Maureen Popp: War heroine and expert Norfolk horse breeder
PUBLISHED: 14:32 06 July 2012
A remarkable pilot and Norfolk horse breeder, Maureen Popp, who has died aged 91, made the front page of Picture Post during the second world war.
The cover girl flew more than 800 hours in the Air Transport Auxiliary in the three years from 1942 – delivering fighter and bomber aircraft to airfields and returning damaged planes to factories for repair.
It was extremely high risk and between April 15, 1942 and November 30, 1945, she flew 28 different single engine and 10 multi-engine aircraft from Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang, de Havilland Mosquito to Vickers Wellington and Avro Lancaster.
These pilots flew without instruments, which made the assignments even more dangerous and the risk of fatalities ever-present. A film, Spitfire Women, depicted the work of these genuinely unsung heroines.
In a tribute at her funeral, her niece and goddaughter, Patricia Hamilton, said that her uncle Philip, who was then serving in the RAF, heard the engines of an incoming plane over the landing strip in terrible weather. He said that the pilot made the best landing he’d ever seen in such conditions and they were all absolutely staggered when a slim young woman climbed out of the cockpit – it was Maureen Adele Dunlop.
Born on October 26, 1920 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, her Australian father managed various estancias or estates, several extending to more than half a million acres in Patagonia.
An expert stockman, who bred Australian Merino sheep, he had returned to the UK and volunteered during the first world war in the Royal Field Artillery. Wounded twice, he married one of his nurses, and they had three children. (Likewise a quarter of a century later, his daughter would return to Britain and serve during the second world war.)
While her parents were on home leave in Britain, Maureen took her first flying lesson, aged 16. On her return to Argentina, she backdated her date of birth by two years to continue her flying training and obtain her licence. It was only in 2000 after the death of her husband, Serban, that her children realised that Maureen was six years older than they realised.
She returned to Britain in 1941, travelling with her younger sister, Joan, on the Avila Star, carrying vital food supplies. It was at the height of the U-boat threat and in fact, the Avila Star was sunk on her next voyage. Their younger brother, Eric, always known as Bill, was reading medicine at Cambridge.
After the war, she trained as a flight instructor at RAF Luton and returned to Argentina, working as a commercial pilot and flight instructor for the Argentine Air Force. Later, as a partner in an air taxi company, she continued to fly actively until 1969.
She had met Serban Victor Popp, who was
a retired Romanian diplomat, at a function at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires. They married in the capital’s St John’s Cathedral on August 5, 1955.
She loved animals and especially horses having learned to ride, as did her sister, at an early age. She had her own hens which she trained to sit on her command! Fascinated by the Arab horse breed from an early age, she had met Lady Wentworth, of Crabbet Park, Sussex, where she learned much about the breed.
After the war, she bought her first Arab from the Ayerza family and built her Milla Lauquen Stud. When husband and wife moved to England in 1973, they brought their five foundation mares to a small farm near Norwich. The stud grew to over 50 horses at one stage, both thoroughbred and Arab.
Always better at buying than selling horses, the stud often struggled. But she worked tirelessly at caring for her animals, carrying out physical work men much younger than her found exhausting. Her knowledge of Arabian bloodlines and how to cross different strains was second to none.
What she perhaps lacked was the willingness to promote her knowledge by attending breed society meetings for commercial gain.
Although she retained her commercial pilot’s licence, her driving licence, obtained during the war, had expired. Finally at the fifth attempt she passed her test.
The sisters were very close friends throughout their lives until Joan’s death in 2010.
She leaves a daughter, Nicole, another, Alexis, pre-deceased, and a son, Eric.
They had five grandchildren. A funeral has taken place. Michael Pollitt