Irish Guard – Awarded Victoria Cross For Single-Handedly Charging over 100 German Soldiers and Sending Them All into Retreat

Left: The Heroic Soldier. Right: British Armor in North Africa
Left: The Heroic Soldier. Right: British Armor in North Africa

Many men had many a war story or two to tell their grandchildren by the end of the 2nd World War.  But it is unknown if there is another who could boast charging down a hill alone at over 100 German soldiers with his Bren Light Machine Gun and sending every last one of them into a frenzied panicked retreat.

These were 100 disciplined and drilled members of the German Army, who looked up at the descent of this Irish man full of fury and thought to themselves they had better odds at surviving if they just ran for it.  A remarkable feat and a fascinating story when you consider that this Irish Guard wasn’t Irish at all, but a British Army deserter.

A Rocky Start to War

John Patrick Kenneally was born Leslie Jackson in 1921 England.  Born as an illegitimate child to a young 18-year-old girl, his mother was sent away by her parents to live with relatives to hide the unplanned birth.  Kenneally’s father turned out to be a wealthy businessman in his twenties, and when paternity was established, maintenance money was sent allowing him to receive an education.  On his 18th birthday, Kenneally enlisted in the British Royal Artillery.

At the start of World War 2, his unit was mobilized and sent to an anti-aircraft battery north of London.  Finding this posting less than exciting, Kenneally would prove to be yet another future highly decorated warrior who had a problem or two in garrison.  After overstaying a period of leave, he served a period of detention at Wellington Barracks, which was staffed by the Irish Guards.

Impressed with what he saw from them and treating the rules as a minor inconvenience, he deserted his position with the British Army and joined up with a group of itinerant Irish laborers who would help Leslie Jackson form his new identity as John Patrick Kenneally.

Nordafrika, deutsche Offiziere
Three German officers confer together atop a tank in North Africa. By Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Shortly after arriving in Ireland, the newly minted Kenneally put together a false childhood story and enlisted in the Irish Guard under his new name.

This proven group of hardened warriors was everything he was seeking, and he would find himself in the fight sooner rather than later.  In 1943, his regiment would land in North Africa to face off with the ferocious Afrika Korps of the German army.

Seize the Initiative

Pushing towards the final assault on Tunis, the Irish Guard seized a vital piece of terrain that would be needed to take the city.  The unit was ordered to hold that land at all cost despite being subject to constant German counter-attacks.

In one such attack, more than 100 Germans had formed up to prepare for an assault up the ridge.  It was at this point that Kenneally decided to seize the initiative and take the fight to the Germans in what would become one of the remarkable scenes of the war.

With fury and speed, John Keneally single-handedly charged down the hillside firing his Bren light machine gun from the hip.  In disbelief at what they were witnessing, the 100 German soldiers became completely disoriented and began to break up in total disarray.

A hasty retreat, to say the least, after dispersing the counter-attacking Germans, he climbed back up the hill and began to reign down more fire upon the retreating Germans.

Nordafrika, Halbkettenfahrzeug mit Pak
Bundesarchiv – CC-BY SA 3.0

And as if that were not remarkable enough, he did the same thing two days later on another Germany company preparing to assault.  The second time he was accompanied by a Sergeant of the Reconnaissance Corps who presumably figured two gave them better odds than one.

Kenneally was wounded in this attempt but refused evacuation.  He continued to fight throughout that day and barked at anyone that tried to take his Bren gun from him claiming he was the only one who really understood it.  His actions were credited with individually influencing the entire course of the battle.

The Victoria Cross

While there was no immediate mention of the Victoria Cross, Keneally was promoted to Sergeant and later offered a commission.  He refused the commission as he enjoyed life in the ranks with his brothers.

In August of 1943, much to the shock and surprise of Keneally, this one time British Army deserter was awarded the United Kingdom’s highest military honor.

J P Kenneally, VC – 1 Battalion, Irish Guards by Henry Carr

Even more fascinating was the fact that neither the United Kingdom nor the Irish Guards truly knew his real identity at the time of his award.  Winston Churchill even mentioned Kenneally in a 1945 speech where he commended the bravery and sacrifice of Irish warriors who fought.

Once the fame from the Victoria Cross started to roll in, he was certain that he would be found out.  But the war would end without such a discovery, and he would retire a Company Sergeant Major in the Guards after seeing subsequent action in Palestine in 1948.

Kenneally would eventually reveal his identity on his terms in later years, but after being awarded the Victoria Cross for charging 100 Afrika Korps veterans alone, he seems to have gotten a free pass on any delayed punishment.

His Victoria Cross is fittingly on display at the Guards Regimental Headquarters at Wellington Barracks in London.  Seems like a fitting end to have this once deserter’s medal displayed at the place he was once imprisoned by the very unit for whom we would desert to join.  There are multiple cases of insubordinate soldiers displaying unspeakable gallantry in the actual fighting.

This is just the story of the man who personally sent 100 German soldiers running for their lives.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE