COVER

Coming down from the sky

BARBARA WICKENS June 6 1994
COVER

Coming down from the sky

BARBARA WICKENS June 6 1994

Coming down from the sky

It was five minutes to midnight on June 5, 1944—and Cpl. Dan Hartigan, a 20-year-old paratrooper from Sydney Mines, N.S., was reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Although raised a Catholic, Hartigan was not particularly religious. But at the time, he was hurtling towards foreign ground in a parachute, about to land in the midst of enemy soldiers. “Jumping is the most irrevocable commitment anyone can make,” he recalls. “There is no going back.” The jump lasted just 14 seconds before Hartigan slammed into the second storey of a vacated farmhouse. He reached the ground unharmed, one of the first Allied DDay invaders. A member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, Hartigan was part of a 110man advance party sent to defend a drop zone for the next wave of paratroopers. The remaining 450 volunteers of the 1st Battalion—which jumped as part of the British 6th Airborne Divi-

sion-floated down about an hour later.

The division’s role was to secure the eastern flank of the Normandy beaches for the seaborne troops that were to land between six and seven hours later. “We had known for months that something big was in the works,” said Hartigan.

They had taken off from near London in tiny Albemarles, twin-engined bombers

converted to troop carriers. “That way, we would just appear to be part of a bombing run,” says Hartigan, a retired business education teacher who lives in Calgary. After 83 minutes, he and nine others tumbled from their plane towards their target about three kilometres northeast of Caen. “We plunged through the floor hatch at 150 m,” he said. “Soon, I saw shapes of buildings and a built-up area looming in the darkness—and I realized for the first time what I’d let myself in for.”

The drop was the culmination of nearly a year’s training. Along with other young men from units across Canada, Hartigan, an assistant in the dental corps, had volunteered to join the

paratrooper battalion. As well as learning how to jump, they practised marching more than 80 km a day while wearing kit packs weighing up to 32 kg. On May 28,1944, the parachute invasion force, by then stationed in England, was ushered behind barbed wire—and out of communication with the rest of the world. Over the next nine days, the troops received “the most exhaustive briefings in history,” says Hartigan, the official historian of the 1 st Battalion.

It was the thoroughness of the preparation, he adds, that enabled the paratroopers to achieve their objectives: knocking out enemy gun batteries and seizing or destroying roads and bridges to block the Germans from rushing in reinforcements to the Normandy beachhead. “But the drop itself was a disaster,” says Hartigan. Some men landed more than 15 km from their targets. But even landing 500 m from the drop zone was calamitous

because the Germans had flooded the surrounding lowlands as a defence. It took some men up to four days of hiding from Germans by day and walking warily by night to get back to the line—and many never made it. They either drowned, were killed by enemy fire or taken prisoner. As a result, says Hartigan, there were only 33 paratroopers in his advance party to accomplish the tasks originally intended for 110 men.

Hartigan was among the lucky ones. He landed in the drop zone and, recalling the terrain from the detailed briefings, headed to his rendezvous point near the village of Varaville, the site of a German encampment in an old château.

It was just before dawn when he and another Canadian paratrooper, from Northern Ontario, reached Varaville. On the way, they met some British paratroopers who told them that the château had already been captured. As they casually walked towards the gate house, they heard their comrades, sprawled in a ditch, screaming to take cover. “At first, I thought they were putting us on for arriving after the fight was over,” says Hartigan. “Luckily, we realized just in time they weren’t fooling and hurled ourselves into the ditch.”

As they dove for cover, enemy ma-

chine-guns raked the roadway with fire. Neither man was hit. Soon afterward, their captain entered into surrender negotiations with the Germans. “We had so few troops, we couldn’t afford to lose any more,” says Hartigan, who carried his unit’s only mortar. When the negotiations stalled, Hartigan crawled near the main German cannon and fired a number of shells at it. A few moments later, all 43 Germans surrendered. “The mortar likely fooled the enemy into thinking organized reinforcements had arrived.” Hartigan’s prayer, it seems, had been answered.

BARBARA WICKENS

with

HAL HOLDEN

in Vancouver