Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Lance Corporal Alphonse Joseph Leger - A Canadian Hero

Private Alphonse Joseph Leger
This is a brief history of my Great Uncle Alphonse Joseph Leger’s service in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. Having researched various archives and military history sources for information about his and his unit’s actions, I was able to piece together a short summery of his service in both the armoured and infantry corps.

There is little information available as to the specific role he played in the various actions, except for when he was injured so I’ve only included operations the records indicate he was a part of. Although the events below are sometimes described in a single paragraph, let your imagination fill in the details. The anxiety, the fear, the far too few breaks in between combat, and of course the all-prevailing hope that you survive to see tomorrow, while watching those around you who don't.

Although the story-line is a ‘bit’ over-the-top, the recent movie Fury, does give a good idea of what fighting from within the confines of a Sherman medium tank might have been like. The Shermans were a decent tank, but they did have a fatal flaw. Being gasoline powered (as opposed to the German diesel-powered vehicles) they often burst into flames when hit.  

Below the post, I’ve included a few links to more information about the units Alphonse served with, and the battles my great uncle took part in.

Any errors or emissions are solely mine.

I never knew my great-uncle. The only memory I have of him was from stories my mother told me, along with a photograph that sat for years on a table in our living room. I recall her telling me that he had received burns while serving in a tank during the Second World War, and that was all she knew. After my mom passed away, letters he had sent to her from overseas were given to me which peaked my interest and resulted in what you read below.

Alphonse Joseph Leger was born on March 25th, 1919 in the Acadian town of Barachois, New Brunswick, a small community south-east of Shediac. He had two brothers and three sisters and besides fishing with his father and brothers, he drove tractor trailers and buses, and was not surprisingly, a good mechanic. Alphonse was interested in various sports and loved playing baseball and hockey. Besides being a professional boxer for two years, he was also an avid reader of fiction. A note on his service record indicates that he exhibited an above average intelligence.

It must have been a hard decision for the married (wife Doris) father of two children to sign up for active duty and leaving his family behind, but the young Acadian knew it was what he had to do.

Alphonse took the Oath February 2nd, 1943 at Number 7 Manning Depot in Moncton, New Brunswick and not long afterwards on April 15th, he was sent to Camp Borden for basic training, where due to his experience as a truck driver and mechanic, he was found to be a natural for the armoured corps. On June 18th, Alphonse acquired his Class III Driver (Tracked) qualification which cemented his future with the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps and tank warfare. His abilities recommended a position as ‘driver in command’ of a tank.

With his basic training completed, he was transferred to Number 1Transit Camp in Windsor, Nova Scotia on August 9th, 1943, to await transport across the Atlantic Ocean to England. On August 27th, Alphonse embarked at Halifax, Nova Scotia for the trip ‘over there’ and disembarked in Great Britain on September 1st. The speed of the crossing would indicate passage aboard one of the ‘Queens’; the liners RMS Queen Elizabeth or Queen Mary, ships so fast, they often sailed on their own without escort. There is a good possibility that he may have had a famous shipmate on this voyage, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill also departed Halifax aboard the Queen Mary on August 27, heading to Gourock, Scotland, along with 15,116 troops.

On September 2nd, 1943, Trooper Alphonse J. Leger reported for duty with #2 CACRU (Canadian Armoured Corps Reinforcement Unit) where he continued his training.

On June 10th, 1944, after intensive training in armoured warfare, Alphonse was assigned to the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) ‘B’ Squadron. ‘B’ Squadron was equipped with the Sherman Firefly tank, a deadly medium tank mounting a quick firing 17 pounder gun, as well as the Mk III Sherman, a slightly less armoured version armed with a 75mm gun. The Regimental Record reports that the 6th received twenty new tanks with inexperienced crews, which would have included Alphonse, on that day and the more experienced troopers were mixed in with the new men to balance out the teams.

Trooper Leger’s baptism of fire came quickly when the regiment was informed that it would be going into action the very next day with little time to inform everyone of the plans. They would be trying to take Le Mesnil-Patry, as part of the on-going attempt to capture the French city of Caen, which has eluded British General Bernard Montgomery since D-Day. There was concern in regards to the number of new troopers within the regiment, but as is often the case in war, nothing could be done about that. In spite of heavy fighting, and being fired upon by allied forces, the operation was a success and Alphonse came through it unscathed.

Letter to my mom
After a few weeks of rest and a chance to integrate the new men with those with more experience, the regiment was ready for its next task—Operation Charnwood. On July 8th, 1944, the move forward into Caen began and by the end of the day, the regiment had destroyed nine enemy tanks, losing two of their own. The enemy retreated, and on the 10th, the regiment captured an intact German Panther tank, driving it back to be examined by army technicians.

On July 18th, 1944, after a period of repair, rest, and training, the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment was in battle again, moving south of the city. At one point in the battle, the regiment supplied support to the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment—a unit that would play a part in Alphonse’s future. The fighting continue through until July 22nd, with continual shelling and mortar fire from the German positions. At this time, the regiment pulled back for more rest and repairs.

While preparing for an attack on July 26th, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) made a heavy attack on the regimental area using anti-personnel bombs and leaving quite a few casualties in their wake. The attack on the 26th still began as scheduled and quickly encountered stiff opposition, including the regiment’s first encounter with the German Army’s Ferdinand, a monster anti-tank vehicle armed with a deadly 88mm gun. Rounds that did the enemy tank, simply bounced off to the chagrin of the Canadians.

88mm gun @ Canadian War Museum
The German 8.8 cm Flak 18/36/37/41 gun was used throughout the Second World War by various units of the German Army and Air Force. Originally designed as an anti-aircraft weapon, it was soon developed into a deadly anti-tank weapon as well, and became the main armament of the feared German Tiger heavy tank. Probably one of the most well-known Nazi weapons, along with the U-Boat, the gun could be completely set up for use in less than three minutes.

After a few more days of intense combat, the regiment pulled back into reserve. Although still close to the front lines where they received daily attention from the Luftwaffe, this was an opportunity for the men to rest and make any necessary repairs to their Shermans. Unfortunately, casualties were suffered during this period when the regiment was accidentally bombed by American aircraft.

On August 9th, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons moved on Bretteville-sur-Laize in support of Canadian infantry. ‘C’ Squadron was brought up as a backup when the attack bogged down and not only succeeded in stabilizing the situation, but also captured nearly 300 enemy soldiers.

August 14th, 1944, saw the unit go on the offensive as part of Operation Tullulah, soon renamed Tractable, which was part of the overall Operation Totalize. With an objective of closing the northern pincer of the Falaise Gap, this action became one of the most controversial battles in Europe during the Second World War. Within the 'gap', a large body of German men, tanks and equipment had found themselves nearly surrounded by the American Army to the South, and British, Canadian and American units to the north. The goal was to seal off the gap and therefore trap the enemy. The fighting during this battle was some of the fiercest during the war, and although the Allies fought through desperate enemy opposition, many of the Germans managed to escape and fight another day.

August 14th also saw Trooper Alphonse Leger seriously injured when his Sherman was hit by an 88mm shell. This was the third tank of his to be hit during battle, but in this case the Sherman caught fire, trapping the co-driver who would have been seated next to him at the front of the vehicle. Alphonse repeatedly tried to rescue his friend, trying to pull him through the hatch directly above the other driver's position and sustaining serious burns in the process. Unfortunately, in spite of his heroic efforts, he was unable to pull the other man out of the tank to safety.

After finally being moved to #22 Canadian General Hospital, two days later (remember, this is in the middle of a major battle), his condition was quickly deemed serious enough to transfer him from the field hospital to the Roman Way Convalescence Hospital in England. There, doctors and nurses trained in the care of badly injured and burned soldiers slowly repaired his battered body. The report below is verbatim from one of the doctors there, where he advises against Alphonse returning to active duty.

“1 Sep 44 This man is not physically visibly shaken but tells vivid story of being hit in 3 different tanks, finally last tank hit by 88 and ammo burned. Driver wounded and trapped inside. Soldier (Alphonse) attempted to rescue him but friends feet on fire and German's machine gunning burning tank. Cries and screams of trapped driver affected man's outlook and he has had no chance to recuperate from experiences which are still vivid in his mind. Unlikely to be satisfactory material for combat again. Suitable for consideration for upgrading to Motor Mech (t) if mind settled satisfactorily.”
(H.D.N. Doughty Capt.

It is hard to imagine what the young soldier must have gone through. The horrible pain of burns compounded by the emotional pain of watching his friend die and being unable to save him. The war surely should have been over for Alphonse at this point as he had certainly done more than his fair share.

After months of recuperation and surgery however, Trooper Leger wanted to return to the fray. He may have been motivated by the need for revenge, or just the same sense of duty that had caused him to sign up in the first place.

Whatever the reason, after upgrade training for the regular army—no one could blame him for not wanting to return to tanks, he was flown from England, back to the continent on February 12th, 1945. There he joined the North Shore (NB) Regiment of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on March 2nd, 1945.

Alphonse joined the storied regiment at about the time it landed in Germany after a river amphibious assault. The North Shores had been in action since D-Day and after many successes, tempered by great losses, it appeared to them that the war would soon be over. At this same time, the people of Holland were under severe distress between atrocities being committed by the German army, who by this time could see the writing on the wall, and equally as dangerous, starvation.

In what had to be a logistical nightmare, the North Shore Regiment reversed direction from east to west, and prepared to attack and liberate the Dutch city of Zutphen. Along the way, they met furious opposition from hardened German veterans of previous battles, and worse, fanatical Hitler Youth who seemed to have no fear of dying. 

The following is an excerpt from Canadian Battlefield Tours:

“April 4-7- Because of fanatical resistance from 361st Infantry Div. and 3rd Para. it becomes necessary to commit the entire 3rd CDN Div. to liberate Zutphen. Participants included Regina Rifles, Royal Winnipeg Rifles, 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars, Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders, Highland Light Infantry, North Nova Scotia Highlanders, North Shore Regiment (had 20 killed here), Regiment de la Chaudiere & Sherbrooke Fusiliers.”

One of those ‘20 killed’ was Lance Corporal Alphonse Joseph Leger. He was killed in action in the town of Almen, Holland, just to the east of Zutphen on April 5th, 1945. Rest in Peace Alphonse, and know you are not forgotten.

The medals awarded to my great uncle, include the 1939-45 Star, France & Germany Star, Defence Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with Clasp, and the War Medal 1939-45.


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