Win a biography of George Beamish

It is 75 years since VE Day, so a fitting time to remember the life of George Beamish. The former Ireland and Lions No 8 served the Allies with distinction during World War Two and became the first RAF officer to reach the rank of Air Commodore. He was knighted in 1955 and died 12 years later.

His story is told in The Lion of the RAF, a biography by college lecturer Paul McElhinney that came out at the start of this drawn-out rugby season.

It is not an orthodox rugby book, focusing predominantly on Beamish’s military career. However, the fact Willie John McBride provides the foreword tells you about Beamish’s standing in the rugby world. McBride first met him whilst working as a bank cashier in Coleraine in 1964 and recalls his “presence and aura”.

Beamish grew up in Dunmanway, County Cork, part of a Protestant family in the Catholic-dominated South. The family uprooted when he was seven, settling in Derry and Antrim two years later in 1914.

He was one of six siblings who all joined the RAF, a record that still stands today. Having become one of the RAF’s first-ever recruits – the service was only created in 1918 – George was stationed at Cranwell in Lincolnshire.

RAF Cranwell

Nurture the winged: on finishing school, Beamish attended RAF College Cranwell as a flight cadet

Incredibly, a distant cousin of the Beamish family married Hermann Goering, a top Nazi and future head of the Luftwaffe. Years later, Goering ordered Cranwell to be spared from bombing during the Battle of Britain. He assumed that Germany would win the war and had earmarked it as his headquarters. There is a bronze bust of him in Cranwell’s college library!

In 1920, Beamish had played for Coleraine Academical Institution’s cup-winning side when only 15 years old. Being subsequently based in England, he joined the Leicester club, making the first of his 118 Tigers appearances against Heriot’s on 27 December 1924.

At 6ft 2in and 17st, he was a strapping No 8 for those times. His ‘party trick’ was being able to bend a penny coin between his thumb and forefinger. Beyond mentioning his “physical strength”, there are no details of his rugby talents. Suffice to say that his impact was such that within seven weeks of stepping out at Welford Road he was making his Ireland debut at Twickenham. He was just 19 at the time.

RAF rugby side of 1930s

Airmen: Beamish captaining an RAF side of the 1930s. Flying ace Douglas Bader is bottom row, far right

A leg injury was soon to interrupt his rugby for three years, but from 1928 until his retirement in 1933 he was a fixture in the Ireland team. He captained them five times, being the only acting serviceman to lead Ireland until Ciaran Fitzgerald did likewise in 1982.

That period for Beamish included playing all five Tests for the 1930 Lions in New Zealand and Australia. He led the side three times and is credited with getting the green of Ireland incorporated into the Lions’ kit. To the then strip of Scottish blue shirt, English white socks and Welsh red socks was added a flash of green at the top of the socks.

2017 British & Irish Lions

Colour principle: the green, representing Ireland, on the Lions socks came courtesy of Beamish (Getty)

When Beamish hung up his boots, with his 25 Ireland caps and those five in a losing cause for the Lions, he was the most-capped No 8 in history. His club exploits included captaining a Leicestershire and East Midlands XV to victory over the 1931 Springboks – the only side to beat them on that tour.

All four Beamish brothers – George, Charles, Victor and Cecil – were to play for Leicester, a record until being surpassed by the Tuilagi clan decades later.

Charles, a prop who also played for Harlequins, won 12 Ireland caps from 1934-38. Victor is best known as an ace fighter pilot who survived the Battle of Britain before meeting a tragic end over France in 1942.

As mentioned, the bulk of the book deals with Beamish’s RAF career and role in World War Two. He was an average pilot but “a quick, decisive, ‘can do’ sort of man whose skills won him many admirers among the top echelons of the RAF,” writes McElhinney.

Benina aerodrome, Libya

Battleground: Benina aerodrome, Libya, after an RAF attack. Beamish served in the desert campaign

As the Senior Air Staff Officer in the Western Desert Air Force, he was the ‘eyes and ears’ of Air Marshall Coningham. The Allied air force was a crucial factor in winning the desert campaign, including the Second Battle of El Alamein. Defeat there could have seen the Axis powers seize control of Egypt and the Suez Canal.

Incidentally, it is fascinating to discover the war roles played by men later famous in other spheres. These include Tommy Cooper, Kenneth Wolstenholme, Dan Maskell, Evelyn Waugh, Roald Dahl, Christopher Lee and Michael Bentine.

There is little by way of character insights into Beamish, but we do get snippets. His creature comforts were tea and tobacco, and on one occasion he was reprimanded by Field Marshal Montgomery for sucking on his trademark pipe.

After the fall of Tunis, senior Allied figures lodged in the splendour of the royal palace. Not so Beamish, who opted for a camp bed in a beach hut. A decision “so in keeping with the humble, unpretentious side of George”.

Beamish family graves

Resting place: family graves in Castlerock, where George retired to in 1958 to live out his final years

The epilogue refers to his taciturn and stubborn temperament, and lack of social charm. Yet there is acknowledgment too of his religious and political tolerance, reflected in his wide base of friends. “Importantly, George embraced the concept that one could be a proud Ulsterman, an Irishman and British all at the one time. For a long time, many would have seen all three together as being incompatible,” writes the author.

George Beamish died in 1967 at home in Castlerock, aged 62. Rugby will remember him as one of the great Ireland and Lions No 8s, in the same breath as Jamie Heaslip and Willie Duggan.

The Lion of the RAF is published by Amberley, RRP £20. You can buy it here.

We have three copies of the book to give away. For a chance to win one, just answer the question below and fill in your details. The competition closes on Friday 10 July.

Who am I quiz question

Flying officer: this Leicester Tigers and England wing served in the RAF – but who is he? (Getty Images)

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Terms and conditions

The competition closes at 11.59pm on Friday 10 July 2020.

Three winners will be selected at random, each winning a copy of The Lion of the RAF by Paul McElhinney.

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