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Allan Francis (Frank) McSweyn (1918–1994)

by John Moremon

This article was published:

Allan McSweyn, early 1980s

Allan McSweyn, early 1980s

photo supplied by family

Allan Francis McSweyn (1918–1994), air force officer, wartime escapee, and business executive, was born on 31 July 1918 at Ashfield, Sydney, eldest of three children of Victorian-born Neil Alexander McSweyn, farmer, and his New South Wales-born wife Millicent, née Rath. Allan’s childhood on Mona Leigh, the family’s Ardlethan property, was marred by tragedy; his baby sister was killed in a horse-and-buggy accident in 1921 and his mother died in 1924. A housekeeper took on parental duties for Allan and his brother. Ill-heath eventually compelled his father to relocate to Sydney, where Allan attended Kogarah High School and later studied accountancy. In the late 1930s, working as a clerk and accountant, he saved for flying lessons, gaining a private pilot’s licence. A Presbyterian, he was also a keen sportsman who played soccer and cricket for Kogarah teams.

On 28 April 1940 McSweyn enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He started flying training at Narromine, New South Wales, and in August sailed for Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme. One of the first RAAF pilots to graduate in Canada under the scheme, he was commissioned in December. In April 1941, after completing training in England, he was posted to No. 115 Squadron, Royal Air Force, based at Marham, Norfolk. He was promoted to flying officer in June. Piloting a Wellington bomber, McSweyn was shot down on the night of 30 June while attacking Bremen, Germany. It was his fourteenth sortie. Captured three nights later while attempting to steal a Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine fighter, he was taken prisoner. Meanwhile, in December 1942 he was promoted to temporary flight lieutenant.

McSweyn made ten escape attempts from prison camps. His methods included using wire cutters made from fire-grate bars, and hiding in a laundry cart. At Oflag IXA/H, Spangenberg Castle, a prison camp for officers, he was caught trying to escape from the fortress by rope. In April 1943, while being transferred from Oflag XXIB, Schubin, to Stalag Luft III, Sagan (Zagan), Poland, he swapped identities with Corporal John McDiarmid, a British soldier. His changed identity undetected, McSweyn worked as an orderly until transferred in July to Stalag VIII-B, Lamsdorf (Lambinowice), Poland. Having escaped from a work party, he was recaptured at Danzig (Gdansk), where he had stowed away in the coal bunker of a small steamer bound for Sweden. He was returned to Stalag VIII-B, his real identity still undetected. The inveterate escaper’s persistence paid off in September when he escaped by tunnel. Using forged papers that identified him as a French workman, in company with a New Zealand soldier he made his way to Germany and across the country by train. The pair crossed the German-French border at Luneville and contacted the Resistance, which organised their crossing of the Pyrenees into Spain. McSweyn finally arrived back in England in December 1943.

On 6 March 1944, at the parish church, Winchester, McSweyn married Barbara Margaret Smith, a section officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was awarded the Military Cross in May for his resourcefulness and determination to escape, but for security reasons the award was publicised with a vague reference to ‘gallant and distinguished service’ (Herald 1944, 3). After a refresher course, he was promoted to temporary squadron leader in July, becoming an instructor at No. 105 (Transport) Operational Training Unit, Nottinghamshire. Possessing ‘strong character and above average ability,’ he displayed ‘utmost patience ... particularly when dealing with backward students’ (NAA A9300). In July 1945 he was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Returning to Australia in January 1946, McSweyn was discharged the following month. He accepted a position with Trans-Australia Airlines, and became its Queensland manager. As president of the United Services Institute’s Queensland branch (1953–54), he received the Queen’s Coronation Medal. In late 1955 he established a motor dealership at Lismore, New South Wales, and from 1960 held senior roles with American Machine and Foundry Co. (Australia) Pty Ltd, ultimately managing its Melbourne-based southern sales region. Extroverted and sociable, he made friends easily, frequently hosting dinner parties and barbeques. Retiring to the Gold Coast, Queensland, in the early 1980s, he died on 24 April 1994 in Brisbane and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and their son and daughter.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Adams, Murray. Against the Odds: Escapes and Evasions by Allied Airmen, World War II. Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2005
  • Australian War Memorial. AWM54 779/10/12, Account of escape of F/Lt A. F. McSweyn RAAF of 115 Sqn Bomber Command, escape from Stalag III
  • Burgess, Colin. Freedom or Death: Australia’s Greatest Escape Stories from Two World Wars. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994
  • Herald (Melbourne). ‘Gallantry Awards To 4 Airmen.’ 22 May 1944, 3
  • Hetherington, John. Air War against Germany and Italy 1939–1945, Vol. III of Series 3 (Air) of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962
  • McSweyn, Ian. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. A705, McSweyn, Allan Frank
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, McSweyn, Allan Frank

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Moremon, 'McSweyn, Allan Francis (Frank) (1918–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Allan McSweyn, early 1980s

Allan McSweyn, early 1980s

photo supplied by family