In February 2008, the government announced that the ‘Spitfire Girls’ would finally receive recognition for the work that they did in World War Two. Men and women in the Air Transport Auxiliary did not fight in combat but ferried fighter and bomber planes to RAF bases where they could be used in anger. While men and women in the Air Transport Auxiliary are well known for flying Spitfires and Hurricanes, it is less well known that they also flew Lancaster bombers to Bomber Command bases.
The ATA was founded in 1938 and during World War Two civilian members in it delivered 130 different types of planes to various frontline RAF bases. By 1945, the ATA had 650 pilots from 22 countries. Male members of the ATA were invariably men who had failed to get into the RAF as pilots on medical grounds. The logic behind the ATA was simple: non-combatant pilots would deliver the planes to the airfields thus freeing up the pilots to rest and recover from their numerous sorties – nowhere was this more true than during the Battle of Britain. Those in the ATA had to fly their planes to wherever they were needed in all types of weather. 173 ATA pilots and engineers were killed doing this work – primarily the victims of poor weather and engine failure.
“The weather was our biggest enemy. We didn’t have radio contact with the ground and there were a couple of times when I thought I’d lost one of my nine lives.” Joy Lofthouse, ATA.
“I was often frightened, especially in bad weather. Many times I wondered if I would ever see the aerodrome again.” Freydis Sharland, ATA
Probably the most famous member of the ATA was Amy Johnson who joined in 1940. In 1941 she was killed in the Thames Estuary after flying from a base in north England in very poor weather. What happened to her and her plane remains a mystery but it is assumed that Johnson got disorientated in very poor weather and then her engine failed. She bailed out into the River Thames and may well have been hit by the propellers of a passing ship.
The importance of the ATA was recognised by Churchill’s government. One Cabinet minister said:
“They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if engaged in the battlefront.”
On February 20th 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons:
“It is right that we have recognition for those women Spitfire pilots who did so much to protect and defend the airports and other military services during the war.”