By Shelley Youngblut
Flying over the English Channel toward Normandy, clouds breaking up the moonlight, Cpl. John Ross knew three things. He knew he was going to drop into occupied France five hours ahead of the D-Day beach invasion. He knew his advance team was expected to destroy a bridge and clear out an enemy garrison at the village of Varaville in order to slow the German counterattack when the rest of the Allied Forces landed by sea and air. He also knew that, while someone was bound to get killed or hurt, it wasn’t going to be him.
Before volunteering for the First Canadian Parachute Battalion in 1942, the 23-year-old had joined the New Brunswick Rangers. He was soon posted to Goose Bay, Labrador, where rangers slept throughout the winter in huts made from scraps of lumber with oil drums for wood stoves and tomato cans for chimneys. Ross had been toughened by the cold. And now, after nearly a year of extensive training in England, he was crammed inside the tiny hold of the Albemarle bomber with nine other paratroopers, preparing to jump.
Ross looked at his watch. It was 12:15 a.m. on June 6. The aircraft—one of 12 carrying C Company of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion—managed to hold steady while other planes zigzagged to evade explosive shells fired from German anti-aircraft batteries. Two men raised and secured the sides of the trap door, leaving a hole in the floor the size of a bathtub. Ross was fourth in line. He scrambled to the opening on his hands and knees and followed his nose down into the darkness. “The planes were supposed to slow down but didn’t because the Germans were shooting at us,” says Ross. “We dropped at 600 feet, barely enough time to drop our kit bags and steer with our risers.” Ross’s parachute opened with a jolt, and he floated down in silence, into the inky landscape below. Feet clenched together, knees bent, elbows tucked in, he went into a roll as he hit the ground.
The landing was easier than any he had made before, soft and right on target, just metres from the pasture Ross had noted in the aerial photographs from his briefing documents. He found his kit bag, pulled out his submachine gun and radio, then scrambled over to the group, expecting to see all 120 members of C Company. He was one of only 32 paratroopers to arrive. The others were scattered all over the countryside, some dropping as far as 16 kilometres from the rendezvous point. The cloud cover had made it difficult for pilots to find their drop zones.
Boom! The ground underneath Ross bounced. Nearly 400 Allied bombers had begun to pound a major German gun position along the Normandy beaches to the west, and off-target shells were landing nearby. The hastily assembled platoon had to move. Without enough soldiers or equipment to destroy the bridges, Ross and his unit were left to execute Stage 2 of their mission: march through an orchard toward the German stronghold in Varaville and capture the Le Mesnil crossroad, a strategic ridge that gave the enemy a view of the coastline, where Allied Forces were mounting their seaborne invasion.