Cowichan’s ‘tank man’ Heil named Chevalier

Just shy of his 99th birthday, Bill Heil became a knight.

Already decorated many times for his service in the Second World War, in late November the Duncan man was inducted into the French Foreign Legion as a Chevalier, or Knight, something he was honoured to accept on behalf of all Canadians who served in the war.

"It was something they wanted to do for the Canadian Army, for the Canadians who fought, and a lot of them died, in France," he said.

Heil is one of nearly 500 Canadians receiving Legion of Honour medals as France celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1945. He spent four years in the army during and after the war, including more than a year in France after landing on Juno Beach in June 1944 as part of the D-Day invasion.

A "tank man," Heil’s claim to fame before joining the Legion of Honour was his role in the development of the Kangaroo, an armoured personnel carrier created from converted tanks. The inspiration for the Kangaroo came shortly after D-Day. While waiting for tanks to come across the English Channel from England, Heil was on grave-digging duty.

"I stood there on the battlefield and a guy from the Regina Rifles ran across the open field, and the Germans got him," Heil recalled. "He had so many bullets in him, you couldn’t count them."

That gave Heil the idea of using tanks to carry troops, a concept that eventually made its way to the leaders of the Canadian forces. They had a team of eight men – four mechanics, two welders and two electricians – figure out how to convert a tank into a troop carrier. Eventually, they took turrets off about 50 tanks, and were able to carry eight to 10 infantry men in each tank.

Initially, Heil recalled, the soldiers weren’t keen on climbing aboard.