Wren's tale of courage and devotion to duty honoured at RNAS Yeovilton
With complete disregard for her own safety, Wren driver Elizabeth Booth helped drag a Fleet Air Arm observer away from the wreckage of his crashed Swordfish biplane, while explosions inside the aircraft scattered burning debris all around them.
She used her hands to beat out the flames on his burning uniform, and tore off his smouldering clothing. She helped make him as comfortable as possible, helped carry him to her truck and drove him nine miles on a tortuous single track road to find a doctor.
By the time she reached the doctor the terribly injured man had died, but for displaying “courage and devotion to duty of the highest order” Wren Booth was awarded a British Empire Medal, the first female in the Royal Navy to receive a gallantry medal.
She received the honour from King George VI in 1944, the only woman among nearly 300 men at the presentation ceremony. She was living proof, if it was needed, that women could be trusted in the most dangerous situations, but when the book, Blue For A Girl, was published just a few years later telling stories of Wrens’ heroism it described the scene at the Palace in now shockingly sexist detail. It told how the King “pinned the medal to her proudly heaving breast,” and added that her vital statistics were “35, 23, 36”.
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Yesterday, Wren Booth, now Beth Hutchinson, aged 92, and a great-grandmother living at Box, near Bath, reflected on her actions on that dark November night in 1943 during a visit to Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton. And two days before International Women’s Day, she also reflected on how the world has changed for women.
Of her bravery, Mrs Hutchinson said: “You don’t think about the danger at the time. If you are going to do it you are going to do it. I am sure an awful lot of people would have done exactly the same. I can’t think where the information about my vital statistics came from, I think they must have made them up.”
Today it would be unthinkable to refer to vital statistics, but at least the retelling of Mrs Hutchinson’s courage, in Blue For a Girl, and another book, Women of Glory (in which her story made the cover picture) inspired a generation of girls.
Lieutenant Commander Polly Hatchard, senior air engineering officer for the Lynx/Wildcat Maritime Force, based at Yeovilton, was proud to meet Mrs Hutchinson and told her: “The aircraft was exploding, with unstable airframe and structures. The engine could still have been driving the propellers. You were the first on the scene and you didn’t even hesitate to go into burning and unstable wreckage to save life. Meeting you today I am just speechless. I find it incredibly inspiring.”
“I just didn’t think about it,” said Mr Hutchinson. She had joined the Red Cross before volunteering for the Women’s Royal Naval Service and being posted to the remote Machrihanish air base on Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula. The plane crash happened during a training flight.
“You were the first female in the Royal Navy, and thus the Fleet Air Arm, to receive a gallantry medal. You paved the way for us all,” said Lieutenant Commander Hatchard, who studied mechanical engineering at Bristol University. With a paternal grandfather one of the few surviving Battle of Britain pilots, Lieutenant Commander Hatchard grew up with images of the Spitfire. Her maternal grandfather was a Naval Commander. “I have always been interested in engineering,” she said, “and joined principally because of those role models. My father is also a civilian pilot. People like Beth and their stories are sensational, and we do have more women coming through, slowly.”
Still only around eight per cent of the Armed Forces are women. There is a shortage of engineers generally, and lack of young women going into engineering has been the subject of much recent debate. It is said that some are put off by the preponderance of men in the profession. Mrs Hutchinson was not an engineer but she is a great role model for future women engineers. She never gave the fact that she was working in a male-dominated world a second thought.
During her visit, Mrs Hutchinson saw a Swordfish from the Royal Navy’s historic flight, which will help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic later this year.
Her daughters, Fran Ralli, who runs Lorne House B&B in Box, and Mary King, who lives at Corsley, near Frome, say their mother’s can-do attitude inspired them to have their own careers. Mrs Ralli added: “We hope this day is not only about what our mother did but about encouraging other women to go into a career, to say, ‘we can do this’.”