Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Ludovic Kennedy, the Rawalpindi and the Lewis connection

Tributes have been flowing all day to Ludovic Kennedy, the broadcaster and campaigner, who died late on Sunday evening.

None was more fulsome or eloquent than Dr Finlay MacLeod's tribute on Radio nan Gaidheal this morning. It should be available soon on listen again, as they say on the Beeb, a seo.

Doc Finlay quite rightly made mention that one of the driving forces in Kennedy's lifelong fight against injustices was the treatment of his father, Edward Kennedy, by the Royal Navy, and went on, in the limited time allowed, to mention the poignant thread between that event and the Isle of Lewis.

The Daily Telegraph obituary takes up the background story: "Kennedy senior he had been a naval captain during the First World War, and in 1921 had narrowly averted mutiny by Royal Fleet Reservists by negotiating with the men directly. As a result he was court-martialled and forced out of the navy.

"The naval authorities seemed to acknowledge the injustice when in 1938, aged 60, he was recalled for active service and given command of the Rawalpindi, a P&O liner inadequately converted into a battlecruiser. A few months into the war in 1939, the Rawalpindi was sunk by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

"Ludovic Kennedy heard about the sinking on the BBC nine o'clock news bulletin and immediately rang the War Office to find out about his father. "The Captain? No I'm afraid he's gone," he was told.

"Bitter grief mixed with an unutterable sense of pride proved an emotionally shattering combination which only became more intense when, some years later, he learned the truth about his father's court martial. He would later admit that his concern about miscarriages of justice probably stemmed from his feelings at the injustice done to his father."

There was only ever going to be one result when on October 23, 1939, in mountainous seas in the Iceland-Faroes gap, the Rawalpindi engaged the most powerful naval ship in the world, the German battle-cruiser Scharnhorst.

Outgunned Captain Edward Kennedy, perhaps driven by the sting of his court martial refused the German order to heave to, and in the barrage that followed carried on firing guns with the ship ablaze from stem to stern.

Kennedy died in the action along with 237 of his men. Twelve of the gunners on the Rawalpindi were naval reservists from Lewis and eight of them were killed. The four survivors became prisoners of war.

Among the island dead was Murdo MacKenzie, who grew up on the croft next to ours in Swordale. My aunts, who were schoolchildren at the time, still paint a vivid picture of the day the local postmaster took the first wartime telegram to arrive our village informing our neighbours and relatives Donald and Lily MacKenzie that their son had been lost.

Donald John MacLeod, a maritime historian who documents these island losses, recollects how the shockwaves from that buff-coloured envelope spread. "I was a boy in Uig at the time and I remember the anxiety all over the island," he told me, when I wrote about the event for a piece on Armstice Day.

"At first it was thought the 12 Lewis lads had been killed. Then there was information that all the survivors on the German ship, Deutschland, were Scots - this lifted morale but no more was heard and gloom descended again."

And that was an enduring gloom. Within the month the postmaster was back at Donald MacKenzie's blackhouse door in Swordale. A second telegram: his second son, John, another naval reservist, had also been lost at sea. So the bell kept tolling, through all the villages, throughout the war.

No one on Lewis, as far as I know, took issue with Edward Kennedy's bravery or leadeship that day but the result was that his name, and that of the Rawalpindi, became woven into the wartime history of the island.

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