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Subject: Dame Felicity Peake, 89; Led Peacetime Women's Air Force

died Nov. 2
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Date Posted: November 11, 2002 4:59:19 EDT

Dame Felicity Peake, one of the British heroines of World War II who became the first leader of the peacetime Women's Royal Air Force, died November 2 in London at the age of 89.

Dashing and attractive in uniform, Peake was one of two women painted for widely circulated recruiting posters, and her face became easily recognized early in the war.

During the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, she was second in command of 250 Women's Auxiliary Air Force members at Biggin Hill, the most heavily attacked Royal Air Force base in England.

Describing one Luftwaffe attack on Aug. 30, 1940, in her 1993 memoirs, "Pure Chance," Peake wrote: "The vibration and blast were such that one felt that one's limbs must surely come apart. Bombs fell pretty continuously, the noise was indescribable.... "

Emerging from her own trench to check on her troops during a lull in the bombing, Peake saw one of her "girls" fatally wounded. "She was the first dead person I had ever seen. I remember thinking I must have a good look at her as I might have to get used to this sort of thing," she wrote more than half a century later. "I was relieved that my reactions were, at least, controllable."

Actress Susannah York portrayed Peake in the 1969 movie "Battle of Britain" about the British forces that prevented Nazi invasion.

Born Felicity Hyde Watts to a textile firm family in Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, England, Peake grew up fascinated with airplanes. When she married brewery scion John "Jock" Hanbury in 1935, they gave each other flying lessons as a wedding present. Peake soloed after only 6 1/2 hours in the air.

In 1938, with war between Britain and Germany imminent, she went to Chelsea Barracks to join the women's auxiliary to the Royal Air Force -- only to be rejected. Her Paris finishing school, she was told, had not equipped her for the needed engine repair or telephone communications.

Persistent, Peake persuaded authorities to enlist her after demonstrating that she owned a motorcycle and repaired it herself.

Her husband also enlisted, but Hanbury was killed in 1939 when his plane crashed on a night training exercise.

After the Battle of Britain, Peake was transferred to Air Ministry Headquarters as the first women's auxiliary public relations officer. There she met her second husband, Air Commodore (later Sir) Harald Peake, then director of RAF public relations. They married in 1952, and he died in 1978.

She continued to rise in rank and duties. At war's end in 1946, she became director of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force at 33. She led the transition of the wartime auxiliary into a permanent unit of the British forces and became the first head of the Women's Royal Air Force when it was established in 1949.

That year, she was also made a dame of the British Empire and soon retired to become an executive director of her first husband's family brewery, Truman Hanbury & Buxton.

Although her remarkable military career lasted only one decade, Peake remained active on the executive committees of the Imperial War Museum and in the RAF Benevolent Fund, to which she gave proceeds from her autobiography. Peake also served as a trustee of St. Clement Danes, the RAF Church in London.

She is survived by her son, Andrew Peake.

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