Francis Weitzel—Canadian Hero

Cpl Francis Weitzel in an undated family photo.

 

Note well, countrymen, great men have passed this way.

The farmhand at war: Remembering the greatest hero of bloody Buron
Remembering Cpl Francis Weitzel
Cpl Francis Weitzel of the Highland Light Infantry was killed in battle at Buron, France, July 8, 1944. His comrades nominated him for the Victoria Cross.
Mathew McCarthy

In the orchard, Sgt. Herchenratter reorganized the remnants of two platoons and led the attack at clearing out the orchard. Cpl. Weitzel, already wounded here, distinguished himself by leading two men left of his section into an attack on two well-sited MG (machine gun) posts. When both of them were hit he continued on and knocked out both posts before he himself was killed.

From the war diary of the Highland Light Infantry, July 8, 1944

Wounded but unbroken, machine gun on his hip, Francis Weitzel took the fight to the enemy and refused to quit, even as his comrades fell around him, until the enemy was dead and he was, too.

It happened 71 years ago in France, in the bloodiest battle fought by the local Highland Light Infantry during the Second World War.

“He must have had a lot of guts to go and do what he did,” says Don Matthews, 86, of Kitchener.

Matthews met Weitzel just before the battle. They fought in the same D company platoon. Augie Herchenratter, 91, led Weitzel into combat. He later saw his bullet-riddled body on the battlefield.

“I was really sad to see him lying on the ground,” says Herchenratter, of Waterloo. “He was a hell of a nice guy.”

Weitzel was 23 when he was killed in action. He so impressed his brothers in arms that they recommended him, unsuccessfully, for a Victoria Cross.

He was the only member of the Highland Light Infantry nominated for the Commonwealth’s highest honour for combat bravery during the Second World War.

“He got hit more than once but he just kept going,” Matthews says. “He saved his whole company eventually.”

Weitzel often joked that life at war was far more luxurious than life back on the farm. He grew up in the country near Tavistock, south of New Hamburg, quitting school at 14. He later moved into a trailer where he raised ducks and geese.

He was 19 when he enlisted in Kitchener in 1940. His parents had died, so he named one of his three brothers as next of kin.

Army records describe a single, blue-eyed, fair-haired farmhand, almost five foot 11 inches tall and weighing 162 pounds, fluent in English and German, also called Pennsylvania Dutch.

In 1941, Weitzel embarked for England, where he was promoted to corporal in 1943. Herchenratter met him there before the regiment landed in France on June 6, 1944.

“He was a nice lad, did whatever he was told to do,” Herchenratter says. “And he was anxious to do his job.”

His chance came a month after D-Day. On the morning of July 8, 1944, the Highland Light Infantry attacked SS and Hitler Youth troops entrenched in the village of Buron, in Normandy.

It was the regiment’s baptism of fire, after landing on D-Day without firing a shot.

D company was ordered to advance on the right flank, across an open field, through the village, and on to an orchard on the other side. The Germans hid in trenches and buildings, behind anti-tank ditches and minefields.

Advancing across the open field, Canadians were raked by machine guns and shelled by bombs and mortars. Matthews watched two men fall beside him. He kept moving forward, walking, crawling and hopping.

“I never knew bullets could whistle,” he recalls. “The first thing we’re taught is don’t stop. Keep going. If you stop, you’re a target.”

Eventually, Matthews ended up at a high wall, separated from his platoon. He found soldiers from A company and joined them.

The enemy was on the other side. A shell breached the wall and the Canadians poured through. That’s where Matthews, then 19, shot at enemy soldiers for the first time.

“I was surprised by how young they were,” he says. “And I thought I was young.”

Herchenratter, then 24, led a platoon of 28 into battle. He remembers trenches where German soldiers would stay hidden to pick off advancing Canadians. Herchenratter fired at them whenever a head popped up.

Young Germans, steeped in Nazi ideology, fought ferociously, often refusing to surrender. Three who were captured were later caught spitting on Canadian corpses.

Weitzel was wounded in the leg early in the battle. Herchenratter dressed his wound and told him to go back. Weitzel said it was nothing.

Advancing under heavy fire, Herchenratter saw Weitzel for the last time leading several men toward the orchard.

Weitzel reached the orchard with just three other men, according to interviews conducted a day later by war correspondent Ralph Allen. Seeing more enemy than he expected, he sent one man back for reinforcements. Then he moved into the orchard with the other two men.

“He kept going down the orchard with his Bren gun on his hip and two riflemen beside him, then only one, then nobody but himself,” a regimental lieutenant told Allen.

“The trenches were thick and well filled. The corporal cleaned them all out but the last one. He took a platoon of Germans or more with him, not counting the wounded.

“We found him this morning, lying on top of his final objective. He was full of bullets. He had cleared the orchard.”

The Highland Light Infantry lost 62 killed, 200 wounded at Buron. The regiment never had a bloodier day, fighting across northern Europe until victory in May 1945.

Herchenratter earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his initiative and courage there. Weitzel helped seal the victory.

“He’s all alone in the orchard. He decided to carry on and continue fighting” explains Elliot Worsfold, a University of Ottawa history student who has studied Weitzel and the battle. His initiative tied up the enemy, giving D company time to regroup after two-thirds of its attacking force fell dead or wounded.

Today, Weitzel’s name is inscribed at a church he attended near Tavistock. A grateful nation named a lake after him, in northern Ontario. But he did not get a Victoria Cross.

The army honoured him with a lesser Mention in Despatches (a report from a senior commander to his superiors), saying there were not enough witnesses to his lone heroics.

“It’s a tragic irony that the very reason he was nominated for the Victoria Cross resulted in his not receiving it,” Worsfold says.

Some in his regiment were sore about that. A darker version suggests he was denied due to his German name. The unsubstantiated claim is included in a book on Oxford County war dead, written by an historian now deceased who quotes an unidentified officer.

The claim unsettles Ken Weitzel, who feels his uncle Francis should get whatever medal he deserves. But he tries not to dwell on it.

Ken, 62, was born after Francis was killed and knew little about him while growing up. But in recent years he has learned more. Two summers ago he went to France to visit his uncle’s military grave.

There, he found flowers left at the headstone by French students. “It was very moving,” he says. He gazed down at his family name and thought about how his uncle died.

“I don’t think I could be that brave,” he says. It filled him with pride.

    Sixty-one others from the Highland Light Infantry of Canada also died that day. This is the list;

Anderson, Bailey, Barley, Bedard, Bell, Birkinshaw, Borthwick, Bull, Chartrand, Chrysler, Drouillard, Finch, Fraiser, Geddes, Green, Hagen, Haines, Hedley, Hickson, High, Hilker, Hillis, Hough, Houston, Howard, Huffmon, Hulme, Hunter, Ingham, Kidd, Lidstone, Loucks, Mahar, Martin, Mcarthur, Mccaw, Mccormick, Peets, Priest, Purdy, Reeve, Reiber, Reiche, Richards, Robertson, Robinson, Santa, Shantz, Shipman, Smith, Sparks, Stark, Steadman, Stewart, Strickland, Thatcher, Trimble, Tutt, White, Whitehead, Wright

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