September 28, 2000


Soldier who deserted from the Gunners, joined the Irish Guards and won the Victoria Cross with them during the Tunisian campaign


Kenneally: assailed a Panzer Grenadier company single-handed




John Kenneally, VC, was born on March 15, 1921. He died yesterday aged 79


John Kenneally won his VC as a lance corporal in the Irish Guards during the penultimate phase of the Tunisian campaign in April 1943. General Sir Harold Alexander, commanding 18th Army Group comprising the 1st and 8th Armies, had decided to launch the final assault on Tunis direct along the main Medjez el Bab road towards the city. The Germans held the massive rock-strewn feature of Djebel Bou Azoukaz, which dominated his proposed axis of advance.

After just failing to secure the "Bou" on April 27, the 24th Guards Brigade attacked again next day. The 1st Battalion Irish Guards suffered heavy losses in securing the mile-long ridge between Points 212 and 214 in the centre of the feature, and then came under vicious counter-attacks by a battle group of the 8th Panzer Regiment in desperate German attempts to retake this tactically important ridge.

It was vital that the Irish Guards, already reduced to 173 men, maintained their precarious footholds on the ridge while further attacks were organised to secure the rest of the "Bou". Kenneally, who was one of the Bren gunners of No 1 Company, holding Point 212, played a decisive part in its defence. He was one of those extraordinary men who emerge in times of crisis to inspire their colleagues. He spotted a company of Panzer Grenadiers forming up in a re-entrant below the crest, preparing to assault his company's position. On his own initiative, he decided that it was the moment to attack them himself. Single-handed, he charged down the bare stony forward slope, firing his Bren light machinegun from the hip as he ran. The enemy company broke and ran, while he scrambled back up the slope to his fire position and continued to harass their withdrawal.

Next day, April 30, he repeated his feat, this time accompanied by a Reconnaissance Corps sergeant. He again spotted a German force trying to exploit the same re-entrant. The two men charged and routed the enemy, but in scrambling back up to the crest again, Kenneally was hit by a 9mm bullet in the calf. It was not until he was seen hopping from one fire position to another with his Bren in one hand and supported by another Guardsman with the other that it was realised he had been wounded. Nothing would persuade him to give up his Bren, which he claimed only he could handle, nor to leave the position. The final words of the citation for his Victoria Cross read:

His rapid appreciation of the situation, his initiative and extraordinary gallantry in attacking single-handed a massed body of the enemy and breaking up an attack on two occasions, was an achievement that can seldom have been equalled. His courage in fighting all day when wounded was an inspiration to all ranks."

John Patrick Kenneally was an assumed name. He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer in Manchester. His mother was an 18-year-old un-married daughter of a Birmingham pharmacist, who was disowned by her family. She changed her name to Jackson, and had her son christened Leslie.

He was brought up in one of the roughest areas of Birmingham, where he learnt to live by his wits and fists, if need be; and where his mother earned enough as a lady's hairdresser and a high-class prostitute to give him a good education at King Edward's, Birmingham. He proved himself a fine athlete, and as his autobiography, Kenneally VC, shows, he acquired a love for the Army through the Cadets.

When war broke out in 1939, he had already joined the TA as a Gunner. Transferred to the Honourable Artillery Company, he overstayed his leave and found himself serving a spell of detention in Wellington Barracks guardroom in the charge of the Irish Guards. Struck by their high standards, he wanted to transfer to them.

The Gunners refused his application, and so he deserted, joining a gang of rough Irish building labourers, whose leader purloined for him an identity card and national insurance number, belonging to an Irishman, John Patrick Kenneally, who had returned home.

Armed with this new identity, he enlisted in the Irish Guards - no questions asked - and by March 1943 he was sailing with the 1st Battalion for Tunisia. A month later he was making his name in the epic action on the "Bou". With no Irish blood in his veins, and being half-Jewish, John Kenneally, as he was to be known for the rest of his life, was to become one of the most loyal of Irish Guardsmen.

Promoted sergeant after the fall of Tunis, he was again wounded fighting with his battalion in the hell of the Anzio beachhead in February 1944. The battalion's losses were, this time, so heavy that it was withdrawn to England.

After training an intake of reluctant airmen transferred from the RAF to help to make good the Army's dearth of reinforcements, he took them across to Germany to join the 3rd Battalion just as the war was ending. Finding occupation duties and the accompanying relaxation of discipline anathema, he was about to leave the Army in disgust, when he saw a notice calling for volunteers for the new 1st Guards Parachute Battalion. Much to his wife's distress, he went out to Palestine wearing a red beret.

British troops were faced with the task of keeping Arabs and Jews apart. Being half-Jewish, he was delighted to be given the task of organising the defence of a kibbutz in northern Galilee. Thanks to his efforts and tactical skills, the kibbutz survived a major Arab night attack just before the final British withdrawal through Haifa began, following relinquishment of the League of Nations mandate to the United Nations in 1948. He was sorely tempted to take up an offer to join the Israeli forces, but thoughts of his wife and now two sons, and loyalty to the Guards, stopped him doing so.

When he returned to England, he had hoped for a home posting to spend some time with his family, but none could be made available for him, and so with great regret he bought himself out of the Army in July 1948. Subsequently, he made a successful civilian career for himself in the motor industry, and always kept in close touch with his regiment, attending many of its veterans' reunions, latterly as the last surviving Irish Guards VC.

John Kenneally's death reduces to 23 the number of living holders of the Victoria Cross.

He married Elizabeth Francis by special licence just before embarking for North Africa in 1943. They had three sons and a daughter. One son was killed in a road accident. The rest of his family survive him.

September 28, 2000


John Kenneally VC


JOHN KENNEALLY, 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.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov