Friday, November 11, 2011

Toppy Topham Crosses The Rhine

Operation Varsity above the Rhine River

The war was nearly over. It had already been nine months since the Allies landed in Normandy. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been there, students and shopkeepers and dentists from places like Calgary and Saskatoon and Toronto leaping out of planes into the air above France, dropping behind German lines to secure bridges and roads. Hundreds of them had died doing it. Then, the following winter, the battalion had patrolled the freezing snows of the Ardennes Forest, resisting the brutal German counter-attack at the Battle of the Bulge. Now it was March, and the Allies had pushed all the way across Western Europe into Germany itself. But hundreds of thousands of people were still dying. And the Allies still had one more mammoth task ahead them before they could fan out across the country and overrun it: they needed to cross the Rhine River. What was left of Hitler's army was waiting for them on the other side.

The morning of March 24, 1945 saw the biggest airborne operation in the history of anything ever. Thousands upon thousands of planes and gliders took off in England and soared across the skies of Europe toward the river. They stretched out for more than 300 kilometers — the distance from London to Paris — and took two and half hours to pass by. When they got to the Rhine, tens of thousands of men leapt out of the planes, white parachutes bursting open in the morning light. They were easy targets for the bullets and anti-aircraft shells that rose to meet them. Many men died before they'd even hit the ground. Hundreds of planes fell burning from the sky.

One of the lucky men who did survive the drop was Frederick George Topham. He'd been born in Toronto during the First World War, had gone to school at Runnymede Collegiate on Jane Street, and spent some time working as a miner at Kirkland Lake. His friends called him Toppy. He was in Europe as a medic with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, stitching up men on the front lines. That morning on the banks of the Rhine, they needed it. Many of the men had been shot on their way down. Their commanding officer, a guy from Winnipeg who'd won the Grey Cup with the Blue Bombers in the '30s, had already been killed. So Topham got to work, rushing from one injured paratrooper to the next: performing first aid, tending to wounds, saving lives.

It was about 11 o'clock — an hour after his jump — when Topham heard a cry for help. An injured solider was lying out in the open, bullets whizzing around him. A medical orderly ran over to help, knelt down at the man's side, and was shot dead. A second medic died the same way. Topham saw it all happen — and then rushed out to help. 

Canadian paratroopers in the drop zone
They say the air was laced with machine gun and sniper fire, but he made it all the way through to the wounded soldier, and began tending to his patient among the dead bodies. That's how Topham got shot, too. In the face. Fighting the pain, blood pouring from his mangled nose and cheek, he stood his ground, gave the solider first aid and then picked him up and carried him through the hail of bullets into the woods to safety. Then he turned around and headed right back out again, to help more of the wounded men. For the next two hours, he refused to stop working, refused to let anyone take care of his bloodied face until the entire area had been cleared of casualties.

And his day wasn't over yet. On his way back to join his company, he came across an armoured machine gun carrier that had been hit by a shell. Mortars were still landing all around it. Flames leapt from it; there were explosions. An officer warned everyone to stand back.

Topham rushed in. He found three men inside and carried each of them to safety. One died of his wounds, but the other two made it. They wouldn't be the last lives he saved that day. The medic kept working for hours.

It would take the Allies a day and a half to win the battle. Then they pressed on deeper into Germany, until they ran into the Soviet army coming the other way. The war in Europe was over. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was the very first unit sent home to Canada. They arrived in Halifax on June 21st, having completed every mission they'd ever been given, and having never given up an objective they'd won.

Back in Toronto, the city had been waiting to celebrate their new hero. They threw Toppy Topham a parade down Bay Street to Old City Hall, with a hundred members of his battalion serving as an honour guard. He was asked to lay the cornerstone for the new Sunnybrook Memorial Hospital for veterans of the war. Soon, an entire post-war neighbourhood on St. Clair East would bear his name: Topham Park. And King George V would award him the Victoria Cross — the highest military honour you can get in the Commonwealth. Nearly 60 years later, when the medal went up for auction in 2004, the members of his old battalion raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it in Canada. They gave it to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa; you can see it on display.

As for Topham himself, he went to work for Toronto Hydro when he got back. That, absurdly, is how he died: in an electrical accident in 1974. Today, you'll find him buried in Sanctuary Park Cemetery at Lawrence and Royal York Road.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
You can read more about Toppy Topham and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion here and here and here and here. There's a plaque to his memory outside the old Etobicoke City Hall. I went to his old high school, Runnymede, for a couple of years and don't remember ever having heard about him while I was there, which seems like more than a shame.

Here are some more posts for Remembrance Day:

The story of Toronto's John McCrae writing "In Flanders Fields" amidst the muck and death of Western Belgium here.
What William Faulkner was doing drunk in the cockpit on a biplane in Toronto on the day the Great War ended in 1918 here
The story of bloodshirtsy fighter pilot hero Billy Bishop here
How Canadian troops held occupy Iceland during WWII here.
What it looked like in Toronto on the day the Great War ended here.
A great photo of a women working in a Toronto munitions factory during WWII here.
The story behind on the most famous photos of all-time, "Getting Napalmed As A Child In South Vietnam" here.

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