On The War Memorial Trail….. The WW2 Pilot Who Lost His Life In The Netherlands On Christmas Eve

April 3, 2021. Sometimes a story is so sad that it’s difficult to write.  That was the case during our Memorial Trail visit in Europe in 2017 when we fulfilled a request by Paul Schurman to visit the grave of a WW2 RCAF serviceman who was a flying instructor at the No. 9 Service Flying Training School RCAF in Summerside, and boarded at the home of Paul’s parents.

Leonard Arthur Unwin. (Photo source: Canadian Virtual War Memorial)

Flight Lieutenant Leonard Arthur UNWIN, born January 2, 1917 in Sheffield, England, was the son of James Arthur Unwin and Minnie Goswin, who immigrated to Windsor, Ontario, where Leonard grew up. He was married to Evelyn Marie Paris.

Leonard enlisted on June 6, 1940 in Windsor, Ontario and was in the first RCAF class held at Windsor Airport.  In addition to being a flying instructor in Summerside, he was also an instructor in Moncton, New Brunswick, before going overseas in May 1943.  He served in England, France, and Belgium.

On December 24, 1944 he left from his base in Belgium and was shot down in The Netherlands.  According to the British Royal Air Force report, Leonard was one of the pilots in a section of 4 Typhoon planes “….on an armed recce in the Utrecht area. The section sighted and duly attacked three lorries moving along a road south east of Amersfoort….

The first two planes encountered “…little flak...” Leonard was in the third plane.  The pilot of the 4th plane reported that “…by the time F/Lt Unwin and himself attacked, there was quite intense light flak coming from fields on either side of the road.  They dived from approximately 7,000 feet and he observed F/Lt Unwin’s strikes on the way down….” 

Unfortunately, Leonard’s plane “….continued in the dive and blew up either on hitting the ground, or quite close to it….

Leonard is not buried in one of the Canadian War Cemeteries, but in a municipal cemetery in Woudenberg, one of two Commonwealth burials in a huge cemetery …. Leonard Unwin and a pilot from New Zealand.

We were looking for the typical Commonwealth headstone we’d seen in other cemeteries, but were unsuccessful.  Since the cemetery was so big, Pieter and I split up, hoping one of us would be able to spot it.  Nothing.

Pieter had disappeared in another direction, looking for someone to help us.  Just as I was about to give up, the groundskeeper came by on his bicycle.  I asked him if he could speak English and he said yes.  (It’s amazing to me how it’s never Pieter, who speaks the language fluently, who has these encounters!)

Luckily for me, the groundskeeper, who introduced himself as Theo Imminkhuizen, said yes, and I explained that I was looking for a Commonwealth grave.  Theo noticed I was holding a Canadian flag (plus a PEI flag, which he would not have recognized) and asked if I was looking for a Canadian grave.  Yes, I said, and he offered to show me where it was. 

Pieter came by when he saw me talking to someone, so we all went together.  We were very lucky to have encountered Theo as we would not have found the grave.  Instead of a Commonwealth stone, it was a grave in the Dutch tradition.  The only thing different was that the headstone was written in English, instead of Dutch.  This was the same for the pilot from New Zealand buried next to Leonard.

Pieter by the grave of Leonard Arthur Unwin. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

Paul Schurman had told Pieter that Leonard’s family had heard that when the plane crashed, Leonard’s body lay on the ground for days as the Germans refused to bury him, or to allow the Dutch to do so.  This was a warning of what happens to those who oppose the Germans, people were told. 

Pieter mentioned this horrible story to Theo, who confirmed it was true. He wasn’t buried until December 27.  If we didn’t mind to wait a few minutes, he had something to show us that he had in his office.

Commemorative plaque honouring Leonard Arthur Unwin. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

While Theo went upstairs to his office, an older man came by and stopped for a chat.  He introduced himself as Wout Blokhuis, and explained that he was a retired funeral director who had been involved in many burials in the cemetery.  Now retired, he likes to walk the cemetery grounds on a daily basis.

Theo returned with a plaque honouring Leonard, and said it’s put out by his grave every Liberation Day, on May 5.  The plaque is in Dutch, but Pieter was kind enough to provide this translation:

Leonard Arthur Unwin

Canadian Leonard Unwin stopped his education in 1940 to volunteer for the Canadian Air Force.  At the age of 27, he died during an attack on German troops.

On December 24, 1944, during an attack on an enemy target in the province of Utrecht, around 16:00 hours, he attacked a convoy of three German trucks on the Stationweg in Woudenberg.  During the dive, the plane’s tailpiece broke off, the plane destabilized, and crashed. 

In 2012, Leonard’s family visited Woudenberg from Canada.  They visited the site of the plane crash, and his grave.  They brought with them a small bag containing Canadian soil, to be spread on Leonard’s grave.

At the Woudenberg Municipal Cemetery.  Left to right: Wout Blokhuis, Pieter with the plaque, Theo Imminkhuizen. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

Thank you to Paul Shurman for bringing Leonard’s story to our attention, and a big thank you to Theo Imminkhuizen for his kindness in helping two Canadians find a grave.  If you have information to share about Canadian soldiers buried in The Netherlands, please email us at dariadv@yahoo.ca, comment on the blog, or send a tweet to @researchmemori1.  

You are also invited to subscribe to our YouTube Channel: On The War Memorial Trail With Pieter Valkenburg: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJ591TyjSheOR-Cb_Gs_5Kw

© Daria Valkenburg

2 thoughts on “On The War Memorial Trail….. The WW2 Pilot Who Lost His Life In The Netherlands On Christmas Eve

  1. A very interesting but sad story!
    The Dutch men were so helpful to you both!
    I’m sure Paul Schurman was happy to know that you found his stone and inscription!

    Like

    • Thank you for your feedback. Although it took a few years to write about this story, Pieter did let Paul know about our visit right after it happened. It is difficult to comprehend the sheer meanness and inhumanity, even in war, in allowing Ft Lt Unwin’s body to lie exposed and unburied for several days, especially over Christmas.

      Like

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