Robert Wendell McNair was born on May 15, 1919 in Springfield, Nova Scotia. He spent his boyhood in the Annapolis Valley and in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. His family had relocated there during the depression looking for work. He completed high school in North Battleford in 1937 with good marks. He went to work for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Natural Resources as a ground wireless (radio) operator.
Then the war started in September, 1939. He continued work for a while until it became clear that this was not to be a quick war. He enrolled in the RCAF in June 1940 and went through the usual training regimen, attending schools in Toronto (No.1 ITS), Windsor (No.7 EFTS) and Kingston (No.31 SFTS). He graduated as a pilot on March 24, 1941.
He was shipped overseas without any trouble and went through fighter training at an Operational Training Unit handling Hurricane Mk Is and Spitfire IIs left over from the Battle of Britain. Upon graduation in June, 1941 he was posted to the newly formed 411 RCAF "Grizzly" Squadron flying the Spitfire Mk IIa with eight wing-mounted 0.303 machine guns. They would soon upgrade to the Mk V with two 20 mm cannons and four machine guns. There were a number of serious problems with discipline to iron out in the squadron. The CO S/L Paul Pitcher had his hands full as the workup to operational status was a litany of mishaps, with the first crash occurring on July 3rd, followed by ground collisions, heavy landings, raising undercarriages too soon, landing with the wheels up, trying to take off with the brakes on and even crashing into the totem pole at the end of the runway. In one hushed up incident, Pilot Officer Ash took up PO McNair in the squadron’s open cockpit, two-seater Tiger Moth trainer. He performed some unpremeditated aerobatics and lost McNair while flying inverted, who drifted earthwards by parachute. The post-incident investigation discovered that Buck had fallen out after "accidentally loosening his harness pin".
They eventually got up to day-operational status despite continuing problems in the air. This meant that they could fly on combat operations. Two squadron formations were attempted, but after each one there was a lot of harsh criticism and "bitter recriminations" such that another such mis-adventure would just about destroy the squadron. The one bright spot in the squadron turned out to be Robert "Buck" McNair.
He met the enemy for the first time in September while escorting Blenheim bombers on a strike to the Amiens railroad yards and a power station at Mazingarble. A flight of Messerschmitt Bf-109s intercepted them and went for the bombers. McNair handled his Spitfire ably whipping it around and getting on the tail of a 109. He scored numerous hits on the wings before the German pilot rolled onto his back and dove away to safety. The Bf-109 had a much superior rate of roll and the German pilots used this defensive tactic successfully against Spitfires. They also turned out to be very tough when attacked from behind, although he might have shot it down had he been in a Mk V armed with cannons. Before he could pick another target a 109 intercepted him and it was his turn to dodge bullets and cannon shells. He evaded his attacker and made his way back to base low on fuel. Other pilots supported his claim of a German fighter damaged and so he was credited with one damaged on his first sortie against the enemy. This was a good start for a rookie pilot, but Buck was not satisfied with his performance, he felt he should have shot down the German. This was a telling trait, for the newly formed Grizzly Squadron had yet to down an enemy aircraft. He would soon remedy that.
On October 13 they were on a fighter sweep from Boulogne to Hardelot:
The Wing Commander gave the signal to return to base and then the squadron turned to proceed towards the English coast.
I heard someone over the R/T saying "There were scattered forces of Me 109s over Boulogne." I went over at about 18,000 ft and saw numerous a/c below me at quite a low altitude. I dived on them and while still at about 5,000 ft above them I pulled up over the sea and came back on them again in a shallow dive. I saw a group of seven E/A circling a pilot in the sea, I picked out one, opened fire at him at about 250 yds, a quarter astern; he went into a sharp left-hand diving turn. I got on his tail and gave him a 3-second burst closing to 60 yds. I overshot him, pulled away to the right, and in going down I saw him go straight into the sea.
That ingenuous account depicts very well the bold but thoughtful novice taking a good look before committing himself, and then relying on surprise - but not excessive speed - to dive through six opponents while shooting down a seventh. But his first victory was very nearly his last. He broke clear and set a course for home, but his vigilance was perhaps impaired by the euphoria of victory, he did not see the machine that shot him down until it was too late. Fortunately, the German who ambushed him in mid-Channel was no virtuoso of air fighting, either.
I continued on home when an EA dived on me from port side out of the sun, his burst hitting my engine. I took violent evasive action, by skidding and slipping turns. The E a/c was now on my tail, putting in a continuous burst, scoring a number of hits. The cockpit became full of smoke, and the E a/c overshot me, coming directly in front of me at about 50 yards and about 10 ft above. I pulled up and gave him a burst, saw hits registering and his hood came off. Only my starboard guns were firing. Flames were now coming out of my cockpit, so I put my nose down. Finding that my engine was cutting out, I pulled up to 400 feet, and baled out into the sea. I was picked up about 15 minutes later.
|"Grizzly’s cut their teeth." Original art by Randall Whitcomb depicts McNair’s victory.|
The second Messerschmitt was originally assessed as ’damaged’ in McNair’s combat report, a claim subsequently changed to ’probably destroyed’ (which seems likely) and then back to ’damaged’.
By November Buck’s score still accounted for 50% of the victories by the squadron. Several pilots were lost due to a mistake in navigation putting them over Calais instead of Dover, so that the squadron diarist had this to say about their performance to date:
"Our motto Inimicus Inimico ’Hostile to an enemy’ - should more aptly be read ’Hostile to Ourselves’.The talk around the barracks and the messes was all of volunteering for overseas. In mid-December given the opportunity to volunteer for service in the Near, Middle and Far East, all pilots submitted their names. At this time the situation on Malta was becoming grim. The tiny island was a major thorn-in-the-side of the Germans as it lay astride the resupply routes from Italy and Sicily to North Afica. Malta was the perfect location to stage interception raids on Axis ships trying to reinforce General Rommel in Cyrenaica. The Luftwaffe were committed to crushing the RAF and their means of living on Malta with the eventual aim of invading the island. The RAF brass wanted pilots with either experience or a proven ability to destroy the enemy. McNair, amongst others, was chosen to go to Malta. They were shipped out on a long-range Short Sutherland flying boat.
|Buck arrived in Feb., 1942 at the beginning of the siege of Malta by the German Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica. They were pounding the island night and day to blast it into submission. All of the RAF airbases were a shambles, particularly their main airbase, Takali Field.|
Air raid on Malta
German’s view of Takali Airfield
There was a small shack for an ops room, the revetments for aircraft were made of broken rock and sandbags, and slit trenches abounded. It was blinding white and hot as hades in the day. Every morning the operational pilots would have to go out and sit in their aircraft on one minute notice starting at 04:30 and lasting to 13:00 hours. Then the next flight would take over. As the sun rose higher the all metal fighters heated up like ovens. But the pilots couldn’t wear the scant clothing suitable for the ground, at 25,000 feet it could be -50 C. They sat there with sleeveless shirt, jacket, Mae West life jacket, shorts, gloves, socks and flying boots. It was the next thing to hell.
Buck and the rest of 249 "Gold Coast" Squadron flew a motley collection of clapped out Hurricane IIs. Their aircraft had to struggle to get to 15,000 feet before the Germans swept over the island. The only reason why they occasionally managed this was due to the superb job of the radar plotters hidden in caves (called The Ditch) under Valetta. The action over Malta was constant and furious with the RAF always outnumbered by fighters and bombers. On a typical day they could field six wheezy Hurricanes against a mass of Bf-109F fighters, Junkers Ju-88 bombers, and antiquated Junkers Ju-87 "Stuka" dive-bombers. Buck was soon made a Flight Leader for "B Flight", while Perry "Laddie" Lucas led "A Flight"
The Chiefs-of-Staff in London sent the following message to the C-I-C in Cairo to impress upon them the importance of Malta:
Our view is that Malta is of such importance both as an air staging post and as an impediment to enemy reinforcement route that the most drastic steps are justifiable to sustain it. Even if Axis maintain their present scale of attack on Malta, thus reducing value, it will continue to be of great importance to war as a whole by containing important enemy forces during critical months."
In answer to the above message the C-I-C in Cairo sent to Malta 229 Squadron equipped with Hurricane IIs. It took two weeks to get 24 Hurricanes there, and within two more weeks the Squadron was declared non-operational underscoring the uselessness of pitting Hurricane IIs against the German’s Bf-109F. However, the attempts by the RAF in England to provision Malta with Spitfires was anything but drastic, more like pathetic. In an uncharacteristic fashion the RAF bungled several re-supply attempts of flying Spitfire Vs off of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. The first attempt, called Operation Spotter, was on Feb. 28, 1942. This failed due to problems with the long-range fuel tanks on the aircraft as they had not been checked in England. Also, the guns on the aircraft all needed to be set-up, that hadn’t been done either. Nor had the RAF sent any spare equipment to repair aircraft, so that one of the sixteen had to be cannabalized to repair the others. The Eagle steamed back to Gibralter while the problems with the Spitfires were sorted out.
On March 7, 21 and 28 HMS Eagle was back in action. Any ship getting within range of Axis bombers flying from Sicily were in grave danger and German U-boats prowled the waters. When they were within flying range of Malta (600 miles) the pilots were given instructions on the heading and approximate distance to the island and flew off the rather short deck deck of the Eagle. This was difficult to do as the Spitfire was never designed for this. The technicians onboard Eagle put wedges in the flaps to hold them at 50% (Spitfires had only 2 flap settings, full up and full down), then the pilots had to rev their engines to the max while standing on their brakes. The deck officer waited until the aircraft carrier rose on a wave and signalled them off. Once off the deck the Spitfire would drop close to the ocean before flying. Once altitude was gained, the pilots dropped flaps all the way, the wedges fell out and then retracted their flaps. The Germans did their best to confuse the new pilots by giving false instructions in English, but most pilots were not fooled by this ruse.
This time the operations were successful, although problems with overt secrecy and coordination between the RAF HQ, the RN and the C-I-C Malta led to delays in getting the first flights of Spitfires ready on the ground before the Germans attacked. The Luftwaffe bombed Takali Field in strength, destroying many of the new Spitfires before they could join the battle. The Canadian CO of 249 Squadron, SL Stan Turner, exerted his considerable influence to get Spitfires for his men, but they still had to share them with 126 Squadron. There just weren’t enough Spitfires to make a serious dent in the Luftwaffe. To make up for pitting his men against Spitfires the head of the German Fliegerkorps II, General Bruno Lörzer, sent out larger groups of Bf-109s to escort the bombers from Sicily.
The Malta pilots quickly adapted Battle of Britain tactics to their situation under the tutelage of SL Turner. What Spitfires that could get airborne would try to attack the escorts first while the Hurricanes would come in just behind them and try to get at the bombers. This didn’t often work out, due to the overabundance of 109s in the air. However, on March 18 Buck damaged a Bf-109, and the next day he shot one down in flames. At this time SL Stan Turner was promoted to WingCo Flying and took over control of all fighter squadrons on Malta, SL Stan Gracie took over the squadron. This was to give the stalwart warrior a rest, he had been flying continuously since the Battle of France.
March 20, 1942 was a day that signaled a change in the airwar over Malta. Up to then it was a tough, no-holds-barred battle, but with an underlying civility between pilots. Men in parachutes were left alone, being totally defenseless against a fighter aircraft. Buck and Laddie Lucas were leading their flights against yet another air raid. As usual following the initial clash and melee the aircraft became separated. The first instinct was to look for someone else to buddy with. Lucas recalls seeing off in the distance Duggie Leggo of Rhodesia, looking for a mate. Then a German 109 dove out of the sun below him and up to fire a long burst into his Spitfire’s belly. Leggo rolled the Spit over and dropped out, pulling his ripcord seconds later. Lucas was relieved to see the parachute. But, another 109 came diving out of a cloud and fired a short burst at Leggo, passing so close that his chute collapsed, sending Leggo falling into the ocean from thousands of feet. The German dove away to Sicily before anyone could catch it. They were all stunned! Days later, a Canadian pilot exacted revenge for his Rhodesian pal and machine-gunned three Germans in a life raft. The air war had turned even uglier over a period of days.
The Luftwaffe typically used dive-bombing tactics with their Ju-88 bombers, coming at Malta from 17,000 feet and diving to 5,000 feet before dropping their bombs on the aircraft at their various dispersals. However, losses of bombers were creeping up as the Malta gunners became much more proficient at their gunnery. To keep losses down they started level bombing from 17,000 feet, leading to less accuracy on their part. In one such raid Buck was nearly killed, and suffered an emotional wound that could be hidden, but likely never healed. On March 21, the Luftwaffe conducted a raid on the airfields. One 2,000 lb bomb undershot the target and landed in front of the Point de Vue Hotel in Rabat, where some RAF fighter pilots were staying. Five pilots and an intelligence officer died in the attack, Buck and two others had a very close brush with death. They had just left an interrupted movie in Rabat, and were wandering back to the Mess, hiding in doorways along the way as the attack developed. Buck was inside the Point de Vue Hotel when the bomb hit the hotel entrance. He recorded his actions and impressions later in graphic detail:
When I came to, I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t feel I was dead, but I didn’t feel whole. My eyes were open, but my jaws and chest didn’t seem to be there. There was no pain, I just didn’t seem to have jaws or chest. I felt for my tin hat, then I started to be able to see just as if the sun was coming up after a great darkness. I tested myself. I felt carefully with my fingers and found that I had a face and a chest, so I felt better ...
It started to get light - the darkness had been due to the showers of dust from the stone building. I felt for my revolver, the one which Stan Turner had given me in Hornchurch, back in England. I mucked around and found it, knocking the dust off it and checking to make sure it was loaded ...
As I became more conscious, I found I was upstairs; but I knew I shouldn’t be upstairs. I should be downstairs. Then I realized I had been blown upstairs either through a door or through an opening at the turn of the staircase. I’d been thrown up 20 or 30 feet ...
I went out onto the roof and back down the main staircase which was barely hanging in place. I saw the bodies lying at the foot of it. They were in a heap. There was no blood. The raid was still on - the All Clear hadn’t sounded. But everything seemed very quiet. Heavy dust covered the bodies. I looked at them - studied them. One was headless, the head had been cut cleanly away from the top of the shoulders. I didn’t see the head, but I could recognize the man by his very broad shoulders ...
I heard a moan, so I put my hand gently on the bodies to feel which of them was alive. One of them I noticed had a hole, more than a foot wide, right through the abdomen. Another’s head was split wide open into two halves, from back to front, by a piece of shrapnel. The face had expanded to twice its size. How the man managed still to be alive I didn’t know. I thought of shooting him with my revolver. As I felt for it, I heard Bud Connell’s voice behind me. ’Look at this mess!’
I put my hand against the wall, but it slithered down it. It had seemed dry with all the dust, but when I took my hand away I found it was covered with blood with bits of meat stuck to it - like at the butcher’s when they’re chopping up meat and cleaning up a joint. I turned to Bud. ’For God’s sake,’ I said, ’don’t come in here.’ Then I noticed that my battledress and trousers were torn and ripped ...
Ronnie West appeared. It seemed natural to see him. He had been in the building with us, but he didn’t say anything about me being there. He didn’t seem to want to talk ...
Now an ambulance and a doctor arrived. The doc asked me to help him with the bodies. I said ’Get someone else, I’ve seen enough.’ But I did get one chappie onto a stretcher. He was still alive, but I couldn’t recognize him. I put a cloth over his face and then a stupid orderly took it off. It was the most horrible sight I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen chappies with heads off and gaping wounds and horrible burns ...
The realization of what had happened began to dawn very slowly ... My left arm had gone out of joint when I was blown upstairs by the bomb, but I had shoved it back in place ...
Ronnie and I sat on the kerbside and talked about it. As we discussed it we began to understand the awfulness of it all. Then we started cursing the bloody Huns; it was maddening that all we could do to them was curse. We were inwardly sick, sick at heart ...
We decided to get drunk. When we got over to the Mess, the orderly refused us anything to drink and wouldn’t open the bar. We broke our way in and each took a bottle of White Horse. We decided to take another bottle as we were leaving. We were both feeling mad, but the whiskey was helping to relieve the tension.
Buck McNair shoved these memories into his subconscious and got on with running his flight and fighting the Germans. Those who knew him on Malta, Laddie Lucas in particular, felt that this horrible experience had changed him. His brash, complaining exterior was intact, but behind it, was a quieter, gentler man.
Laddie Lucas characterized him while on Malta in his book Malta: the Thorn in Rommel’s Side.
Robert Wendell McNair ... was a Canadian of easily recognizable calibre. He was, by nature, a critic of anything or anyone he thought to be substandard. He spoke his mind and never hedged his bets. He did not suffer fools gladly as was borne out by an incident which occurred in the circuit at Takali during the worst of the spring fighting. The 109s were hanging about after a raid, waiting to pick off the Spitfires as they attempted to land, short of fuel and out of ammunition.
Buck sent his relatively inexperienced No. 2 in to land first while he maintained a watching brief above. The unfortunate wingman, with half an eye on the 109s circling like vultures overhead, made a poor fist of the first attempt at a landing. Off he went round again. It was too much for Buck. ’For Christ’s sake, Blue 2,’ he said over the R/T, ’pull your effing hook out and land next time. If the 109s don’t get you, I will!’
He was, of course, the first-rate fighter leader, aggressive to the extent of being ruthless, yet inside him was a private worry which he confided to me - that his eyesight was deteriorating and might not last the war. He lived with the fear that at some point the medics might discover his defect and take him off ops. For Robert McNair, in the middle of World War II, that would have been worse than the end.
On March 23 a supply convoy (Operation MW 10) approached Malta. The Luftwaffe pulverized Takali Field so 249 Sq. had to move to Luqa Field. The Germans and Italians sortied over 100 aircraft to intercept the convoy as soon as it was within range. All fighters (14 Spitfires and 11 Hurricanes) on Malta scrambled to provide what protection they could. Somehow McNair pressed on through the enemy escort and got in amongst the bombers. He ripped into a formation of Junkers Ju-88s, shooting down one and damaging two more. The RAF Squadrons kept up a nearly continuous vigil over the convoy for three days, although they still lost a ship. On the 26th, with three merchant ships in dock, the Luftwaffe let loose 300 aircraft in a massive raid that sunk all three ships and a destroyer at anchor. Only 5,000 tons of supplies had been unloaded. There were only five serviceable fighters left in Malta after the four days of action. However, the RAF had exacted a cost from the Germans, they lost an estimated 20% of their bomber forces and 15% of their fighters.
On April 20, McNair led a flight of five aircraft to 17,000 ft, up-sun of a group of Ju-88s and Bf-109s. As they dropped on the enemy aircraft he shot one fighter down in flames and turned on the bombers. He damaged one making it jettison it’s load in order to escape. He could now count himself among the aces of the allied airforces with five German aircraft destroyed.
Four days later they were sent up to intercept a flight of Junkers Ju-87 Stukas and Bf-109s heading to bomb the harbour. The Stukas were easy prey, being slow and unwieldy in flight. He had shot off part of the tail on one when their escorts arrived. Buck had to break off his attack to meet the attack of the 109s. He succeeded in damaging two of them and the flight drove off the Germans. Spotting a Ju-88 in the distance he pursued it back towards Sicily and damaged it with a long-range volley. His day’s work resulted in four damaged German aircraft.
April was a harsh month on Malta, with the LW dropping more than 7,000 tons of bombs on the island. The situation in Malta was becoming truely desperate, fighter aircraft were at a minimum, ammunition for the heavy anti-aircraft guns around the airstrips was rationed to 15 rounds per gun per raid, food was minimal in quantity and quality, water for washing was almost unheard of, and fuel was used only for aircraft. The C-I-C sent SL Ed Gracie, CO of 126 Sqdn to London to stir up the beurocrats and get more fighters for Malta. This was underway anyhow but Gracie managed to underscore how truely desperate it was on Malta. Another delivery of Spitfires was being planned. Gracie sent a message back to the effect that something big was underway. Group Captain Woodhall came to the officer’s mess to deliver the message over his customary pink gin. After the message was delivered, Buck voiced everyone’s sentiments "And about effing time, too ... sir!". Buck had the ready knack of picking up the mood and giving it graphic expression.
Wartime is known to create a number of new words in English due to the necessity of expressing ideas in new ways to meet the needs of the times. On Malta a new term crept into their lingo, it was "spitcher". Spitcher was mainly used in the past tense, "spitchered". The Concise Oxford Dictionary may have defined it thus "to blot out", "erase", "destroy", "leave few traces of": attributed to bombing: slang. The pilots of 249 Sqdn were quartered on a ridge overlooking their airfield. There they daily witnessed a familiar, if pitiful, sight of yet another Spitfire going up in smoke in its den. "Spitchered!" they’d say in a gloomy and repetitive fashion. After a bit it was applied to anything of theirs that had been destroyed. Everything became "spitchered". It suited the scene and the mood.
SL Gracie was chosen to head up the latest resupply effort to Malta code named Calendar. Winston Churchill had made an arrangement with President Roosevelt to use the large U.S. carrier U.S.S. Wasp to carry Spitfires along with HMS Eagle. The Wasp could carry 50 to Eagle’s 17. In an effort to conceal the operation the AOC Malta (AVM Keith Park) only 12 hours notice of the landing time. RAF Squadrons 601 (County of London) and 603 (City of Edinborough) were chosen to fly the 46 aircraft to Malta.
Within an hour of landing the radar plotters showed the Luftwaffe were up and leaving their bases in Sicily. It took three hours to get all of the Spitfires refueled, and rearmed due to the excessive security. Also, despite assurances the cannons had not been airtested in England and had to be set-up and there was a problem with faulty ammunition. All of the regular hands took off in what new Spits were ready and were into the first of a series of heavy raids intended to destroy as many of the new fighters on the ground as possible. The Germans were quite successful. Forty-eight hours later only seven of the forty-six Spitfires remained fit to fly. The old hands could only look at each other. It was Malta’s darkest hour.
The AOC Malta sent the following message to AVM Tedder in Cairo on April 23:
Both places (Takali 377 tons of bombs... Luqa 122 tons) a complete shambles in spite of soldiers working day and night ... Have made every effort to get Spitfires off the ground ... All Spits in pens widely dispersed, some with complete cover from blast ... In spite of this, 9 destroyed on the ground - direct hits, 29 damaged splintered rocks. Owing to heavy fighter escort, our battle casualties 8 Spitfires destroyed and 75% of remainder damaged in combat ... Army filling bomb holes day and night. Airmen work all day and, in shifts, throughout the night. Cannot do more to protect Wellingtons or Spitfires. Here everything liable to attack. German intention appears to be air blockade into submission .. Aim now is to destroy harbour facilities so that when convoy arrives it will be difficult to unload ... Also to destroy aerodromes and all equipment for handling aircraft. To hold this Island must have adundance of Spitfires and hope to get htem into air before next raid which was 90 minutes on this occasion.
Further arrangements were made between Churchill and Roosevelt to use the U.S.S. Wasp and the Eagle in concert to launch yet more Spitfires to Malta. Eagle would then return to Gib and take on another 16 Spits and fly them off, so that upwards of 80 Spitfires would be in Malta at the same time. It was hoped that this would create a crucial mass to effectively combat the Luftwaffe. This time enough lead would be allowed so that the C-I-C Malta could develop a process to get the new Spitfires rearmed, refueled and back in the air within 30 minutes of landing. Also, they would disperse the aircraft to all three fields, rather than use just Takali Field. The Army and any off-duty personnel built more blast shelters for the Spitfires from sandbags and broken rock. They had lots of both.
The CO of 249 Sqdn, SL Stan Grant, FL Laddie Lucas, FL Buck McNair, FO Ronnie West and FO Raoul Daddo-Langlois were briefed that they were to go to Gibralter to lead this effort. It was coordinated by WC McLean. They wanted only experienced Malta hands doing the leading so that nothing could go wrong from ignorance. Everyone expected that if this operation (code named Bowery) did not succeed, then Malta was finished. The five of them felt pretty proud to have been picked as the most experienced, and stable of the "old hands", to them the operation had been described as a "piece of cake". AVM Tedder in Cairo ensured that the quality of the pilots to fill the seats of the Spitfires was considerably higher than the previous lot of "also rans" from Squadrons 601 and 603. Most of them had little, or no, combat experience. They didn’t last long in the brutal battles over Malta.
Stan Grant and Ronnie West were to fly off the first lot of Spitfires, leaving Lucas, Raoul-Langlois and McNair in Gib for another while. At first they thought the rest would do them good, but they all began to chaff after a very short while. Soon McNair was putting excessive pressure on McLean and Stan Grant to let him take part i the first fly-off instead of having to kick his heels with us and wait for the second. Inactivity was anathema to McNair.
One morning, down on the airfield by the Rock, he exploded. "Let’s get on, sir, and get ourselves a slice of this effing piece of goddam cake that we hear so much about ...’ McLean replied in deadpan ’All in good time, Buck. All in good time.’ An additional chuckle defused the tension.
Eventually the Wasp set sail with 47 Spits and Eagle with 17 crammed onto her deck on May 8, 1942. The fly-off a day later was a spectacular success, only four were lost on the way and one crashed at Halfar while under fire by a Bf-109. By coincidence all of them were Canadians. One was lost when the pilot neglected to set the pitch on his propellor to fine. His aircraft didn’t have sufficient speed to fly and fell off the end of Wasp, to be cut in half by the bow. Two collided over Lampedusa while fighting with the Regia Aeronautica. The last one lost his belly fuel tank on take-off. This left him two options, gain height and bale out, or crash land in the sea. PO Jerry Smith chose neither. He orbited the carrier until all were off and, on his second attempt, made a perfect landing back on board the Wasp. This was incredible considering the Spitfire had no tail-hook and wasn’t intended to land on carriers. He stopped a few feet short of the bow.
The delivery transformed the situation on Malta overnight. The groundcrews performed near miracles, and had the aircraft turned around in under 10 minutes. A fresh experience Malta pilot leapt into the aircraft and took off. The Army Bofors gunners put up a thick umbrella of flak to keep the Bf-109s away from the fields so the Allied pilots could take off. Now the Luftwaffe was faced with a potent force of five times the Spitfires that they had ever faced before. Now the Malta pilots could be choosy and avoided the fighters, going after the bombers whenever possible. For the next few days terrible battles were fought in the air, with the Luftwaffe gradually losing way.
Finally Lucas, McNair and Daddo-Langlois had their turn leading 17 Spitfire VCs, each armed with four 20 mm cannons, intended as bomber destroyers. With detailed instructions, and maps with legs and way-points marked on them by WC McLean the flight was relatively easy. On May 17 Buck’s formation was off first, of course, he couldn’t have stood it to be otherwise. Daddo-Langlois lead the second lot and Lucas the third. Lucas reported that a hundred miles from Malta a cultured English voice came on the air and instructed them to turn in a direction to Sicily. This was, of course, a German intercepting them with what was now an old ploy. All aircraft made a perfect trip.
There loomed the very real specter of invasion. The Photographic Reconnaisance Unit had detailed the construction of airstrips in Italy for gliders. Field Marshall Kesselring seemed to have convinced Hitler, Mussolini and General Rommel that Operation Herkules should go ahead in July. General Student, who commanded the bloody aerial assault on Crete, was developing similar plans for Malta.
On the evening of May 25 a large German air raid on Gasr El Arid, in Libya, intending to knock out as many of the RAF planes in North Africa as possible, started Rommel’s "Operation Theseus", his last great advance that died at El Alamein. He had decided that the best way to win the Mediterranean was to conquer North Africa first, then take on Malta. His strategy was generally flawed, as aircraft from Malta could intercept his supplies. Especially with the new supplies of Spitfires. As it turned out, Rommel was a much better tactician than a strategician. Kesselring was correct, Operation Herkules was necessary to knock out Malta prior to defeating the Allies in North Africa.
The rest of May would turn out to be the harshest month yet. The LW set out to surpass their tonnage of bombs. Interceptions were called up every day to battle the enemy. The battles were bloody, costing each side many pilots and aircraft. McNair shot down two Bf-109s, but only one was credited as a victory, the other a probable even though other pilots had seen it on fire with the pilot about to jump clear. He earned a well-deserved Distinguished Flying Cross for his Malta actions.
McNAIR, P/O Robert Wendell (J4745) - Distinguished Flying Cross - No.249 Squadron - Award effective 21 May 1942 as per London Gazette dated 22 May 1942 and AFRO 880-881/42 dated 12 June 1942.
This officer is a skilful and courageous pilot. he invariably presses home his attacks with the greatest determination irrespective of odds. He has destroyed at least five and damaged seven enemy aircraft. Four of these he damaged in one combat.
The award was followed by promotion to flying officer, and shortly after to Flight Lieutenant leading a flight of Spitfires in 249 Squadron alongside "A" flight commander Laddie Lucas. At this time George Beurling arrived on Malta. Buck had heard about Beurling and his lone-wolf tactics, and wasn’t impressed. To Buck the team-work that developed within 249 Squadron was essential to their success. He didn’t want Beurling in his flight, and Lucas didn’t press the matter so he got him. Buck flew only one sortie with Beurling. His last victory in Malta occurred a few days later when he downed a 109. On his final sortie from Malta he strafed an Italian warship. The squadron was taken off of active flight duties to allow the ground crews to catch up on maintenance. Pilots were rotated back to England, McNair with them.
On his return from Malta Buck was posted back to his original squadron, the 411 Grizzlies. He showed up just in time for the Canadian assault on Dieppe. It was a complete disaster for the ground troops, in the air it wasn’t quite so bad, but it wasn’t a victory. 411 Squadron lost three pilots, although Buck shot down a Focke-Wulf 190 over the beaches before it could strafe the troopers. He was credited with a probable as no one saw it crash. Later he damaged another FW-190 in the same area.
By now McNair had completed a tour of duty and was in need of a rest. He was posted back to Canada and participated in War Bond drives across the country. He was commanded to take over a training school on the praires, but he protested loud and long so that in Jan. 1943 he was sent back to England as a Squadron Leader. He took over 416 RCAF Squadron when the Canadian ace SL Foss Boulton was shot down. He had no sooner settled in when he was transferred to take over 421 Squadron, the "Red Indians". W/C Hugh Godefroy, who commanded Buck in several squadrons, characterized him in his war biography "Luck Thirteen".
He was a handsome blond Westerner renowned for his outspoken criticism of Headquarters personnel. His fearless aggressiveness as a fighter pilot and his natural ability to lead forced the higher-ups to tolerate him. His squadron was the most important thing in his life. He insisted on implicit obedience to his flying orders which included following his example of bulldog aggressiveness in battle. Anyone he found hesitating he turfed. Those who stood behind him he would defend even though he was threatened with Court Martial. He believed in the merit system, and he had no use for promotion based on seniority. On one occasion when he was away on a forty-eight hour pass, a signal arrived promoting one of his pilots to Flight Commander. Buck had not authorized this change in leadership. With his face white with rage, he picked up the telephone and called Air Chief Marshall Leigh-Mallory at Fighter Command HQ. He was put straight through.
"McNair here. If you want to run this squadron, you come down here and lead it. As long as I’m in command, I’m gonna decide who gets promotion. Do you understand?"
Without listening for an answer, he slammed down the receiver. The Air Marshal spent the next half four trying to find out who had called him. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful. Buck made his own choice for the Flight Commander vacancy and the appointment was changed quietly at a local level.
When day gave way to night, he became a different person. He absolutely refused to talk shop. He mixed with everyone on an equal basis. If anything, alcohol seemed to increase his tolerance, and he drank just enough to enjoy such carefree moments to the full. He was generous with women, claiming that he was incapable of watching them suffer. For a while, a striking-looking plotter in the Ops Room received most of his attention but not with serious intent. Unbeknown to anyone, the continuous bombing in Malta had opened a chink in his armour. A raw nerve had been laid bare. One evening in the bar a pilot touched that nerve. This lad was a new replacement in Buck’s outfit and was fascinated by his Commanding Officer. He hung on Buck’s every word. While standing beside him, during a lull in the conversation, he began to whistle imitating the sound of a falling bomb. Buck’s smile evaporated. With a lightning right to the jaw, he knocked the lad to the floor. Then slowly and emphatically he said:
"I don’t find that a bit funny - don’t ever do that again."
Throughout the summer of 1943 the pace of operations for the seven Canadian day fighter squadrons increased dramatically. Most of these were Ramrods escorting bombers into Europe. Generally, they were considered to be a piece of cake, being much less hazardous than other types of operation. Still, they could be dangerous. On Buck’s first operational sortie with 421 Squadron he proved that he still had it by shooting down a FW-190. By June of 1943 he was occasionally leading the whole wing on operations. On the 20th of June he was leading the wing providing escort to American heavy bombers. FW-190s attacked the formation head on and Buck lead his wing into them. He fired at two Germans without effect, then whirled around to get on the "six" of one. He sent a burst of cannon shells right into the cockpit and the German aircraft fell away to crash into the hills below.
On July 6, he led 421 Sqdn with Godefroy’s 403 Squadron on a "Rodeo" or fighter sweep. They met a group of five Bf-109s near Doullen. He destroyed one of the 109s and would have got another but his windshield frosted over in the high altitude. He couldn’t see the damaged 109 well enough and it escaped. The next day he split his squadron into two groups, one flying low while he waited in an up-sun position for any Germans that happened along. It was an old trick that both sides had used since WWI, but that day a group of Germans in Bf-109s fell for it. They approached the lower group when Buck and his flight fell on them. He was the first to shoot down a German, two of his wingmen also knocked down 109s.
They were now equipped with the new Spitfire IX A’s which had a blower attached to the motor and an improved carburetor for high octane fuel to improve high altitude performance to match the Focke-Wulf 190s. Unfortunately, the bugs had not been worked out with the consequence that a number of engine failures occurred over enemy territory. These failures killed or maimed several Squadron Leaders (notably the promising Dean MacDonald and Ian Ormston). The same happened to S/Ldr Buck McNair when he was over France, but he had sufficient height and speed that he managed to glide back over the Channel to crash land in England. Twice more his engine cut out on him, the second time he again coasted back to England and safety. But the third time nearly killed him, and eventually forced him to give up flying.
From the Squadron diary: "On July 28 S/Ldr McNair developed engine trouble when just off the coast. He left the Wing with P/O Parks escorting him. S/Ldr McNair lost height from abouth 20,000 ft to 10,000 ft and when about 12 miles off Frecnh coast at Dunkirk his engine caught fire and he lost control of his aircraft and dived for the sea. He was able to get out of his kite at about 5,000 ft and parachute opened at about 2,000 ft. P/O Parks gave a Mayday for him and orbited for approx. 1:30 hours until relieved by 411 Squadron. Read good show by Parks. When the Squadron heard of S/Ldr McNair’s difficulty they immediately pancaked at Manston and refueled and took part in the ASR and saw a Walrus pick up the Chief and they escorted him to Hawkinge. The Chief was burned about the face and had a real close call, but is resting satisfactorily and should be back in a few days."
Hugh Godefroy recalls that McNair’s engine caught fire half way over the Channel, and he had to bail out. With the fire spreading to the cockpit he was burnt badly around his eyes and by the time he got close to the water they were so swollen that he could hardly see. Thinking that he was about to go in the water, he jettisoned his parachute and plunged 300 feet. He was picked up by the Air-Sea Rescue boys.
He was hospitalized for several weeks. The accident cost him much of the vision in one eye, but he didn’t report this to the Medical authorities, as he knew they would ground him. As soon as his eyes were healed enough to open he insisted on returning to his Wing. Despite the damage to his eyes he proved he was still a potent fighter pilot by shooting down a Bf-109 south of Ghent at the end of August. A week later he downed a FW-190, but he had to change his style of attack. Being unable to see long distances he closed right in on the other aircraft before firing. His men knew nothing of his impaired eyesight, and word spread that McNair had become overly aggressive, taking chances that he didn’t have to.
On July 30, 1943, while hospitalized, he received a bar to his DFC, equivalent to earning the medal twice. His commendation reads:
McNAIR, S/L Robert Wendell (J4745) - Bar to Distinguished Flying Cross - No.421 Squadron - Award effective 30 July 1943 as per London Gazette of that date and AFRO 2507/43 dated 2 December 1943.
This officer is a skilful and determined fighter whose record achievement and personal example are worthy of high praise. Squadron Leader McNair has destroyed ten hostile aircraft, five of them whilst serving in the Middle East, and damaged a number of others.
During one of the large distributions of medals by the King (over 2,000 in a day), Buck followed Hugh Godefroy in receiving his DFC. Godefroy, while trying to escape the vicinity of the King after receiving his, overheard Buck replying to the King’s pleasantry "Just fine, Sir. How’s the Queen?" Unfortunately, Godefroy missed the reply.
They flew continually on operations against the Germans, although Buck had little opportunity to increase his score. He did, however lead his men in stalwart fashion so that in October, 1943 he was awarded a second bar to his DFC, equivalent to three medals. On October 3, 1943 he was commanding 421 Squadron in a combined operation with 403 Squadron as top cover to 72 Marauders bombing Woensdrecht aerodrom. He shot down a Fw-190.
McNAIR, S/L Robert Wendell, DFC (J4745) - Second Bar to Distinguished Flying Cross - No.421 Squadron - Award effective 7 October 1943 as per London Gazette dated 26 October 1943 and AFRO 358/44 dated 18 February 1944.
Squadron Leader McNair is a tenacious and confident fighter whose outstanding ability has proved an inspiration to the squadron he commands. He has completed a large number of sorties and has destroyed fifteen and damaged many other enemy aircraft. His keenness has been outstanding.
Shortly after, Buck was promoted to Wing Commander Flying of 126 Airfield at Kenley, Staplehurst, Kent and Redhill, Surrey, consisting of 401 "Rams", 421 "Red Indians" and 411 "Grizzly" Squadrons. The WingCo Flying rank was created to allow for a combat operational commander of a Wing of three squadrons, they did not have any administrative responsibilities over the Squadrons. At the age of 24 he commanded 70 Spitfires. He found little to shoot at however, knocking down only one more German aircraft until April, 1944. His eyesight was also becoming weaker. He led the Wing until April, 1944 when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
McNAIR, W/C Robert Wendell, DFC (J4745) - Distinguished Service Order - No.126 Wing - Award effective 5 April 1944 as per London Gazette dated 14 April 1944 and AFRO 1020/44 dated 12 May 1944.
Since being awarded a second Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Wing Commander McNair has completed many further operational sorties and destroyed another enemy aircraft, bringing his total victories to at least sixteen enemy aircraft destroyed and many others damaged. As officer commanding his wing he has been responsible for supervising intensive training in tactics. The results achieved have been most satisfactory. The wing, under his leadership, destroyed at least thirteen enemy aircraft. Throughout, Wing Commander McNair has set a magnificent example by his fine fighting spirit, courage and devotion to duty both in the air and on the ground. He has inspired his pilots and confidence and enthusiasm.
For the last year of the war he reported to AVM Harry Broadhurst. With the capture of Sicily (Operation Husky) finished, a number of senior officers returned to England to prepare for the Normandy Invasion. These were Generals Montgomery and Patton, Air Marshals Tedder and Coningham and Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst. He had a reputation of being an efficient Staff Officer and a hard-nosed field commander. He took over the 2nd Tactical Air Force from Dixon. Buck ran into more trouble, in the form of his superior officer. Broadhurst openly admitted that he had little use for Canadians and for Buck McNair especially. Buck had flown under him at Hornchurch prior to leaving for Malta and had apparently not made much of an impression on Broadhurst.
As W/C Godefroy tells it, "As soon as his Field Headquarters were set up, AVM Broadhurst called a meeting of all of his Wing Leaders. Broady chaired the meeting from one end of the table, and by chance Buck McNair occupied the chair at the other end. Through the meeting Buck sat with his chair pushed back, his arms folded, with a disgruntled frown on his face. The meeting had no particular purpose, except to give the Air Vice-Marshal an opportunity to tell us exactly what he expected of us. His remarks required no comment, and instead of asking if there were any questions, the Air Vice-Marshal hunched forward in his chair and, glaring at Buck, sai d:
"McNair, I’m dissappointed in you. This is the first time I have seen you sit there without opening your big mouth. Are you ill?"
There was a long silence as Buck measured his gaze without blinking an eye. Finally he said with a smile:
"These meetings of yours are interfering with my social life, Sir."
For a second Broady’s jaw stiffened, and he glowered down the table at Buck. Just when the tension was getting unbearable, Broady suddenly threw his head back and laughed uncontrollably. Nervously the Company followed his example.
Following the war Robert McNair stayed in the RCAF as they had a need for experienced senior officers. He returned to Canada to command of ?? In 1947 the French rewarded his wartime activities of liberating their country by awarding him the Croix de Guerre and the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
McNAIR, S/L Robert Wendell, DSO, DFC (21047) - Croix de Guerre avec Palm (France) - AFRO 485/47 dated 12 September 1947 and Canada Gazette dated 20 September 1947.
McNAIR, S/L Robert Wendell, DSO, DFC (21047) - Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (France) - AFRO 485/47 dated 12 September 1947 and Canada Gazette dated 20 September 1947.
McNair’s courage and bravery exhibited in WWII carried through to his civil service when in 1953, a North Star aircraft on which he was traveling as Senior Officer crashed at Sea Island, British Columbia. Although injured and soaked in gasoline, he managed to rescue and account for all passengers and crew members. The official commendation likely says it best.
McNAIR, Wing Commander Robert Wendall, DSO, DFC (21047) - Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct - Awarded as per Canada Gazette of 7 August 1954 and AFRO 448/54 dated 13 August 1954. NOTE: This was originally raised as a George Medal recommendation but downgraded inside NDHQ as it was deemed that McNair, being part of the crew, has a special responsibility with respect to passengers.
Wing Commander McNair was flying as a crew member in one of the crew rest positions of North Star 17503 when it crashed at Vancouver, British Columbia on 30 December 1953. The aircraft ended its crash landing run in an inverted position and as a result, all crew and passengers found themselves suspended in mid-aid in an upside down position. Self-preservation was uppermost in the minds of practically everyone because of the imminent danger of fire or explosion but Wing Commander McNair, cognizant of the large number of passengers being carried and the state of turmoil that must be existing, threw caution to the winds, remained in the aircraft and fought his way to the passenger compartment. Here, he set to work, restored calm and through prodigious effort assisted all passengers in evacuating the aircraft as quickly as possible. Still not content, Wing Commander McNair remained in the aircraft and personally searched through the debris on the off chance that someone might have been overlooked. Only then did he abandon the aircraft. It is to be remembered that this officer was soaked in gasoline at the time of this incident from an overturned Herman Nelson heater, a condition which would immediately bring to mind the fact that he had been badly burned by fire in his aircraft during the war and therefore should have been acutely aware of his precarious position under the present set of circumstances. The fact that the aircraft did not explode or did not take fire should not be allowed to detract in any way from the magnitude of Wing Commander McNair’s deeds, for it was only by an act of God that neither calamity occurred.
With the cold war in full swing He was promoted to Group Captain and sent to command one of the new Pine Tree Line sites at Lac St. Denis, Quebec. He was sector commander at 1 Air Defence Command at RCAF Stn. Lac St. Dennis from 1955 to 1957.
Buck was returned to Europe. As a Group Captain, Buck commanded No. 4 (Fighter) Wing of the No. 1 Air Division Europe from August 30, 1957 to Sept. 14, 1961. They were flying Canadair Silver Stars and Sabres from Baden-Soellingen, Germany.
Canadian artist Randal Whitcombe, while chatting with a signer for the 419 Squadron Disbandment painting "Last Run of the Moose" Al "Red Lead" Brown shared some of his experience with Wing Commander McNair in Germany. Al Brown was Buck’s adjudant and a somewhat fearful one at that. Apparently upon meeting his new boss, the first introduction was something like "lets go fly". The meaning was that if Brown could maintain formation with the "Boss" and make give a good account of his pilot skills, then he would earn his patience and respect. Apparently he did.
Al Brown also mentioned that McNair had lost most of the vision in one eye from a wartime injury and thus the pilots who flew the target-towing gunnery practice aircraft were somewhat nervous when they knew Buck was due to qualify. Red Lead is unsure to this day if Buck’s practice of getting painfully close to the target banner before opening fire was a result of his wartime experience on Spitfires, or because of his bad eye... the end result was always a thoroughly tattered target banner and a very agitated target-towing pilot but never anything more severe.
While still an officer in the RCAF he contracted leukemia in the late 1960s. He battled the disease until January, 1971 when he died leaving his wife and two sons.
In 1990 he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.
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Images From:Laddie Lucas, Malta the Thorn in Rommel’s Side.