Saturday, 21 May 2016

The high-flying careers of the four
Beamish brothers from Dunmanway

Dunmanway, Co Cork … the home of the four Beamish brothers, heroes on the ground at rugby and in the air with the RAF (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Crete yesterday [20 May 2016], I recalled the role of Sir George Beamish from Dunmanway, Co Cork, who was the senior RAF officer on Crete during those momentous events in May 1941.

In an unexpected coincidence, I found myself in Dunmanway later yesterday on my way to Bantry, where I am staying for the weekend, and I realised the unique contribution of the four Beamish brothers from Dunmanway – Victor, George Charles and Cecil – who were all accomplished sportsmen for many decades in the 20th century and who all had distinguished careers in the Royal Air Force.

These four Beamish brothers were the sons of Francis George Beamish and Mary Elizabeth Beamish of Dunmanway. They also had two sisters, Eileen and Kathleen.

The Model School in Dunmanway, where Francis George Beamish was the principal and Sam Maguire went to school (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Burke’s Irish Family Records indicates that the Beamish family held lands in Co Cork from before 1688. Francis George Beamish was appointed the principal of the Model School in Dunmanway in 1903. One of the most famous pupils was the Irish republican, Sam Maguire (1877-1927). Like the Beamish brothers, Sam Maguire was baptised in the Church of Ireland, but had left the Model School by the time the Beamish family arrived. He is said to have recruited Michael Collins into the IRB while they were both working in the post office in London.

Later, Sam Maguire took the anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War, and lost his job in the Civil Service in the Irish Free State. The GAA later honoured Sam Maguire by giving his name to the All-Ireland Football Cup.

Meanhile, Frank Beamish left Dunmanway in 1912, becoming a school inspector, first in Dublin, then in Co Derry (1914) and finally in Co Antrim.

Wing Commander FV Beamish (right), the Station Commander of North Weald, Essex, with Squadron Leader EM Donaldson after a combat over Dunkirk on 30 June 1940.

The eldest of these four brothers, Group Captain Francis Victor Beamish (1903-1942), was an RAF fighter pilot and flying ace during World War II. After flying during the Battle of Britain he continued to lead fighter operations until he was killed in action in 1942.

Victor Beamish was born in the headmaster's residence at the Model School in Dunmanway on 27 September 1903. He attended Coleraine Academical Institution and then entered the RAF College, Cranwell, as a flight cadet on 14 September 1921. After graduation in August 1923 he was granted a permanent commission as a pilot officer on 15 August 1923, and posted to 4 (Army Co-operation) Squadron at RAF Farnborough on 18 September 1923.

In January 1925, Victor was posted to the RAF School of Army Co-operation at Old Sarum, before being promoted flying officer on 15 February 1925, joining No 31 Squadron RAF at Ambala, India on 18 November 1925. He transferred to No 60 Squadron RAF at Kohat in April 1926. Returning to England in October 1926, Victor took part in a course at the Central Flying School, RAF Wittering, before going on tour as an instructor at No 5 Flying Training School, RAF Sealand.

Victor played rugby for Harlequins, Leicester, Hampshire, the RAF and Irish Trials for several years. He was the eldest of the Beamish brothers who were all accomplished sportsmen and RAF officers; his younger brothers were George, Charles and Cecil Beamish.

On 16 September 1927, Victor returned to RAF Cranwell as a member of the staff and promoted flight lieutenant on 12 December 1928. He was posted to Canada on 22 March 1929 on exchange with an RCAF officer. Returning two years later he was posted to No 25 Squadron RAF at RAF Hawkinge as a Flight Commander.

In January 1932, he was appointed Personal Assistant to the AOC at RAF Uxbridge. In 1933 he was admitted to hospital at Uxbridge, due to tuberculosis, and had to relinquish his commission on 18 October 1933 due to ill-health.

In 1934, Victor secured a civilian post at No 2 Flying Training School RAF Digby, which he held until appointed civilian adjutant at RAF Aldergrove on 18 May 1936 simultaneously being granted a commission as flight lieutenant in the Reserve of Air Force Officers.

A notice in the London Gazette in February 1937 recorded that Flight Lieutenant Francis Victor Beamish (RAF retired) had been reinstated on the active list as a flight lieutenant with effect from 27 January 1937 (with seniority dated 23 March 1932.

Having recovered his health he was reinstated with full flying status and posted to command No 2 Armament Training Camp and then Meteorological Flight at RAF Aldergrove, near Belfast. He was appointed to command No 64 Squadron RAF at RAF Church Fenton on 8 December 1937.

Victor Beamish was an honorary aide-de-camp representing the RAF on the staff of the Governor of Northern Ireland from 6 April 1937 until 6 January 1938. On 1 January 1938, he was awarded the Air Force Cross for his work in the formation of the ‘Met Flight.’

When Victor completed a course at RAF Staff College, Andover, he was appointed to command No 504 Squadron RAF at RAF Digby on 13 September 1939, before sailing to Canada in January 1940 on staff duty. He was Mentioned in Despatches on 20 February 1940 for his service in command.

Group Captain Francis Victor Beamish (1903-1942)

Victor was promoted Wing Commander on 1 March 1940, and returned to England, assuming command of RAF North Weald on 7 June 1940.

As a fighter pilot, he took every opportunity to fly operationally. On 18 June 1940, he claimed two Messerschmitt Bf 109s destroyed, on 9 July 1940 one Messerschmitt Bf 110 damaged, then on 12 July 1940 a Dornier Do 17 bomber shot down.

In action at the height of the Battle of Britain on 18 August 1940, Victor claimed a probable Junkers Ju 88, on 24 August 1940, a Dornier Do 17bomber damaged, and on 30 August 1940 two probable Messerschmitt Bf 110s. On 6 September 1940, Victor claimed two Junkers Ju 87s, on 11 September 1940 a probable Heinkel He 111 bomber, on 15 September 1940 a shared Heinkel He 111 and on 18 September 1940 and 27 September 1940 he scored probable Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Victor damaged a Messerschmitt Bf 109 on 12 October 1940, on 25 October 1940 he probably destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and damaged another finally probably shooting down another on 30 October 1940.

Victor was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 23 July 1940, and the Distinguished Flying Cross on 8 November 1940.

On 7 November 1940, Victor collided with Pilot Officer TF Neil of No 249 Squadron RAF while he was on patrol and made a forced-landing at Leeds Castle in Kent. In all his sorties in 1940, he was damaged by enemy action three times, on each occasion getting his aircraft down safely.

On 11 November 1940, when Italian aircraft based in Belgium carried out an attack, Victor claimed a probable Fiat CR42 bi-plane fighter. On 13 November 1940, he damaged a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Dover. On 10 January 1941, he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109.

He was posted to HQ No 11 Group RAF on 17 March 1941. By then, Victor was unable to fly regularly, but he occasionally flew over occupied Europe and claimed a probable Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Mardyck on 9 August 1941.

Victor was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order on 2 September 1941.

He was appointed to command RAF Kenley on 25 January 1942 and was able to fly more frequently with his squadrons. Accompanied by flying ace Wing Commander RF Boyd, he took off on the morning of 12 February 1942 on a reconnaissance flight during which they chased two Messerschmitt Bf 109s before sighting part of the German Fleet making its ‘Channel Dash.’ The ships had been reported 10 minutes earlier by two pilots of No 91 Squadron RAF, but the report had not been fully believed until such senior confirmation was received. Attacks were then planned.

On 13 February 1942, Victor shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 115 float plane over the Channel. On 9 March 1942, he claimed a Focke Wulf Fw 190 destroyed, and he claimed a second one and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 on 26 March 1942.

On 28 March 1942, Victor was leading the Kenley Wing and flying with No 485 Squadron RAF (New Zealand) when he sighted saw a formation of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke Wulf Fw 190s just south of Calais. In the battle that followed, Victor was attacked and damaged by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and requested a position over the radio before last being seen entering a cloud near Calais.

He was 38.

Air Marshal Sir George Robert Beamish (1905-1967)

The second brother, Air Marshal Sir George Robert Beamish (1905-1967) was a senior commander in the RAF from World War II to his retirement in the late 1950s.

Before World War II, while Geoge was in the RAF, he was a keen rugby player, playing for Leicester and he was capped 26 times for Ireland. In 1930, he was selected for the British Lions tour. He also chaired the RAF Rugby Union and was an Air Force rugby selector.

George Beamish was born in Dunmanway on 29 April 1905. He attended the Coleraine Academical Institution, and from 1923 he attended the RAF College, Cranwell, as a flight cadet. After he was commissioned in late 1924, Beamish was posted as a pilot with No 100 Squadron.

In 1934, he was made Flight Commander of No 45 Squadron, and in 1936 he was made Squadron Leader.

After attending RAF Staff College in 1937, he was attached to the Air Staff. In 1939, he was made Senior Operations Officer for Palestine and Transjordan. On 17 May 1941, he was appointed senior RAF officer on Crete, overseeing the reception of units after their withdrawal from Greece.

To aid him in this task, George was allocated two RAF squadrons from Egypt, 30 and 205, to bolster the fighters already stationed on the island. However, following the German invasion of Crete, which began 75 years ago in May 1941, this action turned into the defence of the island.

George was unable to convince the army commander of the need to defeat the invaders from the air, the island fell and Beamish ordered the RAF squadrons to withdraw to Egypt. He remained on Crete to assist General Freyberg, and both men eventually escaped from Crete on a Sunderland in late May 1941.

George was then appointed Senior Air Staff Officer, first at Western Desert Air Force, then at North African Tactical Air Forces, and then at Second Tactical Air Force, before progressing to the roles of Air Officer Commanding No 44 Group and then No 45 Group.

After World War II, George became President of the RAF Selection Board and then Director of Weapons at the Air Ministry in 1947. He went on to be Commandant of the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in 1949, Air Officer Commanding, Air Headquarters Iraq, in 1950, and Director-General of Personnel in 1952. His last appointments were as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at Transport Command in 1954 and Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at Technical Training Command in 1955.

In 1955, he was knighted (KCB), and he retired in 1958. In 1962, he was appointed High Sheriff of Co Derry.

George Beamish won his first international cap for Ireland in 1925 at the age of 19, playing in that year’s Home Nations Championship in 6-6 draw against England. At the time, he was playing for Coleraine at club level.

George was then selected for the remaining games of the tournament, with a home loss to Scotland and an impressive 19-3 win over Wales. During the 1927-1928 season, while he was playing club rugby for Leicester, Beamish was approached to play for invitational touring team the Barbarians.

In 1928, nearly three years after his last international game, Beamish was recalled to the Ireland team. From the first game of the 1928 Five Nations Championship until the end of the 1933 tournament, George was seldom out of the Irish squad.

In 1930, George was selected for the Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand. He played in all five Tests and 17 of the regional matches, scoring two tries, one each against Otago and a joint Marlborough/Nelson Bay team.

After the tour, George returned to the Ireland squad for the 1931 Championship, playing in all four games. He was then selected as the Ireland team captain when the team faced the 1931 touring South African team in Dublin. He remained captain for the 1932 Home Nations Championship, and led Ireland to its first Championship win for 20 years.

The 1933 championship was his last for Ireland, playing in all three games and captaining the team in a win over Wales. During his career, George also played club rugby for London Irish and was captain of the RAF rugby side.

George Beamish was also responsible for getting the green of Ireland represented in the kit worn by the Lions. During the 1930 tour of New Zealand, the Lions wore what their standard blue jerseys. But these caused controversy because the New Zealand side, by then known as the ‘All Blacks,’ played in an all-black kit that clashed with the blue.

Despite their reluctance and hesitation, New Zealand deferred to the custom of accommodating guests and changed for the Tests, so that the ‘All Blacks’ became the ‘All Whites’ for the first time. But George Beamish also led a delegation that complained at the blue of Scotland, white of England and red of Wales being represented in the strip without the green of Ireland. A green flash was added to the socks, and in 1938 this became the green turnover that has been part of the strip ever since.

He died 13 November 1967 in Castlerock, near Coleraine, Co Derry.

Group Captain Charles Eric St John Beamish (1908-1984)

The third Beamish brother, Group Captain Charles Eric St John Beamish (1908-1984), was also an Irish rugby international and an RAF pilot during World War II. He gained 12 caps for Ireland as a prop forward and also played for the Lions on their 1936 tour of Argentina.

Charles Beamish was born in Dunmanway on 28 June 1908. He played his first international match for Ireland against Wales in the 1933 Home Nations Championship. At the time, he was playing at club level for North of Ireland FC, and when he joined the Ireland squad he came in at prop, with his elder brother George at No 8 and team captain Ireland 10-5, and Charles was re-selected for the final match of the tournament against Scotland in April. By then, Charles had switched clubs to English side Harlequins.

Although missing the opening loss to England, George was back in the Ireland squad for the second game of the 1934 Home Nations Championship, playing against Scotland. By then, he was playing with his brother George for Leicester.

Charles also played against Wales in the final game of the championship. It was a poor year for Ireland, which finished bottom of the table without a win.

In the 1934-1935 season, he was invited to tour with the Barbarians, and played a total of nine matches with them between 1934 and 1938.

In the 1935 Championship, Charles Beamish played for Ireland in all three matches, and despite a bad loss against England in the opening game, victories over Scotland and Wales secured the title for Ireland, making this Charles’s first Championship win.

In late 1935, Charles was selected play against the touring New Zealand team in Ireland. Ireland played well, and Charles scored his only international try during this game. But it was not enough to stop the All Blacks. In 1936, Charles was invited to tour Argentina with the Lions.

Charles also retired to Northern Ireland, and he died in Templemore, Co Antrim, on 18 May 1984, at the age of 75.

Air Vice Marshal Cecil Howard Beamish (1915-1999)

The youngest of the Beamish brother was Air Vice Marshal Cecil Howard Beamish (1915-1999). He too was a well-known rugby player and an RAF officer during World War II, and also practised as a dentist.

Cecil Beamish was born on 31 March 1915. He was an RAF officer during World War II and was later Director of RAF Dental Services (1969-1973).

As a rugby player, Cecil also played for London Irish, the Barbarians and the RAF. Although he never received an Irish rugby cap, Cecil was an excellent golfer and played as an Irish International from 1950 to 1956. He died on 21 May 1999. He was the last surviving Beamish brother.

Their sisters, Katherine and Eileen Beamish, served as Dental Officers with RAF squadrons.

Another teacher at the Model School was Trevor Sargent, former leader of the Green Party, who spent two years teaching in the Model School (1981-1983) before returning to Dublin, first as a teacher in Balbriggan and later as a TD.

Today, Sam Maguire is remembered throughout Dunmanway with signs, monuments, the name of the local GAA park, and a statue in the Market Square. Last month, the Beamish brothers were commemorated at the military tattoo in Listowel, Co Kerry. But, while members of the Beamish family are still living in the same house where these “high-flying” brothers and their sisters were born, there is no public monument in Dunmanway to remember their feats in the air and on the ground.

A statue commemorating Sam Maguire in the Market Square in Dunmanway, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)


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