A family returns to France to trace the ambush that changed a Canadian soldier’s life

Don Levers is wrestling with an extraordinary number of “what-ifs” as he, his daughter and granddaughter embark on a personal pilgrimage to the beaches of Normandy to find the spot where, 80 years ago, his father almost lost his life.

On June 6, 1944, Rifleman Gerry Levers of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles came ashore with the second wave of troops taking part in the Allied liberation of Europe. He actually made it off Juno Beach and a few kilometres inland.

Hours later, a German machine gunner sprayed his platoon as it advanced on the village of St. Croix sur mer, about five kilometres inland from the landing sites.

Wounded in the right thigh, he hobbled back to the beach, where he was evacuated to England. He was among the first Canadian casualties to be interviewed by CBC Radio after the Normandy landings.

He later rejoined his unit and fought on until VE-Day in May 1945. Hardworking and down to earth, he went on to raise a family and live a good life.

Rifleman Gerry Levers on leave in Victoria, B.C. in 1945.
Rifleman Gerry Levers on leave in Victoria, B.C. in 1945. (Don Levers)

On Thursday, 80 years to the day after Gerry Levers reached the beach, his family plans to retrace his footsteps in the region of Courseulles-sur-mer, to find the salt-sprayed field where he was wounded.

Along with the enormous pride he feels, Don Levers cannot help but marvel at the hand fate dealt his father. 

Gerry Levers, who died in 1986, never returned to Normandy. His son, who has had a lifelong fascination with his father’s service (and even wrote a book about it), attended the 75th anniversary commemorations in 2019.

CBC News has special coverage from Normandy of the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Click here for details. 

Don Levers returned home determined to pass along that sense of wonder and serendipity to his now-teenage  granddaughter in Victoria B.C.

“I was showing her the pictures and then said, ‘I want to take you back there, I want you to realize how lucky we are to be here,'” Levers said, his eyes welling up. “And that if [D-Day] had turned out differently, none of us would be here.”

In the years after the war, Levers’ dad used to joke that had his D-Day wound been a few centimetres higher, he never would have been able to have children.

It’s one of those what-ifs that keeps nagging at Don Levers. He wonders whether fate actually was looking out for his father when that machine gun blast kept him out of some of the most savage fighting that followed the invasion.

Rifleman Gerry Levers in Banff, Alta. in 1944. An encounter with a German machine gun may have kept him out of a later battle with counter-attacking German troops.
Rifleman Gerry Levers in Banff, Alta. in 1944. An encounter with a German machine gun may have kept him out of a later battle with counter-attacking German troops. (Don Levers)

Levers wonders whether his father would have been present when — on June 8, 1944 — the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division launched a fierce counterattack toward the positions the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were defending at the village of Putot-en-Bessin.

The German attack cut off several Canadian companies. Several soldiers from the Winnipeg Rifles were executed after they surrendered.

Over the first 10 days of the Allied campaign, roughly 156 Canadian and two British prisoners of war (POWs) were murdered by their Nazi captors.

Don Lever’s daughter, Jenn Annand, shares his sense of wonder, but also believes retracing her grandfather’s footsteps is an important act of grace at a time when there are precious few old soldiers left.

It’s now up to descendants of those who did the fighting and dying to keep their spirit alive, she said.

As she prepared for the trip, she said, her feelings were “the same as I remember on any Remembrance Day. Just, thank you for everyone who has the courage to stand up to defend everything, for those of us that are behind.”

Prior to leaving for France, Annand’s daughter Sophia wondered how she would feel retracing her great-grandfather’s footsteps. His life, his moment in time are far removed from her daily experiences as a student.

And while she knows she can have only a vague notion of what it was like to be alive in the mid-1940s, Sophia said she believes the journey is an important one for someone of her generation.

“I think it’s important to know that a lot of those people have sacrificed everything for us to have a good world that we live in today,” she said.

WATCH | D-Day explained: 

D-Day explained: Why it was an important turning point for WWII

19 hours ago

Duration 5:17

CBC Kids News contributor Isabelle MacNeil explains Canada’s role in the D-Day operation during the Second World War.

Their pilgrimage is being made possible by the researchers behind the website Project 44. They combed the national archives this spring in an attempt to trace the movements of Lever’s section on the day of the battle.

Those researchers had to pore over 80-year-old battle diaries written under fire. Drew Hannen, one of the researchers, said pinpointing an exact location for the Levers family has been tough and their objective has been to get as close as possible.

“It’s a little bit of a needle in a haystack,” Hannen said, “but we can at least narrow down the area and give him more of a sense of confidence of where exactly it happened.”

He said the researchers are confident they’ll get an “approximate location.”