Monday, March 28, 2011

{review} spitfire women

Giles Whittell Spitfire Women of World War II (2007)

Spitfire Women of World War II. Giles Whittell

I recently caught the tail-end of a TV documentary based on this book and it reminded me that I had it on the TBR. 

This is a very readable history of some of the women who volunteered to join the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War in Britain. The ATA was responsible for the transporting of military aircraft around Britain to wherever they were needed: from factory to squadron, squadron to squadron, squadron to wreckers' yard. As able-bodied male flyers were needed in the RAF for fighter duty, the ATA was filled with the left-overs, gaining a reputation - deserved - for the eccentricity of its aviators: the one-armed, one-eyed and generally physically disqualified.
The other one-armed men were First Officer R. A. Corrie and the Honourable Charles Dutton, later Lord Sherborne, who was once interrupted by a woman pilot in the White Waltham common room arguing over which arm it was better for a pilot to be without. The answer was not clear, but Dutton did explain that he could take off in a Spitfire only with the control column clenched between his legs. And he could land only with the throttle pulled right back in advance. Every landing was effectively a forced one, with no second chances.
The other ATA source - ineligible for the RAF - was, of course, women. Almost all ATA flyers had flown prior to the war in a private capacity, and this is telling, since flying was not a poor (wo)man's game. Many of the ATA were high-living, wealthy, It-girls. Some were not, but had formidable pre-war reputations: Amy Johnson, for instance, the long-distance aviatrix whose gruesome death on ATA duty makes one realise the high level of personal courage required to fly aeroplanes in wartime in horrendous weather conditions and entirely without armaments and radios. Consider, too, the 'Mayfair Minx' Mona Friedlander who used to earn an incredible ten pounds an hour pre-war in the air: she towed targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice!

Maureen Dunlop of the ATA on the cover of Picture Post, Sept. 1944. 

These women were astoundingly brave, entirely belying the ATA's nickname of the "Always Terrified Airwomen".
Ferrying aircraft around well-defended Britain was, bizarrely, one of the most lethal activities on offer to either men or women in this war. Nearly one in ten of the ATA’s women pilots died. None of them ever fired a shot in anger because they flew unarmed, so they were sitting ducks should the Luftwaffe happen on them. They could also be shot at by friendly ack-ack units, ensnared by barrage balloons and, at any moment, ambushed by the weather. They flew without radio, and this was tightrope-walking without a safety net: no weather ‘actuals’, no check calls to the nearest RAF or met station, no radio beam to home in on.
This group of highly motivated, intelligent, hard-partying, privately funded airwomen - and some of the only women to earn the same wage as their male counterparts - still had a lot to prove. There was much inter-service jealousy about their abilities (and their pay).
Rosemary Rees explained briskly to one of them after joining the women’s Class V elite in 1943: 'I remember having quite an argument with a Wing Commander about an [Avro] York I was collecting,' she wrote. 'He said it was so heavy compared with my five foot three and seven stone weight. I pointed out that I was not proposing to attempt to carry it after all, but on the contrary to make it carry me.'
As one critic wrote:

But the trouble is that so many of them insist on wanting to do jobs which they are quite incapable of doing. The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose round as an Air Raid Warden and yet can't cook her husband's dinner.
And there was also a fair amount of discord within their own ranks as abrasive personalities were forced to rub up against each other in an enforced team in which each thought herself the Queen Bee. This was further exacerbated when they were joined by a corps of American volunteers. Even their leaders didn't see eye to eye.

My favourite aviatrix was Mary de Bunsen who managed to get into the ATA despite her medical history of a polio-weakened leg, lousy eyesight and a hole in her heart. Other sparkling personalities were Diana Barnato Walker, the first woman to fly a Spitfire to Europe and, post-war, the first British woman to go supersonic. 

Initially the ATA women were confined to flying lesser aircraft. But they proved themselves (interestingly, "the 'wastage rate' of female pilots was fewer than one in ten, twice as economical as the men") and eventually were able to fly the ultimate flying machine of the war, the Spitfire, and the huge multi-engined bombers. 

Joan Hughes of the ATA next to a Short Stirling bomber. 
Source: daily mail.

As a gauge of just how astonishing this achievement was, Whittell notes: 
Statistically, it was unusual for a woman in wartime Britain to set out to fly fighters and bombers and succeed. One hundred and seventeen British women managed it, or about one in every 200,000.
Ironically, the Spitfire turned out to be "the perfect lady's aeroplane" with its narrow cockpit and light controls. 

Whittell is very good at describing flying-related terms in layperson's language - this book never overwhelms with technicalities. It is a well-written book about a group of extraordinary women - "young, hopeful and ridiculously brave": 
Apart from a week’s rest at Cliveden hospital after a crash that almost killed her, [Lettice] Curtis flew continuously from July 1940 to September 1945; thirteen days on, two off, for sixty-two consecutive months. In that time she ferried nearly 1,500 aircraft including 331 four-engined bombers.
There is a real sense of personal despondency about the post-war fates of these remarkable women, defined, as Whittell has it, by their "toughness". Few were able to make the transition to peacetime flying owing to the huge numbers of demobbed male pilots. For many it seemed that the war was the only time they truly lived. Some, however, maintained their hair-raising standards:
Joan Hughes, the second woman cleared to fly four-engined aircraft, received an MBE after the war – and an acquittal in 1968 from the Buckinghamshire Quarter Sessions at Aylesbury, after facing seven charges there of endangering people and property while flying under a motorway bridge during the filming of Thunderbirds.

Rating: 8/10.
Incidentally, I read this on my Kindle but I also own a paper copy. There are no images in the Kindle copy. This is my dilemma: the Kindle is great for non-fiction since one can make copious highlights and notes. The Kindle is lousy for non-fiction as the editions generally lack images. Grrr.

If you liked this... The ATA women actually flew, unlike their sworn foes in the WAAF. As someone brought up on 'Worrals of the WAAF' (by Capt. W. E. Johns, the author of the 'Biggles' series), this came as something of a shock, and I want to find out more.

Worrals on the Warpath (1943).

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