Keith (on left) with his father; Keith in his Special Air Service uniform
Keith with Letitia Blake
J. Keith Killby
June 15, 1916–September 7, 2018
Keith Killby, a former prisoner of war and founder of Monte San Martino Trust, died yesterday at his home in London.
About 10 years ago, I first learned of the Trust.
At the same time, I discovered Keith Killby had been interned at P.G. 59 and escaped though the same hole battered through the camp wall that my father passed through on the night of September 14, 1943.
In planning a trip to the UK in 2012, I reached out to Trust secretary and trustee Letitia Blake. Might she arrange for me to meet Keith?
A few weeks later, on our first day in London, Letitia met my partner Mark and me at the Swiss Cottage tube station and together we walked several blocks to the quiet street where Keith lived.
He greeted us warmly and I immediately felt at home with him. He was a great storyteller and attentive listener, and he had a delightfully subtle sense of humor.
The visit was the highlight of my vacation.
Soon after my return to the States, Letitia put me in touch with Malcolm Angus, Keith’s nephew in Australia, who was editing Keith’s memoir. As I am a designer, I offered my help with design and print coordination. The book was published in 2013.
The book is Keith’s candid sharing of his experiences and a testament to the moral compass that directed the course of his life. At the time of the outbreak of war in Europe, Keith was enjoying a young man’s adventure on the other side of the globe, working on ranches in New Zealand and Australia.
“Why did I return to England when war was declared? Never did it occur to me to stay in Australia and work on the land. I knew that I had to get back. All my friends would be joining up – hating it, but joining up. I had to get home, but I had decided that I would join up in a noncombatant corps.
“During those two years in New Zealand, as I rode over rolling hills, surrounded by the gentle colouring and beauty of nature, the thought of war and all it meant often worried me. My thoughts went round and round. I knew then that I could not kill a man who was innocent of all crimes against me or others, but was merely carrying out what he had been taught was right – just as I would be doing if I were to fight.
“I knew that if all men were pacifists, then there would be no war. Equally, it was lunacy to believe that one hundred percent of the world would believe and act on that. I had never tried to convert anyone to my pacifism, but to good friends I had naturally tried to defend it. I could never answer with conviction when they said the whole world could never refuse to fight. I acknowledged that, while I could not bring myself to fight, pacifism was not enough. I found no way to further my argument intellectually.”
Keith describes his experience in the Medical Corps, multiple captures and escapes, and his unlikely assignment as an unarmed combatant to the elite SAS special forces:
“I soon learnt that the SAS were a tough lot, to say the least. From their ranks had come the force under Roger Keys that tried to blow up Rommel’s headquarters. The SAS were specialists in the art of killing in any way that was necessary to achieve whatever task they had in hand.
“In the SAS everyone was expected to fight and train damned hard and, when you weren’t, to enjoy yourself. This philosophy worked very well, even if the unit was never popular with the civilian authorities when they played too hard.”
After the war, Keith served on the executive committee of the Federal Union, an organization that advocated for the merging of sovereignty of nations:
“My first major task at Federal Union was to act as an organizing secretary for a conference of federalists in Luxembourg. We expected about two dozen, but in the end about 40 attended, including two Labour MPs. My position also meant that I travelled to various parts of the UK to speak about Federal Union. The War Office paid me and paid for my expenses. My audiences were usually Rotary Clubs or Germans still held in British POW camps….
“In 1948, I was a delegate to the Congress of Europe. Headed by Winston Churchill, the delegation included Anthony Eden and Harold MacMillan. At an informal breakfast discussion, many British delegates complained about the European demands for federation. In response to their objections, I said: ‘Britain may have been bombed and suffered the blackouts and strict rationing, but has never suffered occupation. Occupation by enemy forces is by far the worst of war, for one never knows whom to trust and on whose side your neighbour may be.’”
Keith remained with the Federal Union until 1954, when meat came off ration and distribution was back to commercial business. With money lent by a few close friends—including conductor Sir Adrian Boult, who Keith became friends with while working for the Federal Union—he reopened the family meat business of P. W. and J. K. Killby at Smithfield.
It was in his retirement that Keith proposed the idea for Monte San Martino Trust to a few friends, and in 1989 the organization was launched.
Keith was a stanch advocate for breaking down borders through cultural exchange and learning new languages. To date the Trust has granted to several hundred young Italians one-month study bursaries at language schools in England.
In a foreword to Keith’s memoir, Trust chairman Sir Nicholas Young described the motivation for Keith’s establishment of the Trust as a means of honoring those who helped him and his comrades:
“For nearly 30 years now, he has devoted his life to building a living celebration of the kindness of strangers. Like so many who were POWs in Italy, and who took the chance to make a break for it when the Italians laid down their arms in September 1943, Keith owed his survival to some incredibly poor, and incredibly brave, farming families. These kind, simple people took him in, fed and sheltered him, and then sent him on his way homewards, often risking their own lives in the process as German soldiers hunted down the escapers.”
Our world is diminished by Keith death, yet he lives through the thousands of lives he touched—directly and indirectly.
In his memoir, Keith writes that soon after his assignment to the Medical Corps he was confronted by an officer at kit inspection.
“Why are you in civilian shoes?” the officer demanded.
“No boots big enough, sir.”
“What size are you?”
“Size 12, sir.”
“Good God. I take tens,” the officer replied. In time the boots were issued.
Today Keith leaves us with big shoes to fill.
In a era of culture conflict and political upheaval, the way he lived shows us the power individual citizens have to effect change.
Through his example, Keith challenges us to be our best, to daily act with compassion, and to be uncompromising in adherence to our values.