Show No Fear: "Jump into Chaos: 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion on D-Day".
"Stand up!" bellowed the jumpmaster. Despite this much-anticipated order, the paratroopers awkwardly struggled with their heavy loads and leg kit bags to assume their jumping positions within each stick. Each man strained to hook up his static line to the overhead cable. The Dakotas now jerked and rocked violently as the pilots tried to avoid the deadly flak barrage that filled the sky as they crossed the coastline. Due to the heavy fire, many pilots veered off their assigned flight trajectories and dropped to altitudes ranging between four and seven hundred feet in an effort to escape the lethal hailstorm.
As the pilots desperately tried to get back on course, the navigators scrutinized the rapidly unfolding French terrain, hoping to recognize landmarks that confirmed the direction of their final approach to Drop Zone (DZ) "V." Meanwhile, the paratroopers were thrown violently within the aircraft. Static lines became tangled and equipment began to snag on the plane's interior. Individuals cursed as they scrambled to stand up long enough to execute their pre-exiting drills as the jumpmasters barked out orders.
"The pilots took such evasive action because of the flak," recalled one veteran, "that it resulted in some paratroopers not being able to get out of their aircraft." Nineteen-year-old paratroop
Private Bill Lovatt explained, "As we approached the DZ the aircraft took violent evasive moves and as I approached the door I was flung back violently to the opposite side of the aircraft in a tangle of arms and legs." Major Dick Hilborn stated: "As we crossed the coast of France the red light went on for preparing to drop. We were in the process of hooking up when the plane took violent evasive action ... five of us ended up at the back of the plane." One airborne officer conceded that on D-Day "we lost a number of people over the sea from evasive action who fell out." Sergeant John Feduck was slightly more fortunate. "Before the light changed the plane suddenly lurched," he remembered, "I couldn't hang on because there was nothing to hang on to so out I went--there was no getting back in." Luckily, he was already over France.
Throughout the ordeal, the jumpmasters urgently tried to restore order despite the hot jagged shrapnel that ripped through the thin skin of the Dakota aircraft. Many of the occupants were surprised at "how much the aircraft bounced because of the flak." This extraordinary night jump would forever be etched into the very souls of the young paratroopers. "When I left the aircraft it was pitching," stated Company Sergeant-Major (CSM) John Kemp. "I was standing in the door. There were 20 of us in the aircraft. I had 19 men behind me pushing. They wanted to get the hell out. The flak was hitting the wings." Private Anthony Skalicky's plane was one of those that were actually hit. One of the engines burst into flames, spewing thick black smoke. The plane was losing altitude and even though they were nowhere near the drop zone, "the entire stick just ran out the door," recalled the frightened paratrooper. He conceded that, "I couldn't get out of the plane fast enough."
For the others, the red light came on--the drop zone was now only minutes away. Fear was now forgotten as the paratroopers desperately strained to steel themselves for the coming jump that would allow them to escape this airborne hell. Mercifully, the green light flashed on. "Go!" hollered the jumpmaster as he literally pushed the first jumper out the door. He was followed by the remainder of the stick who were not already wounded. The paratroopers' heavy loads hampered the exiting cadence, causing the stick to be dropped over a much longer distance. "With 60 pounds of equipment strapped to our legs we couldn't run out the door," reminisced Private William Talbot, a member of the anti-tank platoon. "We shuffled to the door and just dropped out."
Some pilots did not reduce their speed, which further complicated the already stressful night jump. "The plane was going much too fast," recollected Captain John Simpson of the Battalion's signal platoon. "When I went out the prop blast tore all my equipment off. The guy must have been going at a hell of a speed. All I had was my clothes and my .45 revolver with some ammo."
The majority of the paratroopers exited on the initial run. Others were not so lucky and had to relive this hellish experience and endure a second pass over the DZ. "I was number 19 in the stick of 20 in my plane," explained Corporal Ernie Jeans, a medic from Headquarters Company. "As I made my way to the door, I heard the engine rev up and the jumpmaster pushed me back." He added, dejected, "I thought to myself that we had come all this way to go back to England." However, the aircraft race-tracked and headed back to the DZ to drop the two remaining paratroopers. A few days later, Jeans learned that the remainder of his stick had been dropped off course on the initial run and were all either captured or killed.
As Private Jan de Vries exited the aircraft he was met by an abrupt rush of wind, which physically yanked him out into the slipstream of the aircraft. Suddenly, the noise and the pandemonium of just a few moments ago disappeared. An eerie silence now surrounded the paratroopers who drifted to earth seemingly alone. "Going down I was surprised at the quietness and the darkness," recollected Corporal Boyd Anderson. "I had expected to hear sounds of shooting or at least some activity." Engulfed in the inky darkness, the paratroopers were given a moment of respite. However, that relief abruptly ended. The solitude and peacefulness of the parachute descent were replaced by the reality of airborne warfare.
The lucky ones hit solid ground, albeit rather heavily. "When I landed flat on my back," reminisced one veteran, "I was in such agony that I cared very little whether I lived or died." But, "then the training took over," he explained, "I immediately pulled out my rifle and at the same time hit the release on my parachute. I placed my pack on my back and with the rifle in my arms I started to crawl toward a clump of trees which I could see very dimly. At this time I heard nothing, not an aircraft, not a bomb, not a shot." Like many that night, he was lost and alone.
While many endured tumultuous exits, others experienced difficult landings. Several paratroopers crashed into trees or slammed onto buildings, resulting in serious injuries and deaths. Among the first casualties was the Battalion's medical officer, Captain Colin Brebner, who had landed in a tree. Due to the darkness, Brebner misjudged his height. The anxious officer proceeded to cut his suspension lines and fell 40 feet down to the ground. His evasive action resulted in a broken left wrist and pelvis. In certain cases the exits from the aircraft were too quick. Corporal Tom O'Connell's chute got tangled up with that of another jumper. "As we plunged towards the earth I heard the other fellow yell from below, 'Take it easy old man!"' Both men crashed to the earth. Around noon, a severely injured O'Connell had finally regained consciousness. Beside him was the body of Padre Captain George Harris. A distraught O'Connell explained that the "two chutes were twisted together like a thick rope." O'Connell was not alone. Many paratroopers had sustained various injuries upon their landings, however, these landings paled in comparison to those who descended into the dreaded flooded and marshy areas. "Looking out of the plane it looked like pasture below us, but when I jumped I landed in water," recalled Private Doug Morrison. "The Germans," he explained, "had flooded the area a while back and there was a green algae on the water so it actually looked like pasture at night from the air." Many Canadian paratroopers drowned because they were so heavily laden with equipment and ammunition. Sergeant W.R. Kelly was one of the lucky paratroopers who cheated this watery grave. One man found Sergeant Kelly hanging upside down from a huge tree with his head in the water. Kelly's parachute suspension lines were knotted around his legs and feet. The canopy had caught on a limb and suspended Kelly so he was submerged from the top of his head to his neck. The eighty pounds of equipment that he carried was now bundled up around his chest. To stop from drowning, Kelly was required to keep lifting his face above the water for mouthfuls of air. He was nearly exhausted when a fellow Canadian found him, cut him loose, and assisted him to dry land. Others, however, were not so fortunate. Many drowned in the fields that the Germans flooded to deter the airborne landings.
But the real problems for the Canadian paratroopers had just begun. The parachute drop had been a disaster. The drops were widely dispersed and scattered. The evasive action of the pilots had created some of the problems. However, the lingering smoke and dust created by heavy ongoing bombing made navigation difficult. This situation was exacerbated by the failure of the "Eureka" homing beacons to function properly. As a result, during the next few hours following the airborne insertion, those who had been dropped off course experienced difficulties in identifying their location. Additionally, the dark night and the fields partitioned by high hedgerows, further impeded the paratroopers' abilities to confirm their positions.
"Airplanes dropped us all over hell's half acre," chided Lance-Corporal H.R. Holloway. "On landing," commented Private De Vries, "I wondered where I was and where the others were. I got out of my chute and quietly moved to the hedgerow at the edge of the field. I was lost. I could not recognize anything." Corporal Dan Hartigan acknowledged that "the scattering had an operating influence on the whole battle. We lost more than 50 percent of our officers on D-Day, 15 of 27." He added, "The fighting in the weeks that followed turned from an officer's war to a Senior NCO's war."
Some paratroopers were lucky and would eventually rejoin their units. Others did not. "I tried to find out where I was, but could not," recalled Sergeant Feduck. "I wandered for an hour or so with no success. I laid down in a bomb crater and tried to get my bearings. Finally, I spotted two English Chaps, we moved out to find our respective units." Nevertheless, the paratroopers had been briefed on how to orient themselves after their landings. "If you are in doubt of the location of the RV," stated Lance Corporal D.S. Parlee, "we were instructed to face the line of incoming aircraft and then move off to the left of their flight path. That was all well and good until I discovered that every aircraft I could see was going in a different direction."
Sergeant Denis Flynn felt that the dispersal "changed the whole attitude--once on the ground we all wondered, 'where are we?' Because of the dispersal of the drop I was separated from my group. Things were a little strange. I wondered, 'Where am I? How do I meet up with the others?'" He confessed that "there were a lot of anxious moments." As dawn pierced through the heavy smoke and clouds, the increasing natural light helped numerous paratroopers find their way to the objectives. However, the early morning sunlight proved more of a hindrance to the airborne soldiers who found themselves in the midst of German positions and troops.
The net result of the aerial difficulties now manifested themselves on the ground. Many of the paratroopers who were not drowned or killed on landing were haplessly lost and 82 became prisoners of war. Some, like Private Anthony Skalicky, were captured shortly after their landing. "Another paratrooper and I decided to move out," recollected the unlucky paratrooper.
"We walked on a road and were suddenly surrounded by German bicycle troops. We were searched, tied up and marched off." Others were more fortunate and successfully eluded many enemy patrols. "I came face to face with a German patrol," reminisced Private Morris Zakaluk of the heavy machine gun section. "I counted six men in single file about three paces apart. They are in full battle gear, rifles, submachine guns, grenades, one man packing a radio ... As I was taking a bead on the lead man, but holding my fire, they turned to the left [and] proceeded along this hedge until they found an opening and disappeared." The bedevilled paratrooper lay silently and held his fire. "A minute or so later three other men showed up," continued Zakaluk. "These men had MG 42s at ready hip position and had I opened fire on the first six-man group I surely would have been a dead duck." In the end, a mere one-third of the Canadian paratroop force was actually able to assemble at their designated rendezvous points and carry on with their missions. *
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
Caption: LEFT: Many of the Canadian paratroopers found themselves immersed in the flooded fields of Normandy, an attempt by the Germans to restrict the Allied ability to use its airborne capability. (PAINTING BY TED ZUBER)
Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion troopers prepare for rifle range qualification in England with Lee Enfields January 1944 (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA 3298167)
Caption: ABOVE: Troopers in staging area wait for transport to the planes June 1944 (LAC, ELMER BONTER, 3405879)
Caption: Left: American C-47s warm up at Exeter England before heading to the Normandy coast, (US MILITARY ARCHIVES)
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|Title Annotation:||HISTORY FEATURE|
|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2018|
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