On the night of 18th November 1943, WREN [No: 57572] driver, Elizabeth Booth, was on patrol in her truck near Skipness.
Booth was attached to the Royal Naval Air Station at Machrihanish in Kintyre and based in a Range Tower for the offshore bombing range at Crossaig, for which there Range Towers on the land at Skipness. The Wren was based in one of the towers.
Night was falling when WREN Booth saw a biplane, a Fairey Swordfish, which was on a training exercise at Crossaig, drop out of the clouds.
She says: ‘I saw it swoop down but I didn’t see it come back up’. She drove in and found the wreckage on the beach. The remains of the plane were on fire with internal explosions scattering debris around it.
She drove in to the site and found the wreckage on the beach, burning and with internal explosions scattering debris around it. The pilot was already dead but the second airman, a young Observer, was still alive. He was on the ground outside the aircraft and was on fire.
The young Wren got to him and with no thought for herself, beat out the flames with her bare hands and tore burning clothing away from his body. She helped to haul him to her truck and drove off along what was then a rough country lane to a doctor.
Sadly, before she got there, the young man died from his injuries but the following year, in 1944, Elizabeth Booth became the first woman in the Royal Navy to be awarded the British Empire Medal for bravery.
At the presentation, made by King George VI she was the sole woman amongst nearly 300 men at the ceremony. She says of the occasion: ‘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.’
A few years later, a book Blue For A Girl was published, detailing the heroism of Wrens. In what is a sharp reminder of very different days, it described the moment of the presentation as the King pinning the medal ‘to her proudly heaving breast’ and saw fit to give her measurements – called ‘vital statistics’ – as ’35, 23, 36′.
The crashed aircraft was Swordfish HS448. Secret Scotland has the record of the names of the crew: ‘R Hoskin, Sub Lt RNAF; JCA Benstead, Ldg Airman RNAF; and ? Cuthbert, Sub Lt RNAF’.
Secret Scotland [a fabulous resource site] says that Crossaig: ‘… has also been described as a D-Day Gunnery Range. The Royal Navy would sail to Kilbrannan Sound and carry out Gunnery Practice from the Sound into the Kintyre Hills. Their objective was a small loch located in the area between Crossaig and Ballochroy, probably Loch Garasdale. Ballochroy Glen is still reported to have a sign warning Persons Entering the area of danger of unexploded shells.’
Elizabeth – or Beth, as she is known, had already served in Argyll – at Rosneath, before she was posted to Mahrihanish.
Now 92, she has just been honoured for her decorated wartime service in being invited to visit RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset where she said of what she did at Machrihanish that night: ‘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.’
After the war, in 1947, Beth Booth married Mike Hutchinson, who had served as a Major in the 43rd Wessex Brigade of the Somerset Light Infantry. Hutchinson had been awarded two Military Crosses for his actions during the Normandy landings.
The remarkable Hutchinsons are today great-grandparents and live at Box, near Bath in Somerset, so RNAS Yeovilton has been honouring a local wartime heroine.