The old graveyard at Dungarvan has a memorial to the Kirwan family of Dungarvan. Recorded on this headstone is "Jack died July 1944". This is actually Sergeant John Anthony Kirwan DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal), Air Gunner, service number 1067998, who was in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, 49th Squadron. He flew at least 28 missions but possibly as many as 39 and his Lancaster was involved in a near collision with a Junker when returning from a raid on Leipzig 19th February 1944; the Junker was downed and the Lancaster limped back to England on three engines and a broken wing. The Distinguished Flying Medal was awarded to RAF personnel for exceptional valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying an operation against the enemy. He was awarded the DFM in June 1944. He and his entire crew of 7 of the Lancaster bomber (LM541) were shot down over France on 8th July 1944 and all perished. He had been intending to come home within the next five months but of course never did. Of the seven crew members, he was the eldest at 25 yrs (The rest of the crew were aged 20 yrs, two aged 21 yrs, 22 yrs, 23 yrs and 24 yrs). The crew had been bombing the German V1 rocket storage base at St Leu in France, which they accurately bombed (and presumably destroyed). These unmanned and unpredictable V1 rockets were terrifying the people of London and the South East of England at the time. Sergeant John Anthony Kirwan is buried with the rest of his crew members at Le Chesne Cemetery near Conches in Eure, France. Conches is a small town on the Cherbourg - Caen- Paris railway line. More information can be found at www.49squadron.co.uk including a photograph of the crew members, the burial service in France and a war memorial at Conches village which includes the names of all the crew.
John Anthony Kirwan was based at Fiskerton Air Base in Lincolnshire. This base opened in 1942 for the 5th Group Bomber Command. The duties of bomber command were considered so dangerous, even by war-time standards, that the bomber crews were made up entirely of volunteers; these were very brave young men. Each volunteer was required to complete a 30 mission tour. Life expectancy of a crew was just five missions (we know John Anthony completed at least 28 missions so he must have been under considerable strain). Air crew trained for 2 years. Air crew acted as a team and were mutually dependent on each other. The rear gunner was seperate from the rest of the crew and confined in a small space for the duration of the flight. The main duties of the rear gunner were to advise the pilot of enemy aircraft movements to allow the pilot to take evasive action, and of course to defend the aircraft against enemy fighters. There are at least 5 combat reports for bomber Command in which Sergeant John Kirwan is mentioned in the National Archives at Kew in London. Sergeant John Anthony Kirwan was the son of Michael and Bridget Kirwan of Dungarvan, county Kilkenny. His family knew that he had a sweet heart at the time of his death but unfortunately no record has survived of her name or who she was.
In 2019 we were contacted by an Australian, Eric Whittle, whose father Bert Whittle had been a RAF pilot during WW2; he had been shot out of the sky over Holland and had spent three years as a POW before the end of hostilities. At the time Eric contacted us, Bert was 97 yrs old and living in Perth, Western Australia. In 1938 he had started training in the RAF School of Photography at Farnborough, Hampshire. There he had met an young Irishman called John Kirwan and the two became firm friends. Bert accompanied John Kirwan home to Ireland over Christmas; this Irish trip involved a train ride from Dublin south down to a Kilkenny village where he met John's family. In the chaos of war Bert Whittle had lost contact with John Kirwan; Eric was keen to establish what had happened to his father's friend and to find out, on behalf of his father, if his friend had survived the war or not.
We knew from our own research that a John Anthony Kirwan had died in 1944 and whilst he was commemorated on his family headstone at Dungarvan that he was actually buried in Conches in France. Eric was sure this was the John Kirwan he was seeking and sadly had to tell his father that John had perished in1944. Eric even made a pilgrimage over to Ireland to visit Dungarvan and to meet with the surviving members of the Kirwan family and to Conches in France to visit the actual grave of John Kirwan. Eric had a memorable and very warm welcome in Dungarvan and will always keep in touch with the Kirwan family there. (Eric's photographs of his visit to Conches and all the memorials there to Sergeant Kirwan can be seen on our posting of 6th October 2019 entitled Follow up to Sgt WW2 story).
However there is an unexpected twist to this sad story. The photograph that Eric had posted of his father Bert Whittle and John Kirwan in Aldershot in about 1938 led to a surprise contact from a lady in New Zealand, Jean Kerwin (note spelling), who said that the John Kirwan in that photograph was in fact her own grandfather. Her grandfather who had been christened Sean O'Kerwin, had changed his name to John Kerwin. This John Kerwin (note spelling) had trained as a photographer and rear gunner with the RAF and had survived many bombing raids over Germany during the war; he had been based, amongst other places in Farnborough near Aldershot. According to his family he was the only one of his intake of rear gunners/photographers to survive the war. The co-incidence seemed unmistakable. This John Kerwin had emigrated to New Zealand circa 1957/58 and died in Auckland in 1966 having served in the New Zealand Air Force. John's father was Edward O'Kerwin of Dublin had served in the Indian Army and later as a messenger in Whitehall, London. We are grateful to Jean for contacting us and all this clarification; she has been in direct contact with Eric Whittle in Australia. We are still mystified about how, and if, Eric's father Bert Whittle met John Anthony Kirwan of Dungarvan; according to Eric he apparently had a very sound memory of visiting Ireland with his young Irish friend and meeting his family down in the country. There is no doubt that the John in the photograph is John Kerwin from evidence of other photos held by his family in New Zealand. John Kerwin's family was based in London and Dublin and there are no known contacts for this Kerwin family in Kilkenny. Sadly Bert Whittle has now passed away but no doubt all three of these very brave men are able to have a good laugh about this where ever they now might be. We thank the Kirwan family of Dungarvan for sharing information about their very brave relation John Anthony Kirwan and also Jean Kerwin of New Zealand for getting in touch with all her information about her grandfather John Kerwin. Thank you everyone.