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It was the silence. Major Lockhart Ross Fulton-Lochie to friends-knew intellectually that out there in the impenetrable blackness thousands of other ships surrounded the HMS Canterbury and all steered a precisely charted and timed course across the English Channel toward the coast of France. But he could neither see nor hear them. The only sounds were the gentle murmur of sea brushing past Canterbury’s hull, the throb of the ship engines, and the occasional soft-spoken conversation among the bridge crew. Yet in just a few minutes, the minute hand would sweep past midnight and the date would be June 6 of the Year of Our Lord 1944, and the greatest armada in history was at sea. No navigational lights showed. The wireless radio was deathly silent. There was a dreamlike quality to being here on the coastal liner’s bridge standing at the shoulder of the ship’s captain, sipping hot char and staring out at the blackness.
Fulton knew, though, that this was no dream. Nor was it another of the many amphibious and landing exercises that 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade had participated in since being selected a year earlier for a starring role in the invasion assault force. Come dawn, the major would be at the invasion’s sharpest end when he took the Royal Winnipeg Rifles’ ‘D’ Company ashore in the first assault wave.
Among the gear Fulton had lugged aboard was a large jute sack with its opening tightly closed and secured by a lock. Some hours earlier, when Canterbury had reached the designated point of no return, Fulton had opened the lock and emptied the sack’s contents. This consisted of a stack of identical highly detailed maps that showed where the Canadians were going to land. Until now, Fulton had been the only man in ‘D’ Company to know that the armada sailed towards the Normandy coast and a stretch of beach that was home to several previously insignificant seaside villages.
As he handed the maps out to his young officers, Fulton knew that in a few short hours these place names would gain renown in Canada’s history. But at this stage his company and platoon commanders showed only scant interest in the identity of the villages previously known only by codenames. What did it matter that the village to the left of their landing beach was now labelled Courseulles-sur-Mer rather than Alba? Of more importance was the fact that these maps accorded with those they had used earlier in the weeks and months of preparations for the invasion. There would, then, be no surprises now that they knew the ships were bound for Normandy rather than the Pas de Calais or other possible landing sites on the northwest European coastline.
It was also grimly ironic that the betting pool to which they had contributed nightly for weeks would go unclaimed because the winner was to be the one who correctly predicted the invasion point. Nobody had thought of Normandy. Who would be alive days from now when the fighting eased long enough for a new bet to be made and won?
Briefing finished, Fulton advised them all to “try and get a little sleep.” But this proved advice he could not personally follow. Anticipatory adrenaline was starting to flow through his body, rendering the small cabin uncomfortably close. So he wandered up to the bridge and stared into the eerie darkness. It was a dirty night, with the seas tossed about by the trailing end of the great storm that had forced the invasion’s postponement the previous night and for a time even threatened its cancellation.
Built for peacetime service shuttling passengers back and forth across the English Channel between Dover and Calais, Canterbury rode the seas with seasoned disdain. Fulton knew that would not be the case for the purpose-built flat-bottomed landing vessels designed to deliver troops, tanks, guns, and vehicles right onto the sand. For the thousands of men aboard those ships, the rough seas would have turned the crossing into a hellish test of endurance. He hoped the storm would soon abate and the Channel calm before they hove to off the French coast to board the small landing craft dangling in the davits mounted on the ship’s main deck. The thought of running into shore and into battle with a company of men wretched with seasickness was worrisome.
Dawn and the beach dominated his thoughts. As midnight came and went, he was increasingly distracted to a point where he was barely aware of the nature of his conversation with the ship’s captain. Instead his mind reached out past the ship’s rising and falling bow into the black night towards a Normandy beach codenamed Juno.
In order to be heard over the howling whine of the AW41 Albemarle’s two 1,590-horsepower piston radial engines, Lieutenant John Russell Madden had to bellow like some ornery track coach exhorting his team to greater effort. With the bomb-bay door behind him, Madden hollered for the nine other soldiers to get ready to jump. His ten-man stick, part of ‘C’ Company of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, was to parachute into German-occupied Europe as the vanguard of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Struggling under the weight of more than one hundred pounds of equipment and parachute, the lieutenant could barely stand and it was impossible in the cramped, low-ceilinged aircraft to gain a fully upright position. That didn’t really matter because all he had to do was pitch headfirst through the door in the bomber’s floor and the rest of the section would follow in a headlong rush. Madden wrestled open the steel bolts that held the door shut and then secured its heavy weight to brackets on the aircraft’s side. Kneeling, hands braced on either side of the opening, the officer looked down upon a line of foaming surf rolling up against the Normandy coast. Then the plane was hurtling over a patchwork quilt of farmland at just five hundred feet of altitude-their assigned jump height. From points all over the compass long streamers of tracer shells rose in lazy arcs as German flak batteries searched for targets.
Madden was searching, too. Scanning the ill-lit ground below for any sign of recognizable landmarks that would tell him the plane was starting its run down Drop Zone V’s less than two-mile length. Waiting, too, for the warning order-the shout by the man behind him, who could see the red and green lights the pilot would use to signal the paratroops to start the jump process, that the red standby light had come on. Two minutes later, at 0020 on June 6, 1944, the green light should flash. Madden’s cue to jump. All very precise, all timed to the second to ensure his stick landed directly on target. Then they would secure the drop zone for the following two battalions-one British, one Canadian-making up 3rd Parachute Brigade, which was to arrive twenty-eight minutes later.
The twenty-year-old lieutenant didn’t see anything familiar, but it was damned dark down there. Mist or smoke drifted thick over the fields.
Cold air turned into a gale by the wash of the propellers shrieked through the door and the din of the engines was deafening. “Green on!” Madden hesitated. That was wrong. Where was the “Red on” warning? Had he lost it amid the other racket? “Did you say Green?” he shouted.
“Yes, I said Green,” the man snapped back.
Without further thought, Madden brought his arms in against his body and dove headlong into the darkness. Suddenly it was quiet. Just the quick rush of wind, the hard crack of the parachute opening above him, the rapid braking of his plunging descent towards earth. Madden had no idea what he floated down upon, for the ground was “covered with a sheen-like mist that shifted in mystical patterns to disclose doll-like farms.” Seconds later, Madden landed “on soft pastureland.”
Within five minutes of landing, Madden had gathered in his parachute and located five of his men-those who had immediately followed him out of the plane. Of the last four men in the stick there was no sign. Nor was there any sign of the rest of ‘C’ Company. Two hundred yards away a German flak gun hammered away at the dark sky. Madden stared skyward, straining to hear the sound of the Dakota C-47s that were to bring in the rest of the battalion, hoping to see blankets of parachutes drifting down. But nothing happened. There seemed to be no Allied soldiers about other than his little six-man party. The lieutenant had the sudden apprehension that there would be no subsequent waves of paratroops. That once again, at the last minute, the invasion had been postponed. He had no way of knowing whether the rest of ‘C’ Company had been dropped or not. Certainly they weren’t here-wherever here was. Given the confusion on board the Albemarle, it seemed fearfully possible that an order for the planes to turn around and abort had been missed.
“My God,” Madden thought, “they’ve landed us and then decided not to go on with it. There’s an invasion of just me and my five guys.”