The women who flew Spitfires
- Credit: Imperial War Museum
Eighty years ago this month, women pilots first climbed into the cockpits of the RAF's mighty combat aircraft at Hatfield to aid the war effort. Pioneers in aviation, these 'Attagirls' helped fight not only fascism but sexism too, Gillian Thornton writes.
Hertfordshire’s aircraft manufacturers were at the forefront of British aviation for a large part of the 20th century, but especially during World War II. The Ministry of Defence used Leavesden Aerodrome for the manufacture of Mosquito fighter and Halifax bomber aircraft; Handley-Page produced heavy bombers like the Halifax at Radlett; and the legendary Mosquito was just one of the fighter planes built by de Havilland at Hatfield.
But less well known is the county’s role in the vital work done by the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation set up early in 1940. Their mission was to take over the job of ferrying Royal Air Force and Royal Navy warplanes between factories, maintenance units, and front-line squadrons, thus freeing up service pilots for combat duty. ATA pilots were all ineligible for combat because of age or medical history (they were jokingly given the moniker Ancient and Tattered Airmen), but their bravery was unquestionable.
Initially only men were eligible, the operation run from ATA headquarters at White Waltham Airfield, Maidenhead, but in late 1939, former ‘joy ride’ pilot Pauline Gower was charged with recruiting women. On January 1, 1940, the first eight women pilots were accepted into the ATA to deliver the light training plane, the Tiger Moth, from the de Haviland factory at Hatfield to RAF training bases in northern England and Scotland.
Over the course of the war, 1,245 pilots from 28 countries would ferry nearly 309,000 aircraft of 147 different types. Among them were 166 women pilots, affectionately known as ‘Attagirls’. Together these women made aviation history, quickly graduating from non-combat aircraft to the RAF’s iconic fighting machines.
In July 1941, the first women pilots climbed into the cockpits of the legendary Hurricane, and within weeks, they were delivering the Spitfire too.
By the end of the war, Attagirls had flown almost every type of RAF aircraft, often piloting aircraft they had never even seen before, sometimes up to six different planes in one day. And in 1943, they made history again by receiving the same pay as their male counterparts - the first time the British government had sanctioned equal pay for equal work in an organisation under its control.
It was certainly well-deserved. Fifteen Attagirls lost their lives, including record-breaking aviator Amy Johnson, lost at sea in 1941 when her plane ran out of fuel in thick fog. Bad weather was a serious challenge to these pioneer pilots who usually flew in open cockpits without instruments or radar. Based at White Waltham, Amy died when the Airspeed Oxford she was flying crashed into the Thames estuary. Her body was never recovered.
Britain’s last surviving Attagirl, Eleanor Wadsworth, died in December 2020 aged 103. With no flying experience she had been an architectural assistant working on construction of new ATA facilities at White Waltham when she saw an appeal for more pilots.
‘The thought of learning to fly for free was a great incentive so I put my name down and didn’t think much about it,’ she recalled. Eleanor went solo after 15 hours and by the time she left the ATA in September 1945, had flown 28 Hurricanes, 132 Spitfires, and 20 other types of military aircraft.
But many of these early women pilots were already experienced flyers, including Margaret Fairweather, great-aunt of Harpenden resident ‘Waddy’ Fairweather. Born Margaret Runciman in 1901 at Castle Ward, Northumberland, Margaret was the daughter of Viscount and Viscountess Runciman of Doxford, both Members of Parliament.
One of the famous First Eight, as the pioneer Attagirls at Hatfield became known, Margaret joined the ATA in January 1940. The annual salary was £26, plus a uniform that included a one-piece flying suit, sheepskin leather flying jacket, great coat, and cap.
All of the remarkable First Eight were experienced pilots. Winifred Crossley had been a stunt pilot, later becoming the first woman to fly a Hurricane at Hatfield in July 1941; Margaret Cunnison had flown light aircraft; and Mona Friedlander held a commercial pilot’s licence. Gabrielle Patterson had been Britain’s first woman flying instructor; farmer Marion Wilberforce had registered her de Havilland Hornet Moth as an ‘agricultural implement’; and Joan Hughes had first flown solo at 15.
Joan, Marion and experienced pilot Rosemary Rees were among a small number of Attagirls selected to fly four-engined heavy bombers. Then there was Margaret Fairweather, an instructor at the Scottish Flying Club in Renfrewshire with more than 1,000 flying hours on her record.
‘Margaret married my grandfather’s brother Douglas, a London patent agent, who also joined the Air Transport Auxiliary,’ explains Waddy. ‘The Fairweathers were a flying family – until they got to me, that is – and I have pictures of my great-grandfather with an early aircraft. But it wasn’t until I started researching our family history that I discovered Margaret’s incredible story.’
Despite their training and aviation backgrounds, ATA pilots frequently had to fly aircraft on which they had little experience, and being unarmed they were sitting targets for attack by the Luftwaffe. More than 150 ATA pilots died in service.
‘They were hugely brave and often huge characters,’ says Waddy, ‘Margaret’s husband Douglas was an extrovert chain smoker who would judge his arrival time by the number of cigarettes butts in his cockpit. A much-liked and generous personality, he was sadly killed in April 1944, just before the birth of their daughter Elizabeth.
‘Douglas had been flying a specialist nurse from ATA HQ at White Waltham to Prestwick to pick up a badly wounded Canadian service man. The weather was atrocious, the plane went down, and his body was later washed up in the North Sea. He was 53.’
Margaret was equally courageous. Her great-nephew has painstakingly assembled her flying and service records, including logs of flying hours clocked up on more than 40 different aircraft. The first woman to fly a Spitfire, Margaret’s General Record begins in May 1941 where she was assessed as ‘Exceptionally good. Navigation well above average’.
Further accolades followed as she trained to fly more and more complex aircraft. ‘Dependable, extremely useful in ferrying 4+ aircraft in difficult conditions.’ ‘Consistently does good work in an unintrusive manner.’ ‘A great asset to the pool both as a pilot and as a Flight Captain.’
Losing Douglas, just as they were about to become parents, must have been a huge blow, but Margaret was determined to carry on with ATA work and, after taking time out for the birth of Elizabeth, she was re-examined in June 1944 and passed for further duties.
But just weeks later she was killed returning from a mission with her sister Kitty Farrer and another passenger on board. A blocked fuel line brought on engine failure and the Proctor III she was piloting crashed in a field near Malpas, Cheshire. Her sister suffered serious leg injuries, while her other passenger escaped relatively unscathed, but Margaret’s skull was fractured and she died later in hospital. Today she and Douglas rest in Dunure Cemetery, South Ayrshire, the only married ATA couple who are buried together.
The subsequent investigation absolved Margaret of all blame, the fault attributed to inadequate aircraft inspection. When the engine began to fade, she had attempted to force land in a small field but was unable to see a ditch hidden by a hedge, and the aircraft went in nose first. A tragic end for the young mother and pioneer.
Over years of painstaking research, Waddy has gathered a wealth of documentation relating to Margaret’s ATA service and final mission. The letter to her mother, Lady Runciman, from Margaret and Kitty’s commanding officer makes particular poignant reading.
‘I had so much material that I felt belonged to her daughter Elizabeth, but some of it is pretty harrowing,’ says Waddy. ‘She obviously never knew her parents and I wasn’t sure how she would feel about it, but I managed to track down her husband and was able to ask him first. He felt sure she would want to have it, so now I feel it has gone to the right place.’
But Waddy’s connection to the Attagirls doesn’t end there. When news filtered through his family about his research into Margaret, his sister-in-law had a surprise in store. Eleanor Wadsworth, Britain's last Attagirl, had been her aunt. Like Margaret, Eleanor was particularly fond of flying Spitfires. ‘It was so responsive and light to the touch,’ Eleanor said during an interview in later life. ‘Like a beautiful sports car.’
Ferrying the planes that helped defeat Nazism, the contribution made by the Attagirls and the ATA is often overlooked. But to those brave pioneering women for whom no plane was too large, nor too difficult to fly, we owe a great deal.
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