Daphne Pearson the first woman recipient of the GC

Photo credit artist Laura Knight.

In 1940 Daphne Pearson was serving as a medical corporal (WAAF) with 500 Squadron Coastal Command at RAF/RNAS Detling in Kent.

The following are extracts from her obituary published in the Telegraph and the Times both dated 26 July 2000.

It was around 1 am on 31 May 1940 when Daphne was woken by the sound of an aircraft which appeared to be in distress: one engine was cutting out and the aircraft appeared to be approaching the airfield. She quickly dressed, put on her tin hat and dashed outside in time to see the aircraft crash through trees and hit the ground. After the war Pearson said,  “A sentry told me to stop but I said no and ran on and opened a gate to allow an ambulance to get through… and there was a dull glow where the plane had come to rest “ 

After scrambling over a fence, falling into a ditch and running across a long field she eventually reached the crash site and saw a small group of people starting to drag the pilot clear. Running towards them she shouted: “Leave him to me – go and get the fence down for the ambulance”.

Daphne Pearson IWW

On her own she dragged  the pilot from the burning aircraft before  stopping to give him a quick examination during which she was concerned he may have a broken neck. The  pilot then mumbled there were  bombs on the aircraft and after hearing this she began dragging him further away and had just reached a small dip in the ground when the fuel tanks exploded. Pearson immediately threw herself on top of the pilot to protect him from the blast and placed her helmet over his head. As they lay on the ground, she was holding his head still to prevent further injury to his neck when one of the  120 lb bombs on the aircraft exploded.

She later recalled, “There was a lot of blood around the pilot’s mouth and a tooth was protruding from his upper jaw and I was about to examine his ankle when the plane exploded again… The force of the blast and the shock wave caused the air around them to collapse and their breath was sucked out of them whilst being showered with debris from the aircraft”.  She also recalled seeing other rescuers  running towards the field being blown to the ground by the hurricane-force wind of the explosion.

Daphne Pearson was aware of the dangers from other unexploded  bombs as she broke cover,  ran across open ground and helped the medical officer over a fence with a stretcher.

Shortly after the pilot was removed by ambulance there was another huge explosion but still undeterred by the dangers   she ran to the burning wreck to look for the wireless operator but found he was already dead. At 0800 hours Daphne Pearson reported for her regular duties as if nothing had happened a few hours earlier.

In July 1940 the King awarded Joan Daphne Pearson the Medal of the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for Gallantry. After the revocation of the Empire Gallantry Medal, on 31 January 1941 the King invested her with its replacement, the George Cross and Daphne Pearson became the first woman to be awarded the medal.

In 1969 Daphne Pearson emigrated to Australia and eventually settled in Melbourne where she died in July 2000 at the age of 89.

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

2 thoughts on “Daphne Pearson the first woman recipient of the GC”

  1. A mere anecdote: there is a bench in her name (ie her name is on a plate) in Kew Gardens where she worked in the late 1950s. Normally this is reserved for those who contributed financially to the gardens, which unfortunately were heavily damaged by a 1987 storm (I hope the bench is still there and was not blown away by the storm): I don’t know if she did so. I knew her by name, otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed, but knew little about her besides the fcat that she was the first woman to have been awarded the George Cross. I lived in Kew from 1977 to 1980 (working as a journalist in Fleet Street in London), after which I went back to the States where I read more about her.

    Liked by 1 person

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