Most readers are familiar with the name of Amy Johnson, the pioneering English aviator, but perhaps less so the details of her untimely death.
Amy was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia. She also flew solo or with her husband, Jim Mollison, to set many long distance records during the 1930s.
In 1937, Amy divorced her husband and reverted to her maiden name. She then moved to Princess Risborough, renting out the Tudor cottage known as Monks Straithe. It is the oldest building in the city and is said to date from the time of Henry VIII.
It is now a Grade II listed building.
Her work has taken her to London often and on two separate occasions within a month in May / June 1938 she was fined for speeding in High Wycombe. Following the second offense, her license was also approved and her court representative said: ‘Miss Johnson has given up on going through High Wycombe.
When she comes and goes from London now she passes through Amersham ”!
At the start of World War II, Amy joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, which carried RAF planes across the country. She then decided to leave Princes Risborough to live with friends in Wooburn Green.
On January 5, 1941, while flying an Airspeed Oxford for ATA from Prestwick to RAF Kidlington near Oxford, Johnson made a deviation in inclement weather conditions.
Apparently running out of fuel, she jumped when her plane crashed in the Thames Estuary near Herne Bay. A convoy of warships in the Thames Estuary spotted her falling parachute and saw her alive in the water, calling for help. The conditions were bad – the seas were rough and the tide strong, the snow was falling and it was extremely cold.
One of the ships in the convoy was HMS Haslemere, whose captain was Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher. He sailed on his ship to attempt a rescue. The crew threw ropes at Johnson but she could not reach them.
Lt Cmdr Fletcher then dived fully clothed in an attempt to rescue her. A lifeboat was launched but Amy was missing and when he reached the captain he was unconscious from the severe cold. He died in hospital a few days later without regaining consciousness.
Amy’s body has never been found and the cause of her death has been the subject of discussion for many years. There is also speculation as to why Lt. Commander Johnson risked, and then paid with, his life in an attempt to save her, knowing that a lifeboat was about to be launched. Did he know it was Amy Johnson, and did they know each other?
This is certainly possible because Amy had lived in Princes Risborough, only about a mile from Lt Cmdr Fletcher’s home in Monks Risborough.
Amy was 37 when she died and the Air Force Memorial at Runnymede is remembered with great honor.