Canadian soldier killed in Netherlands in WWII identified

An unknown solider who lay buried for decades in the Netherlands has been identified as an Alberta-born gunner killed in action as the Second World War drew to a close. 

Trooper Henry George Johnston’s identity was confirmed under a program dedicated to identifying newly found skeletal remains and Canadian service members buried in nameless graves, the Defence Department said in a statement released Monday.

Johnston was buried as an unknown soldier in 1945 in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Mook War Cemetery in Limburg province, a final resting place for more than 300 soldiers killed in the Second World War.

In a statement issued Monday, National Defence Canada said Johnston’s family has been notified and provided with support.

The department said a headstone rededication ceremony will take place at the grave in Mook.

“In a conflict as vast as the Second World War, it can be difficult to remember that behind every casualty was a human being with a life they left behind to serve,” said Lawrence MacAulay, minister of veterans affairs in a statement.

“Events like this remind us of that. Trooper Johnston paid the ultimate sacrifice and will finally receive the recognition he deserves. We remember him today.”

Father to 5 children

The son of Wilbert and Adaline Johnston, Henry George “Archie” Johnston was born on May 2, 1915, in Chauvin, Alta., 265 kilometres southeast of Edmonton.

Johnston married Amelia Alice in spring 1939, and together they had five children. 

He supported the family working at a saw mill in Chinook Valley.

He enlisted in 1943, and after completing his military training in Ontario, Johnston arrived in the United Kingdom in July 1944. 

He was declared killed in action on Jan. 17, 1945, during an attack on his regiment, which was involved in Operation Blackcock, an effort to clear German troops from the Roer Triangle during fighting on the Western Front. 

He was 29 years old. 

The Johnston family in 1943. Clockwise from top left: Amelia holding Leona, Henry holding Yvonne, Ken, George. (Photo supplied by the Johnston family)

Johnston’s regiment — 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment —  was nicknamed the Kangaroos as the unit was charged with transporting infantry soldiers and moving around a lot.

Johnston was killed near Susteren in the province of Limburg in the southeastern part of the Netherlands on the night of Jan. 16 as his company came under heavy shelling. The regiment, along with a squadron of tanks, had temporarily broken away from the rest of the troops in an attempt to offset the threat of heavy counter attacks.  

“While the men dove under their vehicles for protection, five were injured and Trooper Johnston, a Kangaroo gunner and radio operator, was hit and killed,” reads Johnston’s biography on the national defence website. 

“Witnesses claimed that Trooper Johnston’s remains had been buried though the location was not known.” 

New details came to light in 2018

In 2018, a researcher contracted the defence officials, revealing new details about the grave.

The following year — after an exhaustive review of archival sources including war diaries, casualty register cards and exhumation reports — the Canadian Armed Forces confirmed the identity of the grave. 

Archival evidence was found that proved that the date of death on the original grave marker was incorrect.

Documents were found that showed the grave was originally located near Baakhaven before being relocated to the Mook War Cemetery.

“Canadian troops proudly fought alongside our Allies during the Second World War, providing key ground support to the British-led operation that pushed back enemy troops on the Roer Front along the Dutch-German border,” Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre, Commander Canadian Army, said in a statement. 

“Trooper Henry George Johnston is part of a proud legacy of Canadians who fought valiantly during the fierce battles, demonstrating great courage and character in the face of tremendous adversity,” he said.

“Trooper Johnston will be honoured for his service and his sacrifice will forever remain in our memory.”

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