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National Defence and the Canadian Forces

Joint Task Force Central & Land Force Central Area

31 Canadian Brigade Group

 

Brigadier-General Denis Whitaker

February 27, 1915 - May 29, 2001

A fitting farewell to a Canadian warrior

The single church bell tolled a funeral knell, soldiers - old, new and aspiring - stiffened. Eight scarlet-clad pallbearers - their faces set in sombre pride - hoisted the old warrior to their shoulders and began a clipped, slow march to the church through a forest of green Riley caps and a field of chest poppies.

We won't see this again.

Amid the stirring pomp and ceremony of a full regimental funeral, Brigadier-General Denis Whitaker, one of Hamilton's - and indeed Canada's - most decorated and celebrated soldiers, was given a final farewell yesterday.

As the body of the two-time Distinguished Service Order (DSO) winner was borne into St. Jude's Church, Second World War Vets from regiments all over southern Ontario, regular soldiers, current members of his regiment, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI), army cadets and even motorcycle cops on the street sprang to attention and saluted.

Following the bearer party, two Riley captains and a major also in the unit's ceremonial red coats carried Whitaker's sword, medals and forage cap.

Inside the packed-to-overflowing church the flag-draped casket was placed between the Riley colours - a union flag and the regimental flag that rarely leave Regimental headquarters. Fittingly, the Regimental Colours are emblazoned with unit battle honours including Dieppe, Woensdrecht, Falaise, Goch-Calcar Road and the Hochwald - actions where Whitaker, first as a captain and later as commanding officer, distinguished himself during the Second World War.

Guests included former Lieutenant-Governor and RCAF Vet Lincoln Alexander, the military attaché from the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Ottawa, the commanding officer of Hamilton's other infantry regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Lieutenant-Colonel Geordie Elms, representatives of Ontario command and representatives and vets of regiments that fought beside the Rileys during the war such as the 11th Field Regiment, Essex and Kent Scottish, the Royal Regiment of Canada, Toronto Scottish, the Highland Light Infantry of Canada and the Queen's Own Rifles.

The Duke of Edinburgh, Colonel-in-chief of the RHLI, sent an expression of "sorrow and regret at the loss of such a great soldier."

Conspicuous by their absence, however, were any Hamilton politicians. A regimental source said Hamilton MPs, MPPs and municipal members were informed of the funeral but none were apparently able to attend.

Although Whitaker was an all-star quarterback for the Tigers before the war and an accomplished athlete in many sports as well as a successful business executive, his continuing legacy - and the focus of the funeral - was his military career that saw him rise from lieutenant to the army's youngest brigadier-general.

His two DSOs - the country's highest military decorations short of the Victoria Cross - came first at Dieppe where his platoon was one of the few to reach its objectives and second on the drive to the Rhine River where the Rileys fought in some of the toughest actions of the war.

"A soldier's soldier" was how former Minister of National Defence and Second World War Vet Barney Danson described Whitaker in his eulogy.

"He was a little bit old-fashioned. Duty, truth and valour were really taken very seriously. Service and patriotism, Denis Whitaker had them in spades. He had the respect of his men who revered him. He was an incredible leader and a devastating adversary, both on the playing field and the battlefield."

As a civilian on the playing field, Whitaker was chairman of the Canadian Equestrian Team for 22 years. It was during his tenure that the team won two world championships and two Olympic medals. Olympic gold medallist Jim Elder paid tribute to his former boss. "What a life he had, what a life he led. Thanks for a hell of a ride."

He was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 1989. The French government named him an Officer of the Legion of Honour (France) and Belgium appointed him a Commander of the Order of the Crown. He was also a member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.

Following recitation of the Veterans' Prayer - "They shall not grow old, as we who are left, grow old" - the brick and oak church swelled with Last Post and Reveille meticulously, yet soulfully, rendered by six Riley buglers. (Bugler Photo provided by the Hamilton Spectator)

As the congregation sang Onward Christian Soldiers, all the vets and currently serving troops and militia formed a final honour guard, offering one of the most illustrious of their number a final salute before he was taken away by hearse for cremation.

The Regimental Colour Guard marched off and the vets and guests were left to muse on the passing of a man who was, above all things, a good soldier.

BGen Whitaker turned his energies to writing histories of the war after his retirement from business. His first book, Tug of War, was the story of the Battle of the Scheldt Estuary. Then LCol Whitaker commanded the RHLI as they fought to clear the approaches to the port of Antwerp and the southwest Netherlands.

In the book, subtitled The Canadian Victory that Opened Antwerp, he was critical of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower. Whitaker maintained the rivalry between the British and Americans prolonged the war, which he thought should have been over by Christmas 1944.

He wrote the book with his journalist wife, Shelagh. Tug of War won the J.W. Dafoe book prize, awarded for distinguished writing on Canadian and international affairs, in 1984. It was published in several countries and was translated into Flemish.

They wrote three other books: Rhineland: The Battle to End the War (1989); Dieppe, Tragedy to Triumph (1992); and The Soldiers' Story: Victory at Falaise (2000).

"Everything he did, he excelled at. As commander of the Regiment he was superb, he really was."

Riley Second World War Vet Ed Newman

"This is the end of an era. He was one of a kind and synonymous with Hamilton. A true leader."

Riley Vet and Dieppe survivor Jack McFarland

"One of the best soldiers the Rileys ever produced, a good leader who was dedicated to his troops and a great Canadian."

James Forsyth, current Honorary Colonel of the RHLI

"...gave us one of the most lucid and real accounts of a Canadian infantry battalion commander in the Second World War. He took the battalion through some of its hardest battles after Dieppe and wrote about them too, which it makes it even more important. This man was a good soldier. Denis Whitaker was a good soldier. That says volumes."

Military historian Donald Graves says that in his book Tug of War, Whitaker

"A great Canadian, an exemplary leader, a true hero."

Westdale Secondary School History Teacher Richard Moll:

Gen. Whitaker, who had congestive heart disease, spiked a fever a week after visitors from Woensdrecht, Holland, left. The doctors told his family to keep a close eye on him, but on May 27, he was taken to hospital when his lungs suddenly filled with fluid. In a coma by late in the day May 28, Gen. Whitaker had a brief moment of lucidity just before he died, Shelagh Whitaker, his wife and writing partner, remembered.

"He opened his eyes in the early, early hours of Tuesday morning [May 29] and he said, 'It's the end of the game.' And then he said, 'It's the end of the season.' "

He is also survived by his daughter Gail, sons Clarke and Michael and four step-daughters, Wendy Rutherford, Barbara Horne, Martie Hooker and Jenifer Cepella.

 

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