At the end of June 1942, WREN Gertrude Canning was murdered and her body left in a ditch below a path at an idyllic spot in Inveraray woods.
She was reported missing two days later and her body found by two children playing in the woods, near a tree called the Marriage Tree – which blew down around a decade ago. It was said that if you walked round this tree three times you’d be married within a year.
At this time, Inveraray was the heart of HMS Quebec, a major dispersed establishment engaged in developing Combined Operations – involving training in collaboration between the various armed forces. Other parts of Argyll were also bases for this initiative, driven by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Castle Toward in south Cowal was HMS Brontosaurus. Ardentinny on Loch Long in east Cowal was HMS Armadillo.
AT the height of Combined Operations training 250,000 members of the forces – of the British and several allied nations - were stationed in the Inveraray area. Imagine what that would feel like today and then conjure 1942.
Gertrude Canning was a young girl from County Donegal in the north west of Ireland, who had been working in England first at a hotel in Shropshire, latterly as a barmaid at the Foxlydiate Hotel in Redditch, from where she seems to have gone to Scotland and joined the Women’s Royal Naval service.
A pretty and quite quiet girl, her popularity can be gauged by the fact that her friends in Redditch had seen her off with a present of £17-19s – worth almost £600 today.
Canning was based at HMS Quebec and on that day at the end of June 1942, she walked into the village of Inveraray to post a family letter and did not come back to work.
Because the WREN was based at HMS Quebec – and a major site of that establishment was at what is now the Argyll Caravan Park, on the shores of Loch Fyne not far south of Inveraray, it is often assumed that this base was the HMS Quebec where she worked.
This is not correct, She worked in the Officers’ Mess at Admiralty House, now the Loch Fyne Hotel (pictured above today) on the southern fringes of the village – and this was the Wrenery in which she lived. Admiralty House was visited by both King George V and Winston Churchill – the hotel has photographs in its lobby commemorating these visits. Churchill also went to the lochside camp at HMS Quebec where, since he was not tall, he was given an honour guard of especially small sailors.
The nissan huts at the camp have long gone, their concrete foundations now the hard standing for static caravans. What was the cinema is still in use (above), as a hall for events and activities at the caravan park.
There was an exotic arrangement for WRENs at this HMS Quebec base. Two paddlesteamers were moored offshore for their accommodation, with Loch Fyne acting as the moat to defend their virtue.
The Post Office where Gertrude Canning walked to post her letter on the day she died is now the Pier Shop on Inveraray harbour front. The letter is often said to have been to her father or her family back home in Donegal. If the letter was to her father it was not to Donegal. He was a railwayman working in Northumberland and in Lincolnshire; and Gertrude is said to have written to him every day. A letter is said to have reached her family in Donegal two days after she posted it, by which time a search was under way to locate her.
It was a pleasant day and apparently, when she had posted her letter, she decided to walk back to Admiralty House in a loop through Inveraray Woods to the north of the town.
A woman who lived near an old quarry in those woods saw her passing there, with a soldier within hailing distance behind her. This is the last record of her being seen alive.
Lives were cheaper then, with so many being so regularly lost. There has always been a sense that the loss of one more life passed with less regard than it might have done in other times. But it was investigated as best it could.
It was found that she had been shot four times and with a .38 revolver, a type issued to British servicemen. All such guns held by military personnel in the area were checked by the investigating police – none proved the weapon they were looking for.
The work of the investigating police officers was hampered by the fact that between the murder and the start of the investigation, an infantry brigade of British and Canadian soldiers had been moved out and was said to be on the way to fight in the raid on Dieppe that saw the loss of thousands of them.
The .38s of those who returned were checked by the police. They too were not the murder weapon.
Logic suggested to the police at the time – and has become the accepted wisdom, that the murderer was a Canadian member of the brigade who fought and died at Dieppe.
This is not possible.
It was the Canadian 2nd Division who fought at Dieppe – and they were not trained in Inveraray at HMS Quebec but south of the border. The Canadians stationed at Inveraray fought in Operation Broadsword, the Normandy landings much later on, starting the endgame of the war.
Gertrude Canning’s nephews, learning of their aunt’s murder when they were adult, have been conducting their own research with the help and support of the authorities. They are not doing this to avenge her death but, in a way, to get to know something of her and to see if they can close her story.
They have erected the memorial to her, seen in this article, in the woods near where her body was found, at the junction of the path back to the shores of Loch Fyne that she had intended to walk but which became, for the worst of reasons, ‘the road not taken’.
They are coming back to Argyll at the end of this month to commemorate the 70th anniversary of her death. They say they now feel they know who killed her; and that Strathclyde Police say that if the case was open, they feel they are now in a position to close it.
We have come to know something of what that story may be but it is the family’s story and they may release it at the anniversary.
What we have done is to track down and retrace the route Gertrude Canning took from the Post Office /Pier Shop that day, up the hill out of the town and left into the woods at the Gamekeeper’s Cottage (above) as the road swings right to start its run up Glen Aray.
Further down the path, there is a fork, with the upper path running past the quarry and then dropping down again to rejoin the lower path.
In the belly of hillside between these two junctions is a collection of concrete remains of what we assume was some sort of assault training facility used in Combined Operations preparations.
The distance between the paths is not great, so little in fact that the woman who saw Gertrude Smith ‘passing the quarry’, might have used that description to fit either of these two paths. Whichever path she chose, there cannot have been sentries or soldiers on duty at this installation on that day as they would have seen her pass.
The stoutest wall of the cluster of installations (two above) – one looks like it was a gun emplacement – bears what look like the scars of having been under fire (below). Part of the installation seems to have been built to support the outer edge of the path immediately above it. They seem to be a series of platforms, the biggest of which has a low wall for shelter or disguised presence (above).
Gertrude Canning would have walked on until she came to the junction with the path back to the lochside (below) that she intended to take. Lower down, this becomes the typical wartime concrete road to the series of camps in the immediate area, marked today by their concrete bases. Today this is the road to Inveraray Golf Course.
The attack obviously happened before she turned down this path. She must have been lured or dragged on down the path through the woods, running parallel to the distant loch – seen at the top, running away behind her memorial which is at the junction.
Two soldiers in one of the camps down the path she meant to take, heard shots. Then they heard some more. They wondered if they should investigate because this pattern of shot was not familiar in an area where there was plenty of it. (Some exercises used live rounds and there are first hand accounts of fatalities and multiple serious injuries. The long layby just south of Furnace on the A83 is the legacy of the space they used to park the ambulances for the casualties resulting from shore to shore exercises employing live rounds, grenades and incendiaries.)
The two soldiers, however, were on ‘jankers’ – confined to barracks – and had they gone to investigate the shots, they would have been in further and serious trouble. They stayed where they were.
The pattern of shots they heard though, indicates that the first shot or shots did not kill Gertrude Canning, hence the second set of shots.
Indeed, the book written by the investigating police officer, Chief Superintendent Robert Colquhoun, Life begins at midnight – which includes his account of the Canning murder, tells that while any one of three of the four shots shots she suffered could have killed her, one shot had gone through her wrist – which had been neatly bandaged.
He feels that this may indicate that the first shot was accidental and that after bandaging the wound, the assailant realised that there was no way out of the situation he had then created, panicked and fired three more shots into her at close range.
It was thought that strips of her clothing were used to gag her but the post mortem concluded that she had not been sexually assaulted although she had clearly fought and been offered violence. An eye was badly swollen.
We will see if Stragthclyde Police reopen the case in order to close it for good; and we will see what, if anything, Gertrude Canning’s family say at or after the 70th anniversary of her death at the end of this month.
What may be helpful for the family to know is the scale and reach of those who remain concerned, as they are themselves, for her story to be completed.
We found Caithness.org putting out messages asking for anyone who might have information from first hand or from contacts to make it available to Miss Canning’s family. Caithness is, of course, another and even more remote area which saw heavy wartime activity and Caithness.org’s network is internationally extensive.
This interest, this care to try to help, says a lot for the value all of us persist in placing on human life, even one taken so long ago. Long may we continue to hold to such values.