« Co. Kildare Online Electronic History Journal Home »


John Kennedy, M.C.
James Durney
John Kennedy was one of Kildare’s most famous WWII soldiers, though he never intended to become a soldier. He wanted to follow in His father’s footsteps and develop his own farming and bloodstock interests in Co. Kildare. He loathed war and the terrible wastage it produced. Nevertheless, he became a legend in the Irish Guards, much admired by all who served with him. He was as devoted to his men as they were to him. In 1944 he hitchhiked from England to Holland, giving up a cushy job, to be beside his men. In February 1945, just a few weeks before the German forces surrendered, John Kennedy was killed, storming a German castle. He was twenty-five. His loss to his family was irreplaceable. If he had survived the war, he would have had a full, and reasonably, well-off life. Instead he died in a muddy ditch in Germany, shot in the back as he led a heroic attack on a strong German defensive position. He should not have died, because John Kennedy should not have been there. If the artillery the Irish Guards had been promised had softened up the target he might not have died either. But the promised artillery barrage before the attack never materialised. John Kennedy should have got the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery, but that never happened either. However, life is full of ifs and buts and John Kennedy’s death, like that of many others, left the world a poorer and duller place.
John Kennedy lived most of his life at Bishopscourt, near Kill – horse and cow country. The Kennedy’s came from Baronrath and the area was known as ‘Kennedy country.’ Bishopscourt was built by Lord Ponsonby in 1788. It passed to the Clonmels in 1838. In 1914 Bishopscourt was bought by Edward ‘Cub’ Kennedy and his Australian-born wife Doris Lumsdaine. Doris was eighteen when she met and married Cub Kennedy and was always known as D.K. or Dorie. She was considered a great beauty, and Cub, then forty-four, a very lucky man. They had eight children. They were all highly individual and had nicknames: John, born in 1919, and christened Darby Michael, decided John was a more fitting name; Doris was known as Toby; Maeve was Billy; the eldest boy was Sonny; Clodagh became Lamby; Percy preferred John’s name of Darby; while Patricia was named Tiggy. Grania, the youngest, stayed Grania.
John was educated in London and joined the British Army in July 1939. That September war broke out as Germany invaded Poland. There were so many Kildare people in England during the war that John Kennedy wrote home in 1942: ‘Naas will soon be getting jealous of London W1 becoming “Kildare’s other capital.”’ He met so many Irishmen he wrote: ‘Most of our sergeant-majors and NCOs are all ex-Free State soldiers who left Ireland when the army disarmed in 1928. Last week six sergeants deserted and came over.’
On 8-9 April 1940 German troops landed in Norway and the Allies sent an expeditionary force to fight them. John Kennedy, now a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Irish Guards, was delighted when he heard this. He told his batman to, ‘Pack my Colt and Mauser, and the Remington with the telescopic sights, and put the small pistol and the knuckle-duster somewhere handy.’ At that time it was not too easy to secure a commission or join a regiment of your choice, but with the assistance of an old friend and neighbour, General Fanshawe, who lived at Rathmore, John had applied for, and was accepted by, the Irish Guards.
On the morning of 15 April the 1st Irish Guards landed at Harstad on the island of Hinnöy – some 60 miles from Narvik, separated from the port by a sea channel and snow-covered mountains. John Kennedy wrote,
"This place must be heavenly during the summer and all the mountains are snow   covered and the hillsides purple with shrubs … Still, I would sooner be at home  today and see the unforgettable gorse at Punchestown."
The Allied Command decided to stall the Germans at Mö, the narrowest part of Norway and the Irish Guards were put on the Chobry, en route for Mö. Two days out of port, on 15 May, the Chobry was bombed by German planes. There were many casualties, including Denis McLoughlin, 19, from Millicent, Sallins, who was killed. John Kennedy was one of three officers mentioned in the official report: ‘These officers displayed great calmness and courage and did valuable work in rescuing and caring for the wounded; they were amongst the last to leave the ship. Many lives were saved by this display of coolness and their ability to organise the men.’ Norway was abandoned at the end of the month and the expeditionary force was evacuated to Scotland.
For the next two years John Kennedy enjoyed the London war scene, but in spring 1943 it was back to the fray. John Kennedy arrived in Algiers on 9 March. After a memorable St. Patrick’s Day celebration of wine and song the Guards went into action at ‘Recce Ridge,’ in Tunisia’s Mejerda Valley. Captain Mungo Park, Howth, Co. Dublin, was a good friend of John Kennedy’s. He witnessed the debacle on Recce Ridge.
No. 2 Company got on the ridge, but before they could settle down the Germans put a retaliatory box barrage, with the idea of stopping any retreat from the ridge and then attacked in strength. The reason for the attacks’ total failure was the British gunners sighting shells had been plotted by a German intelligence officer, who knew where the objective was. Tony Rocheford, from Westmeath, was killed and Colin Leslie wounded.
German gunners also hit a barn where Major Michael Gordon-Watson, Lieutenant John Kennedy and Guardsman O’Shea had taken up positions to watch the battle. Two shells exploded near them wounding O’Shea in the foot, arm and chest and Kennedy wounded slightly in the leg. The major was unhurt. John spent some time in an Algiers hospital, where he met Captain John de Burgh, from Oldtown, Naas, who was also wounded in a recent desert battle. Not one to lie around John was soon fed up and discharged himself. He hitched a ride back to his battalion just in time for the push on Tunis.
Mungo Park was severely wounded just before the push on the Tunisian capital. He was a passenger in a portable pulling a six-pounder anti-tank gun when the vehicle drove over a mine. “We were moving up to the Bou at night when we hit a mine. The driver was killed. The colonel was in the front seat and was totally unhurt. He landed in a ditch and went for help. Second-Officer Rowlands was wounded, and Lieutenant Young, the anti-tank officer, was badly peppered with shrapnel. Guardsman Doyle, from Carlow, lost a leg.” Capt. Park broke both feet and one leg. “My recollections were that there was more than one mine as there were a lot of pops. I looked down at my feet and saw that they were both at odd angles to my legs.”
After the Allied victory in North Africa the war shifted to the Italian mainland. In an effort to roll up the Germans and capture Rome an Allied force was landed at Anzio. It was another military disaster. The 1st Irish Guards landed at Anzio on 22 January 1944 after the beachhead had been secured and were involved in repelling a German attack four days later. John Kennedy, now promoted to captain, and commander of No. 3 Company, called down a mortar barrage on the exposed German troops. He then proceeded to direct artillery fire on the German tanks, driving them off, too. The Times later had this to say:
During a subsequent advance German troops who had penetrated within 100 yards of a company headquarters were all killed, captured, or chased away by a counter-attack. That fight was scarcely over when it was reported that another German company was approaching. Most of them were caught in the fire of Bren guns; the remainder fled to cover, where they were caught by artillery fire laid on by Major D.M. Kennedy.
For this action and another in which his company captured thirty-five prisoners John Kennedy was promoted to major and awarded the Military Cross, one of Britain’s highest awards for valour. John Kennedy was not only admired by his own troops. The Americans were also full of praise for him and called him the ‘Mad Irishman,’ devoting a full column on his exploits in their armed forces paper, Stars and Stripes. Towards the end of the fighting at Anzio John Kennedy was wounded in the chest and evacuated to Naples. The Irish Guards were sent back to England for re-fitting for the campaign in Western Europe. When he recovered John Kennedy found himself behind a desk, but when the Irish Guards found themselves bogged down at Nijmegan in Holland, John hitched a plane ride to Europe and lorry-hopped through Belgium and Holland.
As shells exploded around Headquarters at the height of a battle Kennedy walked in. He was wearing a cap-comforter and a blue sailor’s jersey and had an American M-1 carbine slung over his shoulder. “I have come,” he announced. “Never was a man so welcome,” said Colonel Joe Vandeleur. “His battle record was second to none in the regiment. He was one of those rare persons who really enjoyed war. It did us all good to see him.” John was not long there when one of his friends and neighbours, Lt. Robin O’Kelly, from Millbrook, Straffan, was killed by a German shell. Robin’s sister, Mary, was in Antwerp, at the time, with the Catholic Women’s League. The CWL handed out tea and sandwiches and organised entertainment at officers and enlisted men’s clubs. Shortly after her brother’s death, Mary O’Kelly made a trip to his grave, at Sittard, accompanied by Major John Kennedy, who was a family friend and whose home place, at Bishopscourt, was just a few miles from Millbrook. In a letter to Mary O’Kelly, John said:
"It hit me like a brick when I learned he was dead. Although we have been  neighbours so long, only recently did I get to know Robin and more I regret it.  I can’t tell you how much I miss him here as he was one of the very few human  beings on this front. He was always himself as he managed despite the odds and  always preserved his own individuality which in one word was charming."
Christmas in the line was always hard on the troops. John Kennedy wrote to his sister Toby:
"It seems a long time since I have written to you, but it was Christmas here and  I always try to make it as a good a Christmas as possible. This one was no  exception. We pulled into a small town here and since then have been having a  wonderful time. I took up residence in the château and lived in great style.  Big bed, clean sheets, running water, etc. We all put our Christmas cards on  the mantel piece in the big room, started up the central heating and for a time  had to ignore the war. It was almost too good to last. One could not help  feeling homesick at times because it really was too much like home. I fixed the  men up with a pretty good spread also."
On 21 February 1945 the Irish Guards were ordered to clear a group of scattered farmhouses and a château at Terporten, on the German/Dutch border, some 2,000 yards ahead of the front line. Major John Kennedy was in charge of No. 3 Company, which he had taken over when its commander was wounded. He regarded this as providence as this was the company in which he had always served. The Germans were well dug in and the Guards lost three Bren gun carriers to mines straight away. The rest were quickly bogged down as the area was water-logged and the attacking troops were often in knee-deep water. The Guards wireless sets were also down preventing them from calling supporting fire. However, the Guards chased the Germans from ditch to ditch and house to house all the time under intense fire. When the leading platoon reached the village château they found it held by superior forces. As John Kennedy reached the château at the head of the platoon, Germans streamed out of the back door and hopped into the trenches.
“Come on lads,” John shouted. “We’ve got them now.” He ran to the trenches in front of everyone else and walking back and forward he shot down Germans with his revolver. He soon used up all his ammunition and was about to jump into the trench when a single shot hit him from behind, killing him instantly. Despite their bravery the outnumbered Guardsmen had no choice but to break off the attack and retreat. They lost 175 men, including two company commanders and all the platoon commanders. No loss was more keenly felt, than that of the heroic Kildareman, Major John Kennedy.
For a time John was posted as missing in action, then came confirmation that he was dead. Just two months later the war in Europe was over. John Kennedy is buried with twenty-five of his comrades in a little military cemetery in Gennap, just inside Holland. His mother and father are buried on Oughtehard Hill, in what used to be known as ‘Kennedy country.’ Bishopscourt was sold in 1976.

John Kennedy was one of Kildare’s most famous WWII soldiers, though he never intended to become a soldier. Nevertheless, he became a legend in the Irish Guards. Our thanks to James Durney

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2