"Buck" McNair and the Injury He Tried to Hide
On 28th July, 1943, Squadron Leader ‘Buck’ McNair of 421 squadron, RCAF, escaped with his life when the engine of his Spitfire failed, forcing him to ditch in Channel. However, the injury he sustained that day eventually ended his flying career, though he kept it secret and returned to flying in combat within a month…
ROBERT WENDELL “BUCK” MCNAIR, DSO, DFC and TWO BARS was born in Springfield, Nova Scotia, in 1919, the son of a railroad engineer. After graduating from High School in 1937, he went to work as a ground wireless operator for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Natural Resources. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in June 1940, got his wings in March 1941 and was posted to No. 411 Squadron RCAF at RAF Digby in Lincolnshire, England, in June of that year.
By the time he took command of 416 and then 421 squadron in 1943, McNair was battle hardened from his combat experience over France and Malta and had been ‘rested’ on a War Bond drive back in Camada.
The Canadians 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 in an effort to match the Focke-Wulf 190. However, the new modifications were by no means perfect and as a consequence a number of pilots found themselves over enemy territory with engine failure. Several were killed or maimed.
Buck McNair had confronted this problem twice already during 1943. On both occasions he had managed to coast back to England and safety, but it was a different story when his engine cut out for the third time on the 28th July, during ‘Ramrod’ 165.
Joyce Millard, the WAAF on duty at Kenley’s lonely D/F tower at Wittersham, just north of Rye, took the final bearing on his Spitfire before he abandoned it, recalling that his last message was :
So long you guys – I’m really gonna get my feet wet this time.
From the 421 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 French 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. Really 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 recalled how McNair had been forced to bale out as the engine fire started to spread through the cockpit, burning him badly around the eyes. Already virtually blind, he decided to jettison his parachute, thinking he was about to enter the sea. In fact, he was still 300ft above the water and fell the rest of the way..
He was picked up by an Air-Sea Rescue Walrus and flown back to Hawkinge, accompanied by W/C ‘Johnnie’ Johnson and a small section of Spitfires. Johnson recalled that McNair’s face looked ‘pretty grim, but he was cheerful.’ ‘” Don’t let me lose the squadron, chief,” he said. “This is nothing. I’ll be back in a day or two. Promise I won’t lose the squadron!”‘ Johnson reassured Buck that the job would be kept open for him.
On the 30th July, while still in hospital, Buck was awarded a bar to his DFC, and as soon as his eyes had healed enough to open, he insisted on returning to his squadron, omitting to report that he had lost most of the vision in one eye. Despite his injury, McNair shot down a Bf-109 south of Ghent at the end of August and a week later scored an FW190, but his poor vision had forced him to adapt his tactics and close right in on the enemy fighters before firing. His fellow pilots, knowing nothing of the difficulties he faced, assumed that McNair had become over-aggressive and was taking unnecessary risks.
At the age of 24, Buck was promoted to Wing Commander Flying of 126 Wing 2TAF, consisting of 401 “Rams”, 421 “Red Indians” and 411 “Grizzly” Squadrons. He led the Wing until April 1944. By this time he had amassed 16 victories with many more damaged, but his eyesight was becoming ever weaker and he was reassigned from operational to administrative duties.
After the War, Robert McNair stayed in the RCAF, as they had a need for experienced officers. 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 – an outstandingly brave and selfless act considering his wartime experience of being burnt.
Buck was still in the RCAF, serving in Europe, when he contracted leukaemia in the late 60’s. He lost his final battle with the disease in January 1971, leaving his wife and two sons. He was buried at Brookwood Cemetery.
Rest in Peace Robert “Buck” McNair and thank you for your service.
Wing Commander by Johnnie Johnson.
Lucky 13 by Hugh C. Godefroy.
Buck McNair Spitfire Ace by Norman Franks.