‘Oh, they lost a lot of people’

In the Year of the Veteran, the Journal honours one of the University’s own

Photo: 
A parachutist packs up his gear after dropping into Arnhem on Sept. 17, 1944.
A parachutist packs up his gear after dropping into Arnhem on Sept. 17, 1944.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of Robert Jackson / arnhemarchive.org

On Sept. 17, 1944, Allied forces in Holland, hot on the trail of European liberation, launched Operation Market Garden.

Thousands of paratroopers dropped out of the sky as ground forces followed their progression on land. The combined air and ground offensive sought to capture and hold five key bridges that spanned several Dutch canals and the Rhine River.

The overall offensive aimed to secure smooth passage for Allied soldiers into Germany for a final, victorious push.

The plan was designed to end the war by Christmas of 1944. Unfortunately, it failed, as heavily armed German Panzer units holed up at Arnhem, the final and most important target.

The Arnhem target proved to be “a bridge too far,” in the words of American Lieutenant General Frederick Browning—words made famous by the 1977 Richard Attenborough film about the operation that used Browning’s bon mot as its title.

Two thousand, one hundred and sixty of the British 1st Airborne Division troops stranded at Arnhem Bridge were rescued in a perilous river crossing under heavy fire.

Canadian soldiers played a key role in the rescue, and Lieutenant Russell Kennedy, Sci ’41, found himself in the thick of the action.

Kennedy joined the army immediately after graduating from Queen’s and became a reconnaissance officer with the 23rd Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE).

The native of Dunrobin, Ont. was called upon to scout ahead under fire to see how the paratroopers could be rescued from where they were stranded on the far side of the river.

“You did the best you could, that was all,” Kennedy, 87, said in an interview this summer for the Queen’s Alumni Review’s Oral History Project.

The best he could do was apparently very, very good, as he went on to receive the Military Cross from King George VI for his bravery in the rescue.

The explanation accompanying his award said, in part, that “from Normandy through to Holland, Lt. Kennedy showed exceptional qualities of leadership, gallantry, devotion to duty and the ability to think and act clearly and quickly even under the most adverse circumstances.”

Kennedy lost his best friend, Russ Martin—a fellow Queen’s graduate and platoon commander in the 23rd Field Company—that night, along with the driver of his scout car.

“I was kind of disconsolate afterwards, for sure, because I’d lost my best friend, and my driver had been killed, and my sergeant ... got hit in the head with shrapnel,” he said. “I thought he died in the hospital, but he didn’t, and I met him again quite a few times afterwards in Canada. But ... it made a hole in my immediate lineup of friends right in the company.”

Kennedy, who served from 1941 until 1946, said Arnhem was a rare incidence of heavy casualties for the RCE, whose duties usually involved the maintenance of crucial roads and bridges.

“We had to pass through places where there’d be a main road with a real crater in it where a heavy bomb had been dropped ... and you’ve have a big job there,” he said. “And then where bridges had been blown, there’d be bridging to do, and that would hold you up for a long time. This was the sort of thing we normally did.

“And if you were unlucky, you got to clear mines. We didn’t like that.”

The Second World War began while Kennedy was in his third year of studying civil engineering at Queen’s.

He said by the time he entered his final year, the times had changed significantly.

“It was just like [J.R.R. Tolkein’s] land of Mordor to the East, in real life. And that’s not an exaggeration at all,” Kennedy said. “By 1940, we were hearing about the concentration camps, and slaughtering the Jews, and a whole lot of what was going on. I don’t think they tried very hard to keep it quiet.”

The situation inspired Kennedy to join the Army—which promptly sent him over to the RCE once officials learned about his Applied Science degree.

“Things were pretty desperate, and you see, we lost the war steadily through until long after I graduated in ’41,” Kennedy said. “We were still losing when I graduated—in fact, as far as any of us could see, we’d lost every round until after Pearl Harbour.”

Also by 1941, he said, it had become basically “compulsory” to join the Canadian Officer’s Training Corps (COTC)—the officer training school that had a branch at Queen’s.

“By the fall of ’40, there were no ifs or buts about it: you had to join the COTC,” he said. “It was about eight hours a week we’d put in [for] training ... but it wasn’t as bad as the first year.”

In 1939, Kennedy had joined the COTC but resigned after a few weeks, disgusted with their lack of preparation. However, Kennedy said that by 1940 things had improved—slightly.

“It was much better organized. I wouldn’t say it was a total waste of time. Just largely a waste of time,” he said.

But he said the rest of the military training he received in Canada did help prepare him for what faced him and his fellow soldiers once they arrived in Europe.

“You learned how to operate, and I guess about the atmosphere, and how to conduct yourself, and how to make reports—a lot of things,” Kennedy said. “It takes time to ... be able to play your part in an organization like the Army, or I’m sure the Air Force or the Navy either. So, yes, it was a help.”

After landing in England in July 1943 for almost a year’s worth of intense “hurry up” training, as Kennedy called it, he saw his first combat action on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day—June 6, 1944.

“We landed at Normandy quite early in the game—the Allies still hadn’t captured Caen, which was the first city of note that was supposed to be taken,” Kennedy said. “In fact, I think we were supposed to take it on D-Day or D-plus one. The first job we got was a bit of road work to do, a village about halfway or two-thirds of the way from the coast in to Caen ... and that was the first place we came under fire.

“It was also the first place we encountered the smells of war, which are kind of horrifying: lots of dead livestock, and more than you would like to see of dead men around.”

Kennedy had trained hard as a platoon officer, but after the D-Day invasion was complete, he was asked to take on a new role.

“The major called me in and said, ‘look, I want you to do a different job,’ ” Kennedy said. “I was quite proud of this platoon, so I didn’t think much of that. He said, ‘I want you to be the reconnaissance officer’—you go ahead every time the company moves and look it over, bring back the information as necessary.”

Kennedy said he came to enjoy the role once he was outfitted with a Jeep instead of the Montgomery-style desert scout cars.

“[The Jeep] worked just fine. [My driver] was very good, and we liked working together,” Kennedy said. “The trouble was, you never got enough sleep. And I could sit and nod in the front seat and know that he would get me to the right place.”

Kennedy also found he had to get accustomed to the movement of both enemy and friendly artillery flying back and forth over the heads of the engineers, which forced him to learn quickly the fine art of getting one’s nose to the ground.

“The great point is to realize that there’s a lot of space, and the shells are going to land somewhere ... [but] the chances of them landing right on top of you are almost nil, very low unless it’s an extremely heavy shelling,” Kennedy said.

“But what does happen is the shell hits and blows up, and the shell casing spreads out in a great blast of shrapnel, and that’s what gets people—[there are] more casualties from that probably than anything else in the war, I would think.

“So our people had been trained to, as soon as they heard a shell coming, get down—you didn’t need to dig a hole or anything, just get down, get your nose in the grass or the dirt, didn’t matter what it was ... They had to be pretty lucky to catch you then.”

Kennedy survived five years of war—including the daring rescue at Arnhem—by following that advice, and even now he can still imitate the sounds of the different types of artillery.

After returning to Canada as a decorated war hero, Kennedy took up a teaching post at Queen’s, and he was one of the first post-war university professors to conduct industrial research. He went on to become the University’s vice-principal (administration) from 1970 to 1976—during which time he oversaw an ambitious building program—and the executive director of Alumni Affairs from 1980 to 1986.

In April of this year, Kennedy was inducted into the Canada’s Veterans Hall of Valour. After all this time—which for Kennedy has included two marriages, the birth of his children and grandchildren and a battle with throat cancer—he remembers the terrible human cost of the war, as evidenced by his description of a 1944 river crossing his platoon made in rural France.

“We’d just about gotten our trucks clear when suddenly the Germans started to shell,” Kennedy said. “And we were all right, we were across onto this island. But the poor French civilians [who had come to the riverbank in droves], who were out just as if they were going to a fair, you know, out to see the end of the war—and oh, they lost a lot of people. Terrible.”

—With files from the Queen’s Alumni Review, Queen’s Goes to War and rememberseptember44.com

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