Military History

The Highest Honour #32 | Lewis McGee | Frank McNamara

By The Cove August 23, 2021


Sergeant Lewis McGee VC (1888 - 1917, 29yo)

Lewis McGee was born 13 May 1888 at Campbell Town, Tasmania. At the completion of schooling he worked as an engine driver at the Tasmanian Department of Railways. He enlisted into the 40th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force on 01 March 1916.

The 40th Battalion moved to England and eventually the French-Belgium border on 24 November 1916. McGee quickly developed a reputation as a reliable and fearless soldier. He was promoted to Lance Corporal only twenty-two days after enlistment and on 04 December, when the battalion was operating near Armentières, he was promoted to Corporal, and then promoted to Sergeant on 12 January 1917.

The 40th Battalion took part in the battle of Messines in June 1917 after which it joined in the 3rd battle of Ypres. From September conditions were appalling with soldiers battling in a 'sea of mud and water'. On 04 October 1917 the battalion was engaged in the attack on Broodseinde Ridge. McGee's platoon was suffering from machine-gun fire coming from a German pill-box. Single-handed, McGee rushed the post across open ground armed only with a revolver and, descending upon the garrison, shot some of its crew and captured the rest. His action enabled the advance to proceed. Afterwards he reorganised the remains of his platoon and was 'foremost' in the rest of the advance. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his 'coolness and bravery', but the decoration was posthumous for on 12 October he had been killed in the fighting at Passchendaele. He was buried there in Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium.

Air Vice Marshal Francis Hubert (Frank) NcNamara VC (1894 - 1961, 67yo)

Frank McNamara was born on 04 April 1894 at Rushworth, Victoria. At the completion of schooling he was appointed a junior teacher in March 1911 and in 1913-14 completed his diploma for teaching. McNamara had been a school cadet and in 1913 was commissioned in the 46th Infantry Battalion. He was mobilised on the outbreak of World War I and carried out garrison duty at Queenscliff and Point Nepean fixed defences before attending the Officer's 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 Australian Imperial Forces. On 05 January 1916 he travelled to England where 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. On 20 March 1917 an Australian aircraft, 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, Captain Rutherford 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 propeller. 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 just prior to losing 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.

McNamara was demobilised in January 1918; however, was later re-appointed as Lieutenant as a flying instructor. He rose through the ranks and by World War 2 he had been promoted to Air Commodore and in 1942 was appointed as the Air Officer Commanding, with the rank of Air Vice Marshall. McNamara retired from service in 1946. He died of hypertensive heart failure at Amersham, Buckinghamshire, on 02 November 1961; a large congregation attended his funeral at St Joseph's Priory, Austin Wood, Gerrard's Cross.


Portrait

Biography

The Cove

The home of the Australian Profession of Arms.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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