Wartime Heritage ASSOCIATION
Henry Churchill 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Momentary panic freezes your nerves as you fall in the turbulence of a shrieking gale. The earth is small below. Then comes a teeth chattering jolt as the parachute opens. Now the gale has subsided, floating like a summer cloud in the sky. You are thinking perhaps you have died and gone to heaven. Then the earth comes hurling up to meet you. Such are the sensations which you would find compressed into the fifty chaotic seconds of your first jump as a paratrooper. Henry Churchill joined the army in 1940 at the age of 28. Most veterans that join the army, in the early days wanted to see active service. Most wouldn’t get sent overseas right away. Churchill spent two and a half years in Cape Breton. One day, a boy that worked in the orderly room, Grant Brooke, from PEI, asked Henry to volunteer with him for paratroopers. They went to Sidney, Nova Scotia, for an IQ test and a medical. Grant Brooke, a brave fifteen year old, took the test first. Henry told the examiner, “despite his age he’ll be all right, he has encouraged me to go this far.” They left the same day for Montreal. In Montreal they were screened again. Henry laughs, “you really wanted to go badly enough, when you got your hair cropped as bald as a baby.” On the 25th of December, 1942, they left for Fort Benning, Georgia, where they qualified as paratroopers. They made five jumps to get their wings. In May, Henry, otherwise known as “Winnie” by his fellow soldiers after the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, joined the 1st Canadian Paratroopers and assigned with the British 6th Airborne Division, also called the “Red Devils” Close to D-Day, one fellow said, “Winnie, we should go out and enjoy ourselves, we don’t have much longer to live” It’s serious, thinking they all couldn’t come back home. “They told us we were expendable.” says Churchill. “Losses were part of it. In the Airborne they expected 70% casualties on the D-Day experience. In Our Battalion were 550 men, after D-Day we got around 140 of them together. Then we had to hold the lines of the Battalion. My platoon consisted of 30 m3n and we were down to 18.” D-Day came. “I was right there with them, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.” June 6, 1944, D-Day began with thousands of paratroopers dropping from the sky over Normandy, France. This was hours before the first ground troops would hit the beaches. On D-Day there were over six thousand aircraft in the air. The sun had just set, they embarked on their flight to Normandy. Within a short distance of the Normandy coast they were told the lights would be going out shortly. That meant the guys would look out the window for the last time, to see up and down the line. It was hard enough to jump, but in the dead of night with the uncertainty was difficult. Above the coast, a man sitting next to Churchill said, “Henry, our plane is on fire.” t wasn’t, they were being shot by tracer bullets. The pilots dropped the plane to around 400 feet. Normally it is 700 feet when they jump. The green light came on and Henry Churchill jumped. On his way down he struggled to remove the 110lb kit bag from his leg. He released it and the rope broke. he impact for his landing knocked him out. When he came to he was in an irrigation ditch. “This saved my life,” said Churchill, “if I didn’t get knocked out, I would probably be in a grave over there.” Churchill awoke to the sounds of guns and the sight of tracer bullets. The kit bag landed not far from him so he pulled it into the ditch with him. In it was his rifle, grenade, ammunition, a pick axe and six 10 pound mortar bombs. The fuses on the bombs were dented and unusable and the stock was broken off his rifle. The two men that landed ahead of Churchill didn’t make it. One man got a bullet between his eyes, and the other was shot in the back. Churchill moved up the ditch. They told him to look for flares, but they were everywhere. The sky was alive with everything. Henry wasn’t feeling good so he went into a wheat field and laid down. He later heard voices and looked up to see six men walking by. Dawn was just beginning to arrive and it was difficult to tell if the men were friend or foe. He followed them for a short distance but they were going east and he knew his group would be going west. Henry moved along a bunch of bushes and heard English voices. One was Overby, and the other a medic from England. They were a sorry lot. Churchill had no stock for his rifle, while Overby had a machine gun but no ammunition. The medics did not have any weapons. Churchill eventually found a discarded rifle that he figured might have been dropped buy a Canadian paratrooper taken prisoner by the Germans. Churchill was in France for three months, two weeks of that on the front lines. They were attacked by planes, artillery and infantry but managed to hold their ground. “We held it for quite a few days.” said Churchill. “They tried too push us out but we managed to hold.” It was three days before Churchill could sleep. Shelling was the worst experience for many of the solders as there was often little respite from it and no where to hide. “A man who says he is never scared isn’t telling the truth,” says Churchill. During the fighting inland, the paratroopers had little idea of the situation on the beaches of Normandy because they had landed six miles inland. It was there they met with a British Commando who had expropriated a German truck and recklessly driven inland until he reached their lines. The news from the beaches was good and bad. Troops were landing continuously and were making headway inland but some areas had experienced delays with jamming up of material and men on the beaches. During a rest period, Churchill was sent back to the beach area where he saw the hundreds of ships bringing the men and materials for the invasion. “It was a spectacular sight”, says Churchill. Churchill tells a story of his friend as he fights back the tears. “My friend, we used to go to church together in Sudbury, he was a Pentecostal boy. One day his officer went to his dugout and he was reading his testament. As the officer left, a mortar landed in the dugout. That was the end of him”. “A Sergeant told another guy to go stand watch somewhere in the night. The guy said he couldn’t, his nerves were gone, so I took his place and saved him from being court marshalled.” “I volunteered to bury some people in the field. My buddy and I had just got going, and down in the valley we saw movement. The Gerries were making a move on us. I looked back and my pal had taken off on me. I buried the guys just deep enough to cover the top of their toes. Sometimes we had to wrap white cloth around ourselves when burying people, for white was the symbol of mercy.” Henry Churchill went back to England from Normandy. The Battle of the Bulge was in the winter. “They had more snow than we ever get here at home”. Henry went to Belgium. When the German push had stopped, the weather cleared. The Germans were defeated. Churchill went into Holland on the 20th of February. They told him that he was going back to England. That was good news. In England they told him that in one month he would be going to Germany. During that month the y were well trained. In 1945, March 24th, they dropped into Germany. [Operation Varsity, the crossing of the Rhine] The Colonel, who was from Winnipeg, Canada, went with them. He got hung up in the trees and was shot by the Germans. This was a big operation, the jump across the Rhine. They were two and one half hours in the plane. and jumped between the autobahn and the railway lines. When Churchill jumped his suspension lines twisted. When he stopped spinning, he saw a German soldier coming in his direction. When he had landed, the German had gotten to the second man ahead of Henry. Churchill hid behind his kit bag and got out his rifle. He was hoping to be fast enough to help his friend, Clarke but the German soldier left and went toward a nearly house. Henry saw Clark lying there. “I knew it was of no use to after either of them”, he said. “I saw one guy run.” “Another few guys were wounded. I shot at the Germans. The two guys had been shot by a stern gun, the range is not far. When I went up to them, one guy was bent over, the other was picking bullets out of his back and ankles” Henry moved along and jumped into a German trench. He couldn’t see down the trench because it was made like saw teeth. He was all alone. A hand grenade called a “potato masher” landed on top of the trench. A German soldier threw it at him but it was a dud. “That saved my life’” says Churchill. “I was meant to make it!” Churchill told his friend John Escaravage. Henry wanted to be with him when they were in Belgium. The people there were told to put them up for the night and John was French and so was that part of Belgium. “John Escaravage got shot”, Henry said. “He opened his eyes and said, ‘Hi Henry’ and closed his eyes and died.” Every fourth man was a casualty. The outcome of this engagement was the defeat of Germany's famous 1st German Parachute Corps in a day and a half. The Germans would move at night. Henry and his platoon would move during the day. “We walked from the Rhine River to the Baltic Sea. It was a long trip of some 285 miles but very few of the boys complained”. After the jump across the Rhine, on the first day twelve hundred German prisoners were taken. Ration trucks came by sea. It was five or six days before they got to Henry’s group by the Rhine. The men would eat whatever they could find. They raided gardens and would kill a chicken and boil it and also drank the chicken broth. “At one house, a woman came out holding a baby and asked us not to kill the goat as it was their only milk. We told her we wouldn’t and said for her to get back into her basement.” The German Army were driven toward the Baltic Sea and the Allied troops captured the city of Wismar. Henry Churchill went from Wismar on the Baltic Sea to Lubeck, Germany. Then they flew to England. “They gave us leave and I was in Wales when a policeman stopped me and told me to get back to my barracks. I knew I was going home!” “I’m grateful to have taken part and to be here to tell you about it.” said Henry. I have nothing to brag about.”
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Canadians in Wismar, Germany
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Henry Churchill 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
[Original article was written by Karen Donaldson, a YCMHS student (1996)]
CHURCHILL, Henry Lyman, aged 91, passed away in Yarmouth Regional Hospital on Tuesday, July 4, 2006. Born on December 30, 1914, in Port Maitland, Yarmouth Co., he was a son of the late Albert Clayton and Seretha (Sollows) Churchill. In the spring of 1940, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, and later joined in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. He had basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. Following that he went to Europe and was in on the D-Day invasion. He also served at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, Holland and the Rhine Jump. At the close of the war he was in Wesmar, Germany. Soon afterwards, he was brought home. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 143.