Chapter 8 - Diana Walker-Barnato

Diana Walker-Barnato

Woolf Barnato's daughter, Diana was a very famous aviator.

She was the only British woman on record to fly over the Channel into occupied Europe during the Second World War at the controls of an Mk IX Spitfire.

For her 21st birthday, her father and his mistress swept her off for dinner at the Ritz in Paris. The next morning her father opened the curtains of her windows to reveal a brand new Talbot-Darracq on the street below. "Happy birthday, darling," he said. Father and daughter went for a spin, but Barnato Walker, unfamiliar with the car's pre-selector gearbox, burned out the clutch climbing Montmartre.

"Father wasn't at all upset," she said. "He simply telephoned his friend, Ettore Bugatti, who had the car returned to the Ritz as good as new in the evening. That was Ettore, a charming man. I think I was rather spoiled." The Talbot-Darracq, however, was quickly replaced by a dove grey 4.25-litre Bentley.

She learnt to fly in 1938 and volunteered for service in September 1939, she delivered 260 unarmed Spitfires from factories to RAF airfields between 1942 and 1945. She was quietly proud of the fact that she managed to land each and every one, whatever the weather, without so much as a scratch.

In 1942, she fell in love with the Battle of Britain ace Wing Commander Humphrey Gilbert, who rather cunningly had removed the spark plugs of a Miles Magister she had been forced to land in foul weather at his base, RAF Debden in Essex. He, encouraged her - not altogether unwillingly - to stay for supper. Less than a month after their meeting, and engagement, Gilbert was dead.

In 1944 she married Wing Commander Derek Walker. They flew together in a pair of Mk IX Spitfires on a honeymoon trip to Brussels and back, although officially, the purpose was reconnaissance. Walker died in a flying accident in November 1945.

She enjoyed a 30-year relationship with the American-born racing driver and Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot Whitney Straight, who went on to become chairman of the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC). A son, Barney Barnato, was born in 1947, although Straight remained married to his wife until his death in 1979.

Her logbooks reveal that she also flew Gladiators, Beaufighters, Hurricanes, Mosquitoes and a Swordfish, a Walrus, an Avenger, Mustangs, Typhoons and Mitchell bombers. The Spitfire was her favourite.

On August 26 1963, Barnato Walker became the first British woman to break the sound barrier, taking an RAF Lightning jet XM996 from RAF Middleton St George, Co Durham, to Mach 1.65.

She last took the controls of a rare, twin-seat Spitfire trainer when she was 88 - "impolite not to," she said - and wore her trademark fleece-lined Afghan shepherd's leather jacket

She died aged 90 on her sheep farm in Sussex.

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