Lieutenant John Gordon Kavanagh

In 2017, a research report was received suggesting that the remains of “a soldier of the 1939-1945 war” contained in a grave in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s section of the Steenderen General Cemetery, Steenderen, Netherlands could be identified by name. The Canadian Armed Forces confirmed the identity of the grave as that of Lieutenant John Gordon Kavanagh in November 2019.

John Gordon Kavanagh was born on 20 October 1921 in Toronto, Ontario. He was the son of John and Cora (née Armstrong) Kavanagh of Toronto, Ontario. John Gordon Kavanagh was single when he enlisted but married Emily Jean Haddleton, a member of the Canadian Red Cross Corps, on 12 June 1943.

Before enlisting, John Kavanagh worked as a clerk in a business office. As well, he had been a member of the Non-Permanent Active Militia since September 1939. On 13 June 1940, in Toronto, Ontario, John enlisted as a Private (Rifleman) with The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada of the Canadian Active Service Force (CASF).

After time spent training, Rifleman Kavanagh embarked for Europe, leaving from Halifax, Nova Scotia on 19 July 1941, and arriving in Gourock, Scotland ten days later. While in the United Kingdom, Rifleman Kavanagh continued to train and was promoted to the rank of Corporal by September 1942. Selected to be an officer, in October 1943 he returned to Canada to train at various Officer Training Centres in Ontario and British Columbia. He successfully completed this training and was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. In August 1944, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on completion of his Junior Battle Course. Lieutenant Kavanagh embarked once again for the United Kingdom arriving on 27 December 1944 and joined the 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, CASF in North-West Europe in March 1945.

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.

A headstone rededication ceremony was held on 14 October 2022 in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s section of the Steenderen General Cemetery in Steenderen, Netherlands to unveil Lieutenant Kavanagh’s headstone. Family members and representatives from the Canadian Armed Forces attended the rededication ceremony.

For more information on Lieutenant Kavanagh, you can consult his personnel file at Library and Archives Canada.

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