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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK
Lasting tribute to wartime hero

By Andrew Dawkins
BBC News, Birmingham

"My brother just blurted out 'our Jack's been killed'. I remember his face so clearly it's just burned into your mind."

Madeleine Summerill was only 11 years old when she discovered the older brother she adored had perished in a plane crash in World War II.

Jack McNamara
Jack McNamara was described as being "full of fun"

Now, 65 years on, she has found out how 21-year-old John Frederick McNamara, better known as Jack, died.

The trainee Spitfire pilot avoided buildings - including possibly a school - before crashing in a Cheshire town.

People in Alsager had always wondered what happened when a plane, rumoured to be a Spitfire, came down in a field on an old farm, which is now a cricket pitch.

And after one resident contacted regional BBC TV news programme Midlands Today, it set off a long trail to find out the truth.

Eventually a name and a story of bravery emerged - and on Tuesday a plaque was unveiled at a special ceremony at the site as a lasting tribute to Jack.

'Wing snapped'

Worcester aviation historian Andrew Long eventually cracked the mystery, after extensive work by BBC reporter Ben Godfrey and famous Birmingham historian Carl Chinn.

Derek Fernyhough, who wrote to the BBC, Madeleine Summerill and Carl Chinn
Madeleine Summerill said the story was a "complete surprise"

Mr Long said: "He was flying a Spitfire in training. We presume he didn't estimate how close he was to the ground when he came through the clouds.

"As he tried to change course to avoid buildings, he pulled up, he tried to gain altitude quickly.

"But the port wing snapped and he crashed into trees on the farmland.

"If he'd hit the buildings, undoubtedly he wouldn't have survived and there might have been considerable loss of life on the ground.

"You cannot deny the bravery of Sgt McNamara when faced with a life-or-death situation, which ultimately cost him his life."

'Great lad'

The sister was eventually tracked down after an appeal on BBC Radio Bristol - and was astonished.

The telegram which arrived at the family home at the time had confirmed the worst, but gave few details.

She said: "We had been told it was a flying accident, the plane crashed and he was killed. Anything else is total and complete surprise.

Jack was one of many pilots lost during training

"Jack was full of fun. He was a great lad and sometimes I suffered because of it, being his young sister. He'd thought up all sorts of pranks to play on us all.

"Mum was a lovely cheerful person, always ready for a laugh, but it hit her terribly and she wore black for ages."

Derek Fernyhough was a 10-year-old schoolboy when he heard an explosion in class - and his obsession to find out what happened led him to contact the BBC.

He said: "My mother told me that she'd seen a wing fall off an aeroplane and it crashed into the field behind our house and we came up here and there were bits of plane in the trees."

That field proved to be the "top field" of donkeys owned by the family of Sheila Bailey.

The historians found her when she walked into a library where appeals for information were left - and she could tell them it happened around September.

Mr Long had started his search with just "1942, autumn, Alsager and Spitfire".

He knew Spitfire pilots were trained at Hawarden, Cheshire, and it proved to be an important clue.

A second trip to the National Archives at Kew in Surrey ultimately uncovered the accident report and consequently the full story of 25 September 1942.

The plaque in memory of Jack was unveiled on the side of the pavilion of Alsager Cricket Club, just metres from where the plane landed - and Madeleine was the guest of honour.

Sgt Jack McNamara avoided a school and lost his life

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