He was the son of Colonel Charles Fraser Kennedy and Constance Francis Kennedy of Welburn Manor, Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire and half-brother of Geoffrey Gwyer (I 1930-36), to whom and to his Yorkshire home he owed his keen love of natural history. He came to Sunnyside from Frank Joy’s school at Aysgarth, and returned to teach there for a short spell while awaiting his RAFVR call-up. At Winchester Kennedy was a prefect, Gold Medalist for Gymna, and on the Committee of Natural History Society. His letters later from Canada and the USA (where he was retained as an instructor much longer than he liked) were full of details about birds and other wild life.
He trained overseas and was gazetted Pilot Officer in September 1942; Flying Officer in June 1943 and Flight Lieutenant two months before he was reported missing, aged 21, off the coast of Norway on 16th December 1944.
Banff Strike Wing, of which Kennedy’s 248 Sqaudron was part, were notified on the morning of 16th December 1944 that the SS Ferndale, a ship in use by the German forces, was aground at Krakhellesund, a fjord off the coast of Norway, just north of Bergen. 248 Squadron were tasked with attacking the stricken ship to clear the decks with machine and cannon fire and to destroy the ship with rockets. In an attack lasting just two minutes the damage was considerable, SS Ferndale was engulfed in flames with 8 crew members killed and 5 injured.
The story of the attack, and what happened as a result, is told in “A Separate Little War” by Andrew D Bird (Grub Street 2003). “Taking part in this attack was Flight Lieutenant John Kennedy flying Mosquito ‘R’ 248. The young pilot pressed home his attack with guns blazing, despite a shell hitting his port engine. Kennedy reported the hit. ‘R’ 248 turned slowly away, burning and losing height rapidly, and both crew prepared to ditch. A red Very cartridge was fired off by navigator Flying Officer Francis Rolls. At 1203 hours the aircraft ditched successfully at 60.59N/04.09E; both crewmen got out and reached the dinghy. For several minutes their aircraft remained afloat before being swallowed by the sea. They were kept company by two Mosquitoes, which circled overhead for a few moments and left the area, since they were low on fuel.”
Squadron-Leader Levin-Raw of 279 Squadron, an air-sea rescue unit equipped with Warwick aircraft, was soon overhead, and dropped a lifeboat to Kennedy and his crewmate. The lifeboats which Warwicks carried slung underneath were dropped by parachute, so that they would reach the water on an even keel, but on this occasion the parachutes had failed to deploy and the lifeboat was smashed by the waves. A relief Warwick with a fresh lifeboat then took over: “In the drifting dinghy both men, whilst being tossed up and down, watched eagerly as the 279 Squadron ASR [air-sea rescue] Warwick ‘F1’ 279 flew overhead. At 1214 hours Flying Officer ‘Paddy’ O’Reilly ordered the drop of their airborne lifeboat, but unfortunately it sank in the heavy swell”.
Again, the parachutes had failed: their automatic release system activated in midair, the parachutes separated from the lifeboat; and the boat smashed into the sea and broke up on impact.
A dinghy was dropped but by this time Kennedy and Rolls were too weak to attempt to reach it. “Both were wet through and feeling very cold sitting upright clinging to the handling rope on the rim of their dinghy. Minutes later one survivor entered the Lindholme (a dinghy), and at 1228 a second was dropped. The other survivor paddled towards the wreck of the airborne lifeboat and attached a rope to it. O’Reilly flew over at one hundred feet, then continued to orbit, dropping markers until nearly out of fuel. Wireless-operator/aft gunner Don Mabey radioed for a relief aircraft, and the second Warwick located them, and began circling as ‘F1’ 279 left the area.”
The relief Warwick – in fact the third to have attempted to help – was RL-P, flown by Warrant Officer Bolton. When he arrived, Bolton again tried to drop a lifeboat: a photograph exists of the lifeboat leaving his Warwick, which one assumes was taken by O’Reilly’s crew before they left. Bolton’s lifeboat landed successfully, but this time the parachute release mechanism failed to work at all, and the lifeboat was capsized by the waves: before Kennedy or Rolls could reach it, it had been dragged a mile away. Bolton watched helplessly, and tried to drop two more Lindholme dinghies, both of which were swamped by the waves.
Meanwhile both the young men from 248 Squadron were sitting up in their respective craft, and the second Warwick stayed with them for hours until forced to return to Banff.
Bolton’s Warwick was relieved by a fourth, that of Flying Officer Garven (RL-U). On his arrival, he found a Wellington aircraft also circling Kennedy and Rolls, but unable to help as it was not equipped with lifeboats or dinghies. The crew were probably returning from a mission themselves, had spotted the two downed airmen, and had decided to give them moral support. Garven circled and dropped more markers to pinpoint the position for other aircraft.
At 2156, an enemy aircraft approached from the east, and closed on Garven’s Warwick. Garven took evasive action, and the enemy aircraft disappeared into the darkness. As darkness fell, Garven dropped another marker and headed back to Sumburgh, unable to help more.
“Darkness enveloped the two men. Overnight a Coastal Command Liberator orbited their position dropping illuminating cartridges in an attempt to see the survivors, now twenty miles off the Norwegian coast”.
Two Warwicks – RL-E and RL-C – arrived at Kennedy’s position (61.04N/03.53E) the following day at 1200, and found Mosquito ‘K’ of 235 Squadron circling the markers. Only one dinghy was visible, and its occupant appeared to be dead.
“A yellow dinghy [was] bobbing in the swell with its drogue strung out behind. [It was] overflown at zero feet, with an occupant sitting upright but apparently dead. The pilot radioed ‘Am over dinghy with one aircrew dead’; nothing further was sighted, and so an international broadcast was made requesting the Germans to rescue him.”
The Warwicks left the scene. No one could fault the efforts which 279 Squadron had made to rescue Kennedy and Rolls: six Warwicks had dropped three airborne lifeboats and many Lindholme dinghies, but the best air-sea rescue technology of the time had simply been unable to cope with the weather conditions, as well as too prone to equipment failure.
Kennedy is commemorated on Panel 202, Runnymede Memorial, for those with no known grave.
Source: “A Separate Little War” by Andrew D Bird (Grub Street 2003)
- Surname: Kennedy
- Forenames or initials: John
- House: I
- Years in School: 1936-1940
- Rank: Flight Lieutenant
- Regiment: RAF Volunteer Reserve, Coastal Command
- Date of Birth: 23rd April 1923
- Date of Death: 16th December 1944
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner B1
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Unknown but commemorated on Panel 202 of the Runnymede Memorial