Silk stocking and Spitfires: The dark reality of the girls who flew dangerous wartime missions
By GLENYS ROBERTS in The Daily mail
Rich, beautiful and oh-so daring...the girls who flew dangerous wartime missions seemed to lead charmed lives. But a fascinating new book reveals a darker reality She climbed out of the cockpit of her Fairey Barracuda and became instantly famous. Wearing a summer uniform of white shirt, dark tie and sleeves rolled above the elbows, she slung a parachute over her shoulder and shook out her long blonde hair.
Back-lit by the afternoon sun, pilot Maureen Dunlop looked unbelievably glamorous.
And when the picture appeared in 1944 on the cover of the magazine Picture Post, the world was convinced the Air Transport Auxiliary - or ATA - was an-all woman outfit.
The ATA, or the "legion of the air" as it was known, performed an essential role during World War Two, delivering British warplanes from the factories where they were made to RAF airfields all over Britain. It was dangerous work which gave rise to incredible feats of heroism.
Flying in the ATA whether you were a man or a woman was one of the most high-risk activities in the whole war - its death rate was higher than in RAF Fighter Command.
Of 1,124 pilots who flew for the outfit, nearly one in six was killed. Constantly depleted, the elite troupe needed replenishing - yet even when their country clearly needed them, women had to fight hard to be allowed to take part at all.
The hoops they had to jump through to be accepted in a hitherto male preserve seem quite extraordinary, as does their amazing single-mindedness.
The famous female flyer Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo to Australia before the war, had a hysterectomy when she was only 26 because she blamed her womanhood for holding her back.
One fellow pilot, Jackie Surour, was so unhappy in 1939 when her male friends went off to join the RAF she recalled: "I despised my body, my breasts, all the things that pronounced me woman and left me behind as solitary and desolate, as a discarded mistress.
"I looked malignantly at my breasts, symbols of bleakness rooted to my chest and remembered the cut-throat razor in the bathroom."
Other women were so keen on flying that they forewent the chance of marriage so nothing would detract from their passion. Inevitably, there were whispers about lesbianism. Yet more tried to keep marriage, family and flying alive.
Margaret Fairweather, who lost her pilot husband while she was pregnant, got back into the cockpit the moment her baby was born, only to crash land in a field.
This time she escaped with her life, though by 1944 she died in another crash, in common with one of ten of the women who flew with the ATA.
There were 146 brave women pilots just like her, their fates mostly unsung today, not least because of the extreme modesty of the handful of elderly survivors.
But a new book, The Spitfire Women Of World War II, has collected the extraordinary stories of these Atagirls for a new generation.
There was Diana Barnato Walker, granddaughter of a South African diamond merchant; Mary de Bunsen, daughter of the British ambassador to Vienna; and Lettice Curtis, ex-captain of the Oxford ladies' tennis team - the first woman to fly a four-engined bomber.
There was also Mona Friedlander, an ice-hockey international; Lois Butler, captain of the Canadian women's ski team; Audrey Sale-Barker, Olympic skier and the future Countess of Selkirk; and Rosemary Rees, a former ballet dancer. They were among the cream of their generation.
To join the ATA you had to have 200 hours in the air and flying was, therefore, a rich person's sport. Young, beautiful and wilful, they swopped a life of privilege for one where death was potentially just round the corner. For in order to make their mark they volunteered for the most dangerous jobs
In 1939 Amy Johnson was routinely flying across the Solent acting as target for searchlight batteries and anti-aircraft gunners to draw attention away from the combat pilots.
She was killed in January 1941, when her plane ran out of fuel in thick fog and she baled out over the Thames estuary. She landed safely, but got lost in the water and drowned.
But there were many other dangers. Scandalously, one woman's aircraft was even thought to have been sabotaged by male rivals, threatened by the sight of attractive, young and physically slight women emerging from the cockpits of huge heavy bombers.
"Women are not doing this job for the sake of doing something for their country," declared one outraged male authority figure.
"Women who want to serve their country should take on work more befitting their sex instead of encroaching on a man's occupation. Men have made aviation reach its present perfection."
Sometimes danger came from the sheer unfamiliarity with the planes they were flying - there were 143 different types and often the pilots had a mere half-hour with the handbook before taking off.
More usually it came in the guise of the weather. For the most part, these pioneer women were flying in open cockpits without instruments and without radar and when, like Johnson, they were engulfed with cloud, they had little hope of finding their way to land safely.
There were some terrible nearmisses. One January morning in 1943, Diana Barnato Walker was flying over the Cotswolds when the clear blue sky suddenly filled with cloud more than 6,000 ft thick.
As her plane started losing height, Barnato, then 25, desperately peered through the clouds trying to find a place to land.
She finally broke through at treetop height and banked sharply to avoid a patch of woodland. Improbably she recovered to make a perfect landing in heavy rain on a grass airstrip at RAF Windrush.
Luck played its part in her survival, but it was also a great feat of concentration and endurance.
Flying in open cockpits, these brave women were often dangerously cold by the time they reached their destinations, but they went straight back to base on the train to ferry another plane the next day.
And if the natural challenges weren't enough, some pilots took their lives wilfully in their hands. Ann Wood-Kelly, 24, once followed two male pilots up the Avon gorge and under the Clifton suspension bridge in a Spitfire.
The fact was that life in the air was glamorous. It was daredevil, it was cutting edge and the women flaunted their fascination with it and their feminity, often playing up to the men's direst fears.
"My dear, I've got my first Hudson and I know I shall I crash and I've got a pain (cold, temperature, etc)," wrote one female pilot in her memoirs, parodying the attitude in the mess before they took off.
Her parody continued: "They would totter out, leaving a trail of handkerchiefs, lipsticks, handbags, etc, which would be picked out by willing male hands.
"They would then fly the aircraft superbly to its destination."
That of course was the point. These plucky women knew they could do the job and they were determined to prove it. For all of them the holy grail was the Spitfire, the brave little plane which men found so sexy they talked about it more as a mistress than a machine.
Yet the iconic British single-seater fighter was in fact the perfect plane for a woman to fly. The cockpit was so petite that their smaller frames fitted in perfectly. Women who flew it used to liken the feeling to wearing a well-fitting dress.
They loved its sensitive and powerful-performance, too. With its 1600 horsepower Rolls-Royce engines, it made the first post-war jets seem sluggish by comparison.
The first woman to fly one was Margaret Fairweather, daughter of Liberal peer Lord Runciman, who joined the ATA in 1941 with 1,000 flying hours to her credit.
Margaret was one of the unique bunch of women flyers called the First Eight, flying out of the tiny airport of White Waltham which still exists near Maidenhead, Berkshire.
The team was assembled by Pauline Gower, the first female even allowed to climb into an RAF plane, let alone fly one.
Gower, daughter of a Tory MP, had no use for anyone who thought women too frail to fly, saying every girl should take lessons - they were "the best antidote to the manifold neuroses which beset modern women", usually because they had too little to occupy their minds.
She paid for her own lessons by teaching the violin, wisely keeping them secret from her parents because as soon as her father found out he tried to clip her wings by cutting off her allowance.
Ultimately just like Amy Johnson's father, Sir Robert Gower became his daughter's fiercest supporter and even gave her the down-payment for a first plane of her own, a little twoseater, for her 21st birthday.
Pauline used it to become a joyride pilot offering pleasure trips from a field next the road in Kent.
As war approached, she had a massive 2,000 hours flying time and had flown 33,000 passengers, yet as a woman she was not allowed to fly in combat.
Then, in 1940, she came up with the idea of persuading her father's powerful friends that women should be allowed to boost the dwindling numbers of pilots, by ferrying planes alongside the hitherto allmale Air Transport Auxiliary.
Pauline was paid a salary of £400 a year - 20 per cent lower than a man doing the same job - to recruit the original eight female flyers, who themselves joined up for an abysmal £26 per annum, plus a much coveted uniform consisting of a pleated skirt, slacks - not to be worn off base - a one-piece "Sidcot" flying suit and quilted liner, a sheepskin leather flying jacket, great coat and cap.
At first the women were restricted to flying light planes which were so inexpensive they were easy to replace "if broken by women", observed Pauline wryly.
Their horizons soon expanded. By the time she was 22, Joan Hughes, one of the first and the youngest to join - she had started flying at 15 - had clocked up 600 hours ferrying everything from light trainers to heavy four-engine bombers.
Hughes used her skills after the war teaching airline pilots and in 1965 starred in the film Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines flying a replica of a 1909 Demoiselle. She died in 1992, aged 74, with 11,800 hours in her logbook.
Only the war made such progress possible. Women knew it and they were soon arriving in Britain from all over the world to take part. The Americans were recruited by the dynamic Jackie Cochran, who wanted to show the British what American women were made of.
An orphan from the deep South, her background as a hairdresser was far removed from the upper-crust English beauties she came to join.
Each winter, Jackie styled the hair of rich women in Miami and there one year she met millionaire Floyd Odlum, who owned several aircraft factories.
The two were married and when Floyd advised her to learn to fly Jackie went solo on her third lesson. "To live without risk would be tantamount-to death," she declared.
The happy couple set up home in the California desert, where they often entertained fellow flyers, such as the doomed Amelia Earhart and the eccentric Howard Hughes.
Then in 1941 when Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the famous boss of Bomber command, was in Washington casting round for extra ferry pilots, Jackie was recommended.
She offered him American women pilots including Dorothy Furey, a southern belle so spirited she lured Lord Beatty - son of the famous First Sealord - away from his wife and married him in 1947, and then moved on to have an affair with soontobe Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
Women brought extreme passion to their vocation. As Jackie's first batch of Americans gathered in Montreal for the long voyage to Britain, through sea lanes patrolled by U boats, they partied hard to soothe their nerves.
There were tales of all-night benders with male flyers and of a particular party trick which consisted of filling their shower curtains with water and bombing them down the stairs at their hotel. The high jinks continued throughout the ten-day passage.
Centre for these hardliving Americans in London was Mayfair. Blacked out, dirty and haunted by barrage balloons, the capital was teeming with exiles from all over the world, many of them flying for the ATA. Often their extrovert natures clashed with the British, who were quietly getting on with the job.
Unlike the Brits, the American women already knew they could breach all-male preserves. One of them, Helen Richey, had become the first U.S. civil airline pilot as early as
1934. In fact, Helen was sent home before the end of the war for pranging one too many planes. Poor Helen, whose early life had been so full of great achievements, committed suicide in 1947, because she felt the world had become such a dull place.
Not for the British women. The ATA had enabled them to make their mark in the air. Before the war they had flown, like Audrey Sale-Barker, a doctor's daughter, for fun and to draw attention to themselves.
Audrey, nicknamed 'Wendy' after she got her wings, ditched in lion country in the middle of Africa with co-pilot Joan Page, daughter of the chief justice of Burma, memorably wrote an SOS in lipstick which they gave to an illiterate Masai tribesman in the hope that he would pass it on to someone who could save them.
"Please come and fetch us. We've had an aircrash AND ARE HURT," it read. Amazingly the lipstick SOS did get through to rescuers. It saved their lives and only encouraged Audrey's flamboyant personality.
When the time came for her to join the ATA, she refused to wear the regulation RAF uniform and had her own made in Savile Row with a bright red lining.
If women were going to be the butt of male criticism, she reckoned they might as well make the most of it.
By the end of the war, everything had changed. The 'Atagirls' had acquitted themselves so well that from now on the sky was the limit.
Though the Air Transport Authority itself was disbanded immediately after the war, many of them carried on flying into old age.
Most of all, they had proved without doubt that women were equal to men. And that was a legacy which would help coming generations make their mark in all sorts of professions
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a British World War II civilian organisation that ferried new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between UK factories, assembly plants, transatlantic delivery points, Maintenance Units (MU), scrap yards, and active service squadrons and airfields-but not to aircraft carriers. It also flew service personnel on urgent duty from one place to another and performed air ambulance work.
The original intended usage was to transport mail and medical supplies. However the pilots were immediately needed to work with the Royal Air Force (RAF) ferry pools transporting aircraft. By 1 May 1940, they took over transporting all military aircraft from the factories to the Maintenance Units to have guns and accessories installed. On 1 August 1941, the ATA took over all ferry jobs. This freed the much-needed combat pilot for combat duty. Lord Beaverbrook, (Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook), gave an appropriate tribute at the closing ceremony disbanding the ATA.
"Without the ATA the days and nights of the Battle of Britain would have been conducted under conditions quite different from the actual events. They carried out the delivery of aircraft from the factories to the RAF, thus relieving countless numbers of RAF pilots for duty in the battle. Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in the battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront."
During the war, the service flew 415,000 hours and delivered over 308,000 aircraft of 130 types including Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, Mosquitoes, Mustangs, Lancasters, Halifaxes, Fairey Swordfish, Fairey Barracudas, and Fortresses. The average aircraft strength of the ATA training schools was 78. Total of 133,247 hours were flown by school aircraft and 6,013 conversion courses were put through. The total flying hours of the Air Movement Flight was 17,059 of which 8,570 were on UK internal flights and 8,489 on overseas flights. 883 Tons of freight was carried and 3,430 passengers transported without casualty. Total taxi hours amounted to 179,325 excluding Air Movements.
The administration of the organisation fell to Gerard d'Erlanger, a director of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). He had suggested a similar organisation prior to the war in a letter dated 24 May 1938. In late August 1939, the ATA was placed under British Airways Ltd. for initial administration and finance. On 10 October 1939, Air Member for Supply and Organisation (AMSO) took over the control of the ATA. The first pilots were assigned to RAF Reserve Command and attached to RAF Flights to ferry trainers, fighters and bombers from factory and storage to Air Force Stations.
Late in 1939, it was decided that a third and entirely civilian ferry pool at White Waltham near Maidenhead in Berkshire should be set up. Operations of this pool began 15 February 1940. On 16 May 1940, RAF Maintenance Command through 41 Group, took control. Then on 22 July 1941, the ATA came under the control of the Ministry of Production (MAP). Although control shifted to these many departments, administration was always done by BOAC with Commander Gerard d'Erlanger CBE.
The organisation recruited pilots who were considered to be unsuitable for reasons of age or fitness for either the Royal Air Force or the Fleet Air Arm (therefore humorously referred to as "Ancient and Tattered Airmen"), pilots from neutral countries and, notably, women pilots.
A unique feature of the ATA is that physical handicaps were ignored if the pilot could do the job. Thus there were one-armed, one-legged, short-sighted, and one-eyed pilots with the ATA. Representatives of 28 countries flew with the ATA.
In late 1939, Commander Pauline Gower MBE was given the task of organising the women's section of the ATA.. There were 166 women pilots (one in eight of the entire service) who volunteered from Britain, the Commonwealth (Canada, New Zealand and South Africa), United States, the Netherlands, Poland, and one from Chile. Fifteen lost their lives in the air, including the British pioneer aviatrix Amy Johnson. One of many notable achievements of the women is that they earned the same pay as men in equal rank as the men flying with the organisation starting in 1943. This was the first time that the British Government gave its blessing to equal pay for equal work, within an organisation under its jurisdiction. (Note, at the same time, American woman flying with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the WASP, were earning as little as 65% of their male colleagues.) Although initially restricted to non-combat types (i.e. trainers and transports), women pilots were eventually permitted to fly virtually every aircraft flown by the RAF and Fleet Air Arm including the four-engined bombers, but excluding the largest flying boats.
Although the first ATA pilots were introduced to military aircraft at RAF's Central Flying School (CFS), the ATA soon developed its own training programme. Pilots progressed from light, single-engined aircraft to more powerful and complicated aircraft in stages. They first qualified on one "class" of aircraft, then gained experience on that class by doing ferrying work of any and all aircraft in that class before returning to training to qualify on the next class of aircraft. As a result, pilots progressed based on their own capabilities, rather than on a rigid timetable. This not only ensured that as many pilots as possible advanced, but those that could not were still gainfully employed flying the aircraft types on which they had qualified. Once cleared to fly one class of aircraft, pilots could be asked to ferry any plane in that class even if they had never seen that type of aircraft before. To do so they had Ferry Pilot Notes, a two-ring book of small cards with the critical statistics and notations necessary to ferry each aircraft. A pilot cleared on more than one class, could be asked to fly an aircraft in any of the categories on which he or she was qualified; thus even a pilot cleared to fly four-engined bombers could be assigned to fly a single-engined trainer if scheduling made this the most efficient way to get the aircraft to its destination.
The ATA trained its pilots only to ferry planes, rather than to perfection on every type. For example aerobatics and blind flying were not taught and pilots were explicitly forbidden from doing either, even if capable of doing so. The objective of the ATA was to deliver aircraft safely, and that meant taking no unnecessary risks.
A detailed account of the training that ATA pilots experienced and a vivid view of the daily life of an ATA pilot may be found in "Intrepid Woman, Betty Lussier's Secret War, 1942-1945", Betty Lussier, 2010.
First Officer Maureen Dunlop, one of the ferry pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary, pictured in September 1944
Female aviators Dorothy Spicer and Pauline Gower, who later became an officer, in a bungalow in Reading
Pauline Gower, centre, officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary's No 5 Ferry Pilot's Pool Women's section based at Hatfield, Berkshire
Captain Joan Hughes prepares to start up a Hudson in September 1944
Pauline Gower, ferrying a new aircraft from the factory to the aerodrome in January 1940
The First of the Few
The First of the Few, known as Spitfire in the United States, is a 1942 British film directed by and starring Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire, alongside co-star David Niven. The film's score was written by William Walton ("Spitfire Prelude and Fugue"). The film's title alludes to Winston Churchill's speech describing Battle of Britain aircrew: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
A newsreel sets the scene for summer 1940, showing Nazi advances in Europe with England facing invasion and aerial attacks on the island increasing. On 15 September 1940, during the Battle of Britain, RAF Squadron Leader Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven), the station commander of a Spitfire squadron, recounts the story of how his friend, R.J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) designed the Spitfire fighter. His pilots listen as Crisp begins with the 1922 Schneider Trophy competition, where Mitchell began his most important work, designing high speed aircraft. While watching seagulls with his binoculars, he envisages a new shape for aircraft in the future. Crisp, an ex-First World War pilot seeking work, captivates Mitchell with his enthusiasm and the designer promises to hire him as test pilot should his design ever go into production. Facing opposition from official sources, Mitchell succeeds in creating a series of highly successful seaplane racers, eventually winning the Schneider Trophy outright for Great Britain.
After a visit to Germany in the late 1930s and a chance meeting with leading German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt, Mitchell resolves to build the fastest and deadliest fighter aircraft. Convincing Henry Royce of Rolls-Royce that a new engine, eventually to become the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin is needed, Mitchell has the powerplant he requires. Faced the devastating news that he has only one year to live and battling against failing health, Mitchell dies as the first prototype Supermarine Spitfire takes to the skies (in fact, Mitchell died over 15 months after the first flight). Crisp ends his account when the squadron is scrambled to counter a German attack, voicing a thanks to Mitchell for creating the Spitfire.
Principal credited cast members (in order of on-screen credits) and roles:
Leslie Howard R.J. Mitchell
David Niven Geoffrey Crisp
Rosamund John Diana Mitchell
Roland Culver Commander Bride
Anne Firth Miss Harper
David Horne Mr. Higgins
J.H. Roberts Sir Robert McLean
Derrick De Marney Squadron Leader Jefferson
Rosalyn Boulter Mabel Lovesay
Herbert Cameron MacPherson
Toni Edgar-Bruce (as Toni Edgar Bruce) Lady Houston
Gordon McLeod Major Buchan
George Skillan Henry Royce
Erik Freund Willy Messerschmitt
Fritz Wendhausen (as F.R. Wendhausen) Von Straben
John Chandos Krantz
Victor Beaumont Von Crantz
Suzanne Clair Madeleine
Filippo Del Giudice Bertorelli
Brefni O'Rorke The Specialist
The First of the Few was a British film produced and directed by Leslie Howard, with Howard taking the starring role of R.J. Mitchell. Leslie Howard bore little resemblance to R. J. Mitchell, however, as Mitchell was a large and athletic man. Howard portrayed Mitchell as upper class and mild-mannered. Mitchell - "the Guv'nor" - was in fact working class and had an explosive temper; apprentices were told to watch the colour of his neck and to run if it turned red. Howard himself was well aware of these deliberate artistic discrepancies, and dealt delicately with the family and Mitchell’s colleagues; Mrs. Mitchell and her son Gordon were on the set during much of the production.
Because the film was made during the Second World War and dealt with subjects related to the conflict, it was, in effect, propaganda. Because of its value as propaganda, the RAF contributed Spitfire fighters for the production. US producer Samuel Goldwyn released Niven who was still under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, allowing him to appear in exchange for US distribution rights. After seeing the prints, Goldwyn was furious that Niven was cast in a secondary role and personally edited out 40 minutes before reissuing the film as Spitfire.