Victor Beamish was born in Dunmanway in 1903 and was one of the most decorated RAF pilots in the Second World War before he was killed in action in 1942. A Spitfire flypast at the Listowel event will honour him, writes Noel Baker
A Spitfire from the Second World War is due to fly over Dunmanway in West Cork this month, before travelling on to Listowel and Ballybunion, to commemorate the remarkable life of a flying ace.
Victor Francis Beamish was born in Dunmanway in 1903 and was one of the most decorated RAF pilots in the Second World War before he was killed in action in 1942.
His remarkable family included three brothers who were also RAF pilots, including one who played rugby for Ireland and acted as aide-de-camp to King George VI during WW2.
The Listowel Military Tattoo — an event now in its fifth year and which began as a tourism attraction — will this year commemorate Victor Beamish’s life and times, with the Spitfire flypast adding to the presence of one, if not two, other Spitfire aircraft in the town on the day.
The events run from April 29 and throughout the May bank holiday weekend, with organiser Dinny Carroll claiming it was time to thrust one of the country’s most daring pilots back into the public gaze.
“This fella’s story is so big,” said Carroll. “A reflection of his life and times is overdue.”
Born in Dunmanway, which is also the birthplace of Sam Maguire, Beamish attended the Coleraine Academical Institute in the North before entering the RAF college in Cranwell in 1921.
There began a startling career, all the more so given that he first retired in 1933 having been admitted to hospital with tuberculosis, only to be reinstated as an active pilot in 1937.
According to the RAF group captain, Beamish was station commander at RAF North Weald and RAF Kenley. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in July 1940, the Distinguished Flying Cross in November 1940, and then, less than a year later, received a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order. In 1938 he had received an Air Force Cross.
An extract in the London Gazette in September 1941 gives a sense of Beamish’s prowess in the air: “Group Captain Beamish commanded an RAF station from October 1940 to March 1941 and during that period carried out 71 operational sorties in which he destroyed an enemy fighter, probably destroyed three other hostile aircraft and damaged others. Since his appointment to group headquarters he has probably destroyed two more enemy aircraft. The courage and devotion to duty displayed by Group Captain Beamish are of the highest order and he has set a magnificent example.”
Beamish was killed in action on March 28, 1942, during an air battle in Calais.
Extracts from the book Fly For Your Life depict Beamish as a man with “a rich Irish burr to his voice” and an “adhesive memory” who was “tough, direct, demanding”, and who “inspired extraordinary loyalty and endeavour”.
His family feels the same way, but as Victor Beamish’s grandnephew Hugo Jellett explains, for many years it seemed sensible to keep quiet about his achievements.
Jellett, the grandson of Charles Beamish and the new chief executive of the Jack and Jill Foundation, said of the local and Irish perception of Victor’s war exploits in past years: “I think it was to do with the fact that going to join the RAF was in some ways seen as disloyal. It was not felt by all to be the right thing to do. At the time [the Second World War] was considered to be a British cause rather than a global cause.”
Only one of the Beamish brothers, Charles, returned home to Ireland, but Jellett’s grandmother, who still lives in Templemore, Co Tipperary, is intent on gathering up as many members of the clan as possible to attend the Listowel event.
The family history will extend beyond the old photo albums, and what Jellett calls “an era of heroes”. He remarks how Victor Beamish’s role was initially meant to be that of an instructor, but that he was in effect flying war missions “off the books”.
“When he finished teaching for the day he would famously hide in the clouds,” he says. The strain of over-achievement in his family line is illustrated by his own grandfather — the first Irishman to score a try for Ireland against the All Blacks.
Jellett hopes the Listowel event will open up discussion not just about his forebear and his achievements but also about how Ireland reappraises the role of those who engaged in combat in the world wars.
However, he admits: “I still think that no one is all that comfortable talking about it.”
Padraig Nolan, the chief executive of the Listowel Military Tattoo, feels those attitudes are now changing, with a greater openness in recent years of the Irish role in the world wars meaning the subject is now “more palatable to people in this country” who, he said, are now “less insulated”.
Nolan expects many visitors to Listowel from April 29, including more than a hundred from the UK, and remarks that the Tattoo itself would have been inconceivable in the north Kerry town even a decade ago.
Referring to the Battle of Britain, key to fending off the possibility of a Nazi invasion of the UK, he says had the Germans been successful, Ireland would also have been overrun. “Men like Victor Beamish and his brothers actually saved this country,” he said.
For more information see listowelmilitarytattoo.com or the Facebook pages of the Listowel Military Tattoo and Listowel Spitfire.
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