October 7, 2021. After an interview about the photo quest for soldiers buried in the Canadian War Cemeteries in The Netherlands ran on APTN, Pieter was contacted by Pat Stewart about Thomas Beresford BIG CANOE of Georgina Island, Ontario, who is buried in the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek, The Netherlands.
Pat wrote “…I live in southwest Saskatchewan now but came from Ontario 20 years ago. I worked as a journalist for the Georgina Advocate back then. Thank you for what you are doing. It is so very important to remember….” In 1999, Pat had written an article about a Dutch couple, Bill and Ellie Gertzen, who had adopted the grave of Thomas Big Canoe. Bill had been an interpreter for the Canadian and American armies during WW2.
….Thomas was a member of the Chippewas Georgina Island First Nation….
Thomas Beresford BIG CANOE was born on Georgina Island, Ontario on October 13, 1925, the son of Thomas and Hannah (nee Porte) Big Canoe. Georgina Island, located on Lake Simcoe, is an Indigenous reserve of the Chippewas Georgina Island First Nation, an Ojibwa (or Anishinaabeg) band. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chippewas_of_Georgina_Island_First_Nation)
Thomas had begun work as a labourer at T.A. Wilson Lumber Company in Denbigh, Ontario when he enlisted at the #2 District Depot in Toronto on June 12, 1944.
He had keen eyesight and his medical exam noted he had 20/20 vision. He was sent to the #26 Canadian Armoured Corps Basic Training Centre (CACBTC) in Orillia, Ontario. On October 6, 1944 he was transferred to the A-10 Canadian Infantry Training Centre (CITC) in Camp Borden, Ontario.
After his basic training, and once he turned 19 years old (the minimum age for overseas service), Thomas left for United Kingdom just before Christmas 1944. He remained in the United Kingdom until February 9, 1945, after which he was sent to Northwest Europe as part of the contingent of troops needed for the Battle of the Rhineland. The goal of this battle? Occupy the Rhineland and cross the Rhine River.
Thomas was assigned to the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, where he was a member of the Scout Platoon. The Scout Platoon’s role was to gain information on German activity through advance patrols, quite often behind enemy lines.
….Thomas lost his life during Operation Blockbuster….
In the push for the Battle of the Rhineland, Thomas was in the midst of Operation Blockbuster, which aimed to clear the Rhine River in Xanten, Germany, a battle that was fought between February 8 and March 10, 1945, and followed Operation Veritable. These two Operations took 31 days. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Blockbuster)
On March 8, 1945, Phase II of Operation Blockbuster began. According to the war diary of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, of which the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry was part of, “…At 0530 this morning Op BLOCKBUSTER II began, designed to capture XANTEN and the ground to the SE. By last light 4 Cdn Inf Bde had reached all their objectives, after some very heavy fighting...” (Source: https://map.project44.ca/)
It was dark that early in the morning, and raining heavily. In Pat Stewart’s article, she quotes Bill Gertzen as explaining that on the morning of March 8, 1945, Thomas and his group from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry had been “…directed to shape a bridgehead over the Rhine…But the Germans were expecting them and, in the battle that followed, there were only 26 survivors out of a company of 200….”
Although we don’t know exactly what happened, Thomas unfortunately lost his life at some point in the March 8, 1945 battle. He was only 19 years old.
To learn more about Operation Blockbuster, you can watch a 30 minute video. You’ll see footage of what the army encountered, an overview of the complexity of the battle, and, at the end, an assessment made in 1982 by two members of a Rhineland Battle Study Group, one British, one German.
Thomas was temporarily buried in Xanten, Germany before being reburied in the Canadian War Cemetery in Groesbeek, The Netherlands.
Thank you to Pat Stewart for contacting us about Thomas Beresford Big Canoe, and to Ad Scheepers for taking the photo of Thomas’s grave at the cemetery. If you have information to share about Thomas Beresford Big Canoe or other Canadian soldiers, please contact Pieter at email@example.com, comment on the blog, or send a tweet to @researchmemori1.
….Indigenous soldiers featured on this blog….
To read about Indigenous soldiers featured on this blog:
To read the APTN article, see https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/dutch-born-p-e-i-man-on-a-mission-to-find-photos-of-first-nations-soldiers-killed-overseas-in-wwii/
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© Daria Valkenburg