Betty Huggett

Spitfire pilot

Born 1 April 1920

Died 5 July 2016

Betty Huggett, who has died aged 96, had an adventurous war. She joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) to ferry new aircraft from factories to RAF bases throughout the UK. It was vital work and the ATA recruited women to serve in the operation.

The lady pilots proved to be valiant pioneers but were sometimes provided with only minimal training – often not adequately trained on flying instruments. But they contributed much to the war effort and displayed much courage and bravery. Typically modest Mrs Huggett admitted years later, “I so wanted to be useful.”

In May1945 and not long out of training school, Mrs Huggett took off from Prestwick on a mission to deliver a Barracuda torpedo bomber to Lossiemouth. Her flight plan would take her over the Firth of Forth and then north.

While over the Forth the weather deteriorated badly; the clouds enveloped the plane and there was much wind and turbulence. She had been trained to return to base if she experienced bad weather: the aircrafts were precious and not only expensive but vital for the war effort. As she turned the plane lost height severely and Mrs Huggett just had time to brace herself as the plane hit the water. Years later she recalled, “It sat there on the surface for a few moments, then started sinking. I must have gone down quite decently, like in a lift.”

As the freezing water entered the cockpit all this intrepid lady could think about was her life insurance policy. She hoped her mother would be able to use it to help care for her brother, who had recently contracted polio. “I can’t remember being frightened,” she said. “I can remember more or less accepting it.”

As the plane sank to the seabed instant action was called for and Mrs Huggett took a deep breath and released the straps in her cockpit and floated to the grim, blackened surface of the Forth. She was not suitably clothed - no life jacket and only wearing rudimentary warm clothing. She shouted for help. Visibility was bad but a trawler, Provide, from the nearby fishing port of St Monans heard her cries and steamed towards her. “Hang on, laddie” the skipper, John Morris, cried reassuringly.

She was immediately taken to the Royal Naval Air Station at Crail to be warmed up with a cup of tea and in a heated cradle built for rescued fighter pilots.

Huggett left the ATA in August 1945.

Betty Huggett (née Keith-Jopp) was born in Bristol into an army family and worked as a secretary and did valuable war work on Salisbury Plain. She married Major Peter Huggett in 1950, moving to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where he worked in insurance. In 1964 they moved to Eastern Cape in South Africa.

She seldom spoke of her exploits with the ATA but in the late 1990s Giles Whittell interviewed her for his book, Spitfire Women of World War Two.

When the book was published Mrs Huggett was interviewed by BBC Radio Scotland in 2007 and her escape attracted much attention – especially from the local MP, Nigel Griffiths. Mr Griffiths approached the prime minister, Gordon Brown (also a Fife MP), with a proposal that the ladies from the ATA should belatedly honoured. In 2008 all the surviving lady ATA pilots were presented with a veterans’ badge at Number 10. Mrs Huggett was represented by her daughter Caroline.

In 2013 Bill Morris, a third generation of the trawler skipper’s family and resident of St Monans, initiated plans for a salvage operation of the plane and made enquiries about the ditching: he was keen that the local folk who had come to Mrs Huggett’s rescue should be suitably remembered. Enquiries suggested that the plane was ditched close to the swimming baths in St Monans but such was the secrecy at the time there was little written evidence of the event.

Bill Morris told Fife Today in 2013, “I would like to see some recognition for what the rescuers did. The pilot described the rescue as a miracle, so I think we should do something to recognise what these people did.”

Betty Huggett is survived by their two daughters

Alasdair Steven