For Bravery: Ms Frances Walsh

News Article / March 21, 2016

By Major Bill March

It was a typical fall day on November 10, 1941, when school mistress Frances Walsh arrived at the Big Hill Springs School in the Simmonds Valley near Calgary, Alberta. As Ms Walsh brought her class to order in that one-room school house, she had no idea that this day would be anything but routine.

She and her students would have paid scant attention to the noise of an approaching aircraft. After all, the school was located near No. 2 Wireless School, which operated from the Calgary airport as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and teacher and pupils were used to hearing the sound of aircraft passing overhead. Engrossed as they were in the middle of a class, it is doubtful that Ms Walsh or her students heard the sound of an aircraft in trouble. Yet in a split second, their peaceful contemplation of the lesson at hand, or perhaps a study-avoiding daydream, was shattered by the crash of an aircraft, mere metres from the school.

The aircraft exploded, jarring teacher and students from their desks. Rushing through the door into the school yard, the screech of crumpling metal torturing their ears, Ms Walsh and her young charges confronted a horrific scene. Almost unrecognizable as an aircraft, a Gipsy Moth trainer was engulfed in flames. And, unbelievably, they saw a man, Leading Aircraftman Karl Gravell, himself on fire, struggling to fight his way back into the heart of the inferno in attempt to rescue the pilot, Flying Officer James Robinson. Even as she moved the children away from the fire, Ms Walsh dispatched the oldest student, Lloyd Bowray, to call for help. As the boy pedalled madly toward the nearest phone, located a mile away, Ms Walsh turned back toward the wreckage.

Through the smoke and flames she could just barely discern Gravell, who was still trying to reach Robinson. Disregarding the danger, Ms Walsh plunged into the burning wreckage, seeking to help the young airman. Grasping the only thing she could reach that was not on fire, the straps of Gravell’s parachute harness, she dragged him toward safety. Once clear of the Gipsy Moth, she rolled him on the ground, batting at the flames with her bare hands, extinguishing the flames that ate away at the injured man. In doing so, she sustained serious burns to her face, hands and arms.

Ignoring her own injuries for the moment, with assistance from her students and neighbours, Ms Walsh managed to carry Gravell into the school house. Once inside, she did everything she could to make the severely burned and injured airman as comfortable as possible until medical help arrived. Recalling the event later, Ms Walsh remembered that Gravell was more concerned with the fate of the pilot, asking “Did I get Jimmy out?” before slipping into unconsciousness.

Unfortunately, there was little that could be done for Gravell, who succumbed to his wounds four hours later at Calgary’s Colonel Belcher Hospital. For his bravery that day, Gravell was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Treated for her injuries, Ms Walsh soon returned to the classroom and eventually moved on to other pursuits. It was not until June 1943 that she learned that she was to be awarded the George Medal for her actions on that November day in 1941. Instituted in 1940, the George Medal was the second-highest decoration that could be awarded to either military or civilian recipients for bravery not in the face of the enemy.

On December 3, 1943, Frances Walsh became the first Canadian woman to be so recognized when the Governor General presented her with the George Medal at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ontario. The citation reads, in part: “She displayed great personal courage and coolness in circumstances which were entirely strange to her.”

Although honoured, Ms Walsh noted in a newspaper interview that, “Anyone would have done exactly the same as I did… My only regret is that such a thing had to happen.”


 

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