508631 Sgt John Joseph “Paddy” Kavanagh DFM DOAS 18 October 1941
Born in 1908 at Castletown, of County Wexford in Ireland, John Kavanagh was working on his father’s dairy farm when, in May 1928 at the age of 19, he left to join the Royal Air Force. By the late Summer, AC2 Kavanagh was an Aircrafthand at 2 FTS Digby, in the days when their kit ranged from Avro 504s to the ageing Vickers Vimy.
By the late 1930s, he was based in the Middle East and had gained the Air Gunner’s winged bullet badge and soon the Wireless Operator’s fistful of sparks. In April 1938 he was posted to No 6 (Bomber) Squadron, who had long been serving in the Middle East. They were then operating with the Hawker Hardy out of Ramleh in Palestine, where 211 Squadron Hawker Hinds of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flight were also to be detached (from July to September 1938).
By late 1941, Sergeant Kavanagh had got away with some three years on operations, starting in Palestine pre-war as a WOp/AG against Arab irregulars, and later as an Observer with 211 Squadron from early 1940.
Sgt JJ “Paddy” Kavanagh DFM, 211 Squadron, cSeptember 1941 (via W Baird)
From July 1940 in the Western Desert, Paddy Kavanagh flew on at least 23 raids against the Italians with 211 Squadron at EL Daba. In late November 1940 the Squadron deployed to Greece where he flew on at least 11 more operations, from Menidi (Tatoi) and from Paramythia.
Off duty, Paramythia 1941 (Sharratt collection)
Peter Dennis (left) and Paddy Kavanagh DFM (centre) pass the time over a game of chess, as Doug Davis looks on. The grassy setting is typical of other camp shots at Paramythia. The Bish included a sketch of this photograph in Epitaph for a Squadron. Davis was killed in action over Syria in May 1941 with his crew.
By the end of February 1941, after which the Squadron records fail in detail, Kavanagh had accrued at least 34 recorded sorties, almost all as Observer to the equally seasoned ‘B’ Flight leader F/Lt George Doudney as pilot with Sgt W “Titch” Wright in the turret.
550968 AC1 William Wright had joined the Squadron at Grantham in September 1937 as Wireless Operator and Air Gunner. By the time he left them in June 1941, he had accumulated 232 hours on Hinds, including 15 sorties in action over Palestine in late 1938, and 266 hours on Blenheim Is. From June 1940 he had flown on 39 operations as WOp/AG mostly with George Doudney as ‘B’ Flight commander and Kavanagh as Observer. Sadly, Wright, of Bishop Auckland, was killed in the loss of 511 Squadron Avro York MW116 late in the war. En route to the Yalta conference on 1 February 1945, the aircraft ditched short of Malta with the loss of 15 of the passengers and crew.
Palestine 1938 and 1939
Kavanagh’s DFM had been confirmed just before the Christmas 1939, in the London Gazette of 22 December (page 8466): "for gallant and distinguished services in connection with operations in Palestine during the period 1st April to 30th July 1939".
On 4 April 1940, the 211 Squadron Operations Record Book took pleasure in recording the award, in identical terms to the London Gazette announcement. That day, the AOC 202 Group, A/Cdr R Collishaw DSO & Bar OBE DSC DFC arrived at El Daba by air to present Sgt Kavanagh with his decoration.
In mid 1939 the Squadron had been serving at Ismailia and El Daba—Kavanagh’s name does not appear in their records until after that time. But the unrest in Palestine in 1938 and 1939 had brought action to a number of RAF Squadrons in the Middle East, flying in support of ground forces through the XX emergency call system. Chief among them was No 6 Squadron, at Ramleh with their Hawker Hardys from January 1938.
Although his DFM award had also been noted in Aeroplane of 5 January 1940, it took some time to find the citation. The Air Ministry Bulletin No 257 of 21 December 1939 gave a pretty full account of his pre-war service in Palestine:
"Sergeant Kavanagh has served in No.6 (Bomber) Squadron since 10th April 1938. Involved in a bad crash shortly after his arrival, he spent nearly four months in hospital and on sick leave, but from September 1938 to June 1939 he has carried out over 200 hours flying of an operational nature as a wireless operator and air gunner.
Throughout this time his courage during many actions with the enemy and his efficiency in the air and on the ground have served as a splendid example to the other operators and air gunners in the squadron.
On 15 September 1938 he originated an XX [call] and was responsible for eight casualties with his own gun.
On 17 November 1938 while escorting Officer Commanding, 18 Infantry Brigade and party in the vicinity of Har Tuv, the land forces were ambushed by an armed gang. Sergeant Kavanagh sent an XX call and then, in conjunction with his pilot, successfully attacked the enemy inflicting casualties.
"He has answered a large number of emergency calls for air assistance during which air action has been taken against the enemy."
The Sudan 1941
After a year of hard service in the Desert, Greece and finally Palestine, the Squadron was stood down from operations in June 1941. The final trace of Sgt Paddy Kavanagh in the formal 211 Squadron record occurs on 5 June 1941, noted among the aircrew of the Air Party readying to stage via Heliopolis and down to The Sudan. There the Squadron was to act as a reserve Squadron for training RAAF aircrew on Blenheim operations, later to act as a nucleus for 72 OTU which then absorbed the Squadron on formation on 18 November 1941.
Bill Baird, a fellow WOp/AG, knew Paddy well, from the Desert, Greece and Palestine days with 211 Squadron in 1940 and 1941. Although the 211 Squadron record does not cover the late 1941 period, Paddy was present in the group photographs taken at Wadi Gazouza held by Bill and other Squadron personnel. These prints date from about September or October 1941, according to common recall and from the presence of RAAF personnel with known periods of posting to the Squadron.
508631 John Joseph “Paddy” Kavanagh DFM died of natural causes in The Sudan on 18 October 1941 while serving with 211 Squadron in its Blenheim training role. The Air Ministry Casualty Communique No. 96, published in Flight of 11 December 1941, marked his passing under the heading Died on active service—the term then used for natural deaths while on war service.
The Squadron laid Paddy to rest at Gebeit, on the railway line to Port Sudan, where Bill Baird attended his funeral service. During the Abyssinian crisis, in 1935 and 1936 Gebeit had been home to the Fairey Gordons of 35 Squadron and the Vickers Vincents of 207 Squadron.
Gebeit Swimming Pool c1941 (Goddard family collection)
Alick Goddard served in 52 Repair and Salvage Unit, based in The Sudan and at Wadi Gazouza in 1940 and 1941. Here he has caught a pleasant spot in the hard back country of Sudan, the swimming pool at Gebeit—no doubt also used for railway needs. The 211s would have enjoyed this stop, too, some 20 miles short of the Wadi Gazouza airfield.
The pool retaining walls are made of steel railway sleepers. In the distance, the pump-house. The three airmen are unidentifiable. One appears to carry a towel. Presumably that is Cpl Goddard’s shadow, standing in the back of the truck, shadowed in the right foreground.
Conditions in The Sudan have always been difficult at best. The problem of maintaining war graves there is discussed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site entry for the Khartoum War Cemetery and Memorial, where Paddy was reburied in 1960.
The CWGC record attributes him to 241 Squadron—apparently a transcription error in creating printed casualty registers—at the time of his death 241 Squadron was based in the UK, not arriving in the ME until late 1942. From the personal accounts and photographs of 211 Squadron members, there is no doubt that Paddy was still a 211 Squadron man when he died.
There in Khartoum, Paddy Kavanagh DFM rests not alone: among the war dead of the Commonwealth also lie three Australians of 72 OTU, Sgts Skinner, Dunstone and Thomson, lost in the training accident to Blenheim IV Z9612 on 25 November 1941.
In Memory of
Sergeant JOHN JOSEPH KAVANAGH DFM 508631
241 [sic: 211] Sqdn Royal Air Force
who died on 18 October 1941
Remembered with Honour
Khartoum War Cemetery (CWGC)
211 Squadron Operations Record Book TNA AIR 27/1302
Air Ministry Bulletin No 257 via HA Halliday
HMSO London Gazette 22 December 1939
Kavanagh 508361 National Archives Airmen’s Service Record (Form 434) AIR 79/3028 (for year 1928)
Flight 11 December 1941
Baird, Barclay, Sharratt family: correspondence and photographs.
Goddard family photograph collection.
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