Former Wren remembered at Yeovilton for her bravery
A heroine of the Second World War visited the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton on Wednesday, 6 March. The visit commemorated her award of a gallantry medal in 1944: the first to be awarded to a female in the Royal Navy.
With complete disregard for her own safety, Wren Booth, a driver with the Fleet Air Arm, dragged a Fleet Air Arm Observer from a crashed Swordfish aircraft. She removed his smouldering clothing with her bare hands, beating out the flames while explosions in the aircraft scattered debris over them. She drove the Observer 9 miles to a Doctor but, by the time she arrived, he had died.
‘Wren Booth’, today known as Beth Hutchinson (92 years young), was awarded the British Empire Medal for her act of outstanding bravery on the night of 18 November 1943 near Royal Naval Air Station Macrihanish, Scotland at the age of just 23. During her visit, Beth said, “Gosh it was nothing; I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I’m nothing special; anyone would have done the same in my position. We just got on with it”
When Beth arrived at Buckingham Palace to receive her BEM from King George V1 on 16 May 1944 she was the only woman amongst nearly 300 men. When recalling her visit she said; “I didn’t know how to curtsey; so I had all these men outside the throne room of Buckingham Palace showing me how to curtsey, you wouldn’t believe it. It was such good fun and we did laugh. There were certainly more good bits than bad bits.”
Beth is living proof that women made a vital contribution in the Royal Navy and her story was told some years later in two publications Blue for a Girl and Women of Glory each recognising her act of gallantry . Blue for a Girl describes Beth’s visit to the Palace and how the King “pinned the medal to her proudly heaving breast” adding her vital statistics “35, 23, 36” a sign of the times and how they have changed.
Beth now a great-grandmother living in Box near Bath reminisced with Lieutenant Commander (Lt Cdr) Polly Hatchard (37) about her life as a Wren in World War Two. Polly is the Royal Navy’s first female air engineering officer. She is currently the senior air engineering officer for Lynx Wildcat Maritime Force the Royal Navy’s next generation of helicopter.
Polly said “I have always been interested in engineering and studied mechanical engineering at Bristol University. My maternal grandfather was a Naval Commander, my paternal grandfather one of the few surviving Battle of Britain pilots and my father is also a civilian pilot. I joined principally because of these role models.”
Polly has achieved a great deal in her 12 year career including the accolade of first female in the Royal Navy to reach the South Pole. Polly’s career has not stopped her from enjoying family life having two children under five years old. As Beth listened to Polly she said “something that would have been unheard of back in my day. You had to leave the Navy to get married and have a family in those days”
As part of her day at RNAS Yeovilton, Beth shared coffee with the Commanding Officer, Commodore Jock Alexander. This was followed by a visit with Polly to the Royal Naval Historic Flight, home to the only airworthy Swordfish Aircraft in the world, and the type of aircraft from which Beth rescued the Observer.
As Beth’s visit at RNAS Yeovilton drew to a close Polly said “Beth is an absolute inspiration, 70 years ago she got stuck in and went into lifesaving mode without a consideration for her own personal safety. It has been such a pleasure to meet a lady who has paved the way for Women in the Royal Navy today. Beth and her story are sensational.”
Beth and Polly’s meeting was an occasion for looking back on past struggles and accomplishments of Women in the Royal Navy. It was also a day for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women. Beth and Polly both epitomise the ethos and finest traditions of The Senior Service and have blazed a path for the future generations of women in The Royal Navy.