Jan de Vries in July 1943 in Scarborough, Ontario on leave prior to being sent overseas. He had not yet qualified as a paratrooper.Jan de Vries
Jan de Vries, 1944.Jan de Vries
Jan de Vries' boots.Jan de Vries
Jan de Vries' V-42 fighting knife.Jan de Vries
Jan de Vries' jump smock.Jan de Vries
Jan de Vries, 2009.Historica Canada
"I burst through this gate, saw movement, fired and then got the shock of my life. A whole line of German youth got up in uniforms, they had bazookas, machine guns and everything."
I was born in Holland in the city called Leeuwarden and I came here in 1930 as a six-year old. When I arrived, my dad said, you’re in Canada now, be Canadian. And that’s what I became.
Well, I went to Bulford, England, and Salisbury Plain, where all of the unqualified paras were immediately sent to Ringway, England [RAF parachute training facility], where we were processed and had to jump out of a, three balloon jumps, two in the daytime, one at night. And then five out of an aircraft with a hole in the bottom. And if you didn’t arch your back and clear the chute, you’d tip forward and ring the bell on the far side of the hole. We had lots of bleeding noses and broken noses in those days.
I managed to arch and clear but the first jump was quite a thrill. And you drop about 180, 200 feet and then you hear a nice quiet rustling. We didn’t learn until afterwards that you don’t have the prop blast or a plane flying 100 miles an hour to help open your chute, it’s just the speed of your falling body that opens the chute. So that’s why it took so long. Anyway, I got heck for not paying attention. I was so happy when the chute opened; I just decided to look around the countryside. Never mind the instructions coming from the ground.
And when I arrived overseas, I had never fired a gun. So when I went on the ranges and they looked at my target, they said, you’d better take a Sten gun and spray them, because they figured I couldn’t fire a gun accurate enough. I became a bombardier and I went in on D-Day with the Sten gun, seven spare [magazines] in a bandolier, a two inch mortar with six mortar bombs in a container, all kinds of grenades and that was my job so if the enemy got close, I was to take them out with either grenades or the Sten gun.
On June the 5th, we went back to the planes in Harwell. These were Albemarle bombers and they had a hole the size of a bathtub, not the three foot diameter ones in the Whitleys. So we used to like that. We flew over and it was a quiet run. All I was thinking about, nobody did much speaking. There were only 10 men in a stick [team] of each bomber and that was I think the full adjournment and I let them think of as a bombing raid in Paris. When we got to the French coast, the Ack-Ack [anti-aircraft artillery] came up and we could see the lights of the flashing explosions and whatnot. Anyway, the pilot got nervous and he took evasive action, like most of the pilots did. They were all green like we were.
We were going down on top of Germans who had been in war for five years, we’d never been in a battle yet. This evasive action by the pilot, he got lost in the drop zone where we were supposed to drop. He got rid of us by putting on the light. I landed on a field, I had no idea where it was and none of my fellows, because we were so slow getting untangled and getting out of the aircraft. But I remember one guy who sat at the other end of the hole with a Bangalore torpedo around his neck, he got made a POW [Prisoner of War] and he died in Czechoslovakia. The Germans shot him for some reason.
The Ardennes came up in Belgium, the Battle of the Bulge and we were a ready-made division. So on Christmas day, we went into Belgium and we, eventually Rochefort and Roy and then Bande. Now, Bande, B-A-N-D-E, was a place where the Germans had shot 35 young Belgians in retribution for something that took place, shot them in the back of the head and threw them in this basement. I’ve been back there since and put a plaque up there.
Then after that, we went to Holland to relieve a division, lost a few men. We were across the river from the Germans at Roermond. Eventually, I think it was in February, late February, we went back to England to be reinforced, regrouped, and we dropped over the Rhine River into Germany. Now, that was a lot different than the night drop in France. This was 10:00 in the morning, bright sunny day. The Germans were waiting for us and they opened up on us as we were coming out of the aircraft. They shot down about 30 aircraft and got a lot of our fellows. The field was covered with guys who had been killed or wounded. I heard bullets going by and I looked up and my chute was full of holes. To get me down, I had a spot picked out, the wind caught my chute and drifted me over into the trees. I broke a bunch of branches coming down and the canopy caught up on the top of the tree. I was still about seven feet off the ground. Couldn’t get my knee up to get my knife to cut myself free. I was watching branches drop. I thought, well, this is it now.
But two Brits came along, one lifted the other one up. He grabbed my ankles and the three of, the weight of the three of us pulled my canopy clear and we landed up in a heap on the ground. So I got out of the harness quickly and then ran to catch up to where we were supposed to be and put in an assault on a farmhouse. Now, a farmer since then has given me shrapnel that was still stuck in his brickwork. That was quite interesting. Anyway, what happened in Germany, we would put an attack in on a village and they’d open up and then we’d attack them and they’d find out they’d gone to the next village, for about 300 miles we covered. We would ride tanks one day, trucks one day and we’d keep up with the trucks the third day. Well, we came to a place called Wismar on the Baltic, I don’t know, I forget the name of the place, but it was confirmed for me. The front of the column came under fire so I was riding a truck, so we all jumped over the side of the trucks and ran to the houses on each side.
Now, there were all hedges with gates in front of the houses, so I burst through this gate, saw movement, fired and then got the shock of my life. A whole line of German youth got up in uniforms, they had bazookas, machine guns and everything. Their orders were to open up if we’re Russians. Americans or Brits, they were to surrender. So I was fortunate again.