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3rd Baron Kilbracken (1950-2006)
Fighter pilot, writer and journalist
Born 1920 Died 2006

John Kilbracken, as he was known as to his friends, was born at Chester Street in Belgravia, London on the 17th October 1920, being the son of Hugh Godley, later the 2nd Baron Kilbracken and Rhoda Leonora Taylor.

Educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, at Eton he developed a lucrative sideline as the school bookmaker, with a daily turnover of £30 and was almost expelled when discovered, although he later redeemed himself by rowing in the school's first eight and winning the school's Hervey prize for verse. His book-making gains however enabled him to acquire his own plane, a Flying Flea (sold as a self-assembly kit for £50) and fund flying lessons, and thus it was natural when war broke out that he would become a pilot. Since the Royal Air Force appeared to be dragging its feet, he signed up for the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm in 1940 and after training on Miles Magisters and Hawker Harts received his commission in 1941.

He began his service career flying single-engined Fairey Swordfish biplanes, which according to Kilbracken himself, "seemed to have been left in the war by mistake", and whose main advantage appears to have been that they were so slow that it was very difficult for the enemy to shoot them down. He initially spent his time flying torpedo missions against German shipping off the Dutch coast and laying mines in the English Channel, but in 1943 he was transfered to convoy escort duty on merchant aircraft carriers in the North Atlantic. He later became a lieutenant-commander in 1944 in command of 835 Squadron where from the deck of the escort carrier, HMS Nairana, he protected the last but one convoy on the Murmansk run. It was during this particular mission that he carried out a strike on enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast on the night of 29th January 1945 for which he was awarded Distinguished Service Cross.

By the end of the war he had flown on sixty-seven operations, including the Murmansk run, and had made one hundred and thirty two deck landings in all weathers, experienced four complete engine failures, not including the incident just before VJ day when his Fairey Barracuda developed a fault in the hydraulic system, spraying him with hydraulic fluid, after which he just about managed to to land the plane before the anaesthetic qualities of said fluid caused him to pass out. As a result of these experiences he became quite terrified of flying and it was several years before he could even bring himself to step aboard a commercial plane.

He returned to Balliol College, Oxford to complete his studies after the war. At the time his ambition was to be a poet, and he had earlier published a small volume of verse, Even for an Hour, in 1940. There is of course no money in poetry and so, having written for both Isis and the Oxford Magazine, he chose journalism as a career.

Initially he was employed by the Daily Mirror as a racing correspondent where he achieved some success due to his claimed ability to dream the names of winning horses. Sadly this talent proved only temporary, and so Godley changed tack and became a feature writer, and wrote human interest stories. It was during one such assignment that he met the daughter of Hans van Meegeren, and developed an interest in the career of the infamous Dutch forger which later provided the material for his Hans Van Meegeren, The Master Forger.

In 1949 he left the Mirror to work for the Sunday Express where he wrote the 'Ephraim Hardcastle' column, and shortly afterwards was invited to join the celebrations marking the centenary of Christchurch, New Zealand which counted amongst its founders his ancestor, John Robert Godley. Given a car by Morris Motors he proceeded to take the overland route through India, and although the car failed to complete the journey, John duly arrived in New Zealand where he discovered that his father had died, leaving him the title and £1,000 together with the family home of Killegar on the outskirts of Carrigallen in County Leitrim and 400 largely unproductive acres in Ireland. The house was dilapidated and at the point of collapse, the estate neglected, its sole stock consisting of one aged cow. John resolved to rebuild the estate and much of his subsequent earnings from writing were devoted to funding this obsession. He subsequently became a freelance foreign correspondent, travelling to Cuba, China, Yemen, Angola and Aden and wrote for a wide variety of publications including The Tatler, Evening Standard, Daily Express, Punch and Vogue.

In 1957 he agreed to take on the job of escorting the actress Jayne Mansfield, who had come to Britain to publicise her new film Oh for a Man!. After calculating that the promised fee of 100 guineas would be sufficient to buy a couple of cows he agreed to take on the challenge and subsequently earned a similar amount from the Daily Express for writing a piece on My Four Days with Jayne Mansfield. He later named one of his cows Jayne in honour of this stroke of good fortune.

A few weeks after his encounter he suggested to Charles Wintour, the editor of the Daily Express, that he might go to Moscow to cover the 40th anniversary celebrations of the October 1917 revolution. Having obtained a tourist visa to the Soviet Union, once in Moscow he succeeded in giving his official minder the slip and suitably disguised as a member of the Russian proletariat managed to insinuate himself into the civilian part of the parade through Red Square. He then gatecrashed a reception at the Egyptian embassy where he managed to engage Khrushchev in conversation for nearly half an hour. The resulting copy made the lead story in the Express, which appeared in the paper's Irish edition under the headline 'Only Irish peer in Moscow watches Biggest Military Show'; although as Kilbracken himself pointed out he was very likely the only peer of any kind behind the Iron Curtain at the time.

To compliment his earnings from writing he engaged in various money-making ventures such as growing Christmas trees and making cream cheese. He also conceived of the idea of selling square yards of Irish bog at a nickel a yard to romantically inclined Irish-Americans eager to own a patch of the old country. Sadly this last enterprise foundered when he discovered that the cost of printing and sending a certificate of ownership to his customers was costing him the equivalent of two nickels.

Despite becoming the Baron Kilbracken in 1950 it was some years before he made use of the title. In June 1951 he caught a bus to Westminster intending to take up his seat but lost his nerve, and promptly took the bus home again. He recovered his nerve in the following year, but rarely attended debates and didn't speak in the House until 1961. Having joined the Liberal Party in 1960, he later pronouced Liberalism as "irrelevant" and signed up for the Labour Party in 1966. He later began taking a more active interest in the House and began speaking on subjects as organic farming (which he had adopted on his own farm back in the 1950s) and the threat posed by chemicals to human health.

He briefly achieved some small level of public recognition when, after the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland and the Bloody Sunday shootings of January 1972, he returned his war medals in protest and renounced his British citizenship in favour of that of the Irish Republic. This did not compromise his right to sit as a member of the House of Lords, and he thereafter continued to argue for an end to partition in Ireland as well as campaigning on behalf of Iraqi Kurds.

Under the name 'John Godley' he also wrote a number of books including; Tell Me the Next One (1950), Living Like a Lord (1955), A Peer Behind the Curtain (1959), Shamrocks and Unicorns (1962), a book of wartime reminsicences Bring Back my Stringbag: Swordfish Pilot at War 1940-45 (1979). His 1982 book The Easy Way to Bird Recognition won the Times Educational Supplement book award, and was very naturally followed by The Easy Way to Tree Recognition (1983) and The Easy Way to Wild Flower Recognition (1984).

The Baron Kilbracken died in hospital after a short illness at 11am on the 14th August 2006 at the age of eighty-five. He was first married to Penelope Reyne, the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, in 1943 but like many a wartime marriage it did not last. She did however bear him two sons, one of whom predeceased him, before their divorce in 1949. Much later he remarried Susan Heazlewood in 1981 who bore him a further son prior to their divorce in 1989, whilst he also had a daughter named Lisa, from an extramarital affair.

His eldest son, Christopher John Godley, succeeded him as the 4th Baron Kilbracken.


SOURCES

Obituaries of the late Lord Kilbracken:

  • The Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/news/2006/08/15/db1501.xml
  • The Guardian http://books.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,1851238,00.html
  • The Scotsman http://news.scotsman.com/obituaries.cfm?id=1193912006
  • The Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,60-2312768.html

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