Felicity Peake

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The Best Cadet receives her certificate from Air Marshal Sir Arthur Sanders and Air Commandant Dame Felicity Hanbury, Director of the Women's Royal Air Force, at Hawkinge, circa 1949-1950

Air Commandant Dame Felicity Peake DBE (1 May 1913, Cheadle Hulme, Stockport, England – 2 November 2002) was the founding director of the UK's Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). She only started flying when her first husband took up the hobby in 1935, but in 1946 she would become the first director of the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF).

Early years[edit]

Felicity Hyde Watts spent much of her youth at Haslington Hall, an Elizabethan house near Crewe, bought by her father after the First World War. Her father, Col. Humphrey Watts, was a prosperous Manchester-based industrialist whose family's wealth derived from S & J Watts, a textile business founded in 1798.

She was educated at St. Winifred's, Eastbourne, but left before taking her school certificate to go on to a finishing school outside Paris. She met Jock Hanbury, a member of the Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co brewing family, while on a cruise to the West Indies. They were married at St. Margaret's, Westminster in 1935 and she was known as Felicity Hanbury; that same year she qualified for her pilot's licence after joining her husband in his new hobby.

With war looming, Jock Hanbury joined the auxiliary air force as a fighter pilot, while Felicity, whose lack of solo flying hours prevented her from joining the air transport auxiliary, volunteered for No 9 ATS company of the RAF. Called up on 1 September 1939, she became a company assistant (the equivalent of a pilot officer), just a month before her husband was killed when his plane crashed in Surrey during a night-flying exercise. After a short spell as a code and cipher officer, in May 1940 she was posted, fatefully, to Biggin Hill.

In January 1941, she joined the WAAF recruiting staff at the Air Ministry, later moving to public relations duties, where she was adept at persuading senior RAF officers of the importance of expanding the role of women with more opportunities and greater responsibilities. It was here that she met her second husband, Air Commodore Harald Peake (later Sir Harald Peake), then director of RAF public relations and later chairman of Lloyds Bank and the Steel Company of Wales, whom she married in 1952.

During her time at the Air Ministry, Felicity forged lasting friendships with many of the most senior RAF officers - friendships that she used to great effect in retirement when furthering the interests of the RAF benevolent fund, the RAF church of St Clement Danes and the Imperial War Museum. In 1943, she became deputy WAAF administration staff officer at Bomber Command. This was followed by promotion to wing officer (wing commander) and command of the WAAF officers' school at Windermere. In 1944, she was appointed senior WAAF staff officer with responsibility for the welfare of women radar operators, and, in 1945, with the rank of group officer (group captain), she became senior WAAF staff officer to the C-in-C Mediterranean and Middle East Command, in Cairo.

Post-WAAF[edit]

As the last director of the WAAF, and the first director of the WRAF, Felicity steered the service through the difficult transition to its peacetime role. Having received the MBE for wartime services, she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1949.

Following her retirement in 1950, she joined the board of the Truman, Hanbury and Buxton brewery, a job she described in her memoirs, Pure Chance (1993), as "sheer bliss": there was no "buck passing", no red tape, and she could get things done. She and her husband, Harald, bought a farm in Oxfordshire, where they bred pedigree Ayrshires and Jerseys, and a house in the south of France.

Appointed a trustee of the Imperial War Museum in 1963, she was its chairman from 1986 to 1988. She founded the Friends of the Imperial War Museum, later becoming its president.

Family[edit]

Her second husband died in 1978; she was survived by her son, following her own death at age 89 in 2002.

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