On 6 June 2022, the QOR Regiment’s 1860 Club held a formal dinner for 200 guests at Casa Loma, the home of the Regimental Museum and Archive since 1970.
Several exhibits were on display during the pre-dinner reception including the memorial banners of all our fallen since 1866, several recently acquired 1860’s era uniform pieces, banners on the QOR’s D-Day and WWII participation, and some D-Day items including the pistol carried by CSM Charlie Martin.
Throughout the dinner, several vignettes from D-Day Veterans were read by various attendees – several of which were moving descriptions of their beach landings and of losing close friends and relatives.
And once again, the museum’s Photograph Officer Anne Frazer captured the event with some amazing photographs. Click on the photo below to see them on our Museum’s Flickr site.
As a former member of drum and bugle bands in the 1940s and ’50s, I had done plenty of marching. From a cold wintry day leading the high school cadet band in the Santa Claus Parade, to a hot and steamy July day marching down Fifth Avenue in New York they were all memorable, in their own way.
But the one that I now remember with the most clarity took place in Appeldoorn, in Holland, on May 8th, 1995, VE-Day+50. I was there as a part of a touring group of about 20 World War Two veterans and their wives celebrating Victory in Europe Day. On this date, fifty years prior, Allied troops, mostly Canadians, had completed their liberation of Holland. This triggered the surrender by Germany of its armed forces, ending six years of war that had cost Britain and Canada more than 500,000 lives. The relatively small country of Holland had suffered 200,000 civilian deaths, many of those from starvation. Thousands more, mostly Jewish, were sent, by truck and train to Nazi concentration camps, where almost all of them – men, women, children – had died.
Canada and Holland have a special relationship resulting from actions during World War Two when Canadian Forces led the country’s liberation. This is where many members of The Queen’s Own Rifles fought their way across Holland to liberate the Dutch who had been suffering under Nazi occupation. Most of them are now dead but their part in ending the German oppression will never be forgotten.
Almost 8,000 Canadians would die in the fighting from September 1944 to April 1945. It had become urgent for the Allies to clear both banks of the River Scheldt estuary in order to open the port of Antwerp to Allied shipping, thus easing logistical burdens in their supply lines stretching hundreds of miles from Normandy eastward to the Siegfried Line. Supplies could then be delivered directly to those who needed them. Food, military vehicles and artillery, ammunition, fuel and, most important, replacement troops were needed for those fighting the ground battles. Clearance of northern and western Holland allowed food and other relief to reach millions of desperate and starving Dutch men, women and children. Its liberation triggered waves of jubilation and tears from those now free from occupation.
The celebratory 50th anniversary parade was scheduled to start at noon in Appeldoorn, a medium-sized city in central Holland. We had travelled by bus from our hotel, a few miles from there, and were dropped off at mid-morning in the stadium’s parking lot where the parade would end. We were given a firm reminder that the bus would leave to return to the hotel at 5 pm SHARP. Until then, we were on our own. Fine by me and I set off alone, walking. The city streets were decorated with Dutch and Canadian flags, miles and miles of bunting and all the other trimmings that events like this require. There were all kinds of military exhibits and many happy people on the streets. I was in for a few surprises. The uniform I was wearing and the regimental cap badge helped.
I was in the summer-weight tan uniform with The Queen’s Own Rifles shoulder flash and the Maple Leaf-shaped badge on my dress uniform wedge cap. As I headed towards a Starbucks ahead of me I noticed a throng of teenagers pretty well blocking the entranceway. They were just standing there in a group, the way teenagers do. But I wanted a coffee so I marched towards them. As I got there they made way for me and as I passed through they all clapped, in unison. I gave them a nod and a smile and continued on. They did it again when I came out, so I gave them a little wave, and said “Thank You.”
About an hour later I was walking along a side street when a man walking toward me stopped and as I got closer he stuck out his hand to shake and said “Queen’s Own Rifles.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. “I saw the maple leaf on your cap badge. You liberated our village in 1945. I remember you well. I was a schoolboy at the time. I was eight and my sister was 12 and one of your soldiers gave us chocolate. I asked if I could have cigarettes and he laughed and said I was too young. I told him they were for my father and he gave me a full pack of 20 Sweet Caporals. I really wanted them for myself. My father was killed by the Germans. I still have the empty pack as a remembrance of that day.” He said, “I am a school teacher now, but I always tell my students not to smoke,” and we laughed together.
I found my way to the parade route and joined the thousands who had flocked there to see the marchers and military tanks and weapons carriers, as well as to hear the many bands. At one point I was walking past a restaurant and passed a young couple sitting at the outdoor patio. The man waved me over and said “You must be a Canadian. You have a maple leaf badge. Will you join us for a drink?” By now I was ready for one, so I sat with them while he ordered for me. The waiter arrived with a bottle of Heineken and a frosted mug and already my day became a great success. So we chatted for a while until I decided to move on. We exchanged names and addresses and I thanked them both. At Christmas that year I got a card from them where they identified themselves as the ones who “bought you a ‘bear’ in Appeldoorn.” Sadly, by then I had lost their address so was unable to respond to them.
My recollection of parades, no matter the size, is that most spectators look for the saluting base on the parade route, and they congregate there. The marchers always put on their best show there. At the startup and the end, however, the crowds are usually smaller and by parade-end, those at the finish have been greatly thinned out. Not here. Not this day. I covered much of the long parade route and found it packed five or more deep in the stadium parking lot from start line to finish. Not only that, the rooftops on both sides held hundreds more everywhere I looked. Our Queen’s Own Rifles veterans were either riding on open army trucks or flatbeds while some were rolling along in wheelchairs piloted by family members. In addition to our band and bugles, there were brass bands, pipe bands, fife bands and even one accordion band, that was having difficulty being heard due to the cheers which seemed to be non-stop. It was a moving experience for me, seeing all those veterans from the Allied countries, all of whom would have been at least in their late sixties. Many would be dead by the time the year 1995 ended.
As the parade ended, I was walking back to find the bus when my name was called. I turned to see who it was and saw about half a dozen members of the regimental band sitting with beers in front of them under an umbrella in front of a bistro. Waving me over to join them was Doug Hester, a D-Day veteran who had been a bugler in the band before the war and a medic and stretcher-bearer in Normandy. Then living in Florida, he had been one of several veterans who had come to Holland with the band. Now close to 80, he was wearing the same uniform he had worn in 1939. As we chatted and laughed together it suddenly occurred to me that it must be close to five o’clock. It was actually five-thirty!
True to the warning we had been given, I found the bus had left without me. I went to the stadium office, explained I had missed my ride and asked if they could call me a taxicab. When I gave them the name of my hotel I was told that it would be expensive. I said I thought that might be the case but I had no alternative. At this, a man seated in the office said, “I’ll take you.” He stood up, took his jacket off the back of the chair and as he put it on I saw that he was a major in the Dutch Army. I thanked him for his kindness and he smiled and said “Call it professional courtesy. One soldier to another.” He was a very interesting man and we had a great conversation on the trip back to the hotel. When we arrived I thanked him again and shook his hand in gratitude and said goodbye. As he drove off I headed into the hotel, where I was in for another very nice surprise.
As I passed the registration desk I was waved over and told there was a phone message for me. It was, from my son Rob, telling me he and Dianne had another daughter, born today, on the May 8th, a sister for Catriona (Catie) That was great news and it gave me an (expensive) idea. Dinner was being served for our travel group at 7 pm and was about to begin. I checked the dining room and found only 12 seated there, with the others presumably dining out. I went back to the desk and asked to speak to the manager. When he arrived I asked if I could order four bottles of chilled champagne and champagne glasses to be brought to our tables when dinner was finished and coffee was ready to be served. No problem, he said. I then went in to join the others, apologizing for arriving late.
As the meal progressed it was apparent I wasn’t alone in thinking the afternoon’s parade had been an outstanding event. It seemed to have affected them as much as it had me. It had been something we all would remember for a long time. Finally, as the meal dishes had been removed and the coffee arrived, the manager came in, gave me a questioning look and I nodded. At that, he stood aside and in came a trolley with four bottles of champagne in coolers along with tall crystal champagne glasses. I stood up and announced that I’d like all of them to join me in a toast to the birth of my second granddaughter.
After the bottles were opened and all the glasses filled, I proposed a toast to the new baby, almost 4,000 miles away from where we were. I said “I don’t know what her name will be but I’m going to suggest to her parents that Victoria Elizabeth would be appropriate for someone born on this date. Her initials would be V.E.” That brought laughter and applause. However she was named Mary Elizabeth, which became Mary Beth for a while, but now she has settled on Mary, so that’s what it remains. But this was a very special moment for me.
I had already attended several VE-Day+50 events with members of The Queen’s Own Rifles and their families and friends. These had included a reception at la Maison du Queen’s Own Rifles on the beachfront at Bernières-sur-Mer, where the regiment landed on D-Day, as well as a service at Beny sur Mer Canadian War Cemetery. There are more than 2,000 Canadians buried there including 61 from The Queen’s Own. Another service would take place later at Groesbeck Canadian War Cemetery near Nijmegen where another 72 members of the regiment are buried, including Sgt Aubrey Cosens, VC. Sgt Cosens was awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery which cost him his life during an attack which took place across the Rhine, in Germany in March 1945.
I also visited Wageningen, the site of the surrender of Germany to Canadian General Charles Foulkes on the fifth of May 1945, officially ending the war in Holland. Here again, the town was in a festive mood, thronged with celebrating visitors. And here again, I got free beer. I was looking in the windows of a bistro and a couple were seated just inside. I saw the man get up and head outside, where he took me by the arm and said “You are Canadian?” I nodded and he pulled me inside, introduced me to his wife and told me I could have all the free drinks and food I wanted. I settled for two bottles of Heineken and something on the menu called “kroket” which is beef ragout inside a fried breaded pastry roll. Went down very well with the beer!
Other visits were made to points of interest along the route which played a major role in the movie “A Bridge Too Far” which was the bridge at Arnhem. The movie is about the planning and execution of General Montgomery’s “Operation Market Garden.” The largest airborne assault ever staged, it cost as many as 18,000 British and Americans killed, wounded, and captured in eight days of fighting. The Hotel Hartenstein in Oosterbeek, which had been commandeered by the Germans as its HQ eventually became British Second Army’s HQ as the battle for Holland continued. Now an Airborne Museum it contains historical artifacts about what happened there. It was there I saw something I have never been able to forget. It was a full-sized, white-painted door with a message written in large lettered charcoal. From the British officer commanding outnumbered and surrounded troops now fated to die or be taken prisoner it was his thanks for their continued bravery. He noted that they would soon be out of ammunition, “but we must fight until the last bullet is spent.” An emotional message to men whose war would soon end.
It was in the Canadian Military Cemetery at Groesbeck that I saw D-Day veteran Sergeant John Missons sitting under a tree in his wheelchair. I knew him and his son, also John, who was a drummer in the regimental band, as I had once been in other bands. We had become pretty good friends and I liked them both a lot. As I walked along John waved me over and said “Can you do me a favour?” I said sure I could. He said, “Aubrey Cosens is buried here and I’d like to visit his grave.” Sergeant Aubrey Cosens VC and John Missons were both in B Company and Missons remembered him well. He said “We were friends and the news he had been killed spread quickly. He was one of close to 100 killed or wounded in that fighting but he was one I knew better than the others. Some were replacements who had only been with us a few days.” Sgt Cosens was awarded the VC for his bravery Mooshof, in Germany, in February 1945, “but we didn’t find out about that until after VE-Day.”
It was as I was wheeling him back to find his son that I passed a row of 17 headstones, all of soldiers from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, all killed on the same day. The Canadians had been tasked to clear the German occupiers from both sides of the Scheldt, resulting in many losses among both armies. The “Links and Winks” had their headquarters in St. Catharines, where I lived in the late ’40s and early ’50s. I had played drums in their band on several occasions, and as I looked at those headstones I wondered whether any of my high school friends were sons of those who died in Holland. At the Telegram, I worked with a photographer named Jim Kennedy, who had been with the regiment there and was in a Jeep which was blown into the river by a shell explosion and, as far as he knew, he said he was the only survivor of the incident. He woke up in the hospital and was soon on his way home.
When my trip ended, we flew back to Canada from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, changing planes at Heathrow. We were due back sometime in the late afternoon, as I recall. Rob had offered to meet me there but a storm developed which diverted our aircraft to Ottawa. We were told we’d have to wait there until the storm, which was centred over north Toronto, had cleared. Also, we were not allowed off the aircraft because we were at Uplands Airport, which had no customs or immigration personnel. What I didn’t know was that Rob had brought Catie to the airport. The delay went on for several hours and I felt badly for both Rob and Catie, because she was only four years old at the time, and sitting and waiting is not what little girls want to do. However, we eventually got into Toronto Airport and my trip to celebrate VE-Day+50 was done. I was certainly happy to see Rob and Catie, who had waited a very long time for me to get back on Canadian soil.
POSTSCRIPT (1) Holland vs The Netherlands: While the use of the name “Holland” has now been officially replaced by “The Netherlands,” World War Two veterans of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, who paid a steep price for their efforts in liberating the country, always spoke of it as Holland. And what’s good for the veterans is good enough for me in these memoirs. Although the names were once used interchangeably, the Dutch government has decided the name Holland will now be dropped and The Netherlands will replace it in reference to the country. The difference between the Netherlands and Holland is that the Netherlands is the term for the country as a whole (12 provinces). Holland refers to North Holland and South Holland the two largest provinces.
POSTSCRIPT (2) A three-year stay in Canada. Following the German occupation of Holland, the Dutch Royal family was invited to Canada, where they lived as guests of Canadians until their homeland was liberated. Princess Margriet was born in exile while her family lived in Ottawa. The maternity ward of Ottawa Civic Hospital in which the princess was born, was temporarily declared to be extraterritorial by the Canadian government, thereby allowing her citizenship to be solely influenced by her mother’s Dutch citizenship. To commemorate the birth, the Canadian Parliament flew the Dutch flag over Peace Tower, which became the only time a foreign flag has flown over the Canadian Parliament Building. Princess Margriet was baptized in St Andrew’s Church, Ottawa, on 29 June 1943. Her godparents included President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Dutch Merchant Navy, in honour of the role played by the latter during the Second World War. It was not until August 1945, after Holland’s liberation, that the princess, her parents and two sisters arrived home to a wild welcome from their citizens who had suffered so badly during the war years.
In 1945, the Dutch Royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered the future Queen Juliana and her family during the preceding three years of Nazi occupation of their country. The Gift of Tulips became a yearly tradition. Every year, the Dutch Royal Family and the people of Holland each send 10,000 bulbs to Ottawa. These are planted in beds at the Ottawa Hospital in tribute to the birth of Princess Margriet. This gift gave rise to Ottawa’s annual Canadian Tulip Festival, held in May. Perhaps the world’s largest tulip festival, it displays over one million tulips and has an attendance of over 650,000 visitors. Large displays of tulips are planted throughout the city, with many thousands planted along the Rideau Canal alone. Princess Margriet continues to make regular visits to Canada, continuing strong ties between Canada and the Dutch.
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.
Our museum is extremely lucky in having original copies (i.e. one of three copies made when then were first typed) of the World War II war diaries for what would become the 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada (CASF).
These documents provide a wealth of information about the regiment’s participation and progress throughout the war – from the efforts to form the battalion in June 1940, through duties in Newfoundland, training in New Brunswick and England, the successful but devastating landing on D-Day, the continued fight through Europe, to finally to the German surrender on 8 May 1945.
We are also very lucky to have most of the Routine Orders issued during the war and while often administrative in nature, they help to fill in some of the gaps left by the war diaries – particularly in regards to personnel postings and casualties within the battalion.
Unfortunately the original documents are fragile and not particularly user friendly as there is no way to easily search through them. So in order to protect them, and at the same time make them more accessible, we have undertake to transcribe and post on our website all these war diaries. We’ve also scanned all of the routine orders and posted them into the war diaries at the appropriate places.
And if that wasn’t enough, we added maps to help illustrate where the battalion was at various times and where it was headed, and inserted photos from our collection into the appropriate location in the timelines. These photos add some amazing sense of place and time. Lastly we added links to more detailed profiles on our website for many of the key soldiers mentioned in the diaries by name.
Now when I say we, I really mean one of our curatorial assistants, Sgt Graham Humphrey and more recently, with the help of Kate Becker. Graham and Kate have spent literally hundredsof hours on this project over the past three and a half years – scanning, transcribing, creating maps, and inserting photos. The result though is a spectacular resource that serves to both protect our archival documents while sharing them with the world. Even without any official announcements, these page have been viewed over 16,000 times to date.
And the importance of making this information available today is even more critical as fewer and fewer WWII soldiers are left to share their stories first hand.
Bravo Zulu to Graham and Kate on their outstanding work to see this project through to the end, and I strongly encourage you to take some time read through this important story of some of our regiment’s finest hours: