Seventy years ago Peter Braidwood was kneeling over the open bomb-bay hatch of a twin-engine Albemarle bomber. Below him the tufted waters of the English channel sped past at 170 mph.
It was a little after midnight on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. Braidwood and his nine comrades were the very sharp tip of an invasion spear that would eventually total more than a quarter-million men.
Their job was to drop behind the Normandy defences, secure a landing zone for the rest of their parachute battalion flying 30 minutes behind, and cut the key bridges and roads leading to the frontline on a beach code-named Juno.
With the windows of the plywood-sheathed bomber blacked out, the only place to see what was happening was through the open hatch in the floor. The Albemarle had long since dropped its last bomb. Obsolete almost from the start of the war, the aircraft was now used to transport paratroopers, or tow gliders into conflict.
The idea was to fool the Germany defences into thinking the planes were simply part of another bombing raid heading inland. Instead, they carried members of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion.
Braidwood was a 20-year-old kid from Manitoba. He had moved to Canada from Scotland in 1938 after the death of his parents. When war came, he left the farm where he worked and joined the Canadian Parachute Battalion, which was stationed at Shilo.
They trained by jumping out of dirigibles, preparing for an invasion everyone knew was coming, but no one knew where.
It was a massive undertaking and remains the largest seaborne invasion in history. But before the first troops hit the beach, thousands of American, British and Canadian paratroopers were dropped from the night skies.
Braidwood, with his hands on either side of the open hatch, watched as the water skimmed past 500 feet below. He had nearly 85 pounds of supplies strapped to his tiny frame. “I had to be pushed into the plane,” he says with a smile, his Scottish accent still evident after more than seven decades.
He had no doubt he would survive the assault. But he remembers thinking, as he watched the water turn to beach, and then to the bristled fortifications of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, “What the hell am I doing here?”
There was no time for an answer. As the jump light turned green, Braidwood folded his arms across his chest and tumbled head first through the hatch into the darkness.
There were about 100 men assigned to this jump. But anti-aircraft fire from the ground and confusion in the air scattered the planes like leaves. In his group, only about 30 men completed their objectives.
Braidwood was among them, but he’s modest about what impact his contribution had on the assault. “I’m not sure we did any good,” he says with a laugh.
However, the rest of the battalion did land; roads and bridges were cut, and the high ground overlooking the assault beaches was held, protecting the invading troops from fire.
But not without cost. Of the 550 who went in more than half – 60 per cent – were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
That sacrifice was recognized in Chilliwack on Wednesday. Braidwood, along with Mission’s Ray Ward (who was injured in the jump that night) were presented France’s highest decoration by Jean-Christophe Fleury, Consul General of France in Vancouver.
“The French people will never forget the acts of bravery that accomplished Canadians performed during D-Day to help restore our freedom,” Fleury said.
The presentations were part of an ambitious effort by France to present the Legion of Honour to all surviving veterans of the D-Day invasion.
Wednesday’s presentation came at the annual Christmas lunch of Bornewest, an association of airborne veterans centred here in Chilliwack.
“It’s a unique group,” said Rollie Keith, who organized the event – one that displays a certain pride and camaraderie.
Indeed, as toasts were made and anthems played, none came with as much hardy enthusiasm than the shout of “Airborne!” when glasses were raised to current and passed members.
For Braidwood, his D-Day jump was not the end of his war. In continued through France and Belgium and into Holland.
And it wasn’t his last jump, either. In March of 1945, Braidwood was among 16,000 paratroopers who landed in Germany on the eastern bank of the Rhine River in the largest airborne operation in history.
Said Braidwood with a laugh: “You’d think after doing it once, I wouldn’t do it again.”