• Gemma Corby

How is this Suffolk village linked to the famous Kennedy curse?


Blythburgh is a small Suffolk village, with some big tales to tell; from Cromwell’s men vandalising its church, to the Black Shuck (the East Anglian Devil Dog) terrifying a God-fearing congregation. Yet few people know about the village’s connection to the Kennedy dynasty.


Blythburgh Church in Suffolk

Joe Kennedy Jr. was born on 25 July 1915. As the eldest son of Joseph Kennedy Sr and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, he had a bright future and looked destined for presidency. During the Second World War, he signed up to do his duty like many other young American men, including his younger brother, John F. Kennedy (Jack). The two siblings were natural rivals, so when Jack was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart for saving the lives of eleven of his men in 1943, Joe was determined not to be outshone by his younger brother.

Final photograph of Joe Kennedy Jr, taken shortly before leaving RAF Fersfield, on 12th August 1944

Joe Jr was a navy pilot, who in 1944 had been flying anti-submarine patrols in the English Channel. He was entitled to return home, as he had completed thirty missions, but he insisted on remaining for the D-Day invasion, to help guard the amphibious Allied Forces against German U-Boat attacks. Even after D-Day, Joe was not content to go home – feeling he still had more to prove.

It was at this point Joe volunteered for a highly dangerous mission: to fly a navy PB4Y Liberator bomber, packed with 22, 000 lbs of explosives – the highest concentration of dynamite to be loaded into a plane at that point in the war. This was Operation Anvil (the US Navy’s involvement in a wider mission called Operation Aphrodite), where Joe and his co-pilot Wilford J. “Bud” Willy were to fly their loaded plane to the German V3 Supergun site in Mimoyecques, France. They planned to parachute out, after activating the remote-control guidance and arming system – effectively turning their plane into a drone.

Joe and Wilford took off from RAF Fersfield, near Diss in Norfolk, on Saturday 12th August 1944. Wilford had pulled rank over Joe’s usual co-pilot, James Simpson, as he felt the mission required someone with more experience. Following behind them to film the mission, were pilot Lt. Robert A. Tunnell and combat cameraman, Lt. David J. McCarthy, in a USAAF-F8 Mosquito. Although it is likely the incident was filmed, no footage has surfaced. It is possible that it was destroyed due to the classified nature of the mission. Afterall, the details of Operation Anvil remained secret until 1966, with the names of the crew members not being disclosed until 1970.

The Mosquito belonged to the 325th Photographic Wing, under the command of Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, the son of wartime president Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). The wing managed the photographic reconnaissance units of the Eighth Air Force until the end of the war. Elliott would later say that he was also in the Mosquito on the day of Joe’s death, and although there are no official records to substantiate this, the story has gained currency over the years. This means that on that fateful day in 1944, the son of the American president and the brother of a future one, were both in Suffolk.

The River Blyth flows through the village of Blythburgh

The explosion killed Joe and Wilford instantly, as well as damaging at least 59 buildings (accounts vary). Fortunately, no one was hurt on the ground. The Mosquito had to make an emergency landing at RAF Halesworth (in Holton, Suffolk), after debris from the explosion took out the port engine and penetrated the plexiglass nose. McCarthy was left with wounds in his right forearm.

Mick Muttitt, a local eyewitness, was nine years old when the incident occurred. He recalls the horror of seeing the aircraft explode: “I vividly remember seeing burning wreckage falling earthwards, while engines with propellers still turning, and leaving comet-like trails of smoke, continued along the direction of flight before plummeting down…The fireball changed to an enormous black pall of smoke resembling a huge octopus, the tentacles below indicating the earthward paths of burning fragments.”

Before the fateful flight, Joe was warned by an electronics officer that the remote-controlled arming system on the plane was faulty, as well as the fact that a number of things could trigger the explosives (such as radio static). However, nothing could deter Joe from undertaking this dangerous mission.

Blythburgh: a peaceful final resting place

The official cause of the premature explosion is unknown but, according to Robert Dallek’s excellent book on JFK, a veteran of the British Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who served as a telecommunications mechanic in Suffolk during the war, suggested in 2001 that the explosion was a result of the Americans based in the south of England switching their radars off. He explained: “Unfortunately, they did not warn their British Allies of the exploit, so it [Joe and Wilford’s plane] came under the scrutiny of a large number of powerful and less- powerful, ground-based radars. Their pulse upset the delicate pulses of the radio controls of the two Liberator bombers, leading to gigantic aerial explosions and the total destruction of the air armada.”

Could it have been the signals from the RAF High Street radar station, located just four miles away in Darsham, that triggered the fatal explosion?

I have visited Blythburgh hundreds of times throughout my life, but it is only in the last decade that I have become aware of this story. It surprises me that there isn’t a memorial to Joe and Wilford in the village, although there is an information board in the church.

Joe Jr (right) and his brother Jack (left), photographed during World War II

The two men are listed in the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery at Madingley, near Cambridge. They were both posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

For further information click on the embedded links within this post.

It may also be worth visiting:

https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/remembering-death-lt-joe-kennedy-jr-and-america%E2%80%99s-first-combat-drones

Robert Dallek’s book is called John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life. It is published by Penguin books.

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©2019 by Gemma Corby.