Colonel William Harvey-Kelly MBE
Late Irish Guards
by Brian Wilson CBE
formerly Irish Guards
Born in London in 1924, William Harvey-Kelly died in July 2015. He spent the first three years of his life in Quetta where his father was a Lieutenant Colonel DSO in the Baluch Regiment (Indian Army); his mother, a doctor, was the daughter of a liberal MP. In 1927, the family moved to a property in Co Westmeath, where William grew up with horses, fishing, shooting, and hunting, before attending Wellington College in England. In 1943, leaving Oxford early, he joined the Irish Guards and, after training, was posted briefly to the 3rd Battalion (lorried infantry in the Guards Armoured Division) in Yorkshire before becoming a 1st line reinforcement, ready for casualties after the expected Second Front i.e. invasion of Europe. As a reinforcement, he languished for weeks in various tented camps in the south of England before eventually crossing the Channel with a party of Guardsmen in mid-July 1944, reaching the 3rd Battalion and his slit trench in the bocage country in the south of Normandy as a platoon commander. On 11th August 1944, he took part in the disastrous two-company attack at Sourdeval, being one of only two officer to survive unscathed. Thereafter, from late August, with the German withdrawal at the Falaise Gap, the Guards Armoured Division assumed its proper role of pushing at speed across northern France, Belgium and Holland, coming to a stop at Nijmegen, as part of Operation Market Garden. At this stage, William was wounded and sent back to Britain. On recovery, in 1945, he re-joined the Battalion in Germany. For his services in Belgium and Holland, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Order of Leopold.
On a post-war commemorative trip to re-live Operation Market Garden, William was delighted at Joe’s Bridge to find the remains of his slit trench dug on the night No 2 Company captured the bridge (with the help of tanks of the 2nd Armoured Battalion). On the same trip, at Nijmegen, William recounted that on a watery polder on 21st September 1944 during the Battalion’s attempted advance to link up with the Airborne at Arnhem 15 kms away, he was sheltering under a culvert as a German tank approached. With his second shot, William hit the tank with the PIAT (projector infantry anti-tank). He said he was disgusted when the order came to withdraw, abandoning the Airborne.
After the war, William stayed in the Army, serving in Germany and Palestine. Following a short tour with the Irish Guards Independent Training Company in Ballykinler, he became ADC to the GOC Northern Ireland, Major General Ouvry Roberts. He then re-joined the 1st Battalion, serving in Germany and Egypt before being selected to attend the Staff College, where in 1955, he met Picia who was being shown around and found him washing his green Ford car. Later that day at a cocktail party, he persuaded her to accompany him dog racing. They were married in 1956.
As a keen horse rider in the Army, William took up polo at Windsor, playing with Prince Philip and the youthful Prince Charles. Picia exercised the polo ponies between matches and bred puppies from William’s dog, Meg, an Irish Water Spaniel, that used to come to work with him in London. After staff jobs in London District and on the Inter Services Planning Team, he was posted to the BAOR to command the 1st Battalion Irish Guards. In 1966, he was promoted Colonel and Regimental Lieutenant Colonel, Irish Guards.
After his retirement from the Army in 1969, he worked as the City Marshall to the Lord Mayor of London, visiting Japan and Canada. In 1972, the family returned to Ireland where William undertook fundraising for various charities and in smoothing relations between religions. The Troubles were then at their height and it took great tact, discretion, and some personal risk to carry out this work, bearing in mind that William was a Protestant. Other voluntary work was chairmanship of the Southern Irish Branch of the Irish Guards Association; a War Pensions Committee; and the British Legion. All this had to be done on the quiet. In 1989, he was awarded the MBE for services to the ex-services community in the Republic of Ireland. In 2000, with the thawing of relations, he welcomed the band of the Irish Guards to Dublin as part of the Regiment’s centenary celebrations. The culmination of his work was the visit to Dublin in 2011 of Queen Elizabeth when the Republic recognised the Irish soldiers who had fought and died in both World Wars. William was interviewed on RTE (Irish radio and TV) wearing his medals and sitting in his wheelchair, telling reporters that he felt her visit was a sign that the rift between the two countries was healing and that the Queen’s visit was something he had not expected in his lifetime.
William is survived by his wife Picia and their son Hugh and two daughters Caroline and Chessy. His death marks the passing of another survivor of that dwindling band of Second World War soldiers and of a man who strove to improve the lot of Micks in Ireland.