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Wartime cover star known as the ‘girl with the tractor’, now aged 100, tells her extraordinary story

Her blonde hair is waved; she wears carmine lipstick and a chunky hand-knitted sweater as she poses smiling, in elegant profile, at the wheel of a tractor.

What image could more strikingly sum up the potent mix of grit and glamour of World War II’s Land Girls? 

The photo on the cover of Picture Post magazine in 1941 became one of the war’s most iconic images, and made its subject a Forces’ pin-up.

But for almost 80 years, few – other than her close family and friends – have known the identity of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) recruit. 

Now we can reveal that the ‘girl with the tractor’ is Patricia Fack (nee Hawkins), a former debutante who went on to marry a Dutch diplomat.

The cover photo on Picture Post magazine in 1941 became one of the war's most iconic images. It is now revealed that the 'girl with the tractor' is Patricia Fack, a former debutante who married a Dutch diplomat

The cover photo on Picture Post magazine in 1941 became one of the war's most iconic images. It is now revealed that the 'girl with the tractor' is Patricia Fack, a former debutante who married a Dutch diplomat

The cover photo on Picture Post magazine in 1941 became one of the war’s most iconic images. It is now revealed that the ‘girl with the tractor’ is Patricia Fack, a former debutante who married a Dutch diplomat

After a five-year stint driving tractors, ploughing fields and milking cows alongside women from all walks of life – from prostitutes to factory girls – the irrepressible Mrs Fack travelled the world as an ambassador’s wife, socialising with royalty and high society but always keeping a keen eye on life’s absurdities.

Yesterday, she celebrated her 100th birthday with Zoom calls from her four sons and grandchildren and a slice of cake at the family’s Cotswolds mansion. 

Holding a glass of champagne she declared: ‘Life is full of surprises. Make the most of it!’

The redoubtable – and highly entertaining – centenarian reflects that her own life has been a perfect example of that.

She entered fashionable society in 1938, when she was presented to King George VI at a coming-out ball. A few years later she was working at a Staffordshire farm. ‘I was a debutante and a very spoilt one at that,’ she reflects gaily.

‘Who would have thought that three years after I curtseyed to the King in my ballgown at Buckingham Palace I’d be ploughing fields on my Fordson tractor and milking cows in my wellingtons?’

Land girls replaced male agricultural labourers called up to fight. At its peak, there were 80,000 in the WLA, many volunteers, like Patricia, and some conscripted.

The work was tough: mustered by the rallying cry ‘Feed the Nation’, Land Girls worked machinery, felled trees, milked cows, reclaimed land for crop planting and sometimes worked alongside prisoners of war.

Patricia, daughter of affluent brick and tile manufacturer Henry Hawkins of Cannock, Staffordshire, signed up nine days after the war began in 1939.

‘My father said: ‘Well, war has started, the second in my lifetime, and we all have to do something.’ 

So he went into the Home Guard [he was too old for the Army], my mother into the Red Cross, my brother the Navy and I signed up for the WLA.

But for almost 80 years, few - other than her close family and friends - have known the identity of the Women's Land Army (WLA) recruit. Yesterday, she celebrated her 100th birthday with family Zoom calls and a slice of cake at the family's Cotswolds mansion

But for almost 80 years, few - other than her close family and friends - have known the identity of the Women's Land Army (WLA) recruit. Yesterday, she celebrated her 100th birthday with family Zoom calls and a slice of cake at the family's Cotswolds mansion

But for almost 80 years, few – other than her close family and friends – have known the identity of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) recruit. Yesterday, she celebrated her 100th birthday with family Zoom calls and a slice of cake at the family’s Cotswolds mansion

‘I got a letter telling me to report for tuition at Rodbaston Agricultural College nearby.

‘They taught me how to milk cows, work in the dairy, drive a tractor and plough a furrow.

‘It was long hours and darned hard, but good fun. Some of the trainees were London prostitutes who sat on the hay wagon and sang rude songs, which made us all roar with laughter.

‘We wore jodhpurs, sweaters and wellington boots and my first job was at a dairy farm.

‘I lived in, and it was so bitterly cold in the winter I could scratch my name in the ice on the inside of my bedroom window. But we had wonderful food.

‘I had to get up at 6am to milk the cows – there were machines, even then – and then bottle the milk and load it onto a van; all 1,500 pints of it! Then I delivered the milk, and one of the calls on my round was to Stafford Prison.

‘It cheered the prisoners no end to have a 21-year-old girl delivering their milk. I loved it, too.

‘After I’d finished my round I went back to the farm to wash and disinfect the milk bottles. I’d had deportment lessons and been presented at court, but I’d never done any manual labour before.’

Patricia worked on several farms. On one, she was contracted out to plough grassland into fields to grow crops. ‘I didn’t find tractor-driving hard. I already had a little Morris 8.’

Funny, formidable and fearless, Patricia was also a great beauty. So it is no surprise that she caught the attention of Picture Post. The pioneering photojournalism magazine, which closed in 1957, sold nearly two million copies weekly in the war. She was photographed by the legendary Bert Hardy and interviewed by Anne Scott-James – one of Britain’s first women career journalists. But Patricia refused to be named in print.

‘I forbade it because I’d had some bad publicity before. I’d broken off an engagement and it hadn’t been well-reported.’

Despite her anonymity, Patricia became a Forces’ pin-up. ‘I got quite a following,’ she says.

‘I was never short of escorts. There were no affairs, just innocent courtships.’

The cover sparked fan mail. ‘I had a wonderful telegram from a couple of British Army officers serving in Africa. It said: ‘Congratulations Picture Post from two adoring officers in Nigeria.’ ‘

Soon after publication, Patricia – widowed ten years ago – met husband-to-be, dashing Dutchman Robbert Fack, whose own story is full of derring-do.

Robbert, tall and with a mischievous sense of humour, was an officer in the Dutch coastal artillery when the Germans overran Holland in 1940. 

After a five-year stint driving tractors, Mrs Fack travelled as an ambassador's wife, socialising with royalty. Pictured, Patricia and her husband Robbert as Netherlands Ambassador and Ambassadress receiving the Queen Mother in 1981 at the London Dutch Embassy

After a five-year stint driving tractors, Mrs Fack travelled as an ambassador's wife, socialising with royalty. Pictured, Patricia and her husband Robbert as Netherlands Ambassador and Ambassadress receiving the Queen Mother in 1981 at the London Dutch Embassy

After a five-year stint driving tractors, Mrs Fack travelled as an ambassador’s wife, socialising with royalty. Pictured, Patricia and her husband Robbert as Netherlands Ambassador and Ambassadress receiving the Queen Mother in 1981 at the London Dutch Embassy

He escaped in a fishing boat to England, where he was interrogated by soldiers.

‘One said: ‘Be careful. He speaks bloody good English. He might be a spy.’ And his English was brilliant,’ says Patricia.

Robbert soon joined the Princess Irene Brigade – a regiment of Netherlanders serving in exile – and was made adjutant.

In 1941 he met Patricia, whose mother Dorothy, a Red Cross quartermaster, looked after convalescing Dutch troops.

The officers held a dinner dance and Patricia went with her parents. ‘Robbert opened the door to us and he says it was love at first sight,’ she remembers. ‘I think I took a bit longer.’

Two years later, they married at Holy Trinity, Brompton in London’s South Kensington. It set the scene for the glittering ambassadorial life to come.

Typically, Patricia remembers the absurdities, as well as the romance, of the occasion.

‘The church was packed and I wore a lovely dress I’d designed myself. Then we went off to our honeymoon, and to my horror, one of my father’s friends – a real joker – was staying in our hotel. He kept knocking on our bedroom door on our wedding night, shouting: ‘Hello Patricia. How are you getting on?’

Afterwards, they returned to their wartime duties. Robbert landed in Normandy just after D-Day and took part in the liberation of Amsterdam, his hometown. 

After the war, he served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague and the United Nations in New York, Rome, Canberra and Bonn.

Patricia, of course, joined him in this peripatetic life.

She remembers their glorious homes: in New York they lived in a mansion leased from the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family. ‘We had a wonderful view of the East River with boats gliding by our drawing room,’ she recalls.

Her husband’s final post was as Dutch Ambassador to London, from 1976 to 1986, where they lived in the ambassadorial house in Kensington.

‘It was huge! We had five or six maids and an Italian butler,’ she remembers.

She recalls the Queen Mother coming to dinner in 1981. ‘She was great fun and loved a drink. She stayed very late. I had to stop the butler filling up our glasses at the end. Then the Queen Mother said: ‘It’s been a lovely evening. I hope I haven’t kept you up.’

‘I went to hold her arm as she got up out of her chair, but she was quite steady on her feet.

‘In return, we were invited to stay at Windsor Castle. We were given a lovely room overlooking Park Drive. It had two doors. One opened onto a corridor and I opened it in my underwear, to find two guards outside.

‘They looked very surprised to see me there wearing practically nothing, and I just banged the door shut,’ she laughs.

Her life has been richly lived; her memories remain sharp. She is in lockdown with a step-granddaughter and her husband. Video calls from sons Julian, 75, James, 74, and twins Jerome and John, 69, marked her birthday.

‘I still look back on my life and think what a thing it was to have gone from a farm to an embassy,’ she reflects.

We now need a battalion of fruit pickers – a new Land Army – to harvest crops. So I wonder what Patricia would say to young people considering such work. ‘Go and pick!’ she urges. ‘It’s hard but rewarding. I loved it.’

Source: Daily Mail – Articles

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