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Biography

As a child, James McKenna travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Far East with his military parents. He joined the UK army at 15 and attended the Royal School of Military Engineering. After passing selection he served with the Paras in Europe and the Gulf. He has since run his own security companies providing electronic and physical protection before expanding into construction and development. James is now a full-time writer living between the UK and Portugal.  

Military Career

James McKenna served with 9th Independent Parachute Squadron.  9 Para comprised members of the Royal Engineers, ex-SAS and other specialist units.  Working in parallel with the Parachute Regiment they operated independently using explosives as the main means of achieving their objectives.  They are now part of the British Army's Rapid Response Formation, 16 Air Assault Brigade.



Tales From A Life...

ARRIVAL

Long ago when my father fought the war somewhere far away amidst sand, heat, flies and bravery, I decided to make my entrance into life; early. No one expected me, least of all my mother. Labour started in the front room of a terraced house in Harrow, a family home my mother visited from time to time. Outside in the street children slept in crowded air raid shelters. Inside younger sisters held my mother's hand. No doctors, no nurses, no midwives in their starched uniforms, but my mother screamed her way through hell and gave me life. In celebration, or maybe for other reasons, the Germans dropped bombs on England and the British dropped bombs on Germany. Nobody cheered, but I had arrived.

SMALL SIBLINGS AND OUR FIGHT AGAINST THE LUFTWAFFE

During much of the war while our father fought in foreign lands we lived in Egerton Crescent, a grand area of grand houses amidst the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.   The crescent boasted classical facades, first floor drawing rooms and walled gardens.  But our house also had a marble pond with central Grecian statue.  The only one in Egerton Crescent, even if empty of water.  The reason we were sole residents of such an opulent house rested with my mother being caretaker.  Wisely, the wealthy owner, anticipating imminent Nazi invasion had cleared off to America.  My brother and I however decided to defend our King and country and armed ourselves with wooden swords and cardboard shields.  At three and five years old, our duty lay in protecting our mother from invading German paratroopers and the Luftwaffe.   The small walled garden became the hub of our battlefield and the ground and basement floors our gun positions.  With upturned broom handles poked through windows our Ack-Ack batteries aided the local Home Defence to shoot raiding aircraft from the sky.  Every day we went to war, every night the bombers returned.

Bombs fell, then doodle bugs, V1 and V2 rockets sent by Hitler to crush our spirits.  But my brother and I dutifully shot them all from the sky.   We slept in the basement beneath a Morrison shelter, a steel cage fixed over our bed in the vain hope it would prevent the collapsing house crushing us beneath the rubble.

After a raid, my mother with rosary beads and gas mask clutched in hands would search for unexploded bombs that may have crashed through the roof during the deafening barrage.  These were the dreaded incendiary devices on  time delay fuses liable to erupt at any time.  Once the all clear sounded, my elder brother and I charged round the garden shooting German invaders with imaginary guns.  Sometimes when my mother returned she would be shaking, crying; so we hugged her, promising our love and protection.

Some months before the end of my third year in life, a wise person presented my elder brother with a carpentry set.  Perhaps they imagined he might help repair bomb damage inflicted by the Blitz.  Instead, being two years older and of a scientific and inquisitive mind, he decided to investigate the consequences of sawing my leg off.  Naturally I took umbrage and retaliated by throwing a large missile from the garden rockery.  It missed.  But the boulder, the heaviest I could lift, flew past his head and landed in the pond with the sharp sound of cracking marble.  

As our mother stormed from the house, my elder sibling screamed accusations of assault by an unruly younger brother.  I stood defenceless, pleading innocence before the evidence of my heinous crime.   Wrath from my mother fell upon my wicked being.  I had broken the pond.  She would lose her job, we would be homeless, out on the street; and it was all my fault.  I had accomplished what German bombs failed to do, crack the marble.  The slapping to my leg was painful but not so painful as being sent to my bed without supper, without a hug or goodnight kiss.  But then wasn't I the most wicked child who attacked his loving brother without thought of the consequences?

Hours later my brother, well fed and content, joined me in bed under the Morrison shelter to joyfully explain how the hammer from his carpentry set proved excellent at squashing snails.

Long after our mother occupied the bed beside us, sirens sounds and wound the night into fear.  Minutes later came the first pulsating thump of bombs and the mingling roar of aircraft.  Darkness turned to flickering cuts of light, then the glow of burning fires.  One wave of impacting blasts followed the other, until finally they rattled the windows and vibrated the building with the impacts of explosions.  The noise shuddered and shocked the very air around us.  Our mother had long crawled under the shelter, hugging us, protecting us with her body as the night became locked in a crescendo of ear crunching destruction.  We shouted, screamed, all three of us, trembling in our united refuge of love. Then at the apex of pounding, the bedlam of hell passed over and drew its terror to the distance.  We clung tight, clung to all we loved and cherished, the three of us against the evil storm.

We slept then while others died, but not our mother, she slipped from the bed and with candles thoughtfully provided by the Home Defence, went in search of the dreaded unexploded bombs, bombs capable of sending the whole crescent into oblivion.  My other said her prayers were answered.  No bomb had fallen through the roof, but the drift of smoke and fire filled every breath.  I didn't care because on her return my mother smiled and kissed me, I was forgiven, we lived and all was well.

Next morning I charged into the garden with my brother ready to fight any Nazi paratroopers who might have crept in under the fire storm. There we stopped and each held the others hand.  The roof of the house beyond ours tilted at a crazy angle and the garden no longer appeared as yesterday.  The Grecian statue centre of the pond stood headless, barely visible above the heap of rubble which had smashed the marble surrounds to pieces.  And I had received a sound slapping just for cracking it.  Life held no justice.  I hated Hitler then.          

That morning, united with my brother against the common enemy, we pushed our broom handles through the open window and shot the whole Luftwaffe out of the sky.  My brother and I stood as one, ready to defend our mother, our home and our nation.

I ADVENTURE INTO THE WORLD

When my mother could no longer stand the bombing or loneliness of sheltering two small boys in Central London, she moved in with her sisters.  Few bombs fell on Harrow and family support made her life easier.  Mine changed completely.  My six year old brother was sent to school and suddenly had a whole new bunch of play mates.  I was reduced from brother soldier to a little kid and a nuisance.  I stood no chance against eight and ten year olds who knew about bicycles, cricket and where to catch newts.  Because I had to be looked after or got in the way, he left me in the garden and cleared off to the park with his pals.  Small kids of four were definitely out and life became a bore; least till I found myself discovered by the twin girls next door.  They were a year older than myself, thin as sticks with long blonde hair and beckoning smiles.  They didn't want to play proper games like fighting Nazi storm troopers, instead they wanted to play silly girls games like nurses and injured soldiers.                                                                                                

Enticed by an offer to bite from their shared apple, I pushed under the chain link fence and entered their garden tent.  There I lay subjected to undivided attention and explorations as they searched beneath my clothes for possible wounds.  After that I quite enjoyed girls' games.  Only years later I realised I had entered a brave new world.

One day, when on my own, I decided to escape through the back garden gate and seek my brother in the park.  I went to the swings, the pond, the climbing trees.  No sign of a brother, no sign of his friends, in fact, no sign of anyone.  Then I heard distant cheers and laughter.  A group of kids came running across the playing fields, also mums and grannies, dancing, singing and waving their arms.  It seemed great fun so I joined them.  They ran from the park, down one street then up another till finally they entered our street.  Lots of people came to join them, shouting, cheering and dancing the Hokey Cokey in a line.  When they passed our house my mum dashed out to scoop me up.  I thought this was it, I was in for a hiding but instead she kissed me and whirled me in circles, laughing, crying and hugging me so my face became wet with her tears.  I cried too, I don't know why.

"Have you heard, have you heard?" she shouted, carrying me into the house, into the front room, a place forbidden except on Sundays.

All my aunts had gathered, my brother, my cousins, an uncle home on leave.  I don't know how we all fitted in, everybody singing and hugging.  Even old granddad upstairs in bed banged the ceiling with his stick. Everyone cheered, so I cheered too, this was better than Christmas, certainly the remains of the Christmas sherry were passed around.

My brother came over and together we did a knees-up dance."We did it, we did it, we did it," he sang.

"Did what?"

"Won, of course.  Hitler's dead, the war is over.  We won, we won."

In the following days flags and bunting made from painted newspaper were hung from houses and lampposts.   Tables in the street were laid with jam sandwiches, homemade lemonade and cakes.  We helped our mum glue paper hats and coloured them red, white and blue.  More uncles appeared in uniform, airman, soldiers, sailors.  Everyone joined the VE party.  A barrel of beer came out, even mums and grannies having a taste, all with big smiles and kind words for everyone.  The men carried a piano to the middle of the road and families gathered round to sing.  Then came dancing, kids racing up and down, including the girls from next door.  When darkness came, some of the men found fireworks, rockets which whooshed high in the sky and lit the whole neighbourhood, everyone oohing and arrhing.  So many people pushed and shoved I got lost.  I couldn't find my mother, my brother, my aunties or my cousins, not even the girls next door.  But I found my way home and sat on the step.  I remember I cried, I felt lonely, forgotten, but I had to be happy.  The war had finished, we didn't have to fight the Germans anymore, we were safe, who could ask for more?

Months later I came in from the garden and found a strange man sitting on the stairs, a case at his feet.  I called for my mum but no one answered.  Except for the man the house seemed empty.  He looked grey, gaunt, his eyes still and hollow.  He didn't smile, didn't say hello and his uniform hung old and worn, one I didn't recognise.  He had lots of badges, medal ribbons, wings, shoulder pips and strange crossed knives.  I raised my fists in defence as taught by my brother.  Though people left their doors open for each other, strange men weren't allowed in the house.  Rumours were some Nazis had escaped and might be hiding.

"Are you an American or a German?" I asked and tightened my fists.

The man just stared, then reached out a hand.

"No," he answered.  "I'm your father."

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MY FATHER

The time and place of birth dictates a person’s fate.  The lucky arrive to peace and plenty, others to war, hunger and despair.

Born during repression and anger which led a disenchanted Ireland into rebellion, my father started life when those who ruled strutted the human race towards disaster, when imperialism, greed and the arrogance of the elite dragged the masses into hell.

A child’s arrival

His mother from Co Mayo, his father from Tyrone, my father James (Jim) McKenna entered life into a Republican Catholic family who rallied to the call for Irish independence.  Threatened by Royalist militia and sectarian hatred, his mother occasionally escaped her troubles to find peace with her husband who, to lift them from poverty, worked in the steel mills of Middlesbrough, England.  On one of these trips she gave birth to my father.

Returning to Co Tyrone she lived with her six children and husband’s family who scraped a living from two small adjoining farms.  Encapsulated by hunger and fear, life gave no pity and nearly destroyed them all when in 1916 a Royalist gang attacked and burnt down their homes.  The men were executed, the women beaten and with their children, including my father aged three, thrown into the ditch and told never to return.

Eventually rescued by the British Army they were given a choice of free passage to England or more violence amidst the wars in the republican south.  My grandmother chose England, but found no peace.  The slaughter of World War One took men from the steel mills to the trenches.  Left in a slum with little money and now eight children, she suffered the intimidation of English anger at Irish Catholics, so returned to her own home in Mayo. 

The cruelties of childhood

While Europe butchered itself and Ireland fought for independence the family had no food save that won from the land.  To avoid starvation my father and his eldest brother were put out as hirelings.  A hireling lived with and worked for a richer family, in my father’s case, an elderly and childless couple.  They fed and treated him kindly, allowing him to return home every Sunday afternoon.  Eager for   family unity and love he would run the three miles to their cottage but his mother, knowing the time of his arrival, steeled her heart and locked the door.  Fearful his sisters would embrace him and the child not leave again, when he knocked on the cottage window she and his siblings turned their backs.  After six months and twenty-four visits with the same response my father stopped going.  He was then five years old.  The experience shaped his life, never allowing him to regain the trust in giving unconditional love.  From boyhood on he became self-contained, a loner and independent maverick who never went back. 

The wars in Europe over and Ireland now independent, my grandmother returned to her husband in England and the luxury of a weekly wage.   Aged fourteen, my father had received little formal schooling and his prospects lay in the steel mills or a return to his beloved Ireland, still poverty stricken following a vicious civil war.  Remembering tales of the families rescue by British soldiers he dragged his mother to the British Army recruiting office and made her swear he was aged fifteen, so allowing him to join the Royal Horse Artillery as a mule boy, a year under age. 


The bond of men at war

Though inwardly hardened he still retained parental and sibling love but the pain of early rejection always festered.  He embraced the army as his new family and his fellow soldiers as brothers.  The army became his life.  He rose quickly in rank becoming sergeant and, at the outbreak of World War Two, Sergeant Major.  During the retreat from Dunkirk he was commissioned in the field whilst under fire, a commission which can never be revoked.  On his return to England he joined the Airborne, received promotion and went to India as a Captain.  There he helped train the Gurkhas until returning to his regiment on formation of the 8th Army.  In the fight across North Africa he became involved in Tobruk and El Alamein and for a short time when the army held dominance over Rommel he ran the parachute school in Cairo which sent agents into Greece.  When the Germans were finally defeated in North Africa, my father joined the invasion of Sicily then fought in Italy and the battle of Monte Cassino.  Already twice mentioned in Despatches for bravery and outstanding leadership, amidst the bloody carnage of Cassino an incident occurred which affected his remaining military career.

Stand up for the brave against stupidity

A new senior officer had joined the regiment straight from England.  Well connected within the Establishment with a high ranking father in the War Office, he had little experience of engaging the enemy.  New officers in battle normally looked to the war hardened veterans for guidance, including those of lower rank.  Twice, against my father’s advice, this major placed men and guns on a ridge completely exposed to enemy fire.  Twice men were slaughtered and their guns blown apart.  When he ordered my father to the same position, my father refused, knowing it would result in the needless death of his own men and the destruction of precious artillery pieces.  The officer despatched a third unit and ordered my father be placed under arrest for refusing an order in battle, an offence that normally ended in dishonour and imprisonment.  The third unit were also wiped out but while awaiting his escort and finding a forth unit sent to the same position, to the relief of many, my father countermanded the senior officer’s orders and instead sent the forth unit to a more advantageous ridge; meanwhile he placed the senior officer under arrest for incompetence in the battlefield.  When the offensive finally finished the War Office suggested my father forget his charges or his career might suffer but he insisted, citing that the officer’s arrogant stupidity would only needlessly kill more men.  The subsequent court martial exonerated my father of all charges and he returned to unit.  The senior office was cashiered and sent home to other duties.

Back in action he continued with the liberation of Italy and then the Balkans, but where his brother officers received promotion he stayed a Captain.  In putting men’s lives before the honour of a fellow officer he had offended the Establishment.  To the elite, class, background and family connections provided everything.  He had none of these and worse, by his actions, this Republication trouble maker, this emergency commissioned office had shown one of their favoured sons as an incompetent idiot.  A crime for which my father was never forgiven.



At war’s end, not wishing to labour on the land in Ireland or in the steel mills of England and holding a commission no one could revoke, he stayed with the military, seeking out whatever opportunities were offered.  From captain to major he wandered through the years from posting to posting, from England to Austria, to Hong Kong and Nigeria, each time returning to a different place in the UK,  before seeking a new venture abroad, always travelling, always restless, never settling and never forgetting the army’s betrayal of his loyalty.  And wherever he roamed, his wife and children followed.

He retired a colonel instead of the brigadier or general he deserved to be, but stayed proud of his career, proud that an uneducated Fenian child had risen to the rank of officer and gentleman.  After 33 years of service, vindictive until the end, the War Office establishment never updated his records, posting his rank as captain, acting major.  They termed his war effort and subsequent service as satisfactory.  But they could not stop his pension nor take away the official recognition of his battlefield bravery.    




Civilian life bored him and he wandered from business to business as he had from posting to posting.  Eventually he bought a farm in Donegal near the fishing village of Killybegs.  Finally, he and his family had a home.  He drank too much, smoked too much and occasionally poured whiskey on his cornflakes.  His body still full of shrapnel from the war, every so often a piece would pop out until he had a jar full of small metal fragments.  His health deteriorated and doctors warned if he smoked another cigarette or took another drink he would be dead within months.  Never one to give up he decided to go out with a party.  The party lasted sixteen years.  He’s buried on a hillside in Donegal, in a place well drained and with fine views out to sea.


Sometimes when far away, every so often I think back to my father, to his life and the hills of Donegal; and sometimes, just sometimes, I think to hell with the day, to hell with the world and pour whiskey on my cornflakes.  Here’s to the few and the craic.

Writing Career

James McKenna has published two crime fiction novels.  

 

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