“We’re paratroopers. We’re always surrounded.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nicklin, commanding officer of the First Canadian Paratroop Battalion
Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nicklin, commanding officer of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion

During my trip to Canada, I learned that the First Canadian Parachute Battalion Association has ceased its public activities.

Peter Worthington, founding editor of the Toronto Sun and himself a Korean War veteran, reports, “Members who survived the war are thin on the ground and it’s time to wrap up the associtation through which old comrades stayed in touch and kept an eye on developments within Canada’s military.

“As former Association President and former Paratroop Sergeant and police officer Andy Anderson put it, wistfully: ‘We are dropping down the ladder, rung by rung. God help us, for we knew the worst too young.'”

The First Paras dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day, fought beside the US 101st Airborne Division in the Battle of the Bulge, and, at war’s end, raced across Germany to Wismar, halting the Red Army’s advance toward Denmark.

Worthington reports that the First Paras, attached to Britain’s Sixth Airborne Division, “never failed a mission, never lost ground, won every battle.”

During the Battle of the Bulge, when an American soldier warned them that they were surrounded, someone, we’re not sure who, replied, “We’re paratroopers. We’re always surrounded.”

One of the First Para heroes was Fred ‘Toppy’ Topham, who was wounded in the face while saving a wounded soldier under heavy fire. He was being transported back for treatment when he rescued three more soldiers from a burning armoured vehicle.

“Modestly, Topham never felt he did anything special — just doing his job,” Worthington writes. “Comrades knew his valour. After the war, Topham joined the Toronto police force and wanted to patrol a beat. Then-Chief John Chisholm ordered him to greet people at headquarters wearing his medals — or turn in his uniform. Topham resigned and went to work for Toronto Hydro.”

After Topham’s death in 1974, the First Para Association and the Toronto Sun and its readers raised more than $300,000 to purchase Topham’s medals, which included the Victoria Cross. You can see them in the National War Museum in Ottawa, along with 28 other Canadian VCs.

The commanding officer of the First Paras was Jeff Nicklin, a star defensive end for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was killed in the final drop over the Rhine in March of 1945, just a month before the end of the war. In his memory, the Nicklin Trophy is awared to the outstanding player in the Canadian Football League’s Western Conference.

The passing of the First Para Association underlines the importance of institutions like the National War Museum. It’s so important that we keep alive these stories of heroism and sacrifice.

“Surviving members of the First Paras are not sitting at home waiting for the end,” Worthington says, “but are simply moving on, and leaving future battles to others who follow.”