During World War II, heroic action sometimes took place in the most unexpected of locations and by the most unexpected of people. Mrs. Walsh’s nieces Maureen Poucher and Shirley Thomas and other members of her family introduced our museum to the story of Frances Walsh, a twenty-nine year old teacher who went to work at her one room school in the foothills of southwestern Alberta one morning but before the day ended had engaged in heroics that resulted in her being awarded a prestigious medal for valour. The museum’s primary goal is to honour those who served with Bomber Command but we also tell the story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Alberta. We are honoured to display the George Medal that was awarded to Frances Walsh and to tell her story.
On November 10, 1941, a Tiger Moth aircraft piloted by Flying Officer James Robinson from No. 2 Wireless School in Calgary crashed in the yard of Big Hill Springs School north of Cochrane, Alberta, narrowly missing the school building itself. BCATP training planes often flew over the school but when this one crashed and exploded the students and their teacher were out of the door in seconds.
Unaware that F/O Robinson had been instantly killed in the crash and despite the fact that he had been severely injured in the crash and his clothes were on fire, L.A.C. Karl Gravel, the eighteen year old student wireless-air gunner aboard the aircraft, attempted to pull his pilot from the burning wreckage.
Frances Walsh, the teacher at the school, “displaying great personal courage and coolness,” rushed from the school house and into the fire, dragging L.A.C. Gravel from the burning aircraft, and rolling him on the ground to extinguish the flames which by this point had completely enveloped his clothing. She then attempted to remove F/O Robinson but the flames prevented her. After dispatching her oldest pupil, Lloyd Bowray, to bicycle to the nearest telephone, Mrs. Walsh and her students carried the injured airman to the schoolhouse and rendered first aid.
Staff arrived as quickly as possible from Calgary’s No. 3 Service Flying Training School. Although Walsh suffered burns to her arms, hands, and face, she made no comment regarding her own injuries until medical officers had cared for the injured airman. Sadly, L.A.C. Gravel died four hours later in Calgary’s Col. Belcher Hospital. L.A.C. Gravel was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his heroic attempt to save his pilot.
A newpaper report of the incident reads, “Anyone would have done exactly the same as I did,” stated the pretty schoolteacher modestly, “My only regret is that such a thing had to happen. Karl was only concerned with what had happened to the pilot, F/O Robinson. His last words were, ‘Did I get Jimmy out?'”
Mrs. Walsh was awarded the George Medal, the second highest civilian award available at the time, for her unselfish acts. Instituted in 1940, the medal can be awarded both to civilians and to military personnel for acts of bravery not in the face of the enemy. The presentation was made at Rideau Hall in Ottawa by the Governor General. It was the first time a Canadian woman had received the George Medal.
Through the efforts of Sergeant Daniel Fitzgerald, an eighteen year old air cadet, a Memorial was placed near the site of the crash in 1995.