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Story of Daphne Pearson, the first woman to win the George Cross

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On the night of May 30, 1940, several aircraft had taken off to bomb enemy-held harbours in France.

One plane, R3389 MK-W, failed to release its bombs and turned back for Detling.

Cpl Daphne Pearson
Cpl Daphne Pearson

Bad weather closed in. The four-man crew became fearful they would not find the airfield. As they were crossing the English coast one of the Anson's twin engines began to stutter.

A break in the cloud suddenly revealed they were only a few miles from touchdown. But as they began their run-in, the stalled engine burst into flames and the second engine also began to stutter.

Pilot Officer David Bond dropped the aircraft onto the grass as the fire began to spread, conscious all the while that they still had live bombs on board.

With a rending of metal, the undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft slid on its belly along the grass, now enveloped in flame.

WAAF Corporal Joan (but known as Daphne) Pearson had been in her bunk in the women’s quarters not far away. She quickly pulled on her clothes and ran towards the wreck.

Newly arrived 500 Squadron Ansons over Dover Harbour (53531632)
Newly arrived 500 Squadron Ansons over Dover Harbour (53531632)

A huge glow identified the site as she scrambled over a hedge, fell down a slight incline and climbed over a small bank, until she was nearly there.

Two airmen were straggling towards her in a dazed condition. “Two more still in there,” they cried.

Cpl Pearson ran on to the burning wreck and found the two pilots still strapped in their seats. She quickly saw the co-pilot was dead, but she was able to unharness the pilot and drag him from his seat and clear of the wreckage.

He recovered consciousness enough to warn her there were bombs still onboard. Realising that at any moment the Anson would explode, Cpl Pearson used all her strength to drag the injured airman away and over the small ridge she had previously stumbled over.

Covering his face with her own tin helmet, there was just time for her to fling her body on top of his to shield him as the aircraft blew up. The small ridge they were sheltering behind protected them from the shrapnel and blast wave.

A flight of Avro Ansons of 500 Squadron pictured in 1940 above Dover
A flight of Avro Ansons of 500 Squadron pictured in 1940 above Dover

The tale has been revisited in a book by air historian Robin Brooks from Langdale Rise in Maidstone.

Robin’s book, entitled County of Kent Squadrons, charts the history of the two RAF squadrons, Nos 131 and 500, that had County of Kent in their designation.

The 500 Squadron had existed as an auxiliary unit, manned by weekend airmen, since 1930. It was originally based at Manston, moving later to Detling, and then, after service abroad, to West Malling.

The 131 Squadron was unique in that it was comprised entirely of Spitfires purchased through donations made by the people of Kent, in a county-wide collection organised by Lord Cornwallis.

All the aircraft were given Kentish names, though in fact only once, and then only for a brief time, was the squadron actually based in the county.

However, our current story concerns the 500 Squadron when they were at Detling during the darkest days of the war and equipped with Avro Anson light bombers.

The George Cross is the highest award for bravery when not under enemy fire
The George Cross is the highest award for bravery when not under enemy fire

Acclaimed a heroine, the modest Cpl Pearson wrote to her mother saying, “My name has been sent to the King, but I do hope nothing will be done about it.

“When I read of the things our boys did at Dunkirk and what our crews are doing here, my little bit is nothing at all.”

However, George VI thought otherwise and awarded her the Empire Gallantry Medal for her actions in saving the pilot’s life. Shortly after, the Empire Gallantry Medal was withdrawn and replaced with the George Cross.

The holders of the EGM were re-awarded the George Cross, and Cpl Pearson became the first woman to receive that award - the highest award for bravery not in the presence of the enemy. She was 29.

Shortly after, she received a commission and served with Bomber Command as an Assistant Section Officer throughout the war.

The new book by Robin Brooks
The new book by Robin Brooks

But the story doesn't end there.

In 1995, some 55 years after her wartime exploit, Pearson was contacted by the son of David Bond. He had read an account of her story in a newspaper following a reunion of the members of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association in London, which she had attended.

He recognised that her story matched that in which his father’s life had been saved. Subsequently Pearson was invited to Scotland to meet Bond’s family, most of whom were involved in running a helicopter base in Aberdeen.

Daphne Pearson had been born in Christchurch, near Bournemouth, the daughter of a vicar.

On leaving school, she worked as photographer’s assistant and then as photographer with her own studio, while learning to fly in her spare time.

She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1939 as a medical orderly.

Author Robin Brooks
Author Robin Brooks

After demobilisation in 1946, Pearson became the assistant governor of a women’s Borstal. She later worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, and bought a shop selling gardening equipment, produce and flowers.

In 1959 she emigrated to Australia and worked for the country’s Department of Agriculture as a horticulturist.

Daphne Pearson remained unmarried.

She died in Melbourne on July 25, 2000, aged 89.

In May, 2010, a plaque in her memory was unveiled at the Kent County Showground, the site of the old Detling Airfield, by the then Lord Lieutenant of Kent, Allan Willett, who was accompanied by his wife Anne, and by Stephen and David Bond, the son and grandson of the rescued pilot, David Bond.

Robin Brooks’ book has this and many other stories about Kent’s two RAF squadrons, along with a good many rare photographs. Buy it from Stenlake Publishing, priced £11.95, ISBN 978-1-84033-909-3.

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