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From the Archives: Schoolyard plane crash propels teacher to heroism

November 7, 2017 Maggie Shane, ATA Archivist
Leading up to its official 100th anniversary in June 2018, the Alberta Teachers’ Association is celebrating its history through a number of initiatives, one of which is this column. Curated by archivist Maggie Shane and appearing in each issue of the ATA News this year, this column will feature significant moments and individuals in the Association’s history as well as interesting artifacts or documents from the Association’s archives.


Frances Walsh 

Nov. 10, 1941, started as a quiet Monday morning. That day, 29-year-old Frances Walsh was attending to students in her one-room schoolhouse — the tiny Big Hill Springs School north of Cochrane — likely preparing for the next day’s Armistice Day observances. She could not have known that the calm would soon be shattered.

It was wartime and Walsh and her students were used to flyovers by the pilots of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan out of Calgary. But, that morning the far-off and familiar whirl and hum of a de Havilland 82C Tiger Moth aircraft became a near miss of the school and the roar of a plane exploding in the schoolyard.

Pilot Flying Officer James Robinson’s plane had come down. On board were Robinson and 18-year-old Cadet Karl Gravel. Without hesitation, Walsh sprang into action. The events are reported by the Bomber Command Museum of Canada this way:

“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 schoolhouse 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.”

Walsh was herself injured in the ordeal, suffering burns to her hands, arms and face but insisted that her actions were simply what anyone would have done under such circumstances.

Gravel died four hours later at Calgary’s Col. Belcher Hospital. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his heroic attempt to save his pilot.

Despite her modesty, Walsh herself was recognized for her extraordinary efforts with the George Medal, a civilian honour instituted by King George VI in 1940. On June 11, 1942, Walsh became the first woman awarded the George Medal by Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone, Governor General of Canada, at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Today, Walsh’s George Medal is on display at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada located in Nanton, Alta. ❚

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