Surviving members of Canada’s first parachute battalion, who saw action at D-Day and in various parts of Europe during the Second World War, gathered to mark the 70th anniversary of its founding.
The gathering took place on Sunday, July 8 at Newlands Golf Club in Langley.
Retired Lieut.-Col. Wayne Dehnke of Chilliwack, the current president of the Canadian Airborne Forces Association, Branch 8 – Bornewest of Chilliwack, said the 11 members who gathered are an amazing group, with a fascinating story of service.
Bornewest has approximately 250 members within B.C., including Vancouver Island. An association of retired military paratroopers, it meets regularly for social gatherings and commemorative military events.
The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was created by an order of the Canadian War Cabinet on Canada Day (then known as Dominion Day) — July 1, 1942.
In the first hour of D-Day, on June 6, 1944, the battalion parachuted into Normandy, France with the British 6th Airborne Division. Despite heavy casualties, the battalion survived its objectives and held off determined German attacks until the mid-August breakout from the area.
The battalion advanced against German forces until it reached the Seine River. After returning to England in September to be reinforced, the battalion was ferried to Belgium on Christmas Day, 1944. There it fought in the Ardennes Battle of the Bulge.
By the end of January 1945, the battalion took over and held defensive positions along the Mass River in Holland until the end of February. On March 24, 1945, the battalion parachuted across the Rhine River near Wesel, Germany, in the largest concentrated airborne operation of the war.
During that operation, battalion member Cpl. Frederick Topham tended to a wounded man in the field after two other orderlies were killed while tending to him. He later rescued three occupants of a burning carrier. For this, he received the Victoria Cross.
The battalion was then engaged in a six-week, 300-mile trek across Germany, and reached the town of Wismar on the Baltic Sea. As the division lead battalion, the Canadians entered Wismar on May 2, 1945, three hours ahead of the Russians.
At the end of the war in Europe, the battalion returned to Canada in June, and it was disbanded Sept. 30, 1945.
It was the first Canadian unit on the ground on D-Day; the only Canadian unit to fight in the Ardennes; the only Canadian unit to meet the Russian Army in Europe and the only unit in the British 6th Airborne Division to have a recipient of the Victoria Cross.
The 11 members of the battalion who attended are Denis Labossiere of Vancouver; Monty Marsden of Mission; George Whatley of Abbotsford; Jim Kingsley of Parksville; Ray Ward of Mission; Darrel Harris of Delta; George Siggs of Vancouver; Joe Pringle of Kamloops; Knobby Clark of Mission; Peter Braidwood of Chilliwack and Herbie Harris of Comox.
Dick Rempel of Abbotsford was unable to attend.
Also present were 1st Canadian Battalion Association members Bill McAllister, Ken Clarke, Neville Robinson and John Butler. Two widows of battalion members were also in attendance — Pauline Zakaluk and Jo Voth-Doan.
The patron of the battalion association is retired Major-General Herb Pitts.
“We had a very important celebration on the first of July when the regiment was born,” he said. “This was the first chance for this group on the west coast to be able to come together and celebrate the 70th anniversary of military parachuting in Canada. A long time ago, these fellows were the originals in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. I’ve been honoured to have been their patron for about 30 years. It’s too bad that age has caught up with most of their comrades, because there’s not a lot of them left now.”
The original members of the battalion who were present range in age from 88 to 94.
“When they came back from the Second World War, in September, 1945, (the battalion) was disbanded. And the disbandment was brought about because there was no clear role for it in the peacetime setting,” Pitts said.
“Three years after its disbandment, the army decided it did need parachute capability and the 1st Battalion of Princess Patricia’s infantry was the first major unit that was retrained to be a parachute unit. That happened to be one of my regiments that I served in at that time. So this is a wonderful opportunity for friends of the parachute battalion and jumpers to celebrate this very big event,” he added.