BENJAMIN FLOYD LEAVELL joined the militia in Collingwood, Ontario as a teenager. At the age of 21, his unit, part of the Grey and Simcoe Forresters, was called into active duty on June 1, 1940. The Forresters were originally scheduled to go to Hong Kong. They moved from their base at Camp Borden to Nova Scotia to ship out, but the fall of Hong Kong precluded this so they were converted to a mechanized regiment and were sent back to Camp Borden for further training been prior to leaving Canada.
A Canadian regiment marching off to war in 1940.
When he arrived in England in August of 1943 Leavell was transferred to the First Hussars. He was assigned to “C” Squadron of the 1st Hussars, where he met his crew: Roger Pilon, Gaston Pilon (no relation – Roger was from Cornwall and Gaston was from Timmons, Al Messer and John “Maddie” Paterson (Maddie was from Saskatchewan but later lived on Vancouver Island). Roger Pilon named their tank “Cherchez Les Femmes” (Looking for Women). They trained together for about 10 months prior to D-Day and like so many Normandy vets in those small, tight units, they became lifelong friends, practically brothers.
A 1941 poster showing Canadian support for Allied British troops.
On 5 June they loaded onto a tank landing craft along with 2 other tanks and 2 trucks and made the voyage to Juno beach through heavy seas. When the Landing Craft doors opened and the ramp lowered, a wave hit the craft and broke the chains holding the ramp. The ramp collapsed under the landing craft making it impossible to launch the tanks. A couple of large men were able to close the doors and the water on board was pumped out but the ramp remained unusable. Ben spent D-Day watching the action from off-shore and it was not until the tide was out on the 7th that he was able to get his tank off the landing craft.
Canadian soldiers landing on Mike Beach, Juno sector of the Normandy beachhead. June 6, 1944.
As Corporal of 3d Troop Ben had his driver, Roger Pilon, ease the tank into the water but even still had a steep drop into deep water. That night he re-joined the regiment. The Regiment had re-organized after D-Day and all C Squadron tanks were assigned to B Squadron. On the night of 10 June reinforcements arrived and C Squadron was reformed - Ben and his crew returned to C. That was fortunate because on Sunday 11 June the regiment, in support of the Queens Own Rifles (QOR), left the railway line at Brettville and entered Norrey-en-Bessin. B Squadron went along the road to Le Mesnil Patry while C Squadron supported them on the left (there were British on the right).
The task was to go through the village of Le Mesnil Patry; there were expectations that opposition would be light. SS General Kurt Myers had other ideas and had decided to launch a Division strength attack with the 12th SS Panzer Corp in an attempt to split the Canadians and British and get his tanks to the beach. Had he done so the outcome of the war may have been very different. When B Squadron entered the village with the QOR riding atop their tanks they met the German attack and a fierce battle ensued that cost the lives of 61 Hussars and 96 QOR.
The Canadians were outnumbered and outgunned and sustained appalling losses in what one historian called the Hussar's and QOR's own version of the 'Charge of the Light Brigade.'
Leavell was on the flank in support of B Squadron when German 88s opened up on them. Receiving no information or instructions from his Troop Commander (who was a replacement) he backed up his tank towards Norrey-en-Bessin and ended up in an orchard just outside of the town. He stopped before the minefield laid by Canadian troops the night before to protect them from a German attack.
From their position in the orchard Leavell saw two Panther tanks which had by-passed Le Mesnil Patry and were heading for the coast. He gave his gunner, Maddie Paterson, the range and they opened fire on the lead tank and then on the second. Both tanks were destroyed; Ben saw the crew of each bail out and head back towards the German lines. When they attempted to move out, the tank stalled and would not restart.
Leavell dismounted and walked into Norrey-en-Bessin, which was under heavy fire. There he talked to an officer, then returned to his tank. Roger (his driver) did not want to get back into the tank but Ben took his elbow and directed him towards the turret, the tank started this time and they were able to move back towards Brettville.
The regiment laid-up for about 3 weeks in Happy Valley (outside Buron) while they re-fitted and received replacements. On 8 July they attacked Buron, Authie and L’Ancienne Abbey. Ben Leavell’s Troop Commander Lt. Caw had his tank disabled (3 pads were blown off one tread); Caw took Leavell’s tank “Cherchez Les Femmes” and crew. Leavell was able to get the Lt Caw’s tank back for repairs.
Canadian forces in combat in the European Theater of Operations, World War II.
On the night of July 17/18 C Squadron headed towards Colombelles in OPERATION CHARWOOD. They drove over temporary pontoon bridges (just south of Pegasus Bridge) across the Orne river and the canal north of Caen. Once over the bridges their tank hit a mine but they were able to continue for a while. When they stopped to repair the tread the driver and gunner were injured so Leavell had to drive the tank.
They headed back, although they were not supposed to drive back across the pontoons, and found HQ where Leavell got a replacement crew and headed back towards Colombelles and Ifs. It took him 2 days to find the regiment; he met them as they were assembling for a push south through Verreries - OPERATION SPRING. On the night of 24 July they were heavily bombed in Ifs - even though they were sleeping in their tanks the ground shook.
July 25th 1944 was one of the bloodiest days for Canadians of World War II. 450 Canadian soldiers were killed, and 1100 were wounded in the French town of Verrieres, during the Anglo-Canadian battle for the city of Caen.
On the morning of 25 July they had to maneuver around the tank in front of them, as it had been hit the night before. They advanced towards Verrieres and as usual were directed to fire at many targets. As German fire became more accurate they backed into a hedgerow for cover but were soon spotted and heavily shelled by 88s. Ben Leavell’s tank was hit and he was severely wounded - he took several rounds from a German machine gun in his left leg.
Ben's daughter Helen says: “My father told me the tank hit by a German shell, and they all jumped out. Then he thought his gunner was still in it, so ran back and that's when he was shot. His gunner, Roger Pilon, confirmed that to me a few years ago.”
Leavell was taken by jeep to an aid station where he talked to Trooper J.J. McLeod, whose wounds was about the same as his. He spent time in hospital in England before being shipped home. On his trip home Ben Leavell remembers Mcleod coming to visit him one time. When later asked about him, Leavell said that McLeod was alive because he saw him on the ship. Later he knew it was a dream because he only saw him one time on the 3-week voyage home. He still remembers the dream meeting in detail.
Ben Leavell spent several months in hospital, and to this day still suffers pain and disabililty from his wounds. He subsequently spent 28 years working in the Collingwood Shipyards before retirement.
Ben Leavell was a fresh-faced young man of 21 when he shipped over to England to fight in World War II.
Ben Leavell lives in Collingwood, Ontario with his wife of 60 years Florence. Their four kids (three girls, one boy) five grandchildren, and six greatgrandchildren live in Ontario and Alberta. His daughter Helen Leavell, a moving force behind Project STORMBRINGER, contributed to this post.