A small china doll named Audrey tells an astonishing story of survival in the Museum’s new WW2: War Stories exhibition.
The story of Little Audrey, Abbess of Chantry is one of the stories Curator David Willey explores during his video tour of the new exhibition, first broadcast as part of the WW2 Livestream opening event – 13th May. Click here see a tour of the new exhibition and hear from veterans who served during WW2.
Little Audrey is just five inches tall and the delicate doll is wearing a bouffant dress and clutching a wide-brimmed hat. She had been given to Lionel ‘Bill’ Bellamy (pictured in the header image, front row, second from the left) by his then girlfriend Audrey before he set out for Normandy in 1944.
Bill joined the Royal Armoured Corps in 1941 and served with the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars through the war, becoming decorated for his heroism. After crossing the channel after D-Day he found the doll in his kit and decided there and then to have her as his mascot.
Little Audrey was adopted by the troop ‘without question’ and Bellamy renamed his tank from Abbot of Chantry to ‘Little Audrey, Abbess of Chantry’.
He attached the doll to the Cromwell tank’s searchlight to the right of the turret and she became a good luck charm – and they needed her. Fierce fighting followed in numerous battles and incredibly Little Audrey remained, untouched by enemy fire.
Then in one attack in the Netherlands, Little Audrey was knocked from her position by a branch as the tank passed through a hedgerow. Astonishingly, so loved was Audrey that the troop of three tanks stopped and another troop leader leapt from his tank, into the open and at great risk, to retrieve her.
Bellamy later wrote: “As I was about to give the signal to move, I saw Sergeant Bill Pritchard leap out of his tank, he rushed back to the hedgerow, picked up Audrey, clambered on the back of my tank, handed her to me and shouted ‘I’m not going without her!
“I knew that she had become a very much-loved mascot, but until that moment I hadn’t realised the full extent of her role!”
David Willey, Curator of the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, said: “Sometimes it doesn’t take an object as big as a tank to tell a powerful story.
“Here we have a small delicate object, it’s amazing that she survived at all because she is porcelain and could have been so easily broken.
“Bill’s family were astonishingly generous to loan her to us for the duration of our exhibition, World War Two: War Stories.
“To see the doll alongside the huge tanks is perhaps a little unexpected but the aim of our new displays is to bring veteran stories to the public, humanising, personalising the stories. Audrey does just that.
“Bill visited the museum on a number of occasions, depositing with us an account of his incredible war service. He later published his war memoir Troop Leader to wide acclaim.”
“After Normandy Bill fought the dangerous but retreating Germans through France, Belgium and Holland. He even got to Berlin where he managed to wander around the Reichstag and take some souvenirs.
“During the fighting, with Audrey at his side, Bill was wounded in the head, but after a few stitches remained at his post.
“He also managed to drag a number of survivors from two armoured cars that he saw being hit by enemy fire, right under the noses of the Germans. He thought the Germans could see him and knowing he was trying to rescue wounded men let him carry on unmolested.
“Then in November 1944 he came under small arms, mortar and artillery fire, so he engaged the enemy posts and took out three of them. Machine gun bullets hitting his tank caused molten lead to splatter in his face. He became aware that there was something different with his tank – it was not made of proper armour plate and was only a mild steel training tank.
“He was offered a new one, but being lighter his tank was fast – and he had lucky Audrey with him so he stuck with it.
“Later he drove over a minefield, miraculously missing all the lethal ordnance and on another occasion he almost burned to death when petrol ignited and set his bedding on fire but he managed to get himself and his crew to safety.
“He then discovered his beret had two bullet holes in it. Proof perhaps that Little Audrey was keeping him from meeting his maker. Bill had a strong faith and he said it was a great comfort to him.
“Bellamy was awarded the Military Cross by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery himself in a ceremony in March 1945 (right) and he stayed in the army until 1955 and then had a successful business career. He split up with his girlfriend Audrey but kept his good luck Audrey doll. He went on to marry and have four children, with son Andrew following him into the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars.
“His memoir is one of the best books to come from someone who served in tanks.
“Audrey was present through all his remarkable military service and that Bill kept her until he passed away in 2009 shows how much he loved her.”
You can read more about Bill Bellamy’s wartime service in his book, “Troop Leader: A Tank Commander’s Story” and see Audrey in the new WW2: War Stories exhibition. Book entrance tickets in advance online.