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Frank Hubert (Francis) McNamara (1894–1961)

by A. D. Garrisson

This article was published:

Frank Hubert McNamara (1894-1961), by unknown photographer

Frank Hubert McNamara (1894-1961), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P00336.001

Frank Hubert (Francis) McNamara (1894-1961), airman, teacher and administrator, was born on 4 April 1894 at Rushworth, Victoria, son of William Francis McNamara, an officer of the Department of Lands, and his wife Rosanna, née O'Meara, both Victorian born. Educated at Rushworth local school and Shepparton Agricultural High School, he was appointed a junior teacher in the State Education Department in March 1911 and in 1913-14 studied at the Teachers' Training College, Melbourne, for a diploma. After graduating he was a temporary teacher in 1915 at four schools.

McNamara had joined the senior cadets while still at school and in 1913 was commissioned in the 46th Infantry Battalion (Brighton Rifles). He was mobilized on the outbreak of World War I and carried out garrison duty at Queenscliff and Point Nepean fixed defences before attending the Officers' Training School, Broadmeadows, in December 1914. He was then an instructor at the Australian Imperial Force's training depot, Broadmeadows, until August 1915, when he was selected for the military aeronautics course at Point Cook Flying School. He graduated as a pilot in October and after attending an advanced officers' course was posted to No.1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, as adjutant when that unit was being formed in Melbourne as part of the A.I.F. The squadron sailed for Egypt on 5 January 1916 but McNamara went on to England where he was attached to No.42 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, from May to July. He qualified at a course at the Central Flying School, Upavon, and returned to Egypt as an instructor with No.22 Squadron, R.F.C., before rejoining No.1 Squadron, A.F.C., later that year. While serving with this unit he became the first Australian airman to receive the Victoria Cross.

In March 1917 the allies were planning an attack on Gaza and an important Turkish supply centre known as Junction Station was subjected to repeated air attacks by No.1 Squadron, and No.14 Squadron, R.F.C. On 20 March an Australian aircraft from No.1 Squadron, piloted by Captain D. Rutherford, was forced to land after being hit by ground fire. Although his aircraft, a BE-2C, was a two-seater, he was flying solo at the time. A large body of enemy cavalry which was close by had seen the aircraft land and galloped towards it. McNamara, who had been on the same raid and had been wounded after encountering heavy anti-aircraft fire, was on his way home. He saw what was happening and despite a severe leg wound decided to attempt a rescue. He was able to make a safe landing beside Rutherford who at once climbed aboard McNamara's aircraft. However, this was a Martinsyde, a single-seater, and he could only stand on the wing and hold on to the struts. His weight made the aircraft very lop-sided and his presence in the airstream added extra drag to one side. Owing to his wound, and these extra problems, McNamara was unable to control his machine on the rough ground and crashed it badly on attempting to take off.

The two airmen, who were uninjured, set fire to McNamara's aircraft and returned to Rutherford's machine, which by this time was close to capture by the Turkish cavalry. Also, by then, the enemy had begun firing at the escaping airmen, and with bullets kicking up the sand nearby, McNamara managed to climb into the pilot's seat while Rutherford went to work on the engine. While McNamara provided what covering fire he could with his revolver and with the enemy almost upon them, Rutherford swung the heavy four-bladed propellor. Fortunately the engine fired at the first attempt and Rutherford jumped into the observer's seat as McNamara gave the aircraft full throttle.

Despite some damage to the struts and fuselage, and with McNamara fighting pain and close to unconsciousness from loss of blood, he managed to get them off the ground safely. He then flew them back a distance of some seventy miles (113 km) to their home base at El Arish where he carried out a safe landing but lost consciousness from loss of blood and an allergic reaction to an injection. For this brilliant rescue, carried out under extremely hazardous conditions and under heavy enemy fire, McNamara received the only V.C. awarded to an Australian airman in World War I. A painting by Septimus Power, depicting the dramatic escape of the two pilots, is in the Australian War Memorial collection.

In April 1917 McNamara was appointed flight commander and promoted captain but was invalided to Australia in September and demobilized in January 1918. However, he was reappointed to the A.F.C. on 9 September, as lieutenant (honorary captain), as a flying instructor, an appointment which was then with the army and known as the Aviation Instruction Staff. When the (Royal) Australian Air Force was formed in March 1921 he transferred with the rank of flight lieutenant. He served at R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Melbourne, as staff officer, Operations and Intelligence, until July 1922, when he was appointed officer commanding, No.1 Flying Training School, at Point Cook; he was promoted squadron leader in March 1924. On 29 April, at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, he married Hélène Marcelle Bluntschli of Brussels whom he had met in Egypt during the war; his groomsman was Squadron Leader A. Murray Jones. McNamara was posted to Britain in 1925 on exchange duty with the Royal Air Force, returning to Australia in November 1927 and a re-posting to No.1 Flying Training School, initially as second-in-command, and then as commanding officer in October 1930. He was promoted wing commander in October 1931 but remained in command of No.1 Flying Training School until February 1933, when he was posted to command of No.1 Aircraft Depot and R.A.A.F. Station, Laverton, Victoria.

McNamara was promoted group captain three years later and in 1937 was sent to the United Kingdom to attend the Imperial Defence College; he was then posted to Australia House as the Australian air liaison officer with the Air Ministry. On the outbreak of World War II he was promoted air commodore and in 1942 was appointed air officer commanding R.A.A.F., London, with the rank of air vice marshal. He was later attached on loan to the R.A.F. where he was air officer commanding British forces at Aden in 1942-45. On returning to London he became R.A.A.F. representative at the British Ministry of Defence, and, in 1946, director of education at headquarters, British Occupation Administration, Westphalia, Germany. He retired from the R.A.A.F. that year, and was a member of the National Coal Board, London, in 1947-59. Survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, he died of hypertensive heart failure at Amersham, Buckinghamshire, on 2 November 1961; a large congregation attended his funeral at St Joseph's Priory, Austin Wood, Gerrard's Cross.

McNamara was a genial, 'cheery, unruffled soul', unassuming and perennially courteous. Air Vice Marshal A. T. Cole, who had served with him in Egypt, described him as 'quiet, scholarly, loyal and beloved by all … the last Officer for whom that high honour [the V.C.] would have been predicted'. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1938 and C.B. in 1945. In 1928 he had resumed studies interrupted by war service and graduated B.A. from the University of Melbourne in 1933.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps: In the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (Syd, 1923)
  • University of Melbourne, Record of Active Service (Melb, 1926)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • Reveille (Sydney), June 1966
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28, 29 Apr 1924, 26 Dec 1933, 8 Mar 1969
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Dec 1939, 10 Aug 1940
  • Sydney Monring Herald, 12 Nov 1961.

Citation details

A. D. Garrisson, 'McNamara, Frank Hubert (Francis) (1894–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frank Hubert McNamara (1894-1961), by unknown photographer

Frank Hubert McNamara (1894-1961), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P00336.001