1st Canadian Parachute Battalion

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was part of the British 6th Air Borne Division's 3rd Brigade. The division was dropped east of the Orne river on the left flank of the main British assault force.

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was to protect the left (southern) flank of the 9th Battalion during that battalion's attack on the gigantic coastal battery at Merville. Then the Canadians were to seize and hold the vital strategic position astride the Le Mesnil cross roads. The crossroads were located at the centre of a long sloping ridge overlooking the Orne River and the sea at Ouistreham. The success of the Allied eastern flank depended on the Canadians to hold this ridge and prevent a German counter-attack from reaching the invasion forces on the beaches at Ouistreham.

Mass drop of the 1st Battalion from Douglas Dakota aircrafts, Salisbury Plain, England, February 6th, 1944.The night of June 5-6 was moonless with patchy cloud and winds gusting up to 20 miles. The paratroopers landed between 0100 and 0130 hours on June 6th. The pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company dropped accurately on the drop zone near Varaville but the radar beacon and responder units were all smashed in the drop and totally useless. With no homing devices, and due to the high winds and flak over the coast the paratroops landed over a wider area than planned. In some cases paratroopers were dropped miles from their drop zones causing delays in the soldiers reaching their objectives. Chaos was everywhere, but small groups of well-trained men went about their tasks knowing their comrades depended on them.

The majority of 'C' Company was dropped west of the Dives river and only 33 of the 110 men who jumped made it to the Varaville area. Despite the losses one group of paratroopers quickly destroyed the road bridge over the Divette, a tributary of the river Dives. The remaining men, under the command of Major Murray MacLeod attacked a chateau in Varaville where a German pillbox and 75mm anti-tank gun covered the Varaville road. The Canadians came under heavy fire. Shell fire from the 75mm killed five men including Major MacLeod. The remaining men dug in around the town shooting it out with the Germans.

Canadian paratroopers dug in by drop zone'B' Company was widely scattered in their drop, but they managed to assemble 35 Canadians plus 25 others from various units as they advanced on the hamlet of Robehomme. 'B' Company blew the bridge at Robehomme on the Dives river and then dug in around the houses and barns in Robehomme. Of all the positions, 'B' company had gone the farthest into enemy territory and were exposed to enemy counter-attack.

'A' Company protected the left flank of 9th Battalion as it advanced to capture the Merville battery. The 9th Battalion had also been scattered in their drop and only 150 soldiers were gathered for the attack on the Merville battery. In a remarkable display of courage the British charged through the barbed wire and minefields and stormed the bunker with guns blazing. By first light all four guns of the Merville battery were knocked out. Seventy of the soldiers were killed or wounded in the charge but the terrible threat the guns posed to landings on Sword and Juno beaches was eliminated.

Slowly more paratroopers made their way to Varaville as the fighting to take the chateau continued. The men from the mortar and Vickers machine-gun platoons arrived at dawn and joined the fight. Sniper fire, small arms fire and heavy mortar fire went on throughout the day. The last bunker was finally taken when at point blank range Corporal Dan Hartigan fired four mortar shells in quick succession. The Germans surrendered and forty-three prisoners were taken. With all their objectives taken, the Canadians began moving back to Le Mesnil and the crossroads where everyone quickly dug in awaiting the inevitable German attempt to break through to the Orne bridges.

The Germans were desperate to retake the crossroads and early on June 7th the German 857 and 858 Grenadier regiments supported by Mark IV tanks and self-propelled guns counter attacked the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. The Canadians fired mortars on the German infantry causing heavy casualties and drove the German tanks back with PIAT gun fire. 'B' Company used their bayonets to stop a German infantry charge. The paratroopers had to withstand eight days of determined German counter-attacks and constant bombardment, often engaging the enemy in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. With absolute courage and determination, the Canadians held their position at the Le Mesnil cross roads and helped ensure the success of the landings at Sword and Juno beaches.