Pioneers in the skies
Tributes flooded in following the sad news that Mary Ellis, the last surviving female World War 2 Spitfire pilot, had recently died. At 101, she was a year older than the RAF.
Mary was a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and flew 1,000 aircraft of 76 different types during the war, including 400 of her beloved Spitfires. She later became the manager of Sandown Airport on the Isle of Wight and the Commodore of the ATA.
‘My mother actually taught her to fly at her local aerodrome,’ says Candida Adkins, the daughter of fellow pilot Jackie Moggridge. ‘I was lucky enough to meet her and she said what a kind teacher my mother had been.’
The Hurricane Girls
Mary, Jackie and the other brave women who took to the skies during WW2 – dubbed the ‘Atagirls’ by the press at the time – are the subject of a new book, which, rather poignantly, has been released the week of Mary’s passing.
The Hurricane Girls, written by Jo Wheeler, is subtitled ‘The Women Who Took to the Skies and Risked Their Lives to Save Their Country’. And for good reason. While these women weren’t allowed into combat, they were tasked with delivering fighter planes from factories to the front line, risking their lives in the process.
‘It felt like the idea of recovering women’s history is very important at the moment,’ says Jo of the genesis of the book. ‘The story of Jackie Moggridge, for example, who got her wings in the 1950s, is one that’s not widely known enough.’
Jackie flew more than 1,500 aircraft during the war, which was more than any other ATA pilot, male or female. Jackie, who died in 2004, recounted these experiences in her own book Woman Pilot.
‘Many of these wonderful women were society women who’d learn to fly on their estates where they had their own aeroplanes, but my mother didn’t come from that,’ says Candida. ‘She was from South Africa and had to pay her way. She ended up in Witney [Oxfordshire], at the Aeronautical College, when war broke out. She was one year into getting her commercial pilot licence, and her mother told her to come home, but she told her that she’d given her name to the RAF and she wanted to fly in the war. But, of course, she wasn’t able to join the RAF, so she joined the WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] as many of them did. They all wanted to do their bit, and the ATA got desperate in the end, having used up all the men, so started taking on women.’
‘At the beginning they only flew single engine biplanes, so they couldn’t fly Spitfires or Hurricanes,’ explains Jo. ‘It was thought that women couldn’t do it, so they were given these training planes to do very gruelling journeys in open cockpit planes that were very cold for months and months. Eventually, after some lobbying from Pauline Gower [British pilot and writer who established the ATA], they were gradually allowed to fly non-operational fighters, and then later everything.’
‘My mum took the Spitfire to the fighter pilot who shot the first plane down on D-Day,’ says Candida. ‘It wasn’t discovered until 50 years later, when the plane was renovated and they found it in the log book.’
These women were pioneering in more ways than one, becoming the first women in the UK to be awarded equal pay to their male counterparts. ‘Pauline Gower was the driving force behind that,’ explains Jo. ‘A lot of the women knew they weren’t being paid the same for doing the same job. A question was raised in parliament, and MPs knew in that moment that it would be embarrassing if they said no to women being paid the same.’
‘It was only for those war years,’ clarifies Candida. ‘When my mother went back to college after the war, she went back to getting a third less pay than the men, and sometimes up to 50 per cent. It’s still incredible what those women achieved at the time, though.’
The Hurricane Girls is out now, published by Penguin Books.