When women flew Spitfires

Giles Whittell explores the stories of the female pilots who flew the RAF's legendary fighter

Female aviators Dorothy Spicer and Pauline Gower in a bungalow in Reading, 9 September 1931. Gower later became an officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary's No 5 Ferry Pilots Pool. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

A female reader of Aeroplane magazine labelled them “disgusting!”. A “menace”, declared the editor himself. They were writing, at the beginning of the Second World War, about women who wanted to fly combat aircraft – and the RAF’s top brass shared their revulsion.

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All were made to look out of touch soon enough. By January 1940 a select group of women pilots was being trained by civilian instructors to fly RAF Tiger Moths from factories to front line bases in order to release male pilots for combat. By 1941, women were taking to the skies in Spitfires.

These were the “ATA girls”, the heroines of the Air Transport Auxiliary. They never flew in combat, but they ferried aircraft throughout Britain until VE Day and beyond. Their success in persuading the RAF that its aircraft were not the preserve of men was one of the more civilised upheavals of the war and it started, appropriately, over lunch.

A crew of Dambusters pictured together in c1943. The famed Dambusters raid, Operation Chastise, was an RAF attempt to breach German dams and so "deprive Ruhr industry, and the Mittelland Canal of water, over the longest period of time possible". (Royal Air Force Official Photographer/ IWM via Getty Images)

On 16 December 1939, Pauline Gower, the daughter of a prominent Tory MP, invited 12 of England’s most experienced women flyers to Whitchurch aerodrome, near Bristol, for a midday meal and a flight test. Gower was a woman of extraordinary energies. She had amassed 3,000 hours in the air, giving joyrides to holidaymakers, and had personally lobbied the Ministry of Civil Aviation at the outbreak of war to be allowed to recruit women to help ferry RAF planes.

Gower prevailed, and the Whitchurch lunch was the result. Over the next six years her 164 female recruits to the ATA flew 200 aircraft types in all weathers, with no instrument training. Fifteen were killed, but to this day the survivors remember the experience – and especially their conquest of the Spitfire – as the defining adventure of their lives.

The reluctant debutante

Short-sighted, lame from polio and breathless from a weak heart, Mary de Bunsen was not a natural pilot. But she was not a natural debutante either, and flying was her escape route from “the ghastly fate of a daughter-in-waiting”.

De Bunsen was the fourth daughter of Sir Maurice de Bunsen, a former ambassador to Vienna. She so dreaded the balls and soirees she was expected to attend during the London season that she took up flying even though both her parents swore it would kill her.

She failed at her first attempt to join the ATA – “a bitter moment”, she wrote, since those who were accepted that day “had the dewy, sparkling look of souls reborn”. But eventually, in August 1941, she was accepted – thanks to a note in her licence from her oculist saying she could see adequately with glasses.

Posted to the Number 15 all-women’s ferry pool at Hamble, Mary de Bunsen amused her fellow pilots by buying a canvas-topped canoe and paddling across the Solent with her elderly mother towards the Southampton submarine barrage. As she later explained, “Though apparently mad it was, of course, the perfect antidote to the tension of flying”. Even so, that tension got the better of her. She made a habit of landing heavily in the Spitfires that the Hamble pilots delivered daily from Southampton factories to nearby airfields for final testing and fitting-out. She bent several sets of landing gear and asked to be transferred to Scotland to avoid further embarrassment among people she knew.

At the Kirkbride ferry pool (which she called “the saltmines”), she proved braver than most local pilots in the dangerous business of getting airborne in bad weather. But she was still terrified that a serious accident might see her drummed out of the ATA, and once spent eight straight days on the ground in Stratford, refusing to take off in her Hurricane until a plume of black smoke blowing south from the smokestacks of Wolverhampton dispersed.

After the war, de Bunsen flew to Philadelphia at huge personal expense for pioneering open heart surgery by a specialist who gave her a one in ten chance of survival. She did survive, retiring to a former army hut at the foot of the South Downs to write, listen to music, and ruminate on war: “I believe that fighting is a law of nature without which we rot,” she declared in an otherwise whimsical autobiography. “And I know that, under tyranny, worse things happen than death.”

Saved by a tablecloth

Diana Barnato Walker, the granddaughter of a South African diamond millionaire, was the first woman to fly a Spitfire across the Channel and the first British woman to break the sound barrier. Alone among the women of the ATA, she revelled in the attentions of the press. “I loved every minute of it,” she says today.

It was in her father’s country estate in Surrey that friends, both pilots, coached her for the flight test that would admit her to what the Express called “the most glamorous war work women are doing”.

But she could not live for work alone. Posted to the ATA’s Number One “ferry pool” at White Waltham, near Maidenhead, she drove up to London most evenings to mingle with off-duty fighter pilots at the 400 Club on Leicester Square. She spent an evening there in January 1943 with Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook’s son. When she explained that ATA ferry pilots flew with no wireless or instrument training, he was appalled.

“Max got out his fountain pen and, to my horror, drew an instrument panel on the pink linen tablecloth,” Diana Barnato Walker told me 63 years later. “He gave me a lesson there and then on what to do on instruments, and I needed it the next day or I wouldn’t be here.”

The following day, high over the Cotswolds in a Spitfire Mark IX, she encountered every pilot’s nightmare – a sudden temperature inversion that turned a clear sky into solid condensation in seconds. Remembering her tutorial from Aitken, she turned immediately through 180 degrees, descended carefully through the murk and tumbled out of the cloud at treetop height to land on a waterlogged grass airstrip at what she later discovered to be RAF Windrush.

A month before D-Day she married Wing Commander Derek Walker, a decorated fighter ace. As a late honeymoon, they flew wingtip to wingtip in a pair of Spitfires to a newly liberated Brussels. They had permission from Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, but not from London, and Walker was docked three months’ pay. He crashed and died flying to a job interview five months after the end of the war, but his widow broke the sound barrier in an English Electric Lightning in 1963, and still lives in style in a country house near Gatwick airport.

A flight of Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft of No 73 Squadron RAF, over France, 19 April 1940. (Photo by S. A. Devon/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lost in translation

Margot Duhalde arrived in Britain with no command of English and no intention of flying for the ATA, but a series of misunderstandings changed all that.

She was born in 1921 on a farm in Chile, the granddaughter of a French Basque immigrant. For her 16th birthday, while at boarding school in Santiago, her father paid for her first flying lesson. Just four years later she was steaming towards Liverpool, hoping to fly for de Gaulle against the Luftwaffe.

When she made contact with the Free French in London she soon realised they had been expecting a man – and that flying for them was out of the question. By chance, a French pilot who knew Duhalde from Chile heard she was in England and offered her an introduction to the ATA. She passed her flight test, but soon after became badly lost over north London and crash-landed in a field.

Pauline Gower, acutely sensitive to bad publicity, wanted to end Duhalde’s ATA career there and then. But she had come too far to give up. She went to see the ATA’s chief instructor in private, and he persuaded Gower to let Duhalde spend three months in the mechanics’ sheds at White Waltham learning English, then return to flying. As she remembers: “I went into his office and cried like the Magdalena, and no one tried to stop me after that”.

In fact others did try to slow her down, but without much success. While at the Hamble ferry pool, Duhalde fell out with a Polish pilot, Anna Leska, and was forced to apologise for cutting in front of her while taxiing for take-off and coming in to land. Duhalde was duly contrite before their commanding officer – “but outside, I told Leska that after the war I’d knock her teeth out”.

In 1946 Duhalde realised her ambition of flying for the French. It was a short, non-combat assignment in Morocco, but enough to warrant a personal letter from President Jacques Chirac in 2006 admitting her to the Legion of Honour. From Britain, for five years’ hard and dangerous flying, she has received nothing more than her wartime wages and a certificate of service. Was that enough, I asked her? “I didn’t come to be thanked,” she said. “I came to fly.”

Giles Whittell is a journalist with The Times and author of several books on travel and history, including Spitfire Women of World War II (HarperCollins, 2007)

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This article was first published in the November 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine