THE Spitfire conjures up images of the Battle of Britain, handlebar moustaches and exploits of derring-do. Quite correctly the fighter pilots who defied the Luftwaffe in our darkest hour are recognised for their bravery and skill.
At the mercy of the weather and often flying unfamiliar aircraft, the 164 female Air Transport Auxiliary pilots suffered terrible losses. Proportionately the casualty rate was higher than for male fighter pilots.
The 1,200 men and women of the ATA delivered 300,000 aircraft between 1940 and the end of the war, clocking up 400,000 flying hours. Last month one of the last surviving Spitfire women, Maureen Dunlop, died at the age of 91.
With her stunning looks and flying ability to match, she became the poster girl for the ATA after she was photographed clambering out of the cockpit of her aircraft. Hair flowing and a parachute slung carelessly over her shoulder she set many a pulse racing.
However Dunlop and her colleagues faced incredible jealously and sexism and it’s only now that their exploits are being properly recognised. Predominantly they flew Spitfires but in all the ATA crew piloted almost 150 different types of aircraft. It was not uncommon for them to be asked to deliver a completely unfamiliar aircraft, often without the aid of radar and radio. In these cases the women were armed only with a set of instructions known as Ferry Pilot Notes.
The first eight women joined the ATA on New Year’s Day 1940, recruited into this man’s world by Pauline Gower, who had made a prewar living giving joyrides.
They all had a minimum of 500 flying hours but despite their experience the women were initially restricted to flying non-operational types of plane such as training aircraft.
Also to their annoyance they were initially paid 20 per cent less than the men.
WITH quiet persistence, Gower eventually won equal flying opportunities for her female pilots. Winnie Crossley was the first woman to be checked out on a Hurricane fighter and from then on the sky was the limit. Of all the aircraft the Spitfire was the Holy Grail and in many ways perfect for a female pilot.
The cockpit was so petite that their smaller frames fitted in perfectly and the women who flew Spitfires used to liken the experience to wearing a well-fitting dress. Dunlop, who began flying at 15, wished she could battle the Germans but this was considered a step too far.
“I thought it was the only fair thing,” she once said. “Why should only men be killed?”
As it happened 15 female pilots lost their lives while serving in the ATA during the war. Pioneering aviator Amy Johnson was the first female pilot to die in service when her Airspeed Oxford crashed into the Thames estuary in 1941 during a delivery flight.
Margaret Fairweather, who lost her pilot husband while she was pregnant, got back into the cockpit soon after her baby was born, only to crash-land in a field. She escaped but died in another crash in 1944.
However Dunlop and the other female pilots faced opposition from jealous male colleagues. They were angry that the myth persisted that the ATA was a women-only organisation.
It’s claimed that one woman’s aircraft was sabotaged by a male rival, while pilots faced constant whispers about lesbianism.
CG Grey, editor of Aeroplane magazine, wrote in the early Forties: “There are millions of women in the country who could do useful jobs in war. 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 in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an Air Raid Warden and yet can’t cook her husband’s dinner.”
In the face of such opposition women flocked from all over the world to join. In 1943 the women’s pay fell in line with the men’s, making the ATA one of Britain’s first equal opportunity employers.
Tony Bamford of the Air Transport Auxiliary Exhibition and Archive in Maidenhead, Berkshire, which opened two years ago, says: “The ATA was the only way for women to achieve their dream of flying Spitfires.
“Most were already accomplished pilots and there’s no doubt there was an element of wanting to prove that they were every bit as good as their male counterparts.
“They certainly did a terrific job, providing a vital link in the war effort. It was often very dangerous work because the aircraft were usually needed urgently so they flew in all sorts of weather conditions. For example Spitfires bound for Malta would first have to be delivered to Scotland.
“Unfortunately there are very few of the pilots still alive but I did meet some of them. They were very confident women, a little bit scary but very brave. The important work they did was not fully recognised at the time but we are trying to rectify that.”
The museum, near the ATA’s wartime headquarters in White Waltham, includes a section dedicated to the women called Grandma Flew Spitfires.
During the war there were two all-women pools of ATA pilots, including one at Hamble in Hampshire near the main Spitfire factory in Southampton. It was here that Dunlop, who mastered 38 different types of aircraft, was based.
When the ATA was disbanded at the end of hostilities the heroism of the Spitfi re women was still largely overlooked. However Lord Beaverbrook, Britain’s Munitions minister, paid tribute to the part they played in the struggle against Hitler.
He said: “They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.”
Without them the pilots in the Battle of Britain would never have got off the ground.