Four generations of the Irish Canning family – something like 40 people – were in Inveraray today for two special commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the murder there of aunt to the oldest of them, Gertrude Canning, on 30th June 1942. Today also happened to be Armed Forces Day.
Gertrude was a Wren serving at Admiralty House (today’s Loch Fyne Hotel) at the wartime Combined Operations base, HMS Quebec (today’s Argyll Caravan Park).
We have already told part of the story of her murder, which remains unsolved and we tell more of it below.
Today saw one commemoration ceremony in the morning, near the site of her murder in the woods above today’s Inveraray Golf Course, where the Canning family have placed a memorial stone.
Among those gathering at Cromalt Halt, at the foot of the track up to the woods, was 97 year-old Ailsa Stewart. She had come up from Campbeltown, over 80 miles away, to represent the Association of Wrens at the commemoration of the murder of one of their number, an event she remembers from the days of her own wartime service in Argyll.
A curious link between the two Wrens is that Ailsa Stewart was nicknamed ‘Paddy’ because the .landmark sea-girt rock that is Aisla Craig is popularly known as ‘Paddy’s milestone’ – and, as an Irishwoman, Gertrude Canning at HMS Quebec was called ‘Paddy’.
There could have been no better tribute to Gertrude Canning than the sight of the doughty Ailsa Stewart, seven years older than Gertrude would have been today, walking up to the woods to pay respect to her – as part of the parade organised by the British Legion, led by piper Iain Campbell ahead of a colour party and with a group of Sea Cadets from HMS Pharos in Oban.
As the British Legion party and the Sea Cadets got organised beforehand, cars and minibuses started arriving with cargoes of Cannings.
The family likeness across four generations is striking. The lead family are Gertrude Canning’s nieces and nephews.
Head of the family now is Kathleen Northcote who came from Perth in Australia for the occasion. She and her brother Joe (below left) joke that each married English folk. The Canning sense of humour comes storming down the centre as Joe says he married two of them: ‘But I’m no bigamist. One of them resigned.’
There is Thomas, the eldest brother; and Liam, who has tirelessly led the most exhaustive collective research into the short life and death of the aunt they never knew.
There is Annette McGarrigle, a sister now disabled but who, in her chair, was brought to the memorial in the woods with the rest of them.
There is Helen, another of the core group who have driven this family adventure to its public expression today.
And there is another Gertrude, Gertrude Flynn, named for her aunt and tied to her aunt’s story by their shared name. Gertie had been living in Dumbarton some years ago when her house was burgled. Of all the things taken, the most heartrending loss was Gertie’s handbag in which lived permanently her namesake aunt’s purse containing a rosary, some loose beads and coins. Losing the one physical link they had with their aunt remains tough to accept. Liam’s voice broke as he spoke of it.
A moving part of the ceremony in the woods was Liam’s request to his sister Gertrude to come forward to receive their aunt’s service medal, which she had not lived to receive. The family had been able to get it from the Ministry of Defence. Today’s Gertrude was profoundly touched by the possession of it, casting her eyes down at it to mask emotion as she stood by her aunt’s memorial stone with her son James (who is in Edinburgh) and her eldest sibling, Kathleen.
Talking of the earlier Gertrude after he revealed the memorial stone, Jim Martin of the British Legion, who had worked closely with Liam Canning in the organisation of the commemoration day, spoke of the young girl’s delight at Inveraray, which she is said to have described to her family as ‘so beautiful even an artist could not catch it’.
Thomas Canning, Gertrude Canning’s eldest nephew, laid a floral wreath on behalf of the family. Jim Martin laid one on behalf of the British Legion. Others laid personal floral tributes. Father David from the Lochgilphead Roman Catholic Church led the audience in prayer and blessed the memorial. The Reverend Louis Bezuidenhout was there to represent the Church of Scotland.
Liam Canning paid tribute to all of those who had helped him organise the day’s events and those who have helped the family in their search to learn about their aunt’s short couple of months in this place.
With the British Legion – who were magnificent, the Sea Cadets and the Piper, he included local historian Rae McGregor, Jim Jepson, curator of the former Combined Operations Museum in Inveraray and former police officers Niall Owen and Charles Henry, who have taken a serious interest in the case and the extant police files on it.
Again the Canning wit made an appearance as Liam Canning described the pattern of his many phone conversations with Jim Martin over the planning of the event. ‘We’d always start with the business’, he said. ‘Then I’d say: “How’s it with you, Jim?”. And he’d say: “It’s raining. How’s it with you?” “Raining”. We’ve a lot in common.’
Talking of rain – oh yes – the weather did its level best to help and mercifully held off the wet stuff while the party was in the woods. It’s a long way back from there. But when the commemorations moved down into the town, to the Cenotaph on the Front Green at Inveraray, the rain let loose. The piper, Iain Campbell, was no less than heroic, playing soulfully through the worst of it – as the little grey diagonal lines across the shot above show.
Kathleen and Joe Canning together laid a floral wreath for their aunt from the family; and a lovely solid wooden bench, set at the back of the memorial itself and facing over the lovely Loch Shira and Loch Fyne, was dedicated to Gertude Canning.
Back at The George Hotel, we wondered what the younger members of the four generation family party who were there would take from the day.
Like teenagers anywhere, they had come tumbling off the minibus at Cromalt Halt with the earphones to their ipods in place, looking around them as if they’d been beamed down somewhere unbeknownst to themselves.
They had, quite reasonably, shown no huge interest in the long researches their elders have been engaged in, culminating in the ceremonies today. What would they make of the physical reality of being here, in Inveraray, at the spot where their elders’ aunt had died, witnessing the genuine care felt by so many strangers for a distant relative of seventy years ago even their grandparents had not known?
They will have noted the solemnity of the events, the splendour of the colour party, the unforgettable sound of the pipes, the presence of the young Sea Cadets of their own age and the crowd. They will have known that all were there for a common purpose, to honour a 20 year old Gertrude Canning who had come there to an end that is more the stuff of thrillers than everyday life.
We felt a change in the young folk afterwards – a sense of connection. That will grow over time. Today has been a unique experience they will tell about themselves in the years ahead.
The older Cannings spoke of how at home they felt in Inveraray. In a way that’s hardly surprising since they have learned so much about the town in those wartime years in their researches; and some of them have made visits here during that work.
So what about the mystery of the murder?
There is a part of this story that has not been told. We had it confirmed by Niall Owen and Charles Henry, former Strathclyde Police Officers who have researched the police papers on the case.
Not long after Gertrude Canning’s body was discovered – by children playing in the wood some days after she had been reported missing – a merchant navy seaman was in a bar under Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel.
There too was a member of the Pioneer unit based at Inveraray. The Pioneers were ‘the pick and shovel boys’, a labouring unit who physically supported the training of the units working up in combined operations. The Pioneers were older than the usual servicemen – otherwise they would themselves have been at the front.
The merchant seaman heard the Pioneer tell a tale of having recently had to step in to prevent an officer attacking a young Wren.
Later the seaman thought he should report what he had heard. When he did so, he was brought to Inveraray to identify the particular Pioneer he had heard tell this story. He was able to do this and the Pioneer was interviewed by the investigating officers of the day.
The former police officers who have reviewed the ca sepapers say that the Pioneer knew a lot more of the details of what happened to Gertrude Canning than he could have done if he had not been involved.
However, he was ruled out as a suspect by the investigators at the time – although the officers say that they can see no reason for this exclusion in the police files.
They also point out that, HMS Quebec being what it was – a combined forces operations training establishment – there were plenty of men around who were trained to kill in all sorts of ways, who did not need to use a gun – and that shooting in the heart of a day, with residential camps nearby the site of the murder, would have been avoided by those who had other options.
The Pioneers though, were not a fighting unit, would have had the standard British service .38 revolvers – the type used to kill the Wren – and would not have had at their disposal alternative ways to kill.
But, for reasons which were not recorded and cannot now be known, the Pioneer in question was ruled out of the inquiry.
The murder of Gertrude Canning will not be solved.
After today, though, the family is at rest. They have learned all they can. They have seen the greatest respect paid to the memory of their aunt by the military and local communities. They have set a memorial to her in the peaceful woods where she died. They have offered in her name a seat for the weary to rest in Inveraray and feast in ease on a view that is good for anyone’s soul.
Earlier this evening, when the events of the day were all over, we slipped back into Inveraray, to the quiet cenotaph, to capture the sense of what the seat dedicated today to Gertrude Canning is saying.
With its back to the past of honourable sacrifice commemorated in the cenotaph, the seat looks outwards to today, absorbing the tranquillity of the hills and lochs that wrap around Inveraray – a pretty good punctuation mark for a family who came together to honour a relative in a place with which they now have an enduring relationship.
A historical footnote
The Canning family has had its own struggles in the researches they have been doing and in the publicity they have attracted.
It is only three weeks ago, on 11th June 2012, after another seventy year gap, that the Irish Government recognised formally and apologised for the wrong of the treatment meted out to Irish soldiers who absented themselves from duty with the Irish defence forces to fight for the Allies during World War II.
The Irish Defence Minister, Alan Shatter, is shortly to introduce legislation that will provide an amnesty for these men.
The young Irish Republic, not long independent of Britain and with the scars of colonial abuse still fresh, stayed officially neutral in that war but was said to have given covert shelter to German submarines. It regarded Irish soldiers who fought for the allies as traitors, more than the deserters they were formally classed as being. Most deserters, of course, desert to avoid fighting. These ‘deserters’ did so in order to engage against what they regarded as a shared enemy.
They were not few. Something like 4,500 soldiers left the Irish forces at that time, to fight for the Allies. Many of them joined the British Army and it is estimated that about 100 of them are still alive.
Many were decorated – yet the cultural rejection of what they had done left their families hiding their medals and living since then under the sort of stigma only small places can inflict so enduringly.
It was a fully formal persecution.
Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fail government introduced Emergency Power Order 32, ordering their immediate dismissal, after which they were banned from state employment for seven years and lost their armed forces pay and pension rights.
Minister Shatter told the Irish parliament. ‘No distinction was made between those who fought on the Allied side for freedom and democracy and those who absented themselves for other reasons.’
Given that the Irish Government’s change of attitude to these people is no more than 20 days old, it is easy to understand the difficulties the Cannings will occasionally have met in others’ reception of their celebration of the war service of their aunt, their recovery of her service medal and their relaxedness is taking part in ceremonies under the Union flag.
That they have felt free to do so is itself testament to the good judgment and common sense of straightforward folk – much like the courageous decisions made by those Irish soldiers who recognised a profound common threat when they saw it and took independent action to contribute to its overcoming.
No good story is without the texture of its subtexts. This background is part of the wider fabric of the tale of the likeable young Irish Wren who was murdered in Inveraray woods back on 30th June 1942 and who was recovered by her family today.