Jack Gross – war hero and Belgian knight

Originally published in the Owen Sound Sun Times, November 20, 2008.

It turns out Paul Gross isn’t the only member of his family who can tell war stories about Belgium.

Gross has received a great deal of attention and acclaim for his recent film “Passchendaele.” He wrote, directed, co-produced and starred in the movie, inspired by his maternal grandfather’s experiences in the First World War.

But Jack Gross, the filmmaker’s uncle, was also in Belgium at wartime. It was a different war and his duties were somewhat different, but a lasting impression was made on the young soldier who was later honoured by Belgium for his bravery at the Battle of the Scheldt.

“I shouldn’t even be here to tell the story today,” Gross, 89, said in an interview at his Port Elgin home.

It’s a story he has kept largely to himself since it happened, in the fall of 1944.

Compared to the Battle of Passchendaele, the Battle of the Scheldt has not received a lot of attention from historians. Other Canadian campaigns and achievements during the Second World War have also overshadowed it.

But Gross has always remembered it, if for no other reason than because it resulted in his being invested into a Belgian military order, the Order of Leopold II. He received a knighthood in the order and was simultaneously awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre (Cross of War).

“I am, in fact, a knight,” he says, smiling, without a trace of arrogance.

The Battle of the Scheldt has its roots in the Normandy landings on June 6, D-Day. The further Allied forces pushed into Europe, the further they moved away from friendly ports through which they received much-needed supplies. The Allies needed another safe port that was closer to the front lines; Antwerp, the capital of the Belgian province of Flanders, would be that port.

The city was liberated in early September, but the port could not be used until the German occupiers were also pushed off both sides of the Scheldt River Estuary, which connects Antwerp to the North Sea. The task was assigned to the First Canadian Army, and it completed the job with four distinct operations over a period of 38 days.

During Operation Switchback, the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade was told to cross the estuary’s Braakman Inlet from west to east, using Terrapin and Buffalo amphibious vehicles to make the half-mile crossing and surprise the Germans. Brigade commander Brig. John Rockingham wanted a communications line laid down across the inlet first, if possible. He turned to the brigade’s signal officer, Capt. John William (Jack) Gross.

“He said, ‘Jack, we’ve got a big, big job to do,'” Gross recalled, adding it was to be an “extremely secret” mission involving the Royal Navy. It would also happen at night so as to not tip off the Germans.

With a crew of two men, Gross set out across the inlet in a Buffalo. The vehicle moved underwater, with just the top poking out above the surface, and the cable was laid as they went along. But disaster struck about three-quarters of the way across when the tide went out of the inlet, leaving the Buffalo trapped on the muddy bottom, unable to move. It was a sitting duck for the Germans, who sure enough began to open fire on the vehicle once daylight came and they saw it.

“It was too far for machine-gun fire (to hit us), but they were firing mortars,” said Gross, who realized he and his men had two options. One was to wait inside the Buffalo, where they had some protection from fire. When the tide came back in, they would be able to move the vehicle and get back to their own side.

The second option was to evacuate the Buffalo and try to get back on their own. “I chose to not wait,” Gross said.

The crew got out of the Buffalo and Gross hauled out a waterproof kapok mattress which they would use as a raft. One man began to cut the weights that had been intended to secure the communications cable to the bottom of the inlet. This became the men’s lifeline, and Gross used it to pull the mattress and its occupants across the water. He passed out from exhaustion perhaps 25 or 30 feet from shore and was dragged to safety by his men.

“It was not a successful venture,” he said of the attempt to lay the cable. “I was lucky to get myself back.”

But the brigade still managed to cross the inlet and drive out the Germans. Rockingham recommended to the Belgian government that Gross be honoured for his actions, and he received his knighthood and Croix de Guerre two years later, in November 1946.

His citation was issued on the approval of Prince Charles, who reigned in Belgium at the time in place of his exiled older brother, King Leopold III. It reads as follows:

“The Minister of National Defence has the honour to announce that, by decree of. . . the Regent Prince of November 3, 1946, he appoints John William Gross Knight of the Order of Leopold II, with the decorations and attributes of the Cross of War 1940 in recognition of services rendered in Belgium, for the courage and bravery he demonstrated in the glorious battles that brought about the liberation of Belgium. (The Regent Prince) considers it his pleasure to be able to extend his congratulations regarding this nomination.”

By that time, Gross was back in Ontario and on his honeymoon. His father-in-law contacted him with the news.

Gross had been overseas for most of the war; he had joined the reserve army at age 16 in 1935 in Kitchener and was a 20-year-old sergeant when war was declared in 1939.

He was accepted for officer training in Kingston and earned a commission as a lieutenant, despite not having the educational criteria. He remembers having to meet with a brigadier in Toronto and explain why he wanted to be an officer rather than just an enlisted man in the signal corps.

“I told him, ‘I thought I might get lost in the shuffle.’ He looked at me and said, ‘That’s a beautiful answer,'” Gross said.

Lt. Gross was the signal officer attached to the 12th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery on D-Day, landing at Juno Beach at 8:20 a.m. He was Mentioned in Despatches for his work in quickly establishing communications between the front lines and divisional headquarters on the beach. He was promoted to captain less than a week later and assigned to the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. He remained with the brigade until the end of the war.

There were lots of experiences, some that were pleasant and many that were not. Gross witnessed two deadly “friendly fire” incidents less than a week apart in Normandy, one involving U. S. Army Air Force bombers and one involving the Royal Air Force. In both cases, Canadian and Polish soldiers were the victims.

“I can still see the Poles running out of there,” Gross said, referring to the second incident, which happened in a quarry near Haut Mesnil. “It was a horrible mistake.”

That said, “I have an awful lot to be thankful for. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing.”

Gross remained with the military after the war and was a major by the time he left the reserves. He went into sales with Firestone and retired as a company vice-president in charge of sales. Then he and one of his sons bought a Firestone retail store in St. Catharines, and they ran it together until he retired again a few years ago. John Gross still operates the store.

Jack Gross spent five weeks in Europe during the 40th anniversary celebrations of D-Day and retraced his steps through France, Holland and Belgium. He visited every Canadian war cemetery all the way up the coast of the North Sea. “It was an incredible trip,” he said.

Gross has maintained an interest in the military and notes proudly that he pointed his “kid brother” Bob toward a career in the armed forces. Bob Gross, Paul’s father, ended up outranking his brother, retiring as a colonel.

Jack has seen his nephew’s latest film and came away very impressed. “It’s tremendous. He went all out on that.”

Gross said he met Michael Dunne, Paul’s maternal grandfather, and he was well aware of the special connection between the two.

“Paul spent a lot of time with his grandfather when he was young, and he remembered everything that his grandfather ever told him,” Gross said.

“He was fascinated by it. . . and he became completely dedicated to telling this story that had never been told. It was a burning desire to tell that story, and it’s an absolutely complete labour of love.”

* * *

Port Elgin is a special place for Jack Gross.

He met his future wife on his first, accidental visit to town and it’s where he intends to live out the rest of his days.

“This is where it all began,” he said wistfully of the community he now calls home. “This is where my life began.”

The former Margaret Guymer was buried on July 26 at Port Elgin’s Sanctuary Park Cemetery, 69 years after she and Jack Gross met and fell in love at the other end of town. She was a native of London, Ont., and, from the age of seven or eight, vacationed regularly in Port Elgin with her family.

He was a Kitchener boy who had intended to visit Wasaga Beach with a friend, but they took a wrong turn in their 1932 Model A roadster with a rumble seat.

When they realized their mistake, they decided to stay in Port Elgin instead. They had never been there before.

The next morning, Gross was lying on the breakwall at the harbour when Margaret and a friend walked up and complained that he was blocking their way.

It was love at first sight, said Gross, who was 20 years old at the time. She was 16. “I had never been bothered by that sort of thing,” he said, smiling, his friendly eyes twinkling with the memory.

After that first encounter, they kept in touch. Gross drove from Kitchener to London three times to visit her, in September and October of 1939 and in January 1940. He went overseas and they wrote to each other.

They exchanged rings by mail and he still wears his on the third finger of his left hand.

“She sent me this ring,” he said, extending his hand. “It had the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals emblem on it. It’s all worn off, and I made a signet ring out of it.”

Just prior to D-Day, Gross visited a shop in London, England, and spent 400 pounds on a ring for Margaret.

“That’s how we became engaged,” he said, “but it took me a long time to get home, because I didn’t get back until January 1st, 1946, on the Queen Elizabeth. It sailed into New York Harbour and I was invited to go directly to her house in London, which I did. We were married shortly after.”

They were married 62 years and raised five children together, three daughters and two sons. They lived in various places while Jack pursued his career in sales with Firestone, and eventually they settled in Grimsby.

They actually bought two homes in the same week in 1965 — their home in Grimsby and a cottage in Port Elgin. After Margaret died in July at age 85, Gross decided the cottage would become his permanent residence.

“We had a beautiful home in Grimsby, but I didn’t feel at home there any more,” he said, He spent only one night there after Margaret’s funeral.

“I decided that I couldn’t live there any more. The house didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t have any reason to stay there. So we put the house up for sale. My daughter Mary is going to live with me here.

“I feel at home here. This is a very special place.”

And when the time comes, he says, he’ll be laid to rest next to his beloved Margaret in Sanctuary Park Cemetery.

NOTE: What an absolute honour to meet Jack Gross and to hear his stories. And, of course, to help bring those stories to life.

ADDENDUM: Jack’s time came on April 14, 2016. He was 96 years old. As planned, he was buried next to Margaret in Port Elgin. RIP, sir, and thank you.

3 thoughts on “Jack Gross – war hero and Belgian knight

  1. Pingback: 12th Field Regiment RCA | Sir Major John W. Gross 1919-2016

  2. Pingback: Sir Major John W. Gross 1919-2016 | 12th Field Royal Canadian Artillary

  3. Pingback: Sir Major John W. Gross 1919-2016 | 12th Field Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery 1940-1945

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