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Dorothy Robson - The Girl with the Laughing Eyes

Dorothy Robson was born during a cold afternoon on 10th November 1919. Her family lived at number 14 Redcar Road in Guisborough. Her father, Shafto Robson, had recently returned from service in the First World War where he fought in the trenches in Belgium, working with poison gas. He was a qualified pharmacist and was manager in John Willy Franks’s Chemists shop in the Market Place. Her mother was Myra Lily Robson (née Moore) who came from Stockton-on-Tees. Her sister Norma was just over three years old when she was born.

Dorothy and Norma grew up together in Guisborough. They went to school at Westgate Private School run by their teacher Miss Dutton. They experienced the dawn of radio broadcasting, listening to the distant voices and music from London through the earphones of a crystal radio. Dorothy was keen to listen to classical music and they spent many hours walking on the nearby hills.

In 1927, Dorothy’s father felt that the time was right for him to obtain a business of his own and he decided to buy a Chemist’s shop in Hartlepool, then in the County of Durham. The business was initially located in High Street though later it was transferred to new premises in Middlegate. Working hours were long as the shop opened at eight each morning and remained open until 7.30 each week-day and nine on Saturday evening. Outside of shop hours there was work to be done filling bottles, making up various medicines and potions and developing photographs.

Dorothy and Norma changed schools, moving to Henry Smith School. Education in the school was formal with the notorious Joe Moor as Headmaster. Standards in all subjects were high and Dorothy pursued her studies through the Sixth Form, gaining a Higher Certificate that enabled her to continue her studies at University.

There was a lively social life in Hartlepool with many parties and dances. Much of this was focused on the Borough Hall, which was the social centre for the town. Ballroom dancing was popular. Boys would ask for a dance and then at the end of the dance would escort their partner back to their seat. Dorothy was always popular and was never lacking a partner.

In October 1937, Dorothy began her studies in Physics at Leeds University. It was still quite unusual for girls to study at university in those days and most unusual for them to study a subject such as Physics. She enjoyed her studies and her social life. She was an attractive girl who involved herself in University events such as the Rag Week and end of term balls. She finally qualified with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1940.

The country was now at war and Dorothy was determined to play her part in the defence of her country. She applied to join the R.A.F., but she was two inches too short and was rejected. She finally was accepted to work for the Ministry of Aircraft Production and was based at Farnborough to the south west of London. Dorothy’s work was top secret. Even her parents were unaware of the nature of her work. Her skills were applied to the development of bomb-sights that could be used to deliver more accurately the loads of explosives onto enemy territory. She became located at airfields in Northern Bomber Command and spent most of her time in the North of England. She was always popular with the aircrews and was given affectionate nick-names such as “Bomb Sight Bertha” and “The Girl with the Laughing Eyes”. Each morning she would meet the airmen who had flown the night before and debrief them to learn from their experience of using the bomb-sight.

During wartime life becomes precious but unpredictable and people become fatalistic about their futures, often depending on the occult to predict the future. Dorothy became involved in such activities. During one such session, a group of friends were using a planchette or Ouija board. They sat round a table covered with a sheet of paper. Dorothy rested a finger on the board of the planchette. The planchette gathered speed and skimmed around the board, they laughed and joked as it traced its fateful message “Adjust the bomb sight. You will die”. Again and again the same message. No-one took the message seriously but neither could anyone understand how it came to be.

On 3rd November 1943, just a week before her 24th birthday, Dorothy was working at the airfield at Holme on Spalding Moor in the East Riding of Yorkshire, fitting and testing a bombsight on a Halifax bomber. She took her place in the nose of the plane. The plane took off and flew low over the Yorkshire Wolds. After a short time, fog engulfed the plane which lost height and crashed onto the moors near Market Weighton. Three members of the crew were killed outright, two others died later and Dorothy was mortally wounded. Although she was rushed to hospital, she died before her parents arrived. According to her wishes, her body was cremated and her ashes scattered from the air from a small trainer plane that she had sometimes flown under supervision.

Fred Hall a Halifax bomber navigator with 76 Squadron, now of Harrogate writes:

Now I find it difficult to pen these words - I was the navigator of the aircraft in which Miss Robson was killed. On the morning of the 3/11/43 I was preparing charts for operations that night. When it was decided to take up the aircraft for an air test. Being a new aircraft it had not flown before on operations. As I was engaged with charts the pilot decided that because Miss Robson would be checking the bombsight down in the nose (where I sat at the plotting table) he would not call on me to fly. The duration of the flight would only be about 30 minutes within the vicinity of the airfield. The morning in question was hazy with intermittent 8/10s cloud. Tragically for reasons unknown, the aircraft crashed at Enthorpe 3 miles north east of Market Weighton. All 6 members of the crew were killed and Miss Robson.

As you can imagine I was devastated because we had flown with Coastal Command on U boat patrol over the Bay of Biscay and carried out 11 operations over Germany.”

Tributes to Dorothy came from far and wide as newspaper articles recorded her death and celebrated her life and her contribution to the war effort. In 1993 the Hartlepool Mail published an article about Dorothy and most recently author Peter Mason mentioned Dorothy in his book  “Wings over Linton”. Also in 1993 two stained glass windows in the Holme on Spalding Moor church, near the crash site, were commemorated to 76 Squadron and Dorothy’s name appears in the book of remembrance there. It had been hoped that a permanent memorial could be established in the town for people like Dorothy who gave their lives for their country during the war but, because they were not serving in the Forces, there was no system for marking their sacrifice. Dorothy's death, whilst she was involved in important government war work, was never formally or publicly honoured because she was not actually a member of the armed forces. This situation changed, however, following much lobbying and hard work by local people. In June 2001, plaques listing Dorothy's name and those of many other Hartlepool people who had died in service of their country were placed on the town's war memorials in Victoria Road and the Headland.

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