“This great and noble undertaking.” To Valley End for D Day.

Over 70 years ago, during World War II, Valley End was transformed. To the north of Brick Hill, reaching the base of Fox Hill and the junction of Chobham and Chertsey Roads, was a settlement of Nissen huts, with roads and a parade ground.

This was the Camp, and many local people have memories of the Canadian servicemen stationed there during the War.

Here is the story of one of them, Private Peter Paul Desabrais.

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Private Peter Paul Desabrais. (Image courtesy of Joan Weymouth.)

Desabrais was a member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. After having been   recruited in Canada he was trained at Fort Benning in Georgia, USA. On 13th February 1943 he qualified, after completing 5 jumps from an aircraft.

In July 1943, with 31 officers and 547 other men, he sailed for England aboard the Queen Elizabeth, arriving in Scotland on July 28th 1943.

It was then that he was sent to Valley End. The Camp was the No. 1 Canadian Base Staging Camp.

Desabrais wasn’t there long. It may only have been a week or so before the Battalion moved to Carter Barracks, Bulford, near Salisbury. It was enough time for him to get to know the Millard family, and to give them give a photograph of himself outside his mother’s house in Montreal, “as a souvenir.”

Salisbury Plain must have been seething with troops in preparation for D Day, the invasion of Europe.

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Winston Churchill fires an American .30 carbine during a visit to the US 2nd Armoured Division on Salisbury Plain, 23 March 1944. (Image courtesy Imperial War Museum.)

Although most of the men who fought on D Day were British, American or Canadian, there were in all 2 million troops from over 12 countries involved. One of them was Desabrais.

D Day was the most massive combined sea, land and air operation ever known. There were 2 elements. First, an airborne assault landed 18,000 Allied paratroopers. Second, almost 7,000 vessels landed troops on the Normandy beaches.

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The Airborne Assault: Major General R N Gale OBE MC, the commander of 6th Airborne Division, talking to troops of 5th Parachute Brigade before they emplane at Royal Air Force Harwell on the evening of 4 or 5 June. (Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum.)

The 1st Canadians, under the command of the 3rd Parachute Battalion, were part of the airborne assault. They were due to land 1 hour in advance of the rest of the Battalion.

This meant that when the Canadians, including Desabrais, assembled by the aircraft on the evening of June 5th 1944, “the start of the first engine signalled the beginning of the invasion of Normandy, and the departure of the armada for Hitler’s fortress, Europe.”[1]

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“The drop,” by Albert Richards, 1944. (Image courtesy Imperial War Museum.)

The Battalion fought well on D Day, and in the Battle of Normandy afterwards, but this came at a heavy price. When Desabrais returned with the remaining Canadians to Carter Barracks in September 1944, he left many of his comrades behind. Of 27 officers, only 3 survived. Of the 516 men of other ranks, 343 had died.

Because of these losses, the unit had to be reorganised before they returned to the conflict. This was done, and on Christmas Day 1944 Desabrais sailed with the Battalion for Ostend in Belgium.

The Canadians joined the 6th British Airborne Forces to take part in the Battle of the Ardennes. Sergeant Anderson, a veteran of this campaign, remembered it; “My recollection at this point is that the Ardennes was not so much covered with glory, as extreme hardship and misery.”[2]

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The Ardennes Offensive. The German Counter Offensive 16-22 December 1944: Stavelot church standing amid the ruins of the town which was briefly recaptured by the Germans on 19 December.(Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.)

They must have been relieved to return to Britain in February 1945. It seems that Desabrais did not return to Europe with the Battalion after this point.

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion continued to fight. With the British 2nd Army they crossed the Rhine and Germany to reach Wismar on the Baltic Sea, 2 hours before the Russians. By this time the War was drawing to a close, and finished 6 days later. In June 1945 the Canadians returned home.

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Men of 6th Airborne Division greet the crew of a Russian T-34/85 tank during the link-up of British and Soviet forces near Wismar on the Baltic coast, 3 May 1945. (Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.)

Peter Paul Desabrais had travelled thousands of miles during his war service, and had fought in the invasion of Europe. He would have taken back with him incredible memories of war and conflict. But among those powerful experiences there would have been a peaceful interlude at Valley End, and  friendship with a local family, who kept his photograph as a souvenir.

For a personal view of service with the 1st Parachute Battalion in D Day, the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Ardennes, read this account by Henry Churchill. (Link)

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We have not been able to contact Peter Paul Desabrais or his family, but if you know anything about him we would be very glad to hear from you.

Sources

“1st Canadian Parachute Battalion; Nominal Roll.” Compiled by Sid Carignan. 2002.

“Out of the clouds; the history of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.” John A. Willes. Published Canada. P. L. Jackson, 1981.

“The first Canadian Parachute battalion; a brief history,” by Captain Todd Strickland. The Army Training and Doctrine Bulletin; Canada’s professional journal on Army issues. Vol. 3, no. 1. Spring 2000. pp. 31 –39. http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/D12-9-3-1E.pdf

Imperial War Museum http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-10-things-you-need-to-know-about-d-day

Juno Beach Centre. https://www.junobeach.org/canada-in-wwii/articles/1st-canadian-parachute-battalion/

With many thanks to Joan Weymouth.

Title from “Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.

[1] From “Out of the clouds; the history of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.” John A. Willes. 1981

[2] From “The first Canadian Parachute battalion; a brief history.” By Captain Todd Strickland.

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