Canadian soldier killed in Netherlands in WWII identified

An unknown soldier 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, the Defence Department said in a statement Monday.

Trooper Henry George Johnston, born May 2, 1915, in Chauvin, Alta., was a father of 5

Trooper Henry George Johnston was born on May 2, 1915, in Chauvin, Alta. (Supplied by the family of Trooper Johnston)

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

And the search for his final resting place has reunited the soldier's relatives with the man who stood beside him on the battlefield as he died.

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 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.

National Defence Canada said a headstone rededication ceremony will take place at the grave in Mook.

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 arrived in the United Kingdom in July 1944. 

He was declared killed in action on Jan. 17, 1945, during a battle that was part of 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 in armoured vehicles called Kangaroos.

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 counterattacks. 

"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. 

New details came to light in 2018

In 2018, a researcher contacted 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.

Gord Krebs said Monday's announcement followed years of historical research and a series of coincidences that brought closure to two Alberta families.

Krebs's wife, Dennise Krebs, is Johnston's granddaughter. Ellen Rowe, her mother, is Johnston's daughter.

Krebs and his wife were going to Paris on business in 2012. Before they departed, Rowe encouraged them to find Johnston's grave.

They had military records suggesting Johnston had been buried in Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, so they took an afternoon trip on the bullet train to pay their respects.

They didn't realize until they got to the cemetery that Johnston was considered missing in action. A man walking the grounds helped them find the soldier's name on a large memorial plaque. The stranger accompanied them to the local war museum and introduced them to the archivists on staff.

The museum staff promised to do what they could to help them find Johnston's gravesite. He left them his email address. 

"By the time we left and went back to Canada, I had 35 emails from people all over Europe, trying to help us and the last email said, 'There's a guy in Calgary, Canada.'"

Krebs was provided the contact for Bill Miller in Calgary. He was told Miller was a military enthusiast and might have the answers he was looking for.

'I've been looking for your family'

A few weeks later, after returning home to Didsbury, Alta., Krebs gave Miller a call. Miller had been waiting for the call for decades.

"He answered the phone and I said, 'I'm not a telemarketer or anything like that. I'm just looking for some information on my wife's grandfather. His name was Trooper Henry George Johnston.'

"And literally, I heard his chair fall over and he dropped the phone on the floor.

"And he said, 'You've got to be kidding me.'  He said, 'I've been looking for your family for 15 years."

'They were best friends' 

Miller's father, Bill Miller Sr., was in the same tank crew as Johnston. The senior Miller, who has since died, had been haunted for decades by his memories of Johnston's death.

The men were dear friends and when Johnston was blown apart by German shells, Miller was asked to gather his remains and bring them back from the front. 

"They drove the tank together and he was standing right beside Henry when he got killed," Krebs said.

"And at the time, it was like a big brother-little brother relationship so it was really hard on Bill.

"He was really torn up about it and basically affected the rest of his life."

In the months that followed, Miller and the Johnston families grew close, sharing records and old photographs.

The following September, Johnston's surviving children met with Miller at Krebs's home where they pored over old service records.

Just as Miller pulled up the driveway, Krebs found an old photograph of Johnston in uniform with his fellow soldiers. Inscribed on the back was the name Bill Miller.

"I grabbed that picture and I walked down the driveway to introduce myself to Bill.

"He stops and starts crying right there in my driveway because he said, for 15 years, he started the search looking for a picture of his dad in uniform and he never found one."

Miller Sr. (far right, back row) and Johnston (far right, front row) were tank mates and best friends. (Supplied by Johnston family)

After that meeting, Miller and Ivo Wilms, a researcher in Holland, continued their search for the gravesite. 

Miller said his father rarely spoke about the war, even before Alzheimer's began to rob him of his memories. 

"It was not something he ever really discussed, but he really did make a point of making sure that I knew about Henry," Miller said, his voice breaking. "They were best friends." 

Miller said the gravesite was identified thanks to strange coincidence and burial records unearthed in 2018. In the chaos of the front, Johnston's grave had been marked as that of an identified British soldier. 

When the remains were exhumed so they could be interred at the war cemetery in Mook, a bracelet was found.

The bracelet belonged to a Canadian soldier from Winnipeg who had served in Johnston's regiment but had survived the war. It was the clue Miller needed to launch an exhaustive process of elimination.

"I'm over-the-moon ecstatic that this has finally come about," he said.

"If I had any regrets, I wish that this had happened, you know, 75 years ago. So many of the people that really needed closure, they're all passed away."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.