July 26, 2000
Braving the peril of exploding bombs to drag a pilot to safety from the wreckage of his blazing aircraft.
Resolve allied with a sense of fun: Daphne Pearson as a WAAF officer in 1944
Daphne Pearson had only just celebrated her 29th birthday when a chance look from her WAAF quarters window one night led her to save the life of a bomber pilot by swift thinking and courageous action. It was the end of May 1940 and the war had reached a grim point for Britain. The German offensive in France had driven a huge gap between the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force, and the latter was seemingly trapped at Dunkirk.
Pearson was a radio operator at an RAF Bomber Command station at Detling, Kent, from where aircraft were flying missions round the clock in a desperate attempt to delay the encirclement of the BEF in France by bombing bridges and the advancing enemy armoured columns. It was 1am on May 31, her shift had ended and she could see a squadron of bombers returning from their night's mission across the Channel.
She noticed that an engine on one aircraft was coughing as it approached the landing strip; then flames began to stream from the wing. In a matter of seconds, the plane slewed to one side and crashed at the edge of the airfield, close to where she was watching. She ran to the scene to find two of the crew apparently thrown clear of the wreckage and attempting to help a third man, who turned out to be the pilot, away to safety. She directed the two crewmen to the station sick bay and turned her attention to the pilot.
The man was dazed and could not walk owing to his injuries, but he was able to tell Corporal Pearson that the aircraft had a full bomb load and the fourth member of the crew was still inside the wreck. Realising that the greatest danger lay in the bombs exploding, Pearson half-carried, half-dragged the pilot behind a low bank some yards away but no sooner had she laid him there in comparative safety than the first of the bombs exploded. She flung herself on top of the pilot to protect him from further injury from the blast and from bomb splinters, remaining there until a stretcher party arrived.
Once the the pilot had been carried to safety, she approached the burning bomber to search for the fourth crew member, the radio operator. She found him but he was dead. The citation for the award of the Empire Gallantry Medal to Corporal Pearson acknowledged that her prompt and courageous action before the bombs exploded had undoubtedly saved the pilot's life.
The EGM, then a little-known and now a virtually forgotten decoration, had been instituted by King George V in 1922 to be awarded to persons "of any rank or station" who performed an act of gallantry anywhere in the world. It was primarily intended as an award to civilians and to be less restricted in scope than the Albert and Edward Medals for saving life and acts of bravery in a peacetime context.
German air attacks on Britain, which began with intensity in the autumn of 1940, led King George VI to introduce the George Cross and George Medal for award to civilians, firemen, police and servicemen in circumstances of extreme danger. The senior award, the George Cross, replaced the EGM and a Royal Warrant of January 31, 1941, provided for all surviving holders of the medal to have it replaced by the George Cross. Thus, Daphne Pearson became the first woman to receive the George Cross for gallantry in the Second World War. A few weeks after the incident she was commissioned in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force and served with Bomber Command until the end of the war.
A report of her wartime exploit in a Sunday newspaper 55 years later, arising out of her attendance at a reunion of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association in London, led eventually to her meeting the pilot she had rescued. A son of the former Pilot Officer David Bond saw the report and recognised the event in which his father's life had been saved. This resulted in Daphne Pearson's being flown to Scotland to meet Bond's family, most of whom were involved in running a helicopter base in Aberdeen.
Joan Daphne Mary Pearson was born at Christchurch, near Bournemouth. Shortly afterwards, her father was appointed vicar of St Helens on the Isle of Wight. She was educated at St Brandon's School, Bristol, where she was a boarder, as her parents were living in her father's parishes, first in Buckinghamshire and then in Oxfordshire.
This background and upbringing was no doubt responsible for her determined character. She was intensely patriotic and particular with regard to what she believed to be correct behaviour. She had a quiet dignity about her which usually, but not always, concealed her acute sense of fun.
Daphne Pearson went to Australia in November 1959 on the inaugural flight of the Comet IV from Heathrow to Darwin - and decided to stay there. She worked first in the Department of Agriculture in Victoria and later with the Commonwealth Department of Civil Aviation in the Victoria and Tasmania region, primarily as a horticulturist. The large area covered by both departments for which she worked allowed her to maintain contact with flying, as travel was mostly by air.
At the same time she remained in close touch with her many friends in England, and attended reunions of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association until her late eighties. Her death leaves only one surviving woman holder of the George Cross and reduces to 36 the number of living recipients of the decoration (a figure which excludes the awards made collectively to the island of Malta during the war and earlier this year to the Royal Ulster Constabulary).
Daphne Pearson was unmarried.
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov