How A Small Group Of Canadian Paratroopers Saved Denmark From Soviet Occupation

 
 
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By May 1945 the war in Europe had finally started to wind down. Yet for the men of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, there was one final mission to complete before they were relieved. Due to increasing tensions between them and the USSR, the Western Allies recognized that they had to take as much German territory as they could before the Soviets arrived.

They feared Communist expansion. Because of this, a small group of lightly armed Canadian paratroopers was tasked with taking the city of Wismar.

Personnel of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, about to leave for the D-Day transit camp, England, May 1944
Personnel of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, about to leave for the D-Day transit camp, England, May 1944

These Canadians, from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, or 1CanPara, had been fighting almost nonstop since 6th June 1944. After jumping into Normandy, the men fought through the rest of the French Campaign. They were then used as support in the Battle of the Bulge. And in April 1945, were a part of the final Rhine crossing: Operation Varsity.

Shortly after Varsity that the unit got orders to march north to Wismar. Wismar is a city on the Baltic coast of Germany. It sits at the northern end of a chokepoint between the sea and Lake Schweringer and is a transportation hub. Winston Churchill recognized the city’s importance and knew that if it fell into Russian hands too quickly it could allow them to advance far past the agreed upon lines set up at the Yalta conference and take most of Northern Germany and even Denmark.

Churchill was staunchly anti-communist and knew that the Soviets would never willingly give up territory they had taken. He needed a group of men who would be able to rush forward and stop their advance as soon as possible. Because of their excellent reputation, the men of 1CanPara were recognized as the best candidates for the job. They were attached to the British 6th Airborne Division and thus began a long march north.

Advance_to_the_Baltic
1CanPara’s advance north to Wismar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This advance went quickly, and the men were surprised that they and their transports (sometimes tanks, sometimes trucks) would move past huge groups of German soldiers. Sergeant Andy Anderson described one such event: “The strangeness of the situation is that we are passing complete units of the Germany Army, lying by the roadside, some with vehicles, even horse-drawn artillery, but no shots are exchanged, no white flags were shown and we cannot stop to disarm them.”

The men were understandably baffled by this experience, but orders were orders, and they kept going.

1st Canadian Parachute Battalion soldiers crossing the Elbe River in Lauenburg, Germany, enroute to capturing the Baltic seaport of Wismar. Photos coutesy Harry Dzeoba
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion soldiers crossing the Elbe River in Lauenburg, Germany, en route to capturing the Baltic seaport of Wismar. Photos courtesy Harry Dzeoba

Finally, at 0900 2 May 1945, the battalion reached their destination. The residents of the city were relieved to have been liberated by the Canadians; they had heard the horror stories of Russian retribution and knew that they were far better off with 1CanPara.

The Battalion was pleased to be there as well; they could relax somewhat, and some of the men even went swimming in the Baltic Sea.

It was later in the day on 2 May when the battalion first came in contact with the Russians. Sergeant Nelson N. Macdonald was one of the first men to make contact when he and a section of about seven men went on patrol. The section found a Russian Sergeant driving a motorcycle with his Major in the sidecar.

The two men stopped, greeted the Canadians and exchanged rough pleasantries (there was no interpreter present). Shortly thereafter the Russian Sergeant produced a bottle of vodka and glasses, and all the men toasted and drank. It’s shortly after this cordial meeting that the recorded history splits from what may have actually happened.

From speaking to veterans of the unit we’ve learned that a new war almost broke out over Wismar. They have explained to us that shortly after the initial contact with the Russians, Lieutenant-Colonel Eadie, Commanding Officer of 1CanPara, met with his Russian counterpart.

It was during this meeting that the Russian commander, backed by tanks, demanded a Canadian withdrawal, explaining that his objective was Lubeck, near Denmark. Lt.-Colonel Eadie, refusing to give in, told 1CanPara to prepare for combat. The Russian commander was taken aback; he knew no group of paratroopers would stand a chance against an armored unit.

Wrongfully assuming that the Canadians must have had airpower and armor of their own, he backed down, and discussions proceeded more diplomatically. The truth was that aside from the 6th Airborne Division’s artillery detachment the men in Wismar were almost completely unsupported by the rest of the Allied force.

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