The New­found­lan­der who tried to kill Rom­mel

The Compass - - OPINION -

Field Mar­shal Er­win Rom­mel — the Desert Fox — is per­haps the best known Ger­man sol­dier of the Sec­ond World War. A man of un­doubted per­sonal courage, he won the Pour le Mérite, the Ger­man equiv­a­lent of the Vic­to­ria Cross, near the end of the First World War, and was dec­o­rated with the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Di­a­monds dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, one of only 27 Ger­man sol­diers, sailors and air­men to be so hon­oured.

He be­came a Field Mar­shal, and by Fe­bru­ary 1941 was com­mand­ing the famed Afrika Corps in the see-saw cam­paign across the North African desert. He won wide­spread ac­claim from even his en­e­mies for his val­our and for treat­ing en­emy pris­on­ers prop­erly.

The North African cam­paign, a bit­ter strug­gle be­tween the Bri­tish and the Ger­mans (af­ter the de­feat of the Ital­ian Army), raged for al­most two years, un­til Mont­gomery and the Eighth Army de­feated the Afrika Corps at El Alamein in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, 1942. A year ear­lier, a young New­found­lan­der was one of a group of Bri­tish com­man­dos who made a dar­ing raid far be­hind the Ger­man front lines in a mis­sion ei­ther to cap­ture or kill Rom­mel.

Lied about his age

Joseph Kear­ney, from St. John’s, was the 50th man to sign up in March 1940, when the call went out for vol­un­teers to join the 57th Heavy Reg­i­ment of the Royal Ar­tillery, the men known to his­tory as “the First 400.” Only men who were at least 20 years old were ac­cepted; Kear­ney, who was only 18, lied about his age. That fall, he vol­un­teered again, this time for what was de­scribed by the posted or­ders as be­ing “a dan­ger­ous mis­sion.” He be­came a com­mando, one of the elite reg­i­ments of the Bri­tish Army.

The 11th Scot­tish Com­man­dos, Kear­ney’s unit, fought in Syria be­fore be­ing sent to Egypt. There, he be­came part of a famed spe­cial forces unit known as “Lay­force,” named af­ter its com­man­der, Lt.Col. Robert Lay­cock. In Novem­ber 1941, Lay­cock and Lt.-col Ge­of­frey Keyes were or­dered to lead 60 men on a raid on Rom­mel’s head­quar­ters in the Libyan desert. Kear­ney was one of them.

The sol­diers

were

given

no de­tails of their mis­sion un­til they boarded two Royal Navy sub­marines. (By sheer hap­pen­stance, Kear­ney found him­self aboard HMS Tor­bay). Only 30 men made it to shore safely four nights later, on the Libyan coast. A three-day march brought them to the camp where a Bri­tish army of­fi­cer, pos­ing as a spy, had re­ported Rom­mel was to be found. Keyes, lead­ing the at­tack, was killed in the first ex­change of fire; he was awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross posthu­mously. Kear­ney and his com­rades tried to blow up the head­quar­ters and other camp build­ings, he later re­called, but couldn’t do so be­cause “it had been rain­ing for 16 hours and ev­ery­thing was soak­ing wet.”

Rom­mel shows mercy

Led by Lay­cock, Kear­ney and the other sur­vivors made for the Mediter­ranean coast to keep a pre­ar­ranged ren­de­vous with the sub­marines. They were at­tacked, how­ever, be­fore they got close to it. Lay­cock told the group to scat­ter, and try to make their way to safety. Kear­ney and five com­pan­ions headed for To­bruk. Seven days later, the six men were cap­tured. They were not wear­ing uni­forms, and were at risk of be­ing shot as spies.

Ron­ald Kelland, re­count­ing the in­ci­dent in the New­found­land Quar­terly in 2005, records that “Rom­mel re­port­edly ad­mired the com­man­dos’ courage and au­dac­ity in at­tempt­ing a raid so far be­hind en­emy lines. Upon learn­ing of their cap­ture he gave or­ders that they were to be given ‘prisoner-of-war sta­tus.’”

Kear­ney, Col. G.W.L. Ni­chol­son tells us in More Fight­ing New­found­lan­ders, “spent the rest of the war in a Ger­man prison camp.” But he con­tin­ued to do his best to cause trou­ble for the en­emy. He es­caped three times from dif­fer­ent camps, only to be re­cap­tured each time. He tried again, for a fourth time, in May 1945. This time, he en­coun­tered an Amer­i­can army unit and won his free­dom.

Re­mark­able let­ters

Joe Kear­ney came back to St. John’s in Septem­ber 1945, and re­turned to the civil ser­vice job he had left in 1940. He was only 23 years old. He re­mained in the public ser­vice un­til he re­tired in 1983. He died in 1987.

Rom­mel did not sur­vive the war. Im­pli­cated in the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, he was given a choice be­tween sui­cide and a public trial. To pro­tect his fam­ily from Hitler’s reprisals, he took a cyanide pill in Oc­to­ber 1944. Win­ston Churchill, in his His­tory of the Sec­ond World War, paid him a gen­er­ous trib­ute.

“Rom­mel,” he said, “was a very dar­ing and skil­ful op­po­nent ... a great gen­eral. He also de­serves our re­spect, be­cause, although a loyal Ger­man sol­dier, he came to hate Hitler ... . For this, he paid the for­feit of his life.”

Many New­found­lan­ders per­formed heroic deeds dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, but none moreso than Joseph Kear­ney. He said lit­tle about his ex­ploits, but he told his fam­ily the full story in a re­mark­able se­ries of let­ters that he wrote dur­ing his years over­seas. They can be found to­day in the Archives and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions Di­vi­sion at Me­mo­rial Univer­sity’s Queen El­iz­a­beth II Li­brary.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor from 2002 to 2008.

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