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The Newfoundlander who tried to kill Rommel


Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

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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