Eighty one years ago, during the Second World War, the Slough area lost one of its most distinguished local residents when Captain Edward C Kennedy, R.N. died a hero on November 23, 1939.

He was the Captain of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi, which went down “with all guns blazing and colours flying until the last” while patrolling north of the Faroe Islands.

This was to enforce the naval blockade which the Royal Navy were imposing on Nazi Germany.

The Rawalpindi, then a P&O vessel, had been requisitioned in August 1939 and converted into an armed merchant cruiser by the addition of eight 6 inch and two 3 inch somewhat elderly guns.

In October she was set to work in the Northern Patrol.

This was an arduous form of naval service which was designed to prevent foreign imports of strategic materials reaching Germany.

The ships of the Northern Patrol were required to intercept shipping attempting to reach German ports by passing round the north of the British Isles.

This involved prolonged cruising in the stormy waters around Iceland, where even in summer, gales often blew for many days on end.

The German Navy was equally determined to ensure that this shipping got through the British blockade, so deployed some of their best warships to protect their merchant vessels.

The Rawalpindi had an early success, by intercepting a German tanker, which was then scuttled by her crew before a boarding party could get on board. Then whilst patrolling on November 23 1939, Captain Kennedy investigated a possible enemy sighting, only to find that she had encountered one of the most powerful German warships.

This was the battleship Scharnhorst, which had been conducting a sweep between Iceland and the Faroes.

At first Captain Kennedy tried to outrun the German ship, in order to report her location back to base and give time for other British vessels to come to his aid. After about an hour another German battleship was sighted, the Gneisenau. Despite being hopelessly outgunned, the 60-year-old Captain Kennedy on the Rawalpindi decided to fight, rather than surrender as demanded by the Germans.

Slough Observer: PICTURED: HMS RawalpindiPICTURED: HMS Rawalpindi

He was heard to say: "We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us, and that will be that. Good-bye".

The Scharnhorst sank HMS Rawalpindi within 40 minutes. She managed to score one hit on Scharnhorst, which caused minor splinter damage. Two hundred and thirty eight men died on Rawalpindi, including Captain Kennedy.

Thirty-seven men were rescued by the German ships, a further 11 were picked up by another converted British ship.

Like Captain Kennedy the crew of the Rawalpindi were mostly reservists, in civilian occupations before the war.

Their gallant action resulted in a statement in Parliament by the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain: “No one can have read the account this morning of that heroic action in the North Sea, by those naval reservists and naval pensioners who manned the Rawalpindi against overwhelming odds without deep emotion.

“These men must have known as soon as they sighted their enemy that there was no chance for them but they had no thought of surrender... Their example will be an inspiration to other’s who come after them”.

Captain Kennedy was mentioned in Despatches for his gallantry. His obituary was published in The Times newspaper. This included a statement by a friend and colleague of his, known only as R.B, who wrote: “No one would have laughed more than “K” at the conception of himself as a national hero.

“Yet if high courage, rare simplicity, and single-minded devotion to duty constitute an enduring claim to fame, no one deserves his laurels more than he. For he was one of the most gallant men who ever lived.”

R.B. then went to detail the main events in Captain Kennedy’s service record across the world, before concluding: “Those who loved him find it impossible to believe that his radiant, vivid personality has been altogether taken from them.

Slough Observer: Farnham Common, showing the Beaconsfield to Slough Rd, c.1910. Picture courtesy swop.org.ukFarnham Common, showing the Beaconsfield to Slough Rd, c.1910. Picture courtesy swop.org.uk

But he himself would have asked for nothing better that the end which came to him – no finer vindication of his whole life and work. In one of his last letters, posted two days before the fight, he wrote “I am as content as it is possible to be”. He will be content today.”

Edward Kennedy was a native of Burley, in the heart of the New Forest in Hampshire. He began his career in the Navy when he was 13, when with 60 other first-term cadets he joined the land-station HMS Britannia in Dartmouth.

He became a sea-going cadet in 1894. He served throughout the first world war with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea and was present at the surrender and scuttling of the German Fleet.

Throughout his naval career he served in every corner of the world, retiring in 1922 after 30 years service.

He then became the Conservative Party Agent, first at Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, before in 1929 he was appointed to a similar position for the Wycombe constituency.

His family then moved to live in Farnham Common. Captain Kennedy became a very popular figure throughout the area, also accepting the position of Chairman of the Farnham Common Branch of the Royal British Legion.

Captain Kennedy married Rosemary, daughter of Sir Ludovic Grant of Edinburgh. After his death he left a widow, two daughters and a son. His son was the celebrated journalist Ludovic Kennedy.

Captain Kennedy is commemorated in Farnham Common village church.