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The Honour and the Shame (True Stories from World War II) Paperback – 29 May 2008
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But there is a twist to this tale. John Kenneally was an assumed name for someone who had deserted and rejoined under fake papers. This charade (and of course the awarding of a VC to someone who technically did not exist) makes for extra interesting reading. There are not many holders of the VC and this was a typical tale of a young man on the rough side that found true calling and comradeship in the Army who then performed a heroic deed on a dusty African hill. There is no doubt that the author deserved his medal, but, as he points out, so did many who held that critical strategic point against the Germans.
An engrossing tale of the dirty end of war, the author (who sadly died in 2000) remains a credit to his regiment and to the British Army.
This prompted the question, is it correct to award the highest decoration for valour in the face of the enemy to a man who had previously deserted the Army in a time of war?
Having re-read Kenneally's reasoning, this appears to be a mute point given that if it was not correct to do so, would have seen the V.C. being retracted once Kenneally's true identity (Jackson) became known, however others may not agree.
Having said that this is a fascinating read, moving as it does from descriptions of guttural fighting (although the numbers of Germans engaged resulting in the award of the V.C. seem somewhat variable depending on who's account you read) and a fantastically ageless dark military humour.
This dark humour can be shown in Kenneally's account of his shooting dead a German chef and denying the enemy their lunch!
Similarly in the recollection of an exchange with a German soldier "... when The Stuka comes you duck, when the Spitfire comes we duck, when [the American plane] comes, everybody ducks ..."
Whilst it cannot be said that every Allied soldier behaved appropriately in war and the record of misdeeds speaks for itself, I was struck by instances of clear humanity and a lack of judgment on the part of Kenneally, which I doubt has become more acute over the years of reflections.
Kenneally's actions toward an injured German soldier and his rebuke of the treatment toward Allied troops ostracised due to what was regarded as a lack of moral fibre (later recognised as battle fatigue/shell shock) is a credit to his self discipline and humanity respectively.
Oddly enough this book was not as heavy on recollections of battle as I had first thought but contained other accounts of life (and loves) during WWII and attitudes towards life in the Army and the view of the opposing forces which is not something I was expecting but found engrossing.
As with so many of these, Kenneally's recollections provoked various questions and comparisons, which to me is an indication of a `good book' rather than just a good read.
The title is particularly and cleverly apt in this regard, the honour but also the shame.
I would have no issue recommending this book to anyone with an interest in the life of the `Tommy at the front end' and how he saw WWII.
In Tunisia he won the VC for a pair of daring attacks with a Bren gun. On the first occasion, as the Germans attacked, he launched a solo counter-attack and drove them off. On the second occasion, with the help of an NCO, he attacked the Germans again as they formed up for an attack and despite being wounded, maintained the assault.
After Tunisia he went with the Irish Guards to Italy and was wounded at Anzio. Post-war he found himself in Germany where he became a drunken wreck. To escape he joined the Parachute Regiment and was sent to Palestine where he helped to defend Jewish settlements and was nearly recruited (sexually) for the new Israeli Army but instead returned home to his much cuckolded wife and their children.
Kenneally is a competent writer and the book is written clearly and concisely as you would expect from an ex-Guardsman. His military exploits, whilst interesting, prove the weakest part of the book as the confusion of war proves hard to transfer to the page. By far the most fascinating sections (for their rarity and colour) are his life on the run with the Irish workers, life in Occupied Germany and the rural counter-insurgency in Palestine. Any of those three sections would be worth the price alone of this colourful memoir.
Read this in 3 days (fast for me), absolutely gripping, written in a relaxed way that really draws you into the life of this man. The action is described in a factual manner, but the impact on John Kenneally VC puts this in context.
If you like second world war books would highly recommend the first hand account of one of the actual men who fought on the front line rather than the generals of historians.
Hope you enjoy as much as I did.
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