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Captain John Kelly OBE, naval officer (1949 - 1955)

Skilled second-in-command of HMS Fearless during the Falklands War who also flew helicopter sorties.
30 Apr 2023
Captain John Kelly, OBE
Captain John Kelly, OBE

John Stuart Kelly was born in Sheffield in 1938, the son of John and Anne Kelly, who also had a daughter, Patricia. While both parents were teachers, his father was an accomplished footballer who had been presented to Hitler during a tour of Germany. He returned to Britain convinced there would be war.

Indeed, John was fortunate to survive childhood because of the conflict his father predicted. A German incendiary bomb hit the family home in Sheffield and fell through John’s cot. His father smothered the device with sand.

The family moved regularly, living in North Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire. After passing his 11-plus, John attended the RGS, where he excelled at maths and physics, captained the 1st XV and was head of house.

An influential naval aviator who distinguished himself in Borneo and had a profound impact on the outcome of the Falklands conflict.

Flying under the trajectory of British gunfire, Captain John Kelly watched the shells fall on Argentine positions around the capital of the Falkland Islands while his helicopter helped to keep the batteries supplied with ammunition.

As second in command - or executive officer - of the amphibious assault ship HMS Fearless, Kelly was in the air only as a last resort. He had not flown on operations for more than ten years, but the ship’s helicopter squadron was short of pilots and Kelly volunteered.

For three days he flew with 846 Naval Air Squadron as co-pilot of a Sea King as the battle for Stanley reached its climax in June 1982.

His role in the final days of the conflict - two months after the Argentinians had invaded British territory in the South Atlantic - was only one of several ways in which Kelly influenced the outcome of events in the Falklands.

As a staff officer with the directorate of naval operational requirements at the Ministry of Defence in the mid-1970s, he helped to persuade the designers to change the specifications for the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible. Instead of a flat deck, the ship was built with a ski jump, which improved the performance of its Harrier jump-jets: the more efficient take-off allowed them to carry more weapons and fly further. The Harrier would provide the air cover crucial to victory in the Falklands.

In 1981, as executive officer of Fearless, he helped to persuade John Nott, the defence secretary, to reverse a decision to scrap the navy’s amphibious assault ships. Nott visited Fearless and was sufficiently impressed to change his mind. Without them, Britain would not have been able to retake the islands.

After the invasion, Kelly received a signal in the early hours of 3 April ordering the ship to prepare for war. He had been scheduled to take up another post, and had less than half a crew because most were on leave after duties in Norway and the Caribbean. However, he calmly organised the provision of stores and ammunition - and the rebricking of one boiler - with Fearless sailing in haste on 6 April. The ship would become the command centre for the British landings.

Kelly being shaved during HMS Fearless’s “crossing the line” ceremony on the way to the Falklands in 1982

Rear-Admiral Jeremy Larken, the captain of Fearless at that time, described Kelly, a committed Christian, as a “tough man”. He had a “well developed sense of emotional intelligence” and “a great way with people; a great way with sailors. He was hugely influential without anyone knowing he was there”.

In an audio history recorded for the Imperial War Museum in 2016, Kelly described the fierce air attacks on British ships in San Carlos Water - “the navy had been taking it on the chin for five days and lost several ships” - as well as the tension as they waited for decisive moves on land.

The descriptions of his helicopter sorties are vivid. He flew four hours of operations on 10 June after being recalled as a pilot; seven hours on the second day; and nine hours, one in darkness, on 12 June as the British assaults went in on the mountains around Stanley.

“I can remember picking up ammunition for the gun batteries, and moving it forward,” said Kelly. “We just threw out the rule book, putting as many shells, physically, as we could get in the net, never mind the weight, with the helicopter staggering off sideways, until it got transitional lift . . and then eventually got going.”

Kelly had started flying in 1960 after graduating from the naval college in Dartmouth and serving in a frigate and a minesweeper. He trained on jets but switched to helicopters. “It was the best decision I made,” he said, “because I joined the helicopter world at the beginning of the Sixties just as it was about to mushroom.”

He completed his commando flying training in 1962 and worked with the SAS in the Brecon Beacons. He then served with 848 Squadron in the commando carrier HMS Bulwark, which sailed for the Far East after its pilots had helped to tag elephants in Kenya.

In the spring of 1965 he was posted to Borneo, part of the former British colony of Malaysia, where an armed insurgency, supported by Russia and China, was being directed from Jakarta. The three-year conflict is known as the “Indonesia Confrontation”.

A young lieutenant, Kelly was one of 25 mostly inexperienced pilots serving with 848 who embarked on the aircraft carrier HMS Albion off the Cornish coast. He later led a flight of four Wessex helicopters deep into the Borneo jungle, commanding the detachment from a forward base at Nanga Gaat. The crews were nicknamed the “Junglies”.

One of his former pilots, Captain Iain Mackenzie, said: “He led by example and quickly moulded an efficient team that operated in the most demanding and hazardous conditions - high temperatures, humidity and frequent fierce tropical storms.

“His pilots had to fly hundreds of miles over dense jungle using the most elementary of maps without navigation aids, flying troops and supplies in and out of small, tight clearings hacked out of the jungle.”

Years later, Kelly told the Imperial War Museum: “It was the greatest adventure of my life, earning the Queen’s shilling, flying around Borneo, doing something I never imagined I would do. It was unique for me.”

Kelly was appointed MBE for his “outstanding leadership” in Borneo, and was later awarded the OBE for his service in the Falklands.

Among his many roles after returning from Borneo, Kelly commanded 846 and 847 Squadrons in Britain and Malaysia, and was dispatched to the Ganges Delta to undertake flood relief work. He was promoted in 1973 and took command of the frigate HMS Llandaff.

After leaving the frigate, he took a fellowship in international studies at Cambridge before serving as a staff officer in Whitehall. On return from the Falklands, he was promoted and posted to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium. He later held several influential positions at the Ministry of Defence, including Director of Naval Security.

He married Sue Watson, and the couple had three children: Jeremy and Oliver, who pursued careers in finance, and Sophie, who works in fashion. In retirement, Kelly became a church treasurer in his Hampshire village and took a leading role in the British Legion. When his wife suffered a stroke in recent years, Kelly dedicated himself to her recovery. She survives him along with their children.

He also retained a passion for HMS Fearless. In 2007, he watched as the ship was towed out of Portsmouth Harbour to the breakers’ yard. “It was a very emotional day,” he said. Fifteen years later, on the 40th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, he led the production of an anthology celebrating the ship’s contribution to the British victory.

Captain John Kelly, OBE, naval officer, was born on 16 April 1938. He died of skin cancer on 19 June 2023, aged 85.

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