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Stella Rutter: Spitfire draughtswoman and D-Day secret keeper


Stella Rutter was the only female draughtswoman working at the Vickers-Supermarine Aircraft Company during World War II. Her artistic and creative talents led to a very interesting career and some unique wartime experiences in what was a very male-dominated environment and line of work.

It all began in 1939 when Stella attended Portsmouth Art College, and after completing her technical drawing course, where she learned the art of tracing and draughtsmanship, Stella took the job as a tracer in 1940 at the HMS Excellent drawing office on Whale Island in Portsmouth. This was home to the naval headquarters and front-line training units of the Royal Navy. While there, Stella helped draw up the plans for upgraded parts of the well-known battleship HMS Belfast, which was one of the Town Class cruisers and the flagship of Bombardment Force E that supported the allied landings on Juno and Gold beaches on D-Day. The following year Stella secured an interview at Vickers-Supermarine, the aircraft company responsible for the development and manufacturing of, among others, the famous Spitfire. She was successful, and in March 1941 began work in the chief draughtsman’s office at its Hursley Park site near Winchester. There her job was to draw the masters of the assembly drawings of the Spitfire on fine linen. These were prepared by the three other men in her office and finalised by Stella with her also correcting any defects. After this her drawings would be printed and used as a manufacturing guide for the assembly of the various versions or marks of Spitfire that were being made at the Vickers-Supermarine factory in Southampton.

Stella remained employed in that office until the end of the war under Joe Smith, the head of Supermarine, Gerald Gingell, the technical publication manager, and Lovell Cooper, chief draughtsman. There she worked as the only woman amongst nearly 100 draughtsmen and got paid the same £3 equal weekly rate as they did, something that was quite unheard of for a woman in the Great Britain of 1941. Stella also worked on the technical drawing of other important and well-known aircraft that Vickers-Supermarine produced, such as the Seafire (the naval version of the Spitfire flown from aircraft carriers). This work was, of course, undertaken in great secrecy and the Hursley Park site was one of the various parts of Supermarine production that had been dispersed to different locations after intense Luftwaffe bombing on the main site at Woolston in Southampton. The main lesson learned there was not to have all parts of your production process in one place, especially the technical drawing and development parts, in case the whole lot gets destroyed during enemy action, as it nearly did.

Before D-Day General Montgomery and General Eisenhower wanted to hold a formal get-together, a party of sorts, to calm the nerves of the top commanders who were going to be directly involved in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Western Europe. Montgomery knew Joe Smith and phoned him to ask if he knew of a woman who could deal socially with large groups of men and be trusted to keep her mouth shut, to which Joe replied: ‘I have one young lady to whom I give a security level as high as my own, 100 per cent.’ All of this Stella found out later.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, 3 June 1944, while working at her draughtboard, Stella was summoned into the office of chief draughtsman Lovell Cooper. There she was introduced to Major General D.A.H. Graham, who made a very important request for Stella to host the top secret gathering of high-ranking officers in an underground Nissen hut in the grounds of Hersley Park that night, and said that if she accepted she would be sworn to secrecy about anything she was told or overheard at the gathering. Such was the gravity and importance of what she was about to undertake that evening, and the very sensitive information she could potentially hear, Stella accepted, and in doing so became confidante to one of the most secret get-togethers of the war, which she has only begun talking about in recent years. She recalls:

Montgomery had been in many battles before and he knew what the night before a battle was about and how important it was, and how anybody involved in seniority of that would be shaking with nerves. So he approached Eisenhower, who had never been in that position before, and told him that they needed to have an informal party of sorts on an official basis on the night before D-Day for all of these commanders, and in order to maintain an air of calmness we had to have a lady be a hostess. And he then asked Joe Smith whether he had a lady he could trust with 100 per cent security and I was chosen. The party was held in a covered Nissen hut in Hursley Park Forest next to his camp. I went on a jeep and had to go through three lots of security and eventually arrived and was greeted by Major General Graham, who took me into the hut and showed me around. There were tables full of every kind of food imaginable, and as we walked down the hut there was a man finishing laying out the tables and he said to him, ‘Would you leave that please,’ and when the man had gone and we were alone he said: ‘Tomorrow is D-Day and that is why you are here,’ and he briefed me as to what was to happen. At that moment I had become privy to one of the biggest secrets of World War II and that was a huge responsibility for a woman of my age. There was great trust being put in me, one which I never betrayed. I was requested to help all of these commanding officers to eat, drink, dance, sit down and meet other officers who would be on the their right and left on the battlefield, and meet them and know them by sight. I think approximately sixty-two other officers were in attendance and Major General Omar Bradley turned up as well, and as a hostess I was, of course, introduced to and worked with them all.

From that moment 20-year-old Stella knew the enormous gravity of what she had been told, and she knew that if she said anything that it could potentially cost the lives of thousands of servicemen, a massive responsibility she carried from that instant and never spoke about for sixty years.

By Gary Bridson-Daley

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