John Patrick Kenneally VC

b. 15/03/1921 Birmingham. d. 27/09/2000 Edgware, Middlesex.

John Patrick Kenneally (1921-2000) was not his real name. Born Leslie Robinson (later Jackson), he was the son of an 18-year-old Birmingham girl and a wealthy Mancunian textile manufacturer. He was born on 15th March 1921, and in his autobiography he named his father as 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.

John P Kenneally VC

Kenneally later stated 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 regiment landed at Bone, North Africa, in March 1943 and almost immediately proceeded to the front at Medjez el Bab. They were soon involved 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 28th, 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.

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. 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. In his last years, he wrote 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. He died on 27th September 2000 in Edgeware, Middlesex, and he was buried in the small churchyard of St Michaels/All Angels in Rochford, Worcestershire. His medals were left to the Irish Guards RHQ, Wellington Barracks, London.





Thomas Stewart – Image of the Kenneally VC medal group at the Guards Museum, London.

Shane Kenneally (son of John Patrick Kenneally VC) – Several images of John Patrick Kenneally VC and family.