My Grandfather’s War
Three generations of a Caledon farming family travelled to Europe to retrace the steps of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion during WW II.
“We’re going the wrong way! Turn around – we’re going the wrong way!” My grandfather, Tom Jackson, was sitting in the back seat of our Renault rental car and shouting at my father, David, who was driving. The three of us – two farmers from Caledon and a first-year university student – were lost on the highways of Germany.
It was mid-afternoon on May 20, 2005. Our flight to Hamburg had landed a few hours earlier, and we were on a three-week tour across Europe to retrace the route Grandpa had taken during the Second World War. We planned to do the trip in reverse, though, by starting in Germany and ending in England.
But just a few hours into our journey, I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be a trip I would live to regret.
During the war, Grandpa was a member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, a group of highly trained soldiers who were dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy, France, ahead of the D-Day assault of June 6, 1944. Then, in the winter of 1944–45, the battalion was the only Canadian unit to take part in the infamous Battle of the Bulge, fighting in the Ardennes, the heavily forested region that includes parts of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. And in March and April 1945, the unit was part of the Allied spearhead that fought its way deep into the heart of Germany to end the war in Europe.
The battalion never included more than 600 active soldiers, and for that reason it may go down in history as a footnote, but these determined and well-trained Canadians never failed to complete a mission, never lost an objective once it was taken, and advanced farther into Germany than any other Canadian unit during the war.
Our plan was to start in the port city of Wismar on the Baltic Sea in northern Germany, drive southwest into Holland and Belgium, arrive in France in time for the anniversary of D-Day, and travel to England a few days after that.
Dad drove while I navigated, leaving Grandpa in the back seat with a paper map he had picked up at the airport. It turns out he was right. We were going in the wrong direction, and after driving for two hours and nearly 200 kilometres, we finally listened to him and turned the car around.
Maybe Dad and I should have placed a little less faith in an incorrectly calibrated GPS device and a little more faith in the man who once made his way across occupied France in the dark of night with little but a compass and a map.
By the time the first soldiers scrambled out of their landing craft and onto the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, to start the Allied assault, 20-year-old Private Tom Jackson and the rest of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had already been in the country for nearly five hours.
Around 1 o’clock that morning, the Canadian paratroopers, as part of the British 6th Airborne Division, had jumped into France with orders to blow up bridges, destroy coastal artillery, hold strategic areas, and prevent German reinforcements from reaching the beaches once the main assault began.
When I was growing up, I always marvelled at the newspaper clippings, memorabilia, photos and other war artifacts that filled Grandpa’s rec room, and when my cousins and I were little, he taught us the proper paratrooper tuck-and-roll landing manoeuvre on the bed. I am the youngest of eight grandkids though, and I never really understood what it all meant or what he endured during the war.
That all changed in the spring of 2005. I was finishing my first year of studying history at the University of Guelph when my mother suggested that my father, grandfather and I travel to Europe together. Starting with the 25th anniversary of D-Day in 1969, Grandpa had returned every five years, but my father and I hoped this trip, with all three generations of Jackson men, would be extra special.
On May 19 we found ourselves on an overnight flight to Germany, and despite our unexpected detour, we arrived in Wismar a little less than 24 hours later. We were ready to begin our trip where the war had ended for Grandpa 60 years earlier.
After the battalion jumped into Germany on March 24, 1945, as part of a joint British and American assault, the goal of the Canadian parachutists was to push north to Wismar. Their final task of the war was to prevent the Germans from retreating into Norway and Denmark, and they had orders from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to reach the town before the Russians, who were approaching from the east.
The advance to Wismar involved zigzagging north through Germany, and the battalion covered more than 450 kilometres on foot or in the back of any vehicle they could find. They reached Wismar at 9 a.m. on May 2, beating the Russians by just two hours. The two sides met later that day near the banks of the Elbe River and shared a toast of vodka, but political tension meant they rarely mingled afterward.
We spent several days touring Wismar and looking for landmarks from Grandpa’s war days, but in many ways our trip across Germany mirrored that of the Allies in 1945. We moved quickly to make sure we arrived in Normandy in time for the June 6 commemoration of the 61st anniversary of D-Day, which meant a lot of time driving on unfamiliar European roads.
Fortunately, I had learned how to operate the GPS and we didn’t get lost again, though I’m not sure if Grandpa ever put much faith in the device.
It was during this drive across Europe that Grandpa told us countless interesting stories, the kind that don’t usually end up in history books. By April 1945 most German soldiers had come to realize there would be no stopping the Allied advance into their country, and they simply wanted to surrender.
Grandpa recalled riding on the top of tanks and in jeeps as they drove along the dirt roads – “dirtier than the devil” as he described them. As far as the eye could see, German soldiers were lined up on the roadside with their rifles slung over their shoulders. There wasn’t enough time to process the thousands of surrendering soldiers, so the Germans were just told to wait for the next group of Allied soldiers.
On that trek, the Allied troops were sometimes forced to sleep in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, but other times they passed through cities that had been spared the Allied bombs and were able to rest with an actual roof over their heads.
Our trip continued west to the cities of Minden, Ladbergen and Hamminkeln, near the battalion’s drop zone. When I asked Grandpa what made him want to become a paratrooper in the first place, he seemed to dodge the question and started talking about my other grandfather, my mother’s father, who had been a crew member aboard a Halifax bomber.
The mortality rate among bomber crews was one of the highest of the war, and Grandpa Jackson could not imagine what would possess a man to fly into battle aboard one of those planes. “They’d fly in and there would be anti-aircraft guns going off all around them. I wouldn’t want to be on one of those crews,” he said with a laugh, obviously unaware of the irony.
Incredulous, I turned around and looked at him. “They probably said the same thing about you paratroopers,” I said. “At least they weren’t jumping out of the planes.” He just chuckled and nodded his head before returning his gaze out the window.
On May 25, we arrived in Hamminkeln and met a local historian Grandpa knew from his previous trips to Germany. The historian took us on a tour of the drop zone, located in a farm field just outside the city limits. When we arrived, an old farmer was working the fields on his tractor, but once he learned Grandpa was a veteran – and we were a farming family – he readily gave us permission to look around.
The Canadians had jumped into Germany as part of Operation Plunder, a co-ordinated series of assaults along the Rhine River.
The airborne and glider portion of the assault was code named Operation Varsity. Unlike on D-Day almost a year earlier, the jump did not take place under cover of night. About 2,200 men from 12 different parachute battalions, representing British, American and Canadian forces, started jumping into battle at 10 in the morning – in broad daylight.
The largest airborne operation in history, it involved more than 10,000 aircraft, ranging from bombers and fighters to troop carriers and gliders.
Their job was to drop on top of the Germans’ Rhine defences, which included specially trained anti-paratrooper soldiers, to secure the drop zone and defend the Allied troops crossing the river should the Germans mount a counteroffensive.
Both the old red-brick farmhouse and the barn at the drop zone still bear the scars of the battle that raged there more than 60 years ago. Bullet holes line the sides of the buildings, and in the years after the war, farmers had been known to use the landing gear of the gliders as fence posts.
During our walk through the fields, I also learned what I had always wanted to know but had never had the courage to ask: How close had Grandpa come to dying in battle?
A group of paratroopers is called a stick, and that morning Grandpa’s stick landed just south of a group of trees near the farm. As he advanced on the German position, the men on either side of him were shot and killed. Somehow, the bullets from the enemy machine guns missed him by just a few feet.
More than 2,500 Allied soldiers were killed during the first two days of this operation. The dead included the Canadian commander Jeff Nicklin, who was shot before he even hit the ground after his parachute snagged in some trees. Grandpa was injured on March 25, when he suffered a relatively minor shrapnel wound to his leg.
We continued our drive the next morning, making our way through Belgium and Holland. After spending several months in France after D-Day, Grandpa’s battalion had returned to England in September 1944 as Allied troops pushed ever closer to Germany. As a last-ditch attempt to counter this advance, the Germans tried to break and divide the Allied front line by attacking its weakest spot, the Ardennes. This German offensive, which took place in late 1944 and early 1945, is widely known as the Battle of the Bulge.
On Christmas Eve 1944, the battalion set sail for Belgium aboard the SS Canterbury. Though there would be no parachute drop into battle this time, the Canadian paratroopers were assigned to help plug the 70- kilometre gap in the Allied front in the Ardennes.
On January 2, the Canadians moved to the front and stayed there for nearly two months, defending the Allied position near Roermond, Netherlands, on the Maas River, a major waterway that flows through France, Belgium and Holland.
Grandpa recalled the bitterness of the fighting that January and February – and their shortage of equipment. Supplies were so low that some men resorted to cutting up old blankets to warm their hands and feet. “They sent a truck out for more supplies and when they came back with warmer boots, they were either two sizes too big or two sizes too small,” he said. “But we wore them anyway.”
But by February 21, the front was stabilized and the battalion returned to England, where the men remained until called into action for the final advance to Wismar.
Grandpa, Dad and I pushed on and reached Normandy on May 30, in time to tour the sites the battalion had captured and held in the hours and days after their D-Day jump into France.
On that jump, the Allied sticks were scattered all over the French countryside. Grandpa had landed in a swampy, flooded marshland and lost all his gear.
Armed with nothing more than a revolver and a Sten gun, a lightweight submachine gun assigned to paratroopers, he and another battalion member made their way to the rendezvous point, a brickyard near the crossroads they were under orders to secure. The road was strategic for both the Allies and the Germans because it was in the middle of an enormous ridge that overlooked the beaches.
Of the 27 Canadian officers and 516 other ranks who jumped into Normandy that morning, 117 men were lost on the first day alone. Over the course of the entire operation, 24 officers and 343 other ranks were either killed or captured.
We toured sites in and around Normandy, and on June 5 we joined a group of British paratroop veterans on their tour bus. The next day we attended several memorial services throughout the region, including ceremonies at a number of war cemeteries. I humbly watched as Grandpa laid a battalion wreath and marched along the streets in the light rain, accepting candies from French schoolchildren.
Two days later, we left for England. There we visited several historic sites, including Stonehenge, but we really wanted to stop at the Rose and Crown, a pub not far from the Carter Barracks in Bulford (about 90 minutes west of London) where the Canadian paratroopers had been stationed.
Our goal was to have a pint in the bar where Grandpa got into a fistfight with an Irishman some time before the jump into Normandy. Unfortunately, the pub was closed and we were scheduled to fly home just a few days later, so we never did have that pint.
I was 19 years old at the time of our trip – the same age as my grandfather when he joined the paratroops in 1942 – and seeing row upon row of tombstones for fallen Canadian soldiers, many of them my age or just a year or two older, made the trip that much more visceral for me.
On May 8, 1945, six days after the battalion arrived in Wismar, the war in Europe officially ended, and about a week later the Canadians were on their way back to England. They received a royal send-off on May 31 and sailed for Canada June 15 aboard the SS Île de France, arriving in Halifax on June 21.
Rumours swirled that the unit would be sent to the Pacific to help the Allies defeat Japan, but with hostilities winding down through July and August – punctuated by the Americans’ dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and Japan’s surrender on September 2, the battalion officially disbanded on September 30, 1945.
The timing of our trip couldn’t have been better, because by 2008 – just three years after we returned from Europe – Grandpa’s health began to fail, and he moved from his farm on Old School Road to a care facility in Brampton.
However, on November 11 that year the three of us piled into the car once again and headed to the annual Remembrance Day ceremony at the Port Credit Legion. As a former branch president and one of the driving forces behind the branch’s construction, Grandpa expected to lay a wreath, as he had every year.
The day was cold and blustery, but hundreds of people gathered at the cenotaph to pay their respects. When Grandpa’s turn came to lay a wreath, my father rolled him to the base of the memorial in his wheelchair and I expected Grandpa to pass the wreath to Dad.
But true to his nature, Grandpa asked my father and another veteran to help him up the steps so he could lay his wreath among the others and give one final salute to fallen friends and comrades.
At the Legion after the service, he laughed and joked with his remaining war buddies, and he even had a small glass of beer from the bar. It was the happiest I had seen him in months.
That afternoon, we drove him back to the care centre and my father wheeled him up to his room on the third floor. I stayed in the car, after saying what I didn’t know at the time would be my last goodbye.
Grandpa passed away in his sleep on November 28, 2008, at the age of 85.
Before his funeral we held a family service to inter his ashes in the family plot in Toronto’s Park Lawn Cemetery, just a stone’s throw from where Grandpa was born in Etobicoke. His ashes, along with a few sprigs of wheat from the farm, were interred in a simple pine box with the logo of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion emblazoned on the lid.
Only half of Grandpa’s ashes were interred that day, however. The next summer, the rest were scattered from a military plane as it flew over Ex Coelis Mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Ex coelis – out of the clouds – is the battalion’s Latin motto, and the mountain’s four lower peaks bear names that honour the battalion’s operations in World War II.
This was the final jump for an old parachutist who had first risked his life more than 60 years earlier, when he leapt into the unknown of the pre-dawn blackness of a French spring night.
Out of the Clouds and into History
The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion made history when it officially became Canada’s first specially trained parachute unit on July 1, 1942.
The soldiers who had volunteered to try out for the unit were held to high physical and mental standards. Only about 20 per cent of the initial volunteers, including Private Tom Jackson, successfully completed the rigorous training program.
The idea for creating a parachute battalion had begun to take shape in 1940 after Germany used airborne troops to successfully invade Belgium and the Netherlands. It was first envisioned as a homeland defence unit that would help protect Canada in the event of an invasion by German or other Axis forces.
The battalion’s initial training took place at Fort Benning, Georgia, under American parachutists. In March 1943 training moved to the Canadian base at Shilo, Manitoba. Training was divided into four stages over four consecutive weeks. The first gruelling exercises, designed to weed out unsuitable candidates, included jujitsu and carrying a 60-pound pack on long marches.
Then came a series of landing exercises, including the “man breaker,” a 32-foot-high structure used to practise plane-exiting drills. Next was parachute training from a 250-foot tower, and finally, soldiers were required to complete five successful jumps from a plane.
In July 1943 the battalion was sent to England where the unit continued training as part of Britain’s 6th Airborne Division. A major difference between the British and American systems was that British paratroopers jumped through an opening in the floor of the plane, rather than out a side door.
On D-Day, 50 aircraft transported the battalion to France. Battalion members wore distinctive maroon berets, and in addition to his normal equipment each parachutist carried a knife, a rope, and an escape kit that included French currency and two 24-hour ration packs. Total weight? About 70 pounds.