1. Working through the air raid
In November 1940, three women of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) were awarded 50% of all the Military Medals (MM) received by members of that service during the Second World War. They were stationed at RAF Biggin Hill in Kent, which suffered some of the worst air raids during the Battle of Britain.
In a devastating attack on 30 August, 39 people were killed. The next morning, those who had survived reported for duty as usual, at the start of a day that would see further air raids.
Sergeant Joan Mortimer, Flight Officer Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner
Sergeant Joan Mortimer, Flight Officer Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner (pictured here) were all WAAF teleprinter operators who stayed at their posts during the heavy Luftwaffe (German Air Force) attacks on 1 September. Elspeth Henderson continued her work keeping in contact with Fighter Command Headquarters, Uxbridge while the raid was on.
She carried on even after she was knocked to the ground as the operations room where she was working took a direct hit. Helen Turner was the switchboard operator and also kept working as the building was hit and bombs fell nearby. It was only when a fire broke out and they were ordered to leave that the two women finally abandoned their posts.
Sergeant Joan Mortimer was in the armoury when the air raid started. Although surrounded by several tons of high explosive, she remained at her telephone switchboard relaying messages to the defence posts around the airfield.
Mortimer then picked up a bundle of red flags and hurried out to mark the numerous unexploded bombs scattered around the area. Even when one went off close by, she carried on. For the bravery all three WAAFs displayed in their determination to carry out their duties during such danger, each was awarded a Military Medal in November 1940.
2. Putting out flames with his bare hands
On 15 September 1940, Flight Sergeant John Hannah was the wireless operator and air gunner in a Hampden bomber that was carrying out a raid on German invasion barges at Antwerp, Belgium. After releasing its bombs, the Hampden quickly came under attack from anti-aircraft guns. It took a direct hit, which started a fierce fire that soon engulfed the whole fuselage.
Gunner George James bailed out after the floor melted beneath him in the intense heat. Surrounded by flames, Hannah would have been justified in following him. But instead he began trying to put out the fire with the aircraft’s two fire extinguishers.
When those were empty, he used his log book and then his own hands to stop the spread of the blaze. He worked for ten minutes in the blistering heat, as ammunition exploded around him and another member of the crew bailed out of the stricken aircraft.
Hannah managed to stop the fire, but suffered burns to his eyes and face in the process. He then crawled through to the pilot, Connor, to tell him the inferno was out. On discovering they were the only two left on board, Hannah took over the navigation while Connor flew the badly-damaged bomber (pictured here) back to their base.
Putting out flames with his bare hands
Hannah was taken to hospital for emergency treatment where he learned on 1 October that he had been awarded a Victoria Cross (VC), the highest decoration for gallantry, for his incredible bravery. He was just 18 years old at the time. Hannah recovered and remained in the RAF, but contracted tuberculosis and was discharged in 1942. He died just five years later and is buried in Leicester.
3. Famous ace
While on patrol over the Dover area in September 1940, Pilot Officer Eric Lock (pictured here on the left) of 41 Squadron RAF took on three Heinkel He 111s of the Luftwaffe and shot one down into the sea. He then attacked another German aircraft immediately afterwards, using cool determination and great skill to destroy it.
He was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for this daring act of flying in October 1940. The details of this award also stated that he had ‘displayed great courage in the face of heavy odds’ and had destroyed ‘fifteen enemy aircraft within a period of nineteen days.’
Eric Lock was one of the most famous aces of the Battle of Britain, officially recorded as having shot down 21 enemy aircraft. He was nicknamed ‘Sawn Off Lockie’ by his fellow pilots for his short stature and became popular in the British press for his flying successes. Lock went on to earn a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and joined 611 Squadron in June 1941. He was shot down during a mission near Boulogne, France, on 3 August 1941 and was never seen again.