The amazing story of the identification of an emblematic and bold Canadian soldier whose last resting place was lost for 75 years.
By Francis Bleeker (© FLG Bleeker)
In May 1992 I was seconded to the Dutch 41 Light Brigade in Germany for a major exercise. My new boss was Major Mart de Kruif, a Dutch Grenadier Guards officer, in charge of G3, the Operations section. I was his liaison officer for the duration of the exercise. Exciting times, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. After my immigration to Canada in 1998 we continue to meet at regimental events. In 2008 he takes command of Regional Command South in Afghanistan and for a whole year works with numerous Canadian staff officers.
Fast forward again and in 2017 now Lieutenant General de Kruif shares a panel with LGen Marc Lessard at the Canadian War Museum to talk about Canadian-Dutch co-operation in Afghanistan and the close ties between the two countries. He then talks about the heroism and the sacrifice of Canadians during the liberation of The Netherlands from the Germans in 1945 and how soldiers of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada are commemorated in Rha, a village close to his home in the Eastern part of The Netherlands. One of them does not have a grave and is remembered on a wall at the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek. In nearby Steenderen there is a grave of an unknown soldier. Local amateur historians think they know who he is: Lieutenant John Gordon Kavanagh of The Queen’s Own Rifles. General Mart recites what is engraved on the monument in Rha: ‘Dying for freedom is not the worst that could happen, being forgotten is.’ Afterwards I agree to delve into this story, do more research, and see what I can come up with.
Who was Jack Kavanagh?
John Gordon Kavanagh, ‘Jack’ to family and friends, was born in Toronto on 20 October 1921, the son of John and Cora Kavanagh. He was the youngest of four children. His brothers and sister were a lot older, the difference with his sister was 13 years, 19 years with his oldest brother. His father was a handyman at Eaton’s and died when Jack was only seven years old. Jack grows up on Sandford Avenue and after 4 years of high school at Riverdale Collegiate, he finds a job in the athletics department at T. Eaton Co Ltd making $18 a week.
On the 10th September 1939 Canada declares war on the German Reich independently from the British Empire. Jack joins The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada (QOR) only eight days after Canada’s declaration of war a month shy of the required age of 18. He may have fudged his date of birth by three months to get in as the date has to be amended in his paperwork later on. Initially The Queen’s Own train in ‘mufti’ because of a shortage of uniforms.
When the unit is mobilized in June 1940 he transfers from the non-permanent active militia to the regular force (CASF) and takes the oath to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty’. The regiment trains in Toronto before moving to the Dominion of Newfoundland for more training. Jack is part of the regimental boxing team and they win the Divisional Boxing Tournament in May 1941.
Finally in July 1941 The Queen’s Own cross the Atlantic by ship to Scotland where training and live fire exercises resume. The battalion moves to Southern England, first Aldershot then Pippingford Park, Sussex, south-west of London. The QOR boxing team, including Jack, is doing well again and wins the brigade and subsequently the divisional championship. The battalion keeps moving around Southern England in 1942 for training and exercises and during the fall Jack receives several reprimands and forfeitures of pay for short unauthorized absences.
History does not tell but it is very likely that these absences had something to do with a lady interest. Now a corporal Jack has to apply a second time to marry Emily Jean Haddleton as the first application had gone missing. Jean, who is a Red Cross nurse, grew up around the corner from Jack’s home in Toronto. He was probably frustrated by the two-month bureaucratic delay so he adds a cheeky note stating that ‘proposed wife is a member of the Canadian Red Cross Corps and has been granted permission to marry by her Commandant’, so get on with it! The wedding takes place in Kensington, London, on 12th June 1943 with comrades in arms and Red Cross nurses attending.
After that it is back to more exercises until 7th October when Jack, now an Acting Sergeant, is sent back to Canada for officer training at the Officer Training Centre in Brockville, Ontario. We can only guess how Cadet Kavanagh must have felt when the invasion in Normandy started and he heard the reports of the severe losses that The Queen’s Own incurred.
Jack is commissioned and reports for duty in England on 28 December 1944. He is ready to rejoin his unit, but disaster strikes and on 25 January 1945 he is hospitalized with pneumonia. After 11 days in hospital he discharges himself but continues to kick his heels until he is fed up waiting. He takes off without orders and makes his own way to The Queen’s Own who are in Germany just across the Dutch border. It takes some representations from the commanding officer of The Queen’s Own and the brigade commander to paper over this infraction but on 18 March Jack finally has his platoon in B Company.
The QOR had just come through another period of heavy fighting and heavy losses against a vicious, relentless enemy that included hand to hand combat where even the ‘rifleman’s swords’ (bayonets) were used. When Jack rejoins the QOR they are recuperating briefly in the Reichswald in home-made huts and underground shelters. On 23 March he writes an upbeat letter to his sister Mabel affectionately joking about his batman ’just a kid of 19’ and sends his love to ‘the gals at the big store’ (Eaton’s). It is to be his last letter. Coincidentally Mabel sends him an Easter card on the same day.
24 March and the QORs are on the move again as part of Operation PLUNDER. By 2 April they are back in The Netherlands, they cross the Oude Ijssel river and are getting a taste of liberating the jubilant Dutch population. On 5 April B Company is tasked to capture the hamlet of Pipelure, near Rha. The enemy had used forced labour to dig deep trenches and construct tank traps. The terrain is muddy and the trenches waterlogged. In those horrendous circumstances, without cover and supporting fire, Kavanagh advances with two platoons in the late afternoon and runs in to heavy mortar and small arms fire and is pinned down. During that action Jack is killed, it is said by a Panzerfaust, an anti-tank weapon. Four others die in the same action. The reserve platoon is now deployed to allow platoons 11 and 12 to withdraw. In the dwindling light The Queen’s Own have to fight hand to hand with the enemy before they can retire taking their wounded but leaving five dead, including Jack, behind.
Mabel’s Easter card is returned to her, the envelope is stamped ‘REPORTED DECEASED’ in capitals…
Jack’s wife Jean and his family are advised of his death. But all they are told is that he was ‘for official purposes presumed killed in action’ in Western Europe and that his body was not recovered. He is honoured on the Memorial Wall at the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek. T. Eaton Ltd. gives the family a gold ring engraved with his name in memory of their employee. Jack’s name is also included on the large bronze tablet that contains all the names of the 263 Eaton employees who sacrificed their lives. The impressive memorial has found a home at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
The City of Toronto presents the family with a framed scroll and a votive lamp. Both the recognition by Eaton’s and Toronto are a testament of the support that employers and local government gave to soldiers and their families.
In The Netherlands…
The people in the Eastern part of The Netherlands honour the fallen for their freedom every spring a month before the rest of the country as they were liberated earlier. Villagers in Steenderen have been
putting flowers at the war graves in the General Cemetery on 6 April for decades. The cemetery contains the graves of 9 RAF, RCAF and Polish aircrew that crashed in the area during the war at different dates. The date on the 10th headstone, that of the unknown soldier, states 16 April 1945, thereby adding to the confusion.
In 2001 the villagers of nearby Rha erect a little monument in a remembrance garden in honour of 8 members of The Queen’s Own Rifles who fell there on 5 and 6 April 1945. Jack Kavanagh is listed among his comrades.
2017 my research begins
After volunteering to do more research in May 2017 I started by writing to a brigadier general at Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). I ask the brigadier general where I can find John Gordon Kavanagh’s dental records and he refers me to another director general at VAC and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), Canadian Agency . General Mart de Kruif had already mentioned that he had the Dutch War Grave Service standing by to assist in an exhumation. If we can match the dental records with the remains in the grave of the unknown soldier in Steenderen we will have a solution. DNA would be another option – if only we could locate any relatives. Others have gone before us though and failed to find members of Jack’s family.
I am in close contact with the Dutch defence attache and work with a good friend who is a Queen’s Own. The CWGC, Canadian Agency, gets back to me and confirms that Lt JG Kavanagh was killed by an anti tank weapon and that there are conflicting stories whether there was enough left to recover or that his remains were never recovered. I am told to prepare myself for a ‘very high burden of proof to be met before exhumation can be considered.’ He does not want to discourage me, but he has seen many cases where the identity of ‘unknowns’ have been confirmed, but even more unsuccessful attempts. His grim message is loud and clear…
In a reply to my update to General Mart and Colonel Christa, the defence attache, I receive Dutch material from a Dutch local historian, Karl Lusink. It is remarkable that some of his notes date back to 1984 when he tried to find out more from the farmer who owned the field in Rha where Jack fell. Unfortunately, the farmer has moved away to a nursing home and does not respond to letters. More importantly Karl provides me copies of official correspondence between the mayor of Steenderen and the Dutch Ministry of War: in November 1947 the mayor claimed expenses for the exhumation of remains on the land of farmer Garritsen at Pipelure on 10 April 1947, two years after the operation. Some personal items including a Canadian beret were also recovered.
Veterans Affairs Canada gets back to me with two more documents: a headstone change request and a document written by a Dutch-Canadian, Rev. Henkdrik Dykman, from Guelph. Both documents provide additional information about the other four soldiers who died in that location at the same time. The QOR War Diary is very clear about the number of soldiers that were killed in Rha: five. Four, riflemen Aiken, Crawford, McKenna and Woodruff are accounted for. They were buried in temporary graves at a neighbouring farm in Rha, according to said headstone change request. There is a photograph of the four temporary graves with the correct date on the crosses, 5 April 1945. I find that some dates used by various officials do not always match those in the War Diary, but these do. The four riflemen were re-interred in Holten Canadian War Cemetery in April 1946. Who can the remains in Steenderen belong to if not Jack Kavanagh? Karl Lusink sends more Dutch material from 1947 regarding a misunderstanding on the part of the Dutch War Ministry that the unknown soldier is English but which is quickly corrected by the mayor who replies that Steenderen was liberated by Canadians and the remains therefore cannot be English. It is now October 2017 and there is a new Dutch defence attache to brief. Colonel Christa has retired but continues to follow developments from The Netherlands.
Late November I receive another email from the CWGC Canadian Agency offering me to show Jack’s dental records but reaffirming what I had been advised before: the CWGC does not exhume for the sole purpose of identification. It also mentions that the location of Jack’s death is known but not if his remains were recovered. My QOR friend sends me a paper about relevant International Human Rights Law on war dead. This can get complicated.
Christmas 2017 I spend in The Netherlands and I take the opportunity to visit the location where Jack fell. It is a bleak field, flat with far horizons, next to farmer Garritsen’s farmhouse that has been turned into a bed and breakfast. It will have been different in 1945 but it is still flat with no natural cover. It would have been an infantryman’s nightmare.
Over the following months I conduct more research but have less time as I am in a new job. All the while I am encouraged by a few friends and some senior officers whom I meet and bend their ears at the Army Officers Mess, Ottawa, for the traditional Friday lunch. I search and find more information about Jack and his family, much of which is available online: census records, the War Diary, various books and literature. I start writing my paper and limit myself to what is essential for the identification and I include my translation of the Dutch official correspondence. A good friend who is a historian offers to review it.
In May 2018 I am copied on another email from the CWGC reiterating the non-exhumation policy and attaching the email that was sent to me before. General Mart and a Dutch documentary producer had requested guidance for DNA testing. The policy has not changed so it is declined. Coincidentally my paper is finished, and I submit it to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as I believe that is has the circumstantial evidence that will tip the balance. Days later my paper is given a reference number, ID Case No. 428. If successful, the CWGC will arrange for a new headstone but I am asked to exercise patience. I know that general Mart would like to turn a change of headstone into a major event in 2020 when the Dutch celebrate the 75th anniversary of their liberation. I inform Karl Lusink of recent developments.
In July 2018 I meet the Dutch documentary producers in the suitably solemn ambiance of the library of the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto. Bart Nijpels, Ton Vanderplas and I compare notes and agree to work together. I send them documents that they did not have, and they send me an obituary of Isabel, daughter of Jack’s brother Robert, who had died in 2011. J.G. Kavanagh’s nephew Jack and family are mentioned as is their hometown Keswick. Ton spends a fruitless day there knocking on doors. My QOR friend and I start our own search and he finds that the contact person for Isabel died in 2016, another dead end. For months we scour the internet for the nephew, Jack Young, unfortunately not a unique name.
Kavanagh’s next of kin found
In November I meet a CAF major who tells me about his ambition to become a private investigator. ‘I have just the job for you!’ I say. He comes up trumps! Within days he writes to me with the contact details of a John ‘Jack’ Young. I am anxious as I dial the number and a man answers and I ask if he is indeed the nephew of John Gordon Kavanagh. When he confirms that I blurt out ’I have been looking for you!’. Coincidentally the documentary makers have found the family as well. Over the next few months we are in close contact with the family and we exchange information about their uncle. I provide them information and advice for their trip to The Netherlands as they have been invited by Bart and Ton. When I finally meet Jack Young and his wife they show an abundance of mementos of their uncle whom they never met.
General Mart, the Dutch Embassy, the Canadian Embassy in The Netherlands, and others are all keenly waiting for the next steps, 2020 is now a year away. A friend, a recently retired general, has an ‘innocuous’ chat at my request with the Directorate of History & Heritage of the Department of National Defence in Ottawa. DHH however immediately recognizes the case: without more information this case does not ‘pass the bar’. In my contacts with general Mart I raise the possibility of a QOR representation supported and complemented by our Limburgse Jagers (Rifles) Regiment at the commemoration – provided all goes well. We meet late January 2019 in The Netherlands to discuss progress and next steps.
Thrilled the Young family travels to The Netherlands in April at the invitation of the documentary makers, Ton and Bart, and visit the monument in Rha and the grave of the unknown soldier in Steenderen. It is an emotional pilgrimage as I can make out from the many messages that they send me. I put them in touch with a dear friend of mine who is a clergyman living near Steenderen and he organizes a special service for the family on the Sunday. The family is deeply touched by the attention of the locals and the fact that they have been caring for the monuments and graves for so many years.
‘The case has merit’
In May 2019 a full year after I had submitted my research paper the CWGC advises us that ‘the documentation from the local archives included in the submissions has provided an essential link between the field grave from which the casualty was exhumed and his reburial at Steenderen as well as showing the origin of the discrepancy in the date of death. Therefore, we believe that the case has merit and have forwarded the case to the Canadian Armed Forces for their review.’ The case has merit, BINGO! Once again we are asked to exercise patience. Time is running though; if we want to organize an event in April 2020, we need a determination as soon as possible. I talk or email with people and officials in my network to see what we can do to expedite the process. I also keep in touch with the Young family, Kavanagh’s next of kin and we become friends. We attend a military appreciation game of the Belleville Senators together.
Come October I am advised that the Casualty Identification Review Board (CIRB) will meet in November and I am asked to provide contact details of Kavanagh’s next of kin. In December 2019 I am told: the CIRB did meet in November but the results have to go to the chain of command. On New Year’s Day 2020 I receive another email from General Mart asking for an update. I bug DHH and they assure me they are acutely aware of the general’s and the local community’s interest. We are now less than three months away from the 75th anniversary. I email a very senior officer at DND and I am told to be patient another week: the Army will notify the family first and I will hear promptly thereafter. And so it happens! On 24 January 2020 The Queen’s Own Rifles notify Jack Young that his uncle Lt. John G Kavanagh has been identified as the unknown soldier resting in Steenderen. I receive a call from DHH with the good news and find it quite emotional. In a call next day General Mart and I immediately start firming up our plans.
The unknown soldier identified
On Saturday, 26 January, the Commanding Officer of The Queen’s Own, his Regimental Sergeant Major and an assisting officer present themselves in uniform with medals at the home of Jack Young and his wife Debbie to notify them officially their uncle has been identified. I receive a call after they leave and Jack and Debbie are deeply impressed. They are on the loudspeaker in the car and my wife can hear how touched and relieved they are – she seems to have something in her eye. It is the culmination of years of work by many people on both sides of the Atlantic.
A suitable commemoration
We change gears immediately. I have teleconferences with General Mart, the commanding officer (CO) and his deputy of The Queen’s Own, the Canadian defence attache in The Hague, Colonel Christa and others. A plan is put together: there will be a commemoration on 5 and 6 April, six family members of Kavanagh will attend as well as ten Queen’s Own. We need to raise money and see what Veterans Affairs Canada will support. My clergyman friend has been invited to conduct the Sunday service on 5 April in the church beside the General Cemetery in Steenderen. It is like divine intervention, we can have a church service conducted by a dear friend who has been close to the story and himself the son of a resistance fighter.
The Queen’s Own Rifles are responsible for the organization of the 2020 Garrison Ball at the Liberty Grand in Toronto on 8 February. Despite the short notice the commanding officer includes a stirring announcement that one of their comrades – lost for 75 years – has now been identified. The assisting officer reads out Jack’s last letter to his sister Mabel. When the colonel publicly recognizes the Young family who are in attendance the hundreds of guests rise and give the family a standing ovation that lasts many minutes.
It is like having another day job. Calls and emails to Veterans Affairs result in the department taking care of Jack and Debbie’s travel expenses. More calls and emails and people are generously offering financial support. The Queen’s Own raise money and will send a delegation of ten soldiers. A contact at a military charity puts me in touch with Air Canada who graciously offers help with the tickets for Jack’s daughters, granddaughters and the ten Queen’s Own. Strangers and friends of friends are stepping up and contributing with money, referrals and advice, it is fantastic. The municipality, that Rha belongs to, will take care of the Youngs’ stay at Garritsen’s farm, now a bed and breakfast, where their Uncle Jack had died. The Limburgse Jagers regiment is providing accommodation and transport for The Queen’s Own. They will also send a contingent to complement the Canadian delegation at the commemorative ceremony. Christa has put together a minute by minute plan with military precision. General Mart has multiple meetings with the municipality, Christa, the Canadian attache in The Hague and my friend the clergyman. The Dutch branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch No. 5, is roped in and will send a colour party. The CWGC and the Canadian Government are pushing for the new headstone to be ready for the commemorations on 5 and 6 April. The documentary makers, Ton and Bart, are present and shoot footage when the new headstone is being engraved. The final chapter of Jack’s story will be filmed at Kavanagh’s grave on 5 and 6 April. Everything is in place just weeks before it will all happen!
On 13 March 2020, the Chief of Defence Staff issues a directive banning non-essential travel because of COVID-19: The Queen’s Own cannot go. Within days disappointed and frustrated we have to decide to postpone the commemoration indefinitely due to the Corona virus. Canada is in lockdown and The Netherlands follows shortly after. We will resurrect the plans the moment we can either later this year or on the 76th anniversary.
On 5 April my friend the clergyman organizes a moving little ceremony at the General Cemetery of Steenderen in honour of Lt J. G. ‘Jack’ Kavanagh under COVID-19 restrictions. It was captured on video and available on YouTube . The children of farmer Garritsen visit the grave and lay flowers. Others lay flowers, what else than tulips, at all ten graves as locals have done for decades. General Mart also drops by to pay his respects.
Sadly, Ton and Bart had to finish their documentary without the closing chapter with the new headstone in place. It is a must watch though, and can be seen on Vimeo for a small fee part of which will go to a Canadian military charity. The documentary is a worthy tribute to a young Canadian who is emblematic for his generation of young men and women who answered the call of their country to fight for the freedom of others on the far side of the world. 7600 of them died in The Netherlands.
Lest we forget…
 – Note the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is based in the UK and the CWGC, Canadian Agency in Ottawa.