Diana Walker, MBE

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Diana Walker (Barnato), MBE

Birthdate: (90)
Death: April 28, 2008 (90)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Woolf 'Babe' Barnato and Dorothy Maitland Barnato
Wife of Derek Walker
Partner of Air Commodore Whitney Willard Straight, CBE, MC
Mother of <private> Walker
Sister of Virginia Barnato
Half sister of Peter Woolf Barnato and Michael Jay Barnato

Managed by: Sharon Lee Doubell
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Diana Walker, MBE

Diana Barnato Walker

'Atagirl' who delivered hundreds of planes during the war and was the first British woman to break the sound barrier. The Telegraph

Diana Barnato Walker who died on April 28 [1980] aged 90 , occupied an almost legendary position in the world of aviation: as well as being one of a handful of “Atagirls”, women who served during the war as ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) pilots delivering newly-built and battle-ready aircraft to airfields all over southern England, in 1963 she became the first British woman to break the sound barrier.

The diminutive socialite granddaughter of a South African diamond millionaire, before the war Diana Barnato was well known in London for her high spirits and for late nights spent at the Embassy or 400 Club in London. She was also known for the Bentley which she was given for her 21st birthday - a gift from her doting father, the motor-racing champion Woolf “Babe” Barnato.

In 1938, looking for new excitement, she decided to try her hand at flying and gained her licence after only six hours’ training. Three years later, she abandoned her affluent lifestyle to rough it in the ATA. By the age of 22 she had delivered 240 Spitfires and many other aircraft and narrowly survived several brushes with death.

It was said that the Atagirls tended to come in two models - cropped hair and sensible shoes, or “powder puff”. That Diana Barnato Walker was one of the latter variety was clear from her autobiography, Spreading My Wings (1994), in which she described an occasion when, delivering a Spitfire, she decided to try some aerobatics but got stuck upside down: “While I was wondering what to do next, from out of my top overall pocket fell my beautifully engraved silver powder compact. It wheeled round and round the bubble canopy like a drunken sailor on a wall of death, then sent all the face powder over everything.”

When she eventually arrived at her destination a “very tall and handsome” RAF flight lieutenant hopped on to the wing to meet her: “One glance was enough. His mouth dropped open. 'I was told,’ he gasped, 'that a very very pretty girl was bringing us a new aircraft. All I can see is some ghastly clown!’ ”

On another occasion, “skimming happily along in a Spitfire”, she suddenly found herself in thick cloud, “but I couldn’t bale out! My skirt would have ridden up with the parachute straps and anyone who happened to be below would have seen my knickers!” Instead, to the astonishment of those on the ground, she managed to nurse her aircraft down, breaking through the cloud at tree-top height and banking sharply to avoid a patch of woodland, to make a perfect landing in heavy rain on the tiny grass airstrip of what turned out to be the Navigation and Blind Flying Establishment at RAF Windrush.

The moment she got out of the cockpit on to the wing of the aircraft after this escapade, she felt sure she was going to faint. An RAF man was approaching and, not wanting him to think that anything was amiss, she knelt down on the wing and scrabbled in her cockpit pretending to look for her maps. At which point he said: “I say, Miss, you must be good on instruments.”

In fact, though, Diana Barnato had brought the aircraft down with no instruments. The ATA expected its pilots to fly in all weathers without navigational aids. As a result of this, and the fact that they flew unarmed and without radios, service in the ATA was one of the most dangerous activities available to either sex in the whole war. Out of the 108 female pilots recruited during the war, 16 were to perish in the air - including Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, who died ferrying an Oxford aircraft in 1941.

On several occasions Diana Barnato came within seconds of following her into oblivion. She attributed her survival to her “guardian angel” and a man who had accosted her as she was about to take off on her first solo flight at Brooklands, whose hands and face were horribly burned. “In those days girls like me didn’t see horrors,” she recalled, “so it was a nasty fright. He looked at me and said, 'Don’t fly, Miss Barnato. Look what it’s done to me.’ After that I was a very careful pilot.”

Diana Barnato was born on January 15 1918 into a hugely gifted and enterprising Jewish family. Her grandfather, Barney Barnato, began as a trader and juggler in the Mile End Road, saved £50 and hitched his way to Johannesburg, where he became co-founder of the De Beers mining group.

Her father, Woolf, inherited his father’s millions aged two, after Barney Barnato mysteriously fell or jumped over the side of a ship taking him to England in 1897. Woolf Barnato went on to win the Le Mans 24-hour race in three consecutive years from 1928 to 1930, was also a “plus” handicap golfer, a first-class shot, a county-level tennis player, a top horseman and a champion swimmer and skier. Among other accomplishments he was said to be able to drink two bottles of champagne with no visible effect.

During the 1920s and 1930s his house near Lingfield, Surrey (described as being “more like the Savoy than a home”), became the venue for wild all-night parties. At one of these, Brooklands-style racing pits were constructed along the quarter-mile gravel drive. Guests in powerful cars, with beautiful girls aboard, tore into the “pits” for champagne, served by waiters dressed as racers, with linen helmets and goggles, before speeding up to the house.

Diana and her sister Virginia were the daughters of Barnato’s American-born first wife. The marriage foundered when Diana was four, after her father embarked on an affair with an actress. Both parents remarried but they remained on good terms.

The two girls were brought up by their mother and an army of nannies and governesses in a large house on Primrose Hill, but often went to stay with their father, who indulged them by allowing them to stay up late for dinner. Once Diana was placed next to Dudley “Benjy” Benjafield, the 1927 winner of Le Mans with SCH “Sammy” Davis. Noticing that her neighbour was nodding off into his soup, Diana politely tapped his bald head with her spoon. Later he presented her with a fine cashmere scarf for “saving” him from drowning.

After leaving Queen’s College, Harley Street, in 1936 Diana came out as a debutante and did the Season. But she quickly tired of being chaperoned and decided that the only way to escape the benign oversight of mother, nannies and governesses was to learn to fly.

This ambition took her to Brooklands where, in 1938, she spent her pocket money on a few hours’ flying instruction in a Tiger Moth, going solo after six hours. On the day of the test she wore her stepmother’s leopard skin coat because she had no other outfit. At the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, she volunteered as a Red Cross nurse but soon determined to apply for a job as a ferry pilot and was accepted into the ATA training programme.

The Atagirls were objects of fascination for the combat pilots and romance flourished, despite a punishing work schedule. In 1942 Diana Barnato fell in love with a dashing Battle of Britain fighter ace, Squadron Leader Humphrey Gilbert.

Three weeks after meeting, they were engaged. Three days after that, circling over his base at Debden in a Tiger Moth, she was surprised that there was no sign of his blue-nosed Spitfire. After a series of frantic telephone calls, she was told that he had been killed the previous day.

In 1944 she married Derek Walker, another decorated pilot. They took an unauthorised honeymoon trip to Brussels, each piloting their own Spitfire, as a consequence of which Walker was docked three months’ pay.

Four months after the end of the war he too was killed, flying to a job interview in a Mustang. Unlike most of her fellow Atagirls, who found it impossible to forge a career in commercial aviation after the war, Diana Barnato Walker obtained a commercial licence and was appointed Corps Pilot for the Women’s Junior Air Corps.

One evening in 1963 in the mess at RAF Middleton St George, the Wing Commander Flying, John Severgne, idly suggested that Diana might like to fly one of the RAF’s new supersonic Lightnings. She jumped at the chance and on August 26 1963, following clearance from the Ministry of Defence, she took off and reached a speed of Mach 1.65 (1,262 mph), making her the first British woman to break the sound barrier.

Diana Barnato Walker continued flying for a few more years with the WJAC. She also became MFH of the Old Surrey and Burstow Hounds, commodore of the ATA Association and took up sheep farming in Surrey.

In 1994, following the publication of her memoirs, she was ceremonially presented with a £5 note in settlement of a wager with Wing-Commander Percy “Laddy” Lucas, the Second World War fighter ace who had bet her that she would never write her autobiography.

Diana Barnato Walker was appointed MBE in 1965.

For 30-odd years she kept up a relationship with the American-born racing driver, Whitney Straight. They had a son, though Diana never asked Straight to leave his wife.

“I was perfectly content,” she explained. “I had my own identity.” Whitney Straight died in 1979.


A bit more than just a chip off the old block

A tribute to the life and times of Diana Barnato Walker MBE, herself a lifelong Bentley driver and enthusiast, who died on 28 April 2008 aged 90=== By Ron McAllister

There was plenty of news about, but none of it could be called good news. True, the signal had gone round the Fleet, ‘Winston is back’ and now he was Prime Minister and that, indeed, was good news, but that was all of it; and it was now old news.

Somehow, we had scraped 338,000 British and French troops off the beaches around Dunkirk at a terrible cost in precious aircraft and Destroyers and other ships and now we were still desperately, desperately short of pilots, especially front line pilots to replenish the daily losses at the fighter airfields covering the South Coast and Home Counties that comprised 11, 12 and 13 Group.

And so it was against this backdrop and a common culture of ‘make do and mend’ that in late 1941 the diminutive, 23 year old Diana Barnato once again found herself adjusting her special seat cushion she used to reach the controls of the umpteenth Supermarine Spitfire she was delivering from her base at No 15 Ferry Pool at Hamble in Hampshire to an airfield ‘somewhere in England’.

Diana Barnato had volunteered and trained as a civilian ferry pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary ATA, known as the ' atagirls’. Not everyone approved of women flying military aircraft, not least some at the War Office and Air Ministry itself, where many regarded these young women as no more than society ‘flappers’, but the imperative ‘needs must’ prevailed and by the end of hostilities, some 108 women had joined more than 500 male pilots, nicknamed ‘Ancient Tattered Airmen’ in delivering most types of aircraft to squadrons across Britain. (1)

Diana Barnato flew everything except heavy bombers, including single engined Spitfires, her favourite aircraft, Hurricanes, Defiant, Mustang, Avenger, Wildcat, Vengeance, Firefly, Barracuda and Tempest and twins such as Oxford, Anson, Wellington, Warwick, Mosquito, Hudson and Mitchell.

ATA pilots were frequently required to fly without armoured plates, instruments, combat weaponry or even radios and were constantly vulnerable to the odd marauding Messerschmitt looking for an easy kill and to poor weather conditions. (2) Barnato was attacked twice by German aircraft, but survived each of these encounters uninjured. Diana Barnato recalls one incident when she was lost in weather and considered bailing out of her Spitfire, but decided against it on the grounds that parachuting to the ground would have reveal her knickers to anyone who happened to be on the ground below. In the end, she managed to break through the cloud at tree-top height and in driving rain, succeeded in making a perfect landing on a grass strip.

There was nothing of the modern day cynical, politicised ‘sisterhood’ about these young women. They were there and they were needed and, as with so many others then, all thoughts of sacrifice and danger were kept for those private, lonely, moments, usually before sleep.

Diana Barnato was born in 1918, granddaughter to the co-founder of De Beers and daughter to the fabulously wealthy Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato, probably the most famous of all the Bentley Boys, Chairman of Bentley Motors, wicket keeper for Surrey County Cricket and heavyweight boxer. After the split up of her parents when she was four, Diana was brought up in London with her sister Victoria, by their American mother, who maintained an amicable relationship with their father, with whom they frequently stayed.

At the age of 18, Barnato learned to fly a Tiger Moth at the Brooklands Flying Club. At £3 per hour she went solo after six hours, but had to stop after 10 hours due to lack of cash.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Barnato volunteered for the Red Cross and served as a nurse in France, before being evacuated with the BEF. Upon her return to England, she used her Tiger Moth flying experience to gain acceptance to the ATA training programme.

For her 21st birthday, her father, Woolf Barnato whisked her off for dinner at the Ritz in Paris and next morning, presented her with a brand new Talbot-Darracq. Unfortunately, Diana Barnato was unfamiliar with the car’s pre-selector gearbox and quickly burned out the clutch climbing Montmartre. The Talbot was soon repaired and replaced with a dove grey 4.25 litre Bentley, which was to be a familiar sight for many years to come around the streets and lanes near her Surrey home.

In 1942, three weeks after meeting fighter ace Sqd Ldr Humphery Gilbert, they became engaged, but he was killed a few days later in a flying accident. Two years later in 1944, Barnato married another pilot, Wing Commander Derek Walker and was docked three months pay when they each flew a Spitfire to Brussels for a ‘jolly’. Soon after war’s end, Derek Walker was also killed in a flying accident.

Barnato Walker later enjoyed a 30 year relationship with an American born Hurricane pilot, Whitney Straight. They had a son, Barney, born in 1947, although Straight remained married to his wife until his death in 1979.

After the war Diana Barnato Walker continued to fly, encouraging young women to follow careers in aviation through the Women’s Junior Air Corp. She also became Commodore of the ATA Association. In later life she took up sheep farming and was master of the local Hunt.

In 1963, at the age of 45, she briefly held the world air speed record for women when she piloted a two seat R.A.F. Lightning fighter at 1,262 mph over the North Sea and so joined the ‘Ten-Ton (1,000mph) Club’. (3) She was appointed MBE for her services to aviation in 1965. She published her memoir Spreading My Wings in 1994. She last took the controls of a rare, twin seat Spitfire trainer when she was 88…’impolite not to’, she said.

Throughout their relationship, Diana Barnato Walker never asked Whitney Straight to leave his wife. ‘I was perfectly content,’ she explained ‘I had my own identity’.

Her son, Barney Walker, said that Diana Barnato Walker died in a hospital near her sheep farm in Surrey, and that the cause was pneumonia.


(1) Nearly one in six of the ATA women pilots were killed in the war, a ratio of losses that historians consider worse than that suffered by fighter pilots.

(2) There is no such thing as ‘without instruments’, there is always a second set. Barometric pressure, fed through a pipe to the instrument relative to a known datum within a diaphragm inside it, giving altitude, and a forward pressure into a tube, usually sticking into the airflow on the side of the aircraft and measures ‘forward looking’ pressure, or forward speed. There is also the magnetic compass. So the pilot should always be able to know their airspeed, their altitude and heading.

Blind flying instruments were fitted on the aircraft production line, yet it was an extraordinary, but a conscious and deliberate decision that ATA pilots were not trained to fly on these blind instruments. Much of the time, ATA pilots were expected to continue flying in weather conditions that would have grounded most other types of operations.

Air to air firing of guns and cannon does require fairly extensive training, and instructors were in very short supply in the early part of the war.

(3) This record was broken in 1964 by an American woman, Jacqueline Cochran Odlum, herself a former ATA pilot, in an F-104G Starfighter, at 1,429 mph.

With thanks to Peter Boxer for technical advice and support.

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Diana Walker, MBE's Timeline

January 15, 1918
April 28, 2008
Age 90