15 March 1921 – 27 September 2000
JOHN KENNEALLY (né Leslie Jackson), who has died aged 79, was awarded the Victoria Cross in April 1943 when serving with the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards in the final assault on Tunis.
In order that the city be taken it was vital that The Bou, a feature which dominated the ground between Medjez el Bab and Tebourba, was captured. A Guards brigade seized a portion of it on April 27, and while a further attack was being prepared, the Irish Guards occupied the western end. They were subjected to frequent German counter-attacks, but it was of the greatest importance that the Irish hold on. Kenneally’s citation laconically observed: “They did so.”
On April 28, some 100 of the enemy were seen forming up to assault one of the Irish positions on the ridge. Kenneally decided that this was the moment to attack them himself. Single-handed he charged down the bare hillside, firing his Bren gun from the hip.
“This outstanding act of gallantry,” stated his citation, “and the dash with which it was executed completely unbalanced the enemy company, which broke up in disorder.” Kenneally then returned to the crest of the ridge to harass their retreat further.
Two days later, Kenneally repeated his exploit. Accompanied this time by a sergeant of the Reconnaissance Corps, he again charged an enemy company which was preparing to attack. He inflicted so many casualties that the projected assault was halted in its tracks. Although wounded, Kenneally refused medical treatment and refused to give up his Bren, claiming that he was the only one who understood its use. He continued to fight throughout the remainder of the day.
His deeds proved a turning point in a desperate battle between veteran Afrika Korps troops and the Irish Guards, an action in which the latter took nearly 90 per cent casualties. His citation recorded that he had “influenced the whole course of the battle” and his courage in breaking up two attacks “was an achievement that can seldom have been equalled”.
After the engagement, various awards were published but there was no mention of a medal for Kenneally, although he was promoted to sergeant and told that he was to be commissioned, since the battalion was short of officers. He declined this, as he enjoyed life in the ranks.
He had hoped that he might have been awarded a Military Medal, but was philosophical when this was not forthcoming. The announcement of his VC in mid-August came as a tremendous shock to him. Many in the regiment had been interviewed and had known what was afoot, but it was a very well-kept secret which he was the last to learn.
Kenneally subsequently wrote an autobiography of remarkable frankness in which he revealed that he was neither Irish nor in fact called Kenneally. He was born, he claimed, Leslie Robinson on March 15 1921, the illegitimate son of the 18-year-old daughter of a Blackpool pharmacist. His father, he said, was Neville Blond, then in his twenties but later the chairman of the English Stage Company and husband of Elaine Marks, the Marks & Spencer heiress.
Illegitimacy being considered a great disgrace, Kenneally’s mother was sent to stay with friends in Birmingham. She changed her name from Robinson to Jackson, lived with a woman friend and became a dance hostess. Later Kenneally realised that both women were what he called “fairly high-class whores”.
He recalled that his mother seemed to have plenty of money because his father was paying maintenance after a paternity case had been brought. For his part, Blond later strenuously denied that he was Kenneally’s father, although he admitted to having paid the maintenance order. “I was only one of his mother’s many friends,” he said, “but I happened to have a bob or two, which meant ‘go for that fellow'”.
Leslie grew up on a farm in the north of England and was then sent to King Edward’s Grammar School in Birmingham. There he excelled at games and was a patrol leader in the Scouts. On his 18th birthday he joined the Royal Artillery, TA, and at the start of the Second World War was mobilised.
He was posted to an anti-aircraft battery in Dollis Hill, north London, but this he found insufficiently exciting. Early in 1941 he fell in with some Irish labourers who persuaded him to desert and accompany them to Glasgow. They gave him an identity card bearing the name of John Patrick Kenneally, a labourer who had returned to Ireland.
The new Kenneally, having fabricated a childhood in Tipperary, then enlisted with the Irish Guards at Manchester; he had already been favourably impressed by the regiment when he had spent a week at their detention centre in Wellington Barracks after overstaying a leave.
The Guards, though rigorous, proved all he had hoped for. “It was a hard school to learn in. Without being over-sentimental, men can love each other. It is born of mutual suffering, hardships shared, dangers encountered. It is a spiritual love and there is nothing sexual about it. It’s entirely masculine, even more than brotherly love, and is called comradeship.”
The regiment landed at Bone, North Africa, in March 1943 and almost immediately proceeded to the front at Medjez el Bab. Later they fought at Anzio, where Kenneally was again wounded. Subsequently he was stationed in Germany and, after joining the Guards Parachute Battalion, served in Palestine and Trans-Jordan before leaving the Army in the rank of Company Sergeant-Major.
After the award of his VC, presented by General Alexander, Kenneally received thousands of letters from all over the world, and in 1945 was praised by Churchill himself. While denouncing Eamon de Valera, the Irish premier, for “frolicking” with the Germans, the Prime Minister said that all bitterness for the Irish race “dies in my heart” when he thought of Irish heroes like Kenneally.
The hero was not so pleased by the publicity which surrounded his medal. “It was the worst thing that could have happened to me,” he recalled. “I thought ‘Now I’m bound to be rumbled’, but I never was.” He was also less than pleased by the behaviour of Neville Blond when he went to see him. “He told me how proud he was, gave me £10 and showed me the door.”
After leaving the Army, Kenneally ran his own garage before retiring to Worcestershire. Recently he had written to The Daily Telegraph to rebuke Mr Mandelson for his remark about the Irish Guards being “chinless wonders.” He married, in 1943, Elsie Francis. They had two sons and a daughter.” (Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)
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