Maj G.F. Eadie assuming command on the CO failing to arrive at the rendezvous; it was not until Mar 26, that the body of Lt Col Nicklin was found hanging from a tree in his parachute. All the company under Maj P.R. Griffin landed in all cases east of the DZ but within 30 minutes had collected 70% of its personnel and by 1130, cleared its objective, reporting a total loss of 13 casualties. Later that day an enemy attacking force, a troublesome mortar crew, and 3 German patrols in the woods were successfully eliminated in turn and numerous prisoners captured.
Baker Co jumped under the command of Capt S.V. McGowan, vice Maj C.E. Fuller who at the last moment had to remain at the airfield in England. Capt McGowan on landing received a large hole in his helmet and a slight wound but gallantly carried on until killed in action a few days later. Meeting a very warm reception on the DZ, 2 officers and 12 other ranks failed to reach the rendezvous and several others turned up quite late, one not until D 5. Although reduced in strength, the Company took its objective successfully and established patrols to scour the woods. Outstanding work was done by S/Sgt A.B. Paige, who with 6 men, captured 98 prisoners on D-day.
Charlie Co preceded the whole of the Battalion in the jump, meeting considerable small arms fire on the DZ. Maj J.P. Hanson suffered a broken collarbone and had to be evacuated. Capt J.A. Clancy, Company Second-in-Command, was taken prisoner of war immediately upon landing, and from his interrogation, it is apparent that the Germans did not know whether the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was part of or surplus to the establishment of UK 6-A/B nor whether it was part of the 3rd Parachute Brigade or of the 5th Parachute Brigade. Although without either of its senior officers, Charlie Co put up a good show against strong opposition while under constant shell and mortar fire. Concentrating against the Company a threatening force of men and guns in the nearby woods, the enemy prevented several parties from reaching the gliders on the DZ and staged a strong counter-attack at 0530, the next morning. Charlie Co was fully prepared and with the aid of well-placed supporting weapons were able to beat them off. One of the 3″ mortars cooperating with the PIATs succeeded in knocking out a deadly 88-MM self-propelled gun, thus removing a serious threat to the Battalion.
(42-) Excellent assistance in the defense was given by the Specialist Platoons of the Support Company under Maj R.C. Hilborn, who became Battalion Second-in-Command on the death of the CO. In close contact with Charlie Co, the Vickers Platoon commanded by Lt E.B. Armstrong set itself up astride the main road with two MMGs on the platoon front and one on either flank. Cpl J.L. Chambers, distinguished himself the first day by leading in the rescue of 3 seriously wounded glider pilots. The next day he himself was wounded with one arm rendered useless yet he insisted upon remaining with his gun until ordered to the RAP; on this being set on fire he returned to his post until the action ended. This platoon gave particularly strong support in repelling the major enemy counter-attack during the first night and later captured a Messerschmidt pilot forced to parachute into its lines. Initial casualties of the platoon included 2 KIA, 2 WIA, and 3 slightly wounded. The Mortar Platoon under Lt G. Lynch landed to the north of the DZ and while attempting to reach the Battalion HQ its Bren carrier suffered a direct hit.
Outstanding heroism in rescuing its crew led to the award of the Victoria Cross to Cpl Frederick Topham. The mortars rendered valuable service to Charlie Co in particular and in two days suffered total casualties of 5 killed and 5 wounded. The PIAT Platoon with Lt D.O. Bolding in Command was distributed among the three rifle companies, four weapons with each. These were most useful in clearing houses and in counteracting enemy SP guns. Platoon casualties were 1 killed and 5 wounded.
(43-) Complete consolidation of the objectives seized could not have been achieved without the close support rendered by artillery from positions on the west bank of the Rhine River immediately after the Airborne troops arrived on the ground. This of necessity had to be observed fire, and each airborne battalion was given a trained artillery observer who parachuted with it in order to radio back fire control directions. The observers adjusted fire visually by day and night and on occasion by sound – for 48 hours they gave to the airborne divisions something unique in airborne annals – observed close support artillery fire in great mass during the crucial period when the airborne division artilleries were seeking to assemble and organize on the ground (America Observer Report). Attached to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, as Forwnrd Observation Officer, Capt Boss gave effective service in calling down a concentration of artillery fire on enemy infantry and guns in the woods north-west of Charlie Co’s location. Unfortunately, he was wounded during the shelling on the afternoon of D 1 and had to be evacuated. Later, German artillery fire grew less and less as the Allies extended their foothold and overran the gun sites.
(44-) FM Montgomery has given great credit to the Allied airborne and ground forces for the impetuous and dash they displayed in the operation. The timing of the airborne attack achieved the element of surprise which had been planned and threw the enemy into confusion, thus accelerating the progress of the assaulting forces. The Airborne Corps took 3500 prisoners during the day and cleared all its objectives according to plan. The US 17-A/B first made contact with the Commandos of the UK 2-A about noon and by dark had achieved all objectives. In the afternoon, the 17-A/B also linked up with the UK 6-A/B, who had taken all its objectives by 1330, and had made contact at 1530, with the 15th Scottish Division of UK 12th Corps of the UK 2-A. Recon elements of the Scots were far ahead of the main land forces in reaching the Canadian lines, however, as it was not until 0430, on D 1, that an armored column of the 15th Scottish Division arrived and it was 0800, before the infantry marched in to consolidate the junction of the forces. Later, the Scots passed through the lines of Charlie Co (1-CPB) and proceeded northward along the main road. Stage one having been successfully completed, efforts now were directed towards extension of the bridgehead. The British 6th Airborne Division commenced a swift advance eastward with the 15th Division, while the 17-A/B, after linking with the main forces of the US Ninth Army, followed suit. (Eisenhower)
(45-) Enemy shelling slackened off considerably during the second night and by dawn, Mar 26, the 1-CPB was able to detail squads to sweep the DZ for unit equipment and casualties. At 1000, that morning, orders came for the Canadians to move southeast along the roadside and then skirt the eastern edge of the woods to reach the Brigade assembly area. Remaining there about three hours, the unit, at 1500, began a long trek across open country to the east following minor roads with frequent changes of direction. After crossing the railway line between Wesel and Hamminkeln, the Battalion paused for a meal in a clump of woods and then crossed the upper Issel before finding shelter for the night in barns and houses.
(46-) Although reveille was at 0530 the next morning, there was no time for breakfast before the advance continued. Traversing upon country until crossing the Issel River again further east, the Battalion then was able to advance in the protection afforded by stretches of coniferous trees. The Canadians encountered no resistance until 0945, when fire came from nearby woods. The Mortar and Vickers Platoons immediately went into action, aided by artillery fire brought to bear upon the enemy. A squadron of tanks and armored cars arrived at 1100 to assist in bringing about the swift collapse of German opposition. The Battalion took 18 prisoners and by 1315, had reached its objective. Whereupon companies took up defensive positions and remained static until morning. Other airborne units had met with similar success in their advances. North of the Lippe River their front was progressively weakening; to add to the weight of their thrust an armored brigade passed through their sector at midnight, Mar 27. (Montgomery)
(47-) Resuming its advance at 0800, Mar 28, the 1-CPB passed north of the Wesel Forest and of the village of Erle, thence along a main road leading eastward. No enemy resistance was encountered until just beyond Rhade, where air bursts were fired overhead from enemy AAA guns located in the woods ahead. That evening, Able and Charlie Cos successfully attacked and destroyed these AAA guns and the Battalion was able to proceed to the village of Lembeck. There the companies took up defensive positions on the outskirts of the town but, were not troubled again.
(48-) For two nights and a day the Canadians rested while the enemy showed no signs of activity. The weather on Mar 29, was cloudy with considerable rain but personnel were made happy with an issue of cigarettes and chocolate from the auxiliary services officer. This short rest in Lembeck was very welcome after the week’s fighting and before the long chase across Germany swung into full speed. With both stages of Operation Varsity successfully completed, the door into Germany had been battered down and the Allies had crossed the threshold.
Advance to the Elbe River
(49-) Through every Rhine bridgehead Allied forces had poured into Germany to complete the encirclement of the Ruhr. By Apr 1, this had been achieved and the US Armies immediately began operations to eliminate the enemy forces trapped within. Once the Ruhr was no longer a threat, the Supreme Commander saw three main avenues by which the Allies could thrust deeper into Germany. In the north, a route lay across the north German plain toward the Baltic and Berlin.
In central Germany, 3 routes were open to us through the gap in the enemy’s line created by the trapping of Army Group B in the Ruhr. In the south, an axis of advance was available through Nurnberg and Regensburg, by the Danube Valley into Austria, where the Russians were already threatening Vienna. Weighing the relative ‘advantages which would accrue from an advance in strength in either north, centre, or south, Eisenhower decided that an offensive first in the centre would prove the most effective.
(50-) This decision necessitated a modification of the plans of FM Montgomery who on Mar 28, had directed the UK 2-A and the US 9-A to drive hard for the line of the River Elbe so as to gain quick possession of the plains of northern Germany. This is the time to take risks and to go ‘flat out’ for the Elbe. If we reach the Elbe quickly, we win the war.
To take part in this drive the UK 8th Corps had been brought up from reserve and placed on tho right of the UK 2-A. The Supreme Commander’s decision, however, called for the US 9-A including the US 17-A/B to be removed from the UK 21-AG on Apr 4, in order to form the left wing of the American offensive, thus reducing the striking power in the north. The aim of the UK 21-AG remained to reach the line of the Elbe in our sector. Now that the Allies would not be so relatively strong in the northern sector, it was to be anticipated that these tasks would take longer than previously hoped, and the UK 2-A would require to watch for the security of its southern flank. It was decided to establish an intermediate phase in the advance to the Elbe River, on the line of the Weser River, the Aller River and the Leine River. It had also been intended, prior to the change in the overall Allied plan, to employ the US XVIII Corps (Airborne) on the right of UK VIII Corps, to capture Munster. This Corps, however, ceased to be operational on Mar 30, and it was left to the XIII Corps, under the US 9-A, to reduce Munster on April 3. The British elements assigned in the US XVIII Corps (Airborne), the UK 6-A/B had passed to the UK VIII Corps on Mar 29. Other formations under command of the VIII Corps were the UK 15th Infantry Division and the UK 11th Armoured Division.
(51-) The new plan was issued to Montgomery’s 21-AG on Apr 5. The UK 2-A now had the XXX Corps on the left, XII Corps in the center, and the VIII Corps on the right, where enemy resistance proved to be lightest although the Germans did a thorough job of demolishing bridges over a network of waterways. The VIII Corps nevertheless was able to cross the Dortmund-Ems Canal without undue difficulty and to clear Osnabruck. On Apr 5, the UK 6-A/B captured Minden on the Weser River and seized a bridgehead over the river. On Apr 7, the VIII Corps advanced north from the Weser and by Apr 10, had established bridgeheads over the Aller River. Thereafter hard fighting took place around Uelzen, south-east of Hamburg before advance elements reached the Elbe River on Apr 19, and several days were required to mop up the enemy. Eventually, by Apr 24, the west bank of the river had been cleared throughout the Corps sector. About the same time, the XII Corps closed to the Elbe just south of Hamburg and later the XXX Corps, having paused to take Bremen, crossed the Weser to reach the Elbe estuary below Hamburg.
(52-) Advancing over 200 miles with relatively light strength for so wide a sector, the UK 2-A Amy had thus lined itself up on the Elbe in very good time. The War Diary of the 1-CPB relates many interesting experiences and incidents which occurred during this swift dash into northern Germany. Earlier aspects in which the Canadian paratroopers for the first time rode into battle on tanks of the British 6th Guards Tank Brigade.
(53-) On Mar 30, the 1-CPB embussed in RASC lorries at Lembeck and at 0915, moved off northward to Coesfeld, which RAF bombers had completely wrecked. There the Canadians met #1 and #3 Squadrons of the 4th Battalion Grenadier Guards, 6th Guards Tank Brigade, who had been delayed an hour in getting through the rubble in the town, and by 1000, were preparing to make a lightning dash to capture a vital bridge over the Ems River at Graven, 35 miles distant. The Paratroopers of Able and Baker Cos were ordered to leave the transport buses and climb on the tanks of these two squadrons, a Company to each squadron. In both cases, the leading troop carried no infantry so that their guns could be fired immediately if any opposition was encountered. At first, a series of delays were encountered as both squadrons attempted to race along winding roads. #3 on the left had to clear booby-traps trees felled where the road crossed a small range of hills. Then, on receiving a warning from a Frenchman who had appointed himself as a guide, lightly-armored Honey tanks had to be sent ahead to shoot up a Hitler Jugend Barracks. The crew of the leading one was practically wiped out, whereupon the paratroopers immediately jumped off the tanks and aided by the unorthodox but extremely effective manœuvres of the Frenchman, disposed of the Hitler Jugend. Following the main road, meanwhile, #1 Squadron was fired on with Panzerfausts in Billerbeck. The Canadian Paratroopers acting as terriers and the tanks as guns, the Panzerfaustmen stead no chance. It was now a race against nightfall. Both squadrons pushed on at top speed, but #3 ran into another roadblock at Darfelt which, with the aid of the local priest, they were able to pass but too late to proceed further that night. #1 Squadron consequently raced on alone and found Altenburg full of surrender signs and like a deserted town.
The deafening roar of the Churchill engines reverberated through the narrow streets and the only sign of life came from the groups of paratroopers huddled together on the back of the tanks. As they emerged on the eastern side of the town the light was fading, but they could just pick out the chimneys of Graven five miles away in the valley below. There was a steep tarmac road leading down into the valley, and the tanks rushed hell for leather down it. As the leader in the troop was reaching the bottom, someone suddenly noticed a long column of enemy lorries fleeing for all they were worth along a road leading away to the north. In a flash, the turrets of the whole Squadron revolved round to the left and Besa fire streamed into the retreating Germans. But there was no time to stop. The tanks sped on through one village, then another, dealing on the way with an enemy staff car, fleeing bicyclists, and many other targets which the gunners could not resist.
They never slowed down until they had reached the suburbs of Graven, 500 yards from the bridge, where the paratroopers jumped off to rush forward and take it. In less than ten minutes it was in their hands – or so they thought – because only one bridge was marked on the map. But there were in actual fact two, and the one they had taken led to an island in the middle of the Ems. Twenty minutes later, there was a blinding flash followed by a loud explosion, and the real bridge, 300 yards upstream, crashed into the water. They had been true, if slightly prematurely, April-fooled but, to a small extent, the column got their own back on the Germans that night. For just after the bridge was blown, a passenger train came steaming into Graven carrying German soldiers on leave from the Russian front. The Canadians allowed them to kiss their wives and then promptly marched them off to spend their leave in a prisoner of war cage.
No one got much sleep that night because at about 3 o’clock in the morning the Germans blew up a huge ammunition dump on the other side of the river, and the fires and explosions did not die down for many hours. This map error was most unfortunate as the second bridge could have been taken with little trouble, but in capturing the town, Able Co did great execution. Canadian losses during the day included Capt McGowan killed in action and five other ranks wounded at night, however, heavy enemy shelling brought further casualties.