The Western Front, 24th March 1945

The Western Front, 19th April 1945

The Advance to the Baltic



Men of No.2 Forward Observation Unit (RA) near Wismar

Gunner Mellenger meets a Russian soldier

Trooper Boswell with Russian troops

German prisoners assist airborne troops in disarming stick grenades

Surrendered German soldiers in Wismar town square

Surrendered German soldiers in Wismar town square

British troops stand over the dead body of a "werewolf"

Debris being cleared from the Headquarters of 317th Field Security Section

Men of "G" Operations Branch of Divisional Headquarters near Wismar

Major-General Bols speaking with various officers of the Division

The guns of the 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment prepare to fire a salute

A gun crew of the 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment prepares to salute Marshal Rokossovsky

Marshal Rokossovsky inspecting the Guard of Honour at Wismar, 7th May

Field Marshal Montgomery inspecting the Guard of Honour at Wismar, 7th May

Field Marshal Montgomery with senior officers of the 6th Airborne Division


In the final days of April, preparations were made for the crossing of the River Elbe. The 15th (Scottish) Division, with the 1st Commando Brigade in support, would carry this out, whilst the role of the 6th Airborne Division was limited to following on behind to take over responsibility for the eastern bank once the Scots were ready to advance beyond it. A far more prominent role was envisaged for them as early as the 17th April, however, when it was appreciated that it might be advantageous if an airborne operation could secure the airfield at Lauenburg ahead of the ground forces. The 5th Parachute Brigade was earmarked for this purpose, but after several false alarms and much searching for suitable airfields in Germany from which they could take-off, the operation was finally cancelled on the 29th April, once it became apparent that the enemy in that area were in full flight.


The crossing of the River Elbe began on that same day, two days ahead of schedule because it was feared that the thousands of refugees fleeing to the West from the Russians could make the roads impassable. With the 15th (Scottish) Division making fine progress, the 3rd Parachute Brigade crossed the Elbe on the 30th April, taking possession of Boizenberg and rounding up 120 prisoners from thereabouts. The remainder of the 6th Airborne Division, now once again under the command of the XVIII US Airborne Corps, soon followed them and consolidated the Elbe bridgehead.


During the evening of the 1st May, Lieutenant-General Ridgway, the Corps Commander, visited the 3rd Parachute Brigade and gave orders to the Division to make its way to Wismar on the Baltic coast as quickly as possible to head-off the Russian advance. The 5th Parachute Brigade had been nominated to lead the charge, but Brigadier Hill decided to contest this honour and ensured that his 3rd Brigade were well underway by the time that their sister formation was due to depart. Mounted in lorries with the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys in support, the two Parachute Brigades then raced across Northern Germany on separate routes.


Due to a complete absence of opposition, progress was much swifter than had been anticipated, yet everywhere there were scenes of Germany in its final chaotic days, as the roads gradually became filled with countless refugees and soldiers looking to surrender themselves to anyone but the Russians. With no time to process them, the airborne troops simply motioned at them to continue walking west. How many prisoners passed through the 6th Airborne Division's hands on this day was never precisely calculated, but estimates of up to 10,000 have been submitted. Not all of them laid down their arms voluntarily, however, yet as they could not afford to dally in a pointless skirmish with an isolated renegade band, the tanks simply fired a few rounds in their direction whilst on the move and pushed on. Prisoners of a quite different sort were encountered too; the 5th Parachute Brigade overran a British and American POW camp, 1,300 of whom began to make their own way towards Lauenburg.


The 3rd Parachute Brigade, led by "B" Company of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion riding on the hulls of the Royal Scots Greys, won the race to Wismar in the afternoon of the 2nd May. They then established themselves around the town as the remainder of the Division arrived over the following hours. Endless streams of refugees and surrendering military personnel continued to pass through their hands throughout the remainder of the day, and dealing with this tidal wave of humanity became an enormous headache as the cages set up for them were soon overflowing.


The first contact with the Red Army was made later that day when an officer and his driver, scouting ahead of the main force, ran into a road-block set up by "C" Company of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. This first link between East and West proved not to be the moment of unrestrained celebration that one might expect, if anything the Russian officer appeared most put-out to find his path blocked. Brigadier Hill dispatched Lieutenant-Colonel Crookenden of the 9th Battalion, along with some Canadians who could speak Russian, to make a more official connection with their approaching Allies. Driving off in the vague direction of where they expected them to be, they soon passed a column of Soviet tanks heading towards Wismar at pace. Crookenden immediately turned about and went after them, just managing to bring them to a halt as they reached the outskirts of the town and found themselves staring down the barrels of a troop of 17-pounder anti-tank guns. Major-General Bols came forward to meet a senior Russian officer, who stated with some resolve that his orders were to continue through Wismar and capture Lubeck. Bols assured him that he had an airborne division and five regiments of artillery at his disposal, and that he would not hesitate to use them if the Russians insisted upon it. The Russian officer back down.


This historic moment, marking the end of the War and the meeting of East and West after more than five and a half years of horrific bloodshed, was marked by a series of official meetings between dignitaries of both sides, and, at a lower level, a good deal of hand-shaking, incomprehensible but friendly dialogue, and heavy drinking fueled by Vodka and the timely discovery of a series of wine cellars. Major-General Bols met with Marshal Rokossovky, Commander of the 2nd Belorussian Front, who then met Field Marshal Montgomery at 3rd Parachute Brigade Headquarters on the 7th May. He was welcomed by a 19-gun salute from the 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment, and was invited to inspect the Guard of Honour, provided by the 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.


By this time, however, the situation was beginning to sour somewhat. Politics were taking over, and the barely restrained fraternisation of the first days was being brought under control. The Russians forbade British soldiers to enter their territory, then they established road blocks and, ominously, brought up tanks behind them to reinforce the point. The Iron Curtain was being drawn across the Continent.


Politics, however, were of small concern to the men of the 6th Airborne Division. Having dealt with the acute refugee and prisoner problem, they remained in the Wismar area until the 17th May, when they were relieved, in stages, by the 5th Infantry Division, and began to make their way back home, retracing familiar ground until they came to Luneburg Airfield. Here, the elements of the Division that could be flown home to England waited until aircraft were available to carry them, whilst the motor transport elements made their way to Calais, and then across the Channel to Dover.


In England, the 6th Airborne Division bade a fond farewell to one of its most treasured components; the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, who, having been away from their homeland for almost two years, were at last going home. They disembarked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 21st June and received a royal welcome.


For the remainder of the Division, however, the War had not yet ended. Within weeks they received word that they were wanted for service in the Far East, and in July the 5th Parachute Brigade was flown to India in advance of the remainder. Events on the ground, however, were moving very fast and the operation for which the Division had been earmarked was cancelled. Following the Japanese surrender, the 5th Parachute Brigade found themselves employed in a quite new role, where their objective was not to destroy the enemy in battle, but to attempt to maintain law and order when revolt and factionalism threatened to explode across a region where European colonialism was in its death throes. The Brigade was later shipped to rejoin the 6th Airborne Division, who had been sent to Palestine to undertake a very similar and thoroughly uncomfortable role. They remained here until 1948.