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1st Canadian Parachute Battalion

Canada's first specially trained parachute unit was the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion; it did not have the status of a regiment though is considered a direct predecessor to The Canadian Airborne Regiment. The Battalion was formed during the Second World War and disbanded shortly after; it served concurrently with the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, the administrative name for the Canadian component of the First Special Service Force. Unlike its counterpart in the US Army, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was entirely Canadian, and though it had a Canadian commanding officer, was assigned to the 6th British Airborne Division throughout combat employment and thus was not under higher Canadian command.

History

The story of the formation of the battalion is told in great detail by Report Number 138, Historical Officer, Canadian Military Headquarters, written by C.P. Stacey during the Second World War (direct quotations in this section are from that report). This document is available in .pdf form and was put online by the Directorate of History and Heritage. Report Number 139 detailed the combat employment of the Battalion.

1st Canadian Parachute Battalion

Headquarters: Recruited nationally
Predecessor:
None
Perpetuates:
None
Raised:
1 Jul 1942
Disbanded:
30 Sep 1945

Early Concepts

In Nov 1940, following the stunning success of German airborne forces in Belgium and The Netherlands in May, the Canadian Army began examining the concept. Future corps commander E.L.M. Burns (at that time a colonel) wrote in a report to the Chief of the General Staff suggested that Canada contribute soldiers to the creation of Allied airborne forces, as parachute training was already underway in the British Army, albeit in limited numbers and with no expectation among the Canadian senior commanders that Britain would require or request Canadian assistance.

Major General Crerar was of the opinion, in a meeting at Canadian Military Headquarters in the UK in Dec 1940, that he would agree to training platoon sized sub-units of existing infantry battalions in parachute landings, but saw no need for Canadian battalion sized units unless specifically requested by the British. General McNaughton felt that the use of airborne units had "distinct possibilities" was was not inclined to press his opinion. The matter was dropped until Aug 1941, when prospects for Allied offensive operations became brighter, and National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa again considered raising Canadian parachute units.

he Canadian Corps in the UK was still not up to its projected full strength and NDHQ debated whether the time and money in training specialist troops was in their best interests; General McNaughton, when consulted, replied that "I do not advocate the establishment of any separate (Parachute Troops) in (the Canadian) Forces." He felt the only justification for the creation of these forces would be a high probability of early and continuous employment in their specific role, and a high need for specialized training different to that of regular ground troops. If those conditions ever presented themselves, McNaughton felt that soldiers from existing units could be selected and given the requisite training.

By Oct 1941, the British Army had aggressively pursued the creation of Airborne forces, following the success of German parachute and glider troops in Crete. Ironically, the Crete battle was the last large-scale employment of German airborne forces, as their losses had been shockingly high. On 1 Nov 1941, the British Army finalized plans to create an entire division of airborne troops, employing both gliders and parachutists. At this time, the Royal Canadian Air Force was also curious what the Canadian Army's plans were for the creation of airborne troops and whether or not they should be planning to support Canadian airborne operations. General McNaughton was once again consulted, this time stating that while he still felt the conditions making Canadian parachute troops a necessity had not yet presented themselves, "it might be useful to give attention to this type of training in Canada" and even in the United Kingdom when equipment for such training became available. McNaughton felt that the paratroops should be standard military units with a short period of special training.

NDHQ in Ottawa continued to consider the formation of a parachute unit, and drafted a War Establishment for a Canadian Parachute Battalion, based on similar organization of British parachute troops. This establishment consisted of

  • Battalion Headquarters

  • Headquarters Company

  • Rifle Company

  • Rifle Company

  • Rifle Company

In all, 26 officers and 590 other ranks. A revised War Establishment taking effect 19 May 1944 would have 31 officers and 587 other ranks.

Formation and Training

Volunteers for a 1st and 2nd Canadian parachute battalion was made in Jul and Nov 1942, the 2nd battalion became the component of the First Special Service Force and trained in Helena, MT. The 1st battalion was designated the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.

The first volunteers were drawn from across the Army; officers came mostly from units overseas and other ranks from training centres and infantry units in Canada. Major General G.R. Turner, the DA & QMG of First Canadian Army informed CMHQ in Jul 1942 that the Army had agreed to provide personnel from their ranks to return to Canada for parachute training. Between 23 Aug and 12 Sep 1942, 25 officers and 60 Other Ranks in the UK attended a Royal Air Force parachute course before returning to Canada.

By 22 Mar 1943, a considerable number of men had been assembled and completed four months of training at Fort Benning, Georgia in the US, and moved to a Parachute Training Wing that had been created at Shilo, MB. The American training was slightly different from British training, and those trained in US procedures required a conversion course of one-week's duration once in the UK. By this time, all officers and 97 percent of the other ranks had qualified as parachutists, making the requisite number of jumps, but no collective training (ie training as a unit in the field in infantry tactics and procedures) had been carried out.

The Dec 1942 edition of Canadian Army Training Memorandum carried the following notice:

1 Canadian Parachute Battalion

Notification has gone out to Commands and Districts that future quotas of volunteers will consist of only Active Personnel. This does not prevent suitable members of HD (Home Defence units) volunteering provided they go Active prior to their despatch to the concentration point.

 
Now that paratroops have played such an important part in the battle for Africa it is expected that volunteers will be coming forward in greater numbers than ever.


Employment

The question of integrating the battalion into the British airborne forces now arose; at NDHQ's request General McNaughton offered the battalion to the British Army, who welcomed the battalion and plans were made to incorporate the unit into the British Airborne division being formed. The unit would remain part of the Canadian Army, but be under British command. Standard British equipment would be provided, though personal clothing such as Battle Dress would continue to be a Canadian issue. NDHQ gave official authority for the battalion to join the 6th British Airborne Division on 7 Apr 1943. By this time, the 1st British Airborne Division - a sister formation to the 6th - was preparing to move to the Mediterranean and would see combat in Sicily. British paratroopers had already seen combat in North Africa.

As with the employment of Canadians in the First Special Service Force under US command, the inclusion of Canadians in a British formation caused special administrative problems such as forwarding mail, paying the soldiers, and hospitalization.

The battalion arrived in Greenock, Scotland, on 28 Jul 1943, hastily brought up to strength (including First Reinforcements) with trained soldiers not yet parachute trained. Total strength at the time was 31 officers and 548 other ranks, fully equipped with weapons called for in the war establishment. First reinforcement needs were calculated based on an anticipated 6 months of Intense rate of casualties, 3 months at Normal rate, and 3 months of Quiet activity. Correspondingly, the reinforcements sent to the UK numbered 6 officers and 111 other ranks. Reinforcements were to be held by the Division, and failing adequate facilities for that,Canadian Reinforcement Units in the Aldershot area would house them. Additionally, No. 1 Canadian General Reinforcement Unit was designated as the unit through which reinforcements would come, and a stream of trained parachutists were to be made available by the formation of S14 Canadian Parachute Training School at Shilo, which was established in May 1943. The school had facilities to keep 100 men under instruction in the Parachute Training Wing, 200 in an Advanced Training Wing, and 480 in Trained Soldier Companies. These quota were reduced after 14 Nov 1943 to 50, 100, and 240 respectively though in practice, by the end of 1943 there was a problem of keeping the battalion in the UK up to full strength.

Legal Relationships

A thorny question arose as to whether 1 Can Para should be considered an “attachment” to the 6th British Airborne Division or serving “in combination” with that formation; the distinction was important due to wording of the Visiting Forces legislation of both the UK and Canada. Units placed “in combination” with British units, under the provisions of the Visiting Forces (British Commonwealth) Act , would remain subject to Canadian military law, with British officers acting under Canadian law as if they were Canadian officers with respect to powers of command and arrest. If, however, 1 Can Para was “attached” to the British, all Canadian troops became British troops, in effect, and subject to British military law rather than Canadian for the period they were so attached. The consideration felt most important by the Canadians during their contemplation of the problem was the matter of confirming strict sentences to those convicted of serious offences. According to Stacey's historical report:

If "in combination", such matters would be controlled by Canadian privy Council Orders which had been carefully designed to reserve such sentences on Canadian troops "in combination" to the senior combatant officers or the Governor-General-in-Council for confirmation. If 1 Cdn Para Bn were "attached" it would be necessary to obtain a special British privy Council Order from His Majesty modifying the British Army Act so that such severe sentences would be reserved for Canadian confirmation.

While the matter was being decided, 1 Can Para was placed under the command of Canadian Military Headquarters in the UK even before arrival, with the understanding control would pass to the British 6th Airborne Division at a later date. This was achieved in Aug 1943,with the final decision being that the battalion would remain under CMHQ for administrative matters of purely Canadian nature, and that following the precedent of other Canadian troops serving in the Mediterranean, 1 Can Para would serve “in combination” with the 6th Airborne Division. An order by CMHQ on 11 Oct 1943 made this official. The commanding officer of the battalion would take his operational and training direction from his British commanders, but had the right to refer matters affecting the unit and its administration to the Canadian Government. Any personnel held for trial by General Courts Martial would be transferred to a Canadian Reinforcement Unit, and the commander of CMHQ reserved the final say on Field General Courts Martial verdicts involving serious sentences (penal servitude, and in the case of officers, imprisonment, cashiering, or dismissal from the service).

Uniforms and Equipment

Canadian made Battle Dress was utilized by the Battalion, though some might also have worn British parachute pants (similar to BD Trousers, but with an additional rear pocket as well as enlarged thigh pocket). Maroon berets were also manufactured in Canada. Other specialized equipment, as was normal for Canada during the Second World War, was simply obtained from the British rather than expensively producing small quantities in Canada, including the Denison Smock, parachute helmet, drop bag, parachutes, Sten Gun bandoliers and other special equipment.

Uniform Insignia

Cap Badge

Officers version in bimetal (note size difference) and plastic variant of the Other Ranks badge at right. Other Ranks wore the cap badge in stamped brass, with officers wearing a bi-metal badge. Plastic versions of this badge were also commonly worn during the late war years. The "Canadian Parachute Corps" was never actually formed but the unit wore this insignia as a unit badge.

Still taken from a German newsreel of captured Allied soldiers in Jun 1944, showing the typical insignia for an officer of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion - Canadian jump wings, medal ribbon of the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, battalion shoulder flash, 6th Airborne formation patch and Airborne tab, and rank stars with presumably scarlet backings.

Battle Honours

Though the unit had long been disbanded by the time Canadian Battle Honours were granted, The Canadian Airborne Regiment perpetuated this unit and carried the following Honours on their Colours:

  • Normandy Landing

  • Dives Crossing

  • The Rhine

  • North-West Europe 1944-1945

Further Reading

  • Horn, Bernd and Michel Wyczynski Hook-Up! The Canadian Airborne Compendium: A Summary of Major Airborne Activities, Exercises and Operations, 1940-2000. (Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharine's ON, 2003) ISBN: 1551250713 252pp.

  • Joyce, Ken Into the Maelstrom: The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (Service Publications, Ltd, Ottawa, ON, 2007) 1781894581394


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