1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion

1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion

1942 to 1945

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion served with the 3rd Parachute Brigade and 6th Airborne Division and saw distinguished action from Normandy, the Ardennes and The Rhine Crossing.

At the start of The Second World War, Canada, like many allied countries, did not appreciate the devastating effect airborne forces could have and had not developed their own. However, Col EM Burns of the Canadians was a strong proponent of parachute troops and highlighted how they would be useful as a force to deploy rapidly to remote parts of Canada in the event of invasion. This, combined with the setting up of airborne forces in the UK, led the Canadians to officially establish the 1 Parachute Battalion. On 1 July, 1942 it was approved by the Cabinet War Committee. Their new motto was "Ex Coelis" - "Out of the Clouds". 

From the start, the Battalion was viewed by the Canadian government as an elite unit, to consist of no more than 616 men. The Canadian Army Training Memorandum noted, "Canada's paratroop units are attracting to their ranks the finest of the Dominion's fighting men...these recruits are making the paratroops a 'corps elite'".

A training centre for Canadian Airborne Forces began construction at Camp Shilo, Manitoba Province. But in the meantime, another training centre was needed. Therefore, four months' training was initially undertaken at Fort Benning in Georgia alongside fledgling US airborne troops. It was here that the advance elements of the Battalion arrived on August 14, 1942. Tragically, the first CO of the Battalion, HD Proctor, died on September 7 when a transport plane sheared his rigging lines.

In October, Canadian paratroopers began arriving at Fort Benning in groups of 55, the number needed for a parachute course. They were also appointed a new CO, Lt. Col. Bradbrooke, to oversee the preparation. Darrel L. Harris described the Americans' training process:

"This consisted of four stages, "A", "B", "C", and "D". The first three consisted of ground training and the first week was devoted to physical training. Then introduction into other phases such as the suspended harness, the mock tower (35' off the ground) and in the third stage we were introduced to the high tower and "shock harness". The high tower was approximately 250' high with three "free" arms and one "controlled" arm. On the controlled arm we were given rides in a chair suspended beneath a parachute canopy and were also taken up in a shock harness. This was a rather terrifying bit of apparatus and was discontinued many years ago in Canada. The last stage was "D" stage devoted to making the required number of parachute jumps which numbered five". 

Unfortunately, the Canadians lacked the necessary equipment for adequate training and began to grow tired of waiting around in Fort Benning. They were missing radios, weapons, vehicles and in some instances even pay. Some men requested to be returned to their units to see action, while Captain Becket from the '2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion' arrived on December 1 to siphon off recruits. To make matters worse, Becket claimed his unit "will see action before this one does". 97 men requested an immediate transfer, with Sergeant Herb Peppard declaring "we had nothing to do so so we spent hours marching singly, or in pairs, saluting fenceposts...We felt that we were making jackasses of ourselves in front of the Americans and that we had been put on indefinite hold". The men, the war diary noted, "began to feel as though they were lost souls of a lost battalion". Thankfully, improved organisation  and structured training began to improve the men's morale.

In March 1943, the Battalion arrived at Camp Shilo for the first time with the Canadian Government still intending them for home defence. But on April 7, 1943, the War Committee authorised the incorporation of the Canadians into a new British Airborne Division (in an offensive role). They arrived in the UK on July 28, 1943, and were stationed at Carter Barracks, Bulford. From here they went to Ringway to retrain using British X-Type parachutes and adapt the techniques they had learnt in the US to jump from a variety of British aircraft. After arrival in the UK, they came under command of the 3rd Parachute Brigade and Brigadier James Hill. 

The battalion was used for the first time in combat during the allied invasion of Normandy. Emplaning on the evening of 5 June, they dropped into France at approx 0130 the following morning. The battalion had a number of tasks including destroying the radio station at Varaville, securing the DZ, protecting the flanks of 9th Parachute Battalions actions at Merville and destroying bridges at Varaville and Dives.

Their drop however saw the battalion widely dispersed, but they still managed to achieve all of their objectives by noon on 6 June.

The battalion remained in action until the end of August advancing across Normandy to the Seine, during which time it took over 300 casualties with 81 men killed. But, at the same time, they had secured a ferocious reputation for their fighting ability. They returned to England on September 6 and 7, 1944, by which time "there were deficiencies of 5 officers and 242 other ranks". In October 1944 the Battalion's three rifle companies were sent to street fighting courses in Southampton and Battersea, with the training company attending an equivalent course in Birmingham. Then, on 9/10 October, the Canadians took part in Exercise 'Fog', a night practice jump which involved the whole of the 3rd Parachute Brigade. On October 20, the Battalion began a hunger strike to protest the harsh discipline enforced by CO Jeff Nicklin. The strike lasted three days before the personal intercession of Brigadier Hill brought about a reconciliation and apologies from the ringleaders. Gun training dominated most of November, with Exercise Eve arriving on November 21.

Along with the rest of the 6 Airborne Division the Battalion was rushed to Belgium over Christmas 1944 to blunt the German Ardennes offensive, known as The Battle of the Bulge. They sailed for Ostend on Christmas Day and took part in a number of actions including the capture of the town of Bande. Although the village was taken with no opposition the war diary recalled, "37 civilians [were] found beaten and shot to death in a cellar at Bande. One man from each Pl in the Bn was taken to Bande and shown the German cruelty". The only survivor of the massacre was a 21 year old man named Léon Praile who had overpowered his guard and fled into the snow. He guided the paratroopers to the bodies, hidden in a cellar under a pile of boards. The Germans had decided to make an example of Bande after the killing of 3 Wehrmacht soldiers by the Belgian Resistance on September 5, during the battle for the village's liberation.

During Operations Veritable and Grenade, the Canadians occupied a position in the centre of the allied front in the villages of Buggenum, Broek and Nunhem. Thereafter they were withdrawn from the Netherlands and sailed home from Ostend on February 21. 

The next major operation was Varsity - the Rhine Crossing. They were to emplane at Chipping Ongar airfield. The battalions objectives were to assist 3rd Para Brigade clear the DZ and defend the western portion of the DZ and to seize the raised ground along the main road. The Canadians were heavily engaged in the wooded area of the DZ and fought against German airborne troops, soundly beating them and achieving their objectives. During this operation their commanding officer - Lt Col Nicklin - was killed. His parachute was caught in the trees on landing, but as Private Jan DeVries explained: "Nicklin was actually probably dead before he came into the trees because he sailed right over a German machine-gun". He was replaced as CO by Lt. Col. George Fraser Eadie. A medic of the battalion, Cpl Topham, was awarded a VC for his rescue of several wounded men.

The Canadians then advanced to the Baltic alongside 6th Airborne Division, with many of the men catching rides on the tanks of the 4th Battalion, Grenadier guards in the first week of April. During their march across Germany, the Canadians took part in the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp on April 15. Eadie would later describe the scenes:

"On our way up to the Elbe river [we arrived] at a place called Bergen-Belsen, just outside of Celle...and it was a shambles I can tell ya...the prisoners were not in any way connected with military, they were ethnic groups of Israelis...and were in absolutely dreadful shape. Our medical officer [Captain Patrick Gerald Costigan] told me that they were losing somewhere in the neighbourhood of 215 a day of new deaths within the camp". Eadie and the Canadians continued to advance rapidly across Germany in commandeered cars, trucks and even a few fishmonger's bicycles. They were known for looting geese, alcohol and German parachute smocks along the way, with Eadie himself apparently driving a large German staff car. By the time they finally made it to Wismar as one of the first allied units to reach the Baltic before the Russians, they were thus well stocked.

As they neared the Baltic, a sense of urgency descended based on new intelligence that the Russians intended to occupy Denmark. The Canadians' war diary recorded their entry into Wismar on May 2:

"Dawn broke, cold and foggy, on a history-making day. Tanks of the Scots Greys arrived along with T.C.V.'s. The Bn. embussed, at 0500 hrs...The original plan was to reach Wittenberg - by noon. Brig. Hill decided to push on as far as was possible, since it appeared that resistance was fast crumbling....In a wood at Lutzow just before the refueling point we came across a German workshop detachment, numbering some 3,000 troops, who had had orders to surrender. The confusion was indescribable in that wood. German civilian women, men, and children were there with the troops, and when the troops were lined up three deep on the road, many had their wives and children with them, to accompany them on the trek back to P.W. cage. This was because the rumor was ripe that the Russian Army was only nine miles away. The civilians and soldiers were terrified of the Russians, and wanted only to be taken by us.

After refuelling the tanks we moved off again at top speed. All resistance had collapsed, because the Germans wanted us to go as far as possible. They reasoned that the more territory we occupied, the less the Russians could occupy. Thousands of German troops lined the roads and crowded the villages, some even cheering us on, though most were a despondent-looking mob. On reaching Wismar...'B' Coy. was sent straight through the town to take up positions beyond the railway...All afternoon and all through the night German refugees and soldiers came through our lines by the thousands...On the night of 2 May, a Russian officer arrived in a jeep, with his driver. It was quite unofficial, since he had no idea that we were in Wismar until he came to our barrier. He had come far in advance of his own columns, and was quite put out to find us sitting on what was the Russians' ultimate objective". 

Fortunately the situation was defused and the following day the Russians and Canadians could hardly be prevented from celebrating their imminent victory together:

"There was considerable visiting being done between officers of the Bn. and Russian officers. It turned out the Bn. had several excellent Russian speakers, one of whom was attached permanently to General Bols' staff...Maj. Hilborn acted as the chief liaison officer between the Bn. and the Russians, and was wined and dined by them at great length. He brought in several distinguished visitors, who proved to be the most persistent and thirsty drinkers we had ever met. They could stow away prodigious quantities of the stuff and it was amazing the way they stood up to it (until they finally sagged into comas)"

Jerry McFadden described their encounter in a letter to his wife:

"As we drove into Wismar near dusk, we soon saw Russian Army tanks on the coast road. The next morning, in the town square of Wismar, it was estimated there were over 6,000 soldiers, silently awaiting instructions to a POW camp. All Germans, civilians and soldiers, are terribly afraid of the Russians and I don't blame them. The Russians are just as tough as they look and can they drink!! The Vodka stuff is like "kick-a-poo joyjuice". German girls haven't got a chance. But I can't blame the Russians, they are just paying back a few scores. Wonderful fighters, even the tank drivers (girls) are tough. We are much too soft"

A week of rest followed as the Allies waited for Germany to surrender, before it was finalised on May 8:

"The weather remained bright and clear, and the main problem was how to keep the troops contented and busy. The "No fraternisation" rule did not help at all, but most of the troops complied with it...The German women did not help any, because they knew the troops could not touch them. They flirted openly, and generally made things miserable, especially in the evenings. It was finally found necessary to put the park in the Battalion area out of bounds...On the morning of 7 May, we awoke to the news that "unconditional surrender" terms had been signed by the Germans, surrendering everything to the Allies. This is what we had been waiting and fighting for, for five years and eight months of bitter warfare. And the celebration was worth all the waiting. The gin, whiskey, vodka, wine schnapps flowed, and everybody had a grand time acquiring the inevitable hangover". 

The official history of the Canadian army reflected on the paratroopers' place in the vanguard of the British advance:

"It was fitting that the first Canadian unit to fight in Normandy should also be the Canadian unit to penetrate deepest into Germany. Wismar, taken by Lt.-Col. Eadie's men and the Royal Scots Greys, was in fact the most easterly point reached by any Commonwealth troops in this campaign, and the first point where any Commonwealth troops serving in it made contact with the Russian ally. It is satisfactory that a Canadian battalion was there". 

The battalion was initially returned to the UK on 20-21 May, before arriving back in Canada on 21 June 1945 and then being disbanded on 30 Sept 1945, after an illustrious 3 years of fighting. They were the first complete Canadian unit to return after VE day and therefore received a "tumultuous homecoming reception in cities right across Canada".

The Canadians shared a strong mutual respect with the British paratroopers. Canadian paratrooper John W. Ross wrote:

"Once in a while we did a 50 mile forced march with full battle order. We were supposed to do it in 24 hours, but to show up those British paratroopers, we did it in 23 hours. They did theirs in 22 hours. We did our next one in 21 hours. And so it went. No brains at all? There was a lot of friendly rivalry. We were very proud to be part of the British 6th Airborne Division...We had a tremendous leader. Brigadier S.J.L. Hill...He attends many of our reunions and when he appears, cheers ring out and tears flow. Make what you will of that".  

Brigadier Hill wrote to Eadie, 1st Canadian Para's CO, to express his regret at their departure:

"It was very sad to return to Bulford last night, after the two very happy years we have all spent together in the 3rd Brigade, to find that the last member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had left. I would be very grateful if you would convey to all ranks of the Battalion my heartfelt thanks for their outstanding contribution to the great successes achieved by the 3rd Parachute Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division during the campaigns in France and Germany starting in the early hours of June 6th 1944. Thanks to the wonderful spirit of co-operation and friendliness shown by every member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and Training Battalion, there has never been any friction at any level between any units within the Brigade...I shall for ever remember, with great pride, that I had the honour to have under my command, both in and out of battle, a Canadian Battalion which is regarded by all of us as, as fine a fighting unit as has ever left these shores". 

In 1994, Ex Coelis mountain was named in the Battalion's honour. 

Compiled with information from:

Airborne Assault Archive (Boxes 3 F2 3.17.1 and 3 F2 3.17.2) 

Victory from Above: The First Canadian Parachute Battalion (TV Documentary)

At War's End: Allied Forces at Bergen-Belsen, Mark Celinscak

"A Most Irrevocable Step: Canadian Paratroopers on D-Day, The first 24 hours, 5-6 June 1944.", Bernd Horn and Michel Wyczynski, Canadian Military History 13, 3 (2004).

'Bradbrooke, Nicklin and Eadie: A Tale of Command', Bernd Horn in Intrepid Warriors: Perspectives on Canadian Military Leaders (Kingston, 2007), (ed.) Bernd Horn, pp. 223-247 

1st Canadian Parachute Battalion War Diary


Article updated by Alex Walker 17/04/2024

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  • 1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion Officers' Cap Badge

    1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion Officers' Cap Badge

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  • 1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion Other Ranks' Plastic Cap Badge (1943)

    1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion Other Ranks' Plastic Cap Badge (1943)

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  • 1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion Other Ranks' Brass Cap Badge (1944)

    1st (Canadian) Parachute Battalion Other Ranks' Brass Cap Badge (1944)

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Newspaper extracts_4

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  • 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Prior to joining 6th Airborne Div

    1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Prior to joining 6th Airborne Div

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  • Canadian ceremony at the opening of a memorial to Major Hilton David Proctor, 1971 CFB Shilo

    Canadian ceremony at the opening of a memorial to Major Hilton David Proctor, 1971 CFB Shilo

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  • Canadian Paratroopers aboard a Sherman, near Minden April 1945

    Canadian Paratroopers aboard a Sherman, near Minden April 1945

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  • Lt Col GF Eadie, 1 Canadian, with Col DC Parker, RHQ Para

    Lt Col GF Eadie, 1 Canadian, with Col DC Parker, RHQ Para

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  • Brigadier Hill with Canadian Paratroopers getting ready to go home, Aldershot station 1945

    Brigadier Hill with Canadian Paratroopers getting ready to go home, Aldershot station 1945

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  • Brigadier Hill and Major General Bols saying farewell to the Canadian Paratroopers, Aldershot station 1945

    Brigadier Hill and Major General Bols saying farewell to the Canadian Paratroopers, Aldershot station 1945

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  • Canadian Paratroopers Sam Malette and 'Sullivan' with liberated wine, 1945

    Canadian Paratroopers Sam Malette and 'Sullivan' with liberated wine, 1945

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  • Two Paratroopers from the 1st Canadian Para Bn, one wearing a German Sumpftarn smock

    Two Paratroopers from the 1st Canadian Para Bn, one wearing a German Sumpftarn smock

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  • Group Photograph of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, January 1944

    Group Photograph of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, January 1944

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  • General Bernard Montgomery and others in a quarry at Ercarde in Normandy,  16 July 1944.

    General Bernard Montgomery and others in a quarry at Ercarde in Normandy, 16 July 1944.

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Letters and Cards_1

  • Letter from Private Peter Bismutka to Gladys

    Letter from Private Peter Bismutka to Gladys

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