Bernd Horn


“The great trouble with starting anything new,” argued Brigadier-General William Mitchell, “is to break away from the conservative policy of those who have gone before.” His observation was born from his own experience as a result of the inertia which existed in the interwar years. Not surprisingly, Canada did little during this period to ensure that it was capable of participating in a modern war. The vacuum of peace was insufficient to overcome the vacillation of military and political decision makers. It was only the stunning German victories of 1939–1940, which provided the catalyst for change and a template of what a modern army required.

Predictably, Canadian officers serving overseas in the cauldron of Europe, in May 1940, formed distinct impressions of the new techniques of warfare which had been showcased. The use of airborne forces was one such innovation but proposals to establish a Canadian parachute capability were quickly rejected. The senior military command could not visualize a role for these special troops. More important, there existed an explicit institutional hostility towards the concept. Conventional military minds spurned the distinct, special or unique, and paratroops were seen as a distraction to the serious business of building an army.

Nonetheless, the persistent efforts of Colonel E.L.M. Burns, greatly assisted by a growing American and British interest in airborne forces, eventually resulted in the organization of a modest Canadian parachute capability. The reason for this abrupt change is shrouded by inconsistencies. The relevance of a distinct Canadian airborne force was never credibly rationalized. The fact that at war’s end it was quickly dismantled provided silent testimony to its perceived utility.

This was the reality of the Canadian airborne experience. Despite the actual performance and unrivalled reputation of the nation’s paratroopers, they never gained the full acceptance of the military establishment. This became the legacy of Canada’s airborne soldiers. Their existence ebbed and flowed on the basis of political expediency and powerful personalities. The failure to rationalize a realistic need for airborne forces, and develop a doctrine which would guide their employment, would remain a weakness which would be the root of their eventual destruction.

The Canadian indifference to parachute troops in the interwar period is not surprising. With the exception of Russian and later German experimentation, airborne ideas did not figure largely in the thinking of military commanders in Britain or the United States, much less Canada. However, this lethargy, which in England and in the United States was cloaked in a mantle of slow study and experimentation, was shattered by the chaos of events in Europe. British Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor recalled that the “bold and brutal” German airborne operations in Norway and the Low Countries, in the Spring of 1940, deeply impressed everyone, notably Prime Minister Winston Churchill. These events became the catalyst for action.