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).

No comments:

Post a Comment

{READ IN 2018}

  • 30.
  • 29.
  • 28.
  • 27.
  • 26. The Grave's a Fine & Private Place - Alan Bradley
  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
  • 18. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  • 17. Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
  • 16. The Long Arm of the Law - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 15. Nobody Walks - Mick Herron
  • 14. The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
  • 13. Portrait of a Murderer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 12. Murder is a Waiting Game - Anthony Gilbert
  • 11. Tenant for the Tomb - Anthony Gilbert
  • 10. Death Wears a Mask - Anthony Gilbert
  • 9. Night Encounter - Anthony Gilbert
  • 8. The Visitor - Anthony Gilbert
  • 7. The Looking Glass Murder - Anthony Gilbert
  • 6. The Voice - Anthony Gilbert
  • 5. The Fingerprint - Anthony Gilbert
  • 4. Ring for a Noose - Anthony Gilbert
  • 3. No Dust in the Attic - Anthony Gilbert
  • 2. Uncertain Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 1. She Shall Died - Anthony Gilbert

{READ IN 2017}

  • 134. Third Crime Lucky - Anthony Gilbert
  • 133. Death Takes a Wife - Anthony Gilbert
  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
  • 131. Give Death a Name - Anthony Gilbert
  • 130. Riddle of a Lady - Anthony Gilbert
  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
  • 121. The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert
  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
  • 101. The Perfect Murder Case - Christopher Bush
  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
  • 76. The Escape - David Baldacci
  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
  • JULY
  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
  • 71. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth
  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
  • 64. The Narrow - Michael Connelly
  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 55. Mr Churchill's Secretary - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
  • 51. Hit List - Lawrence Block
  • 50. Six Were Present - E. R. Punshon
  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
  • MAY
  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
  • 47. Brought to Light - E. R. Punshon
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore
Free Delivery on all Books at the Book Depository