Second World War RCAF couple recognized

News Article / November 4, 2020

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Original article published on the Veterans Affairs Canada website in August 2020

When all the men her age were enlisting, Anne McNamara knew she wanted to do her part. Determined not to be left behind, she joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943 as part of the Entertainment Unit. Meanwhile, her future husband, Howard, was serving as a pilot in the North African and Italian Campaigns, attacking German targets and escorting Allied bombers. The pair are featured on this year's Veterans' Week poster, as we commemorate the end of the Second World War.

Anne McNamara was born on 4 November 1922 in Montreal, Quebec. As young men were enlisting and leaving for overseas, Anne (then Anne Goode) decided to enlist too because she “did not want to be left behind”.

Anne, joined eight other dancers, along with a band, to form a variety show. Roughly 30 people worked together to bring the show to military bases across Canada, the United States and overseas. They travelled regularly and moved from Allied base to base, performing almost every night. One of their first trips was to Washington, D.C. where they performed at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“The hall was filled [at the hospital], it was really, really an entertaining show,” Anne says.

Her future husband, Howard McNamara was born on 9 January 1920 in Montreal, Quebec. In 1940, he and his younger brother tried to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

His brother James Emmett was successful and able to enlist right away; however, Howard was told that he didn’t weigh enough and would need to return at a later date. He was eventually able to enlist in December 1941, after putting on a few more pounds.

“I passed the physical but when it came to my weight the doctor said ‘I think you better go home and put on another ten pounds.’ So I didn’t join the same day my brother did.”

Despite this, Howard and his younger brother both graduated senior flying training in the fall of 1941 in Windsor Mills, Quebec. After completing operational training in northern England in January 1942, he volunteered to fly in the North African Campaign.

After touring for a time in North America, Anne and her entertainment company took their show across the Atlantic and into Great Britain. There, the Entertainment Unit performed mostly for Canadian troops stationed in Allied bases across the British Isles.

When she arrived in England she was shocked by the damage caused to London and other areas by German bombing raids.

“The bombing was just horrific, but the destruction they did, you couldn’t believe what you saw.” Anne says “The people were sleeping in the tube because I guess they were bombed out and had no place to go.”

While they were in England, they did not have access to radios. To keep up to date on the war, they read newspapers. On their visits to London, with hot water in short supply, the performers rushed to be the first ones in line to bathe. Anne found a vacant tub, filled it with about three inches of water and got in. Soon after she heard the air raid sirens going off. She remembers staying there and thinking to herself “if they hit me at least I’ll be clean.”

After leaving England, Howard was stationed at Port Said in Egypt, where he spent eight months being re-trained with Spitfires. After completing this training, he and his unit were transferred from Egypt to serve in the Italian Campaign. Following Italy and the completion of his operational tour, Howard returned home on leave. Soon after, he sadly discovered that his younger brother had been shot down flying over Europe. He had been serving with a fighter squadron based in England at the time.

“When I was home on leave and all this came out, the family asked if I would accept the retirement offer that the air force was giving out at the time.” Howard says “Because they had enough pilots overseas that they could afford to retire a few of us, I took the offer.”

Howard retired in March of 1945.

After the war was over, the Entertainment Unit continued to perform for crowds and soldiers in mainland Europe. They performed in countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. Anne says she was so happy to see the post-war celebrations occurring across Europe.

While performing in the Netherlands, one of their shows was attended by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

“We got to Amsterdam… oh they were so nice to us there, they didn’t tell us the Queen was in the audience,” she says.

Anne retired in March of 1946. She met Howard after the end of the war in Montreal and the pair were married in May of 1948. They currently live in Saint-Laurent, Quebec.

You can also hear their story first hand by listening to their episode of Veterans Affairs Canada’s Face of Freedom podcast.

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