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Commentary: Answers found for forgotten Bowden war hero

Great-nephew and determined research uncover Norman Gilliland’s life before his war-time death in 1944

A mountain in the Canadian Rockies was named after Bowden’s Norman Gilliland 56 years ago. But until 2020 there was no photograph of the war hero available. In fact, there was very little known about Gilliland at all.

When I discovered a few years ago that 10 Canadian soldiers, who had died at the locks of Wijnegem, a municipality in the Belgian province of Antwerp, had found a temporary grave in the Molenbeekstraat in Wommelgem, my interest was aroused.

I wrote two articles for De Krijter, a quarterly historical society magazine, about the stay of the Canadians in our regions. That is how I discovered the grave of Gilliland at the cemetery in Wijnegem.

Intrigued by the fact that he, as the only Canadian, had stayed here while his brothers-in-arms had been transferred to Bergen-Op-Zoom or to the Antwerp Schoonselhof Cemetery, I started looking for additional information.

I was able to study Gilliland’s military file online and that provided a first breakthrough in my searches. This contained an official report containing the cause of death and a witness statement. After more than five years of intensive online searching, I finally managed to contact the Gilliland family on Nov. 11, 2020, through an article in The Albertan. The family provided me with photos. Wade Pierlot, Norman's great-nephew, was able to write a brief biography of his great-uncle, and because of that I can now offer a more complete story of Bowden’s war hero.

Norman Walter Gilliland was born on July 10, 1900 in Cobourg, Ont., as the seventh child in a family of nine children. His parents were Frederick James Gilliland (1856-1943) and Bessie Matilda Walton (1863-1954).

The family moved to Bowden in 1909, where his parents bought a farm. Their background in orchard development and livestock farming ensured they quickly settled in their new hometown.

Norman took an interest in the new combustion engines from an early age and maintained the farm machinery.

When the First World War broke out, 14-year-old Norman was too young to enlist. His eldest two brothers were exempt through their agricultural work. Only his brother Bob was called up in May 1918, but because he contracted the Spanish flu, he stayed in Canada. He retired after a year.

Norman attended high school for two years and then went to the Commercial Business College in Toronto, where he graduated after one year. He returned to the farm, until the crisis hit hard there in 1929. He moved to Dawson Creek, Alta., where he worked as a maintenance engineer. There he met his business partner George Bissett, and together they started a hardware store and garage.

On Oct. 1, 1940, he enlisted as a volunteer in the Canadian Army. After his training he left for Europe, where he landed on March 1, 1941 in Gourock, Scotland. In October 1942 he was promoted to lance bombardier, to lance sergeant the following year and finally to battery quartermaster sergeant in February 1944.

His unit, the Third Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, was deployed as an anti-aircraft defense unit against the German attacks on Scotland. Norman loved the environment, the culture and the Scots and learned to dance the jive in the local pubs.

He landed with his unit in France on July 6, 1944, exactly one month after D-Day. He took part in the battles in Normandy and in the sieges of the ports of Le Havre, Calais and Dunkerque.

The Canadians reached Antwerp in mid-September 1944. The Fifth Brigade of the Second Infantry Division used the area between Fort 1 and Fort 2 as a springboard for its attacks on Zuid-Beveland and for the liberation of the Scheldt estuary.

In the night of Sept. 22 to 23, the Calgary Highlanders managed to form a bridgehead over the Albert Canal at the locks at Wijnegem and to maintain and expand it, despite heavy losses.

They immediately started to repair the wooden bridge at the water tower of Wijnegem, which was heavily damaged by the Germans. The northern part of the bridge was replaced by a Bailey Bridge, which was put into use the same day, Sept. 23, 1944. The 40mm Bofors guns of Norman’s artillery regiment were used to defend the bridge.

In the night of Sept. 23 to 24, Sergeant Gilliland went on a patrol along the edges of the Albert Canal. In the dark, he tripped over the rubble of the blown-up bridge. He hit his head on the ground and fell, presumably unconscious, into the canal. A search was immediately conducted, but to no avail. The next day, Belgian authorities continued to dredge and found his body.

He was buried in Wijnegem cemetery, where he still rests.

In 1965, a 1,940-meter mountain in British Columbia, Canada was named after Norman: Mount Gilliland. It's not yet known how or who was responsible to make this extraordinary salute possible.

Shortly after the war, his grave attracted the attention of Josephine Nuyts, a local young Belgian woman, who found it difficult to bear that the lonely grave of that soldier from faraway Canada was neglected and that nobody cared.

She began to maintain it, putting a fresh bouquet of flowers on it every week. She did this for decades, as confirmed by her daughter Celine, who often accompanied her to the cemetery as a child.

In 1994, during the commemorations of the liberation, a Canadian officer attended a reception at the town hall in Wijnegem. A city councilor told him the story, after which the officer went to Canada to look for survivors of the Gilliland family. Thus, Josephine obtained the address of Norman's youngest sister Bessie.

For several years they exchanged letters and cards, until Bessie passed away. Josephine died in September 2020 when she contracted COVID.

The striking white tombstone of Norman, which was renewed in 2018 together with the grey graves of the former combatants and war victims of Wijnegem, is located in the left corner of the cemetery, close to the wall of the Boskantweg.

Niko Van Kerckhoven is a writer and historian from Belgium.