This is the story of a fabulous adventure as it was lived during the first dramatic days of the invasion of France by a 21-year-old Canadian private, Alexander Huton, Prescott, Ont. Sandy-haired and slightly built, Huton jumped with a Canadian parachute battalion many hours before dawn of D-Day. In order to record this story Lionel Shapiro crept to a frontline position. He and Huton sat under a tree less than 800 yards from the German lines and the parachutist’s story was related to the constant accompaniment of shells whistling overhead and mortar rounds dropping close. Two years ago Huton joined the Army at Prescott, and requested service with a parachute battalion out of sheer love for adventure. His peacetime occupation was machinist’s helper in the Prescott Marine Works. He trained in Canada, the United States and England, making 17 practice jumps before the fateful 18th landed him in France. This is his story as he told it within 24 hours of his almost miraculous return to our lines.
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Somewhere In France (By Cable)—We were on deck and ready for the Big Show for about three days before it really happened. Maybe there were postponements. I don’t know. But it was pretty nerve-racking waiting for the signal that the party was really on. We were confident all right, but you know how it is when you’ve trained for and thought about a certain day for two whole years. You sort of get impatient when you know it’s pretty close, and you can’t wait for it to happen so it will be behind you and finished with. Well, we sat around those three days and smoked and played cards, but mostly we cleaned our weapons over and over again and thought about the party.
Then on June 5 the company commander gathered us together and said, “Tonight’s the night.” I was glad, because it had been too tough waiting around. Anyway we went out to an airport about 10 o’clock that night and got our chutes and all our equipment ready. We had tea and the pilots of our planes talked to us and told us about their end of the show. They were wonderful fellows. The plane I was going in was an American-built ship and we had a British pilot, an Australian navigator and a British wireless air gunner. With us Canadians in it.
It was sort of a League of Nations. When we were all ready the station commander came around to wish us good luck.
We pushed off some time before midnight. It was sort of a funny feeling I had as we raced down the runway. I felt numb and plenty scared. You figure to yourself you know you have to go and there’s nothing you can do about it. I suppose that’s what they call sweating it out. We had lights in the plane. We looked at one another and smoked without saying much.
Suddenly the lights were turned off. We stopped smoking. I knew we were over the coast of France. We began talking then, kidding about seeing Berlin soon. Somebody said, “It sure’s going to be an exciting day back in Canada tomorrow morning when they wake up and find the invasion has started.” Then the flak started and we got bumped around. A big piece of flak hit us, going clean through the tail. Hot lead whizzed inside the plane but nobody was hurt. Why, I’ll never know. Finally the air gunner yelled, “We’re okay. Five minutes to go.” We stood up— got ready. I had my rifle valise, my rifle and two rolls of assault cable strapped to me. The air gunner yelled, “Three minutes to go.” We all pushed nearer toward the door.
I was the 10th man in the stick. Some of the battalion headquarters party were in the plane, including Major Jeff Nicklin, Winnipeg, and Lieut. John Simpson, Toronto.
A red light went on, then a green light. That was it. We began jumping. The first seven men got out swell, then the plane lurched badly and the eighth man stumbled at the door. Lieut. Simpson, who was the ninth man in the stick, pushed him out and hit the silk right after him. Just as I was about to jump, the red light went on and the air gunner yelled, “We’re off our DZ.” That meant we had overshot our rendezvous area. The plane circled, the green light came on again and I went out. I was a long time getting down and I remember wondering how I’d find Lieut. Simpson, the officer I was supposed to report to. I was plenty excited as I floated down. I looked around and I saw water below, then some trees. It looked like swamp area and I was scared. I went for a tree landing.
My chute caught in the tree and my rifle broke loose. I dangled there for a minute or so and then the chute loosened and I dropped into four or five inches of water. I kicked around in the water trying to find my rifle but I was getting into waist-deep water. Then I heard somebody shout, “Come on.” The voice seemed to come from the next field. I crawled through some bushes and got onto a track but I couldn’t see anything around me except water. I shouted in the direction of the voice and I got no answer so I went back, trying to find the rifle. It was too dark. I couldn’t see anything. All I had was my fighting knife so I figured I might as well lay up for the night. I was plenty exhausted. The best place I could find was in four or five inches of water. I covered myself with a camouflage net, propped up my head to keep from drowning and went to sleep.
I was awakened by a pistol prodding me under the chin. A mud-covered man was staring me in the face. I thought I’d had it the first day. He asked me what battalion I belonged to—and boy, what a relief to discover he was a British parachute captain! He gave me a shot of liquor from a flask and led me across marshes to the place where he was hiding with eight British parachutists. By this time I’d lost my fighting knife but the captain gave me a grenade in case we got into a fight.
We didn’t know quite where we were, although we could hear the sounds of battle a few miles away. Our party crept along a path until we sighted a farmhouse and barn. The captain and sergeant “recceyed” the barn and found it empty. We all crept in. We felt pretty safe there so we took off our wet clothes. “Come on, Canada,” the others were saying, “pull out those good fags of yours.” I carried about 300 cigarettes but they were all wet except one package of 50. I handed them around and we were pretty happy. Those British boys are pretty cool customers all right.
About an hour later two Frenchmen crept into the barn. They were resistance men and they gave us a layout of the territory We mounted guard all day, because we could see Jerries moving along the road 500 yards away. That night we decided to get out. We formed up, with two Sten gunners in the lead and me carrying my lone grenade right behind them. We moved across about a thousand yards of swamp and came to an extra wide dyke. One of the Sten gunners tried to cross it and almost drowned, so we decided to return to the barn and figure out a new plan. Next, morning the Frenchmen brought in three more Britishers and also food and wine. The Jerries were searching the area and we laid up in the barn for two days. The Frenchmen brought us as much food as they could but it wouldn’t go around and we were pretty hungry. They suggested killing their dog and eating it but we wouldn’t let them. It was a swell pup. We would rather go hungry than kill it.
On the third morning one of the Frenchmen brought in a small radio and we heard the BBC news of how the invasion was going well. The Frenchmen were jumping for joy and we all figured it wouldn’t be too long before we’d be rescued. We couldn’t move out of the barn because the Jerries were still all around us. That evening a young French girl darted into the barn carrying a little food which she’d cooked for us. She was a pretty girl as well as a brave one. On the fourth morning the Frenchmen woke us up yelling, “The British are coming!” We were happy, but not for long. It was the Navy that was shelling the Jerries in our area and the creeping barrage was coming our way. Shells were bursting closer all the time and thank God they stopped just before they reached the area of our barn. That night four mén, including the captain, decided to try to get away . They left around midnight and came back about four in the morning. They couldn’t make their way through the swamp in the darkness, and the roads were being constantly patrolled by Jerries.
Just after the four came back, a British sergeant—his name is Lucas, and I’ll never forget him—stood up and said, “Are you game to try it, Canada?”
I nodded my head and so did seven others. That made a party of nine, including the sergeant, a corporal and seven privates. I was the only Canadian. We spent all next day making plans and at 11 that night nine of us started out. We hadn’t eaten much for three days and we were pretty weak. But we figured we had a fighting chance of getting into our own lines. We formed up, with Sergeant Lucas moving out in front alone. He was followed by two men carrying Stens, then me with my grenade and the other five bringing up the rear. We decided to try the road and we crept along in the ditch at a very slow pace.
We moved along about a mile and suddenly we fell flat on our stomachs. About 50 Jerries came cycling by within four feet of us. They were blabbering away in German and laughing a good deal. We crawled another mile, then went flat again as a battery of German horse-drawn artillery clattered down the road. It was too close for me. I was getting a bit jittery but the sergeant, was steady as a rock. What a soldier! He led us across the swamp and just as daylight was breaking we saw a barn. We hid in a hedge while the sergeant walked to the door and pried it open with his bayonet.
He came back to get us, saying, “Quick, men. The place is full of chickens. Get in there before the chickens escape.” Then he went to the farmhouse and woke up an aged farmer who brought us milk and a little butter.
We slept most of the day in an upper hayloft and pushed out at midnight. We were climbing over a hedge when we heard a rifle shot in our midst. We fell flat, hardly breathing, until one of our men sheepishly said, “Sorry, fellows. It was my rifle. The safety catch slipped.” We moved again, this time over a cratered field, the sergeant always moving out in front. Twice he stopped and dug his toe in the dirt, then he led us around a mine. That was typical of the sergeant. He tried everything himself first before he would allow the rest to follow. When we came to wide dikes the sergeant swam across first to see if we could make it.
We moved up on the main road again, the sergeant stopping to cut the Jerry telephone wires with his bayonet and again we had to fall flat while Jerry field guns rolled past. The sarge was always taking note of their equipment and direction. He didn’t miss a trick. We were cold and pretty weak from hunger. I passed around my emergency ration for everybody to have one bite. The sergeant had a flask with cold tea. We had one spoonful each.
We moved all night and just before first light we rolled into a deep ditch running behind a high hedge. It was the best place we could find to spend the day. Suddenly we heard a deafening roar and we discovered that a battery of German field guns was firing not 50 yards from us. The sergeant crawled away, saying it was his duty to mark the exact location of the guns so he could inform our artillery when we got through. He crawled under the very noses of the German gunners, noting the types of guns and the landmarks by which he could locate them on the map. While we slept most of the day in the ditch the sergeant was studying a makeshift map, trying to plan the night’s journey.
At nine that night he awakened us, gave us a spoonful of tea each and ordered us to blacken our faces. We moved out at 10 o’clock, because the dusk was deepened by a heavy rainfall and it was safe to move at that hour. We joined a herd of cows and walked between them across high ground. Then we came to a ridge. We were I doing a leopard crawl in the dark when machine guns burst all around us.
I thought I must be hit and I pinched myself. I was okay, but the man next to me was dead and three others were wounded. Two had scrambled away in the darkness, leaving the sergeant, the corporal and me with the three wounded. They were groaning with pain and we figured Jerry would be on us in a moment, but for some reason they didn’t follow up. We did our bast for the wounded. One was badly shot up and was dying; the second was shot in both arms and the third was hit in the back. They told us to go on and leave them, saying they would call to the first Germans they saw at daylight.
It was hard to leave the dying man. He was asking not to be left alone in his last moments. He knew he’d bought it. We stayed with him a little while until he became unconscious, while the two others lay there and urged us to get moving. We propped them up as comfortably as we could and slipped away in the darkness.
The three of us reached a tributary about 80 yards wide. We were very weak hut we managed to swim across and then crawl along a dirt road. I’d lost track of where we were going but the sarge was leading us and we took his word for it. At first light we came to a house surrounded by a high wall. The sarge said, “We must be only a few hundred yards from our own lines now. But this looks like a German unit ¡ headquarters. Let’s use the grenade ; and the Stens on them before we push on.” I argued, “For God’s sake, Sarge, let’s get hack to our lines and do some fighting later.” But the sergeant was all for shooting some Jerries. He forced open the gate, crawled up the garden path, pushed the door open with his foot and poked his Sten in the house. It was a tense moment—until an old Frenchman came clattering down the stairs shouting, “Welcome, welcome!”
The Frenchman gave us something to eat and said our troops were in a wood only a quarter of a mile away. While we were eating he darted out and in 20 minutes he was back with two huge British commandos. I could have hugged them I was so glad to see them. They took us back to their headquarters and the sarge told the story of our escape. The commandos said, “How about showing us where you left your wounded last night?” And what do you think the sarge did? He took a stiff drink and started back along the road with three commandos to rescue the wounded men. What’s more they were back in six hours, carrying the two wounded. The third had died during the night.
Well, that’s about all there is to the story. I got back to my unit yesterday and the sarge and the corporal went back to theirs. But there’s one guy I’ll never forget and that’s Sergeant Lucas. He’s all man and all soldier! Nobody can ever tell me the British haven’t got guts. That sergeant has enough for the whole blasted Empire.