That same year, 1944, during another mission, German anti-aircraft guns shot out her wing and she was forced into a controlled crash landing. She had just enough time to radio RAF that she was unharmed. Then, she was taken prisoner by the German forces.
Roberta remained a prisoner for five months, despite two escape attempts. She passed the time by teaching auto-engineering to the other prisoners. As the war neared its end, the camp’s food resources diminished and starvation began to claim lives. Roberta lost 50 pounds during her imprisonment.
In April 1945, as Russian forces neared, the German soldiers tried to evacuate the camp. The prisoners refused, forcing the Germans to flee without them. When the Soviets reached the camp on April 30, it was unguarded. The prisoners of war were returned to their home countries, flown on United States aircraft.
Like many veterans, Roberta’s life after the war was a confused and depressing time with symptoms recognizable as post-traumatic stress. While watching the 1947 Burgess Meredith film Mine Own Executioner, in which a pilot is shot down in a Spitfire, she experienced a traumatic flashback. After the war, she described feeling “restlessness and unhappiness.” In 1948, she separated from her wife. She would never see her daughters again.
Roberta spent the next several years in treatment with psychoanalysts, coming to the conclusion that her “unconscious mind was predominantly female. ... It became quite obvious that the feminine side of my nature, which all my life I had known of and severely repressed, was very much more fundamental and deep-rooted than I had supposed.”
She began taking hormones in 1950 and became close friends with Michael Dillon, a British physician and the first transman in the UK to have phalloplasty surgery. Meeting Michael was life changing. It was “so shattering that the scene will be crystal-clear in my memory for the rest of my life,” she wrote. He had written a volume called Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics wherein he advocated that individuals should be able to alter their bodies and gender as they desired.
At Roberta’s request, Michael performed an inguinal orchiectomy (a removal of the testicles), a procedure which was then illegal under the UK’s mayhem laws. With this procedure completed, Roberta was able to see a gynecologist and receive documentation declaring her intersex. This official documentation opened the doors for Roberta to get a new birth certificate listing her sex as female. In 1951 she underwent gender reassignment surgery.
How this all first became known is unclear, but Roberta leaned into the public’s rather salacious fascination with transwomen. Contemporary media heavily conflated gender identity with sexual orientation, therefore conflating transwomen with homosexual men. Homosexuality would be illegal in Britain until 1967 and the general perception of homosexual men was as flamboyant, “feminized men.”
Roberta, therefore, threw everyone for a loop. She was a pilot, a racecar driver, a veteran, and had children. Prior to her transition, she’d been “a man’s man,” further challenging society’s narrow definitions of “male” and “female.” Roberta published her autobiography not long after the Picture Post story.
She continued racing, even winning the 1957 Shelsey Walsh Speed Hill Climb, a historic event in Worcestershire, but she largely disappeared from the public eye soon after. In the 1970s, she experienced financial difficulties that lead her to consider publishing a second book. She spoke with a journalist from the Sunday Times in March of 1972, defending her transition as an intersex person but largely condemning it for any other trans people. “The people who have followed me have often been those with male chromosomes, XY,” she said. “So they've been normal people who've turned themselves into freaks by means of the operation.” Her second book was never written and her life in the years following this interview were highly private, so we cannot know if this judgmental, limited view ever evolved with the scientific understanding of gender.
In the 1980’s Roberta lived in Richmond, London, and had a small circle of close friends. Jane Ormerod’s home garden bordered Roberta’s and the neighbors visited frequently. Jane said of Roberta, “She was an extremely private person, though she could be garrulous after a glass of wine. She loved to talk about her racing, and flying, and her dream was that she would fly again. Betty would always say she was not a eunuch, she was unique.”
Roberta also befriended the owner of the local garage. They’d often talk about cars and her time in racing. “She was a strong lady: very proud and independent,” he said.
In 1990, Roberta moved to Hampton, where she lived for the rest of her life. Her neighbors there described her as reclusive and private. This private nature endured to the end of her days. She died on Oct. 11, 2011. Her funeral was only attended by six people, including Jane Ormerod, by Roberta’s request. Her death wasn’t publicly known until 2013.
That’s when her daughters learned she’d died. "It's a relief to know something at last," youngest daughter Diana said in an interview with the Independent at age 69. Over the years, she had reached out to Roberta but had not received any response. Despite that hurt, she also described feeling proud of the person who had been her father. "He stood up for himself. He did what he felt was right. And what can you do? I think his actual words were, 'It's easier to change a body than a mind.'"
"She was an extraordinary woman," Diana said. " I would have loved to have been with her before she died, and said, ‘we are your family, and whatever happens there is a bond that nothing can change.’”