Ross Mitchell: A sniper from the farm

Airborne sniper Ross Mitchell, 93, learned to shoot hunting gophers on his father’s farm in Douglas, Man., east of Brandon. He jumped behind enemy lines into Wesel, Germany, east of the Rhine River, on March 24, 1945.

Stephen J. Thorne / Legion Magazine

Ross Mitchell of Douglas, Man., was just 18 when he began infantry training with the Canadian army in 1943. Told he would not be sent overseas until he was 19, he decided to give the airborne a try.

He spent the summer of 1944 running around Shilo and jumping off towers in stifling heat, learning how to be a paratrooper. The jumping part was an acquired skill. The killing part, he knew well enough.

“I had shot thousands of gophers,” Mitchell, now 93, said recently. “And I’d shot cattle and pigs for my dad when he wanted to slaughter them. So killing didn’t really bother me.

“They couldn’t train me now to do what I did then.”

What Private Mitchell did then was the job of sniper, picking off German artillery observers from 500 metres using a Lee-Enfield .303 with a scope. His years of gopher hunting served him well.

He was with 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, moving from reserve to active duty in England in February 1945. He made his first and only combat jump behind enemy lines into Wesel, Germany, on March 24.

The final push into Germany was beginning and the battle for the Rhine River was raging. But first Mitchell and his stick had to get out of the American Dakota aircraft that was delivering them to their destination.

“We were part of the 6th British Airborne and 6,000 paratroopers jumped that day,” Mitchell recalled, estimating they came in at 1,000 feet. “There were 20 in every plane. I was No. 13, and Willie Watt from Hamiota [Man.] was No. 12.

“The planes were rocking from ack-ack fire and I can clearly remember the plane tilted this way and he had a terrible time getting out the door. Then it tilted back and I couldn’t have stayed in even if I wanted to.”

It didn’t take long to reach the ground. He had a good landing in a vegetable garden somewhere on the far side of the Rhine. Counting training, it was his 13th jump.

“I couldn’t see anything around me so I just gathered up my gear and I headed where I thought I was supposed to go, to the rally point. The first German I saw was lying flat on his back and shot right between the eyes.

“I will always remember that image. I just carried on and got to the rally point.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nicklin, then a major, of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion at battalion headquarters, Carter Barracks, Bulford, England, on Jan. 5, 1944. Among the first Allied airborne troops to jump into Germany, the two-time Grey Cup champion and CFL all-star was killed after getting hung up in a tree next to an enemy machine-gun nest.

LAC / PA-3573886

His commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nicklin of Winnipeg, a two-time Grey Cup champion and Canadian Football League all-star who’d played six seasons at half-back for the Blue Bombers, never made it out of his chute.

“He landed right beside a German machine-gun nest and…” The sentence is left unfinished.

Toronto Daily Star reporter Frederick Griffin, writing on March 26, 1945, picks up the story from there.

“Some 30 paratroopers who had made their last jump lay side by side today in a neat row outside the small brick church on the edge of the cemetery by the woods at Bergen,” Griffin wrote.

“They lay shrouded in gray blankets, that is, all but one and he, the biggest of them, was wrapped in his brown parachute. This was Jeff Nicklin of Winnipeg, former rugby star of the Blue Bombers.”

Jumping from the lead plane, Nicklin, a Normandy veteran, was one of the first Allied soldiers to die beyond the Rhine, Griffin reported. He had already been wounded once by shrapnel in June 1944.

“He caught on a tall tree and the Germans shot him hanging as he tried to get out of his chute,” Griffin wrote.

“They let him have it,” said Private Walton Pickard of London, Ont., “and he did not have a chance.”

Nicklin, who had worked his way up from private and had been among the first Canadians to land on D-Day, was 30 years old with a wife and 15-month-old son.