Kavanagh attended Riverdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario where he was very strong in athletics He worked as office clerk to the manager of the Athletics Department at the T. Eaton Co Ltd. in Toronto before joining the service. He was a member of Woodgreen United Church.
Kavanagh first joined The Queen’s Own Rifles militia 18 September 1939 and then joined The Queen’s Own Rifles (Active Service) battalion as a rifleman 13 June 1940.
In Kensington, England in June 1943, Kavanagh married Jean Hadderton of Toronto, who went overseas with the Red Cross.
He served with the Regiment until October 1943 when he returned to Canada for his officer training. Kavanagh was commissioned at Brockville in 1944 and rejoined the Regiment on the 18 March 1945. He was killed in action by artillery fire at Pipelure (near Rha on the Ijssel River) while leading his platoon of Baker Company, 6 April 1945 – aged 23.
His body was not identified at the time and so he was remembered on the memorial at Groesbeek, The Netherlands (Panel 10.) However in February 2020, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces announced they had “identified Lieutenant John Gordon Kavanagh, a Canadian soldier of the Second World War who was buried as an unknown soldier in 1947 in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s section of the Steenderen General Cemetery in the Netherlands.” (See more info on this process below.) A headstone re-dedication ceremony was to take place around April 5 and 6th, 2020.
He was survived by his wife, two brothers, and a sister Mabel. He had written to his sister on 21 March 1945 and a copy of the letter is below. [See also a transcription of the letter.]
His sister had sent him an Easter card which was returned to her “recipient deceased.”
21 Army Group, commanded by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, launched Operation Plunder on 23 March 1945 to cross the Rhine River. 2nd Canadian Corps of First Canadian Army played a significant part in this operation, crossing the Rhine at Emmerich, Germany. The task of the Queen’s Own, along with the rest of 8th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, was to clear the area from Emmerich to Hochelten, territory the enemy did not give up without a fight. By 1 April 1945, with Allied Forces securely across the Rhine, the liberation of Northern Holland began in full force. On 2 April 1945, the Queen’s Own crossed the Oude Ijssel (river) near Laag-Keppel, Netherlands. Though expecting a fight, none came. On 4 April, the Regiment continued its push forward with A Company (Coy) capturing Eekhorn, B Coy capturing Zwaarte Schaar, C Coy capturing Rodenburg, and D Coy capturing Hoefken, then Emmer. Though there had been casualties during these battles, they were few and moving forward was rather easy. The situation changed on 5 April when it became apparent that a sizeable number of German soldiers were holding the village of Rha. The 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, CASF was ordered to clean up the area and capture the village.
The attack on Rha began in the evening of 5 April 1945 with 11 and 12 Platoons sent to clear the nearby village of Pipelure. As the platoons advanced −Lieutenant Kavanagh among them− they came under heavy mortar and small-arms fire which forced them to retreat. During this action Lieutenant Kavanagh was killed, but his remains were never recovered. Following the war, Lieutenant John Gordon Kavanagh was commemorated on Panel 10 of the Groesbeek Memorial as having no known grave.
According to archival records, in April 1947 remains were recovered from a farmer’s field outside of Steenderen, Netherlands and buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of the Steenderen General Cemetery. As the identity of the remains was unknown, the grave was commemorated and cared for as an unknown soldier of the Second World War by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
In May 2017, the Directorate of History and Heritage received a research report outlining the possible identification of the grave of an unknown soldier at Grave 3, Row B, Plot 3 of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of the Steenderen General Cemetery. Initially, not enough evidence was available to confirm the possibility. In May 2019, the Directorate of History and Heritage received an additional research report from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission outlining a new report they had received which presented new evidence from archives in the Netherlands that strengthened the case for identifying the grave as that of Lieutenant John Gordon Kavanagh.
The positive identification of Lieutenant John Gordon Kavanagh, 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, CASF, was confirmed by the Casualty Identification Review Board in November 2019. This was a result of an exhaustive review of archival sources including war diaries, circumstances of casualty register cards, and concentration and exhumation reports. The Casualty Identification Review Board is composed of members of the Directorate of History and Heritage, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team, and the Canadian Museum of History.
Watch this documentary on Kavanagh – mostly in Dutch but some English.
Also this documentary with English subtitles: A Grave for Kavanagh