If a history book is to grab you in the same way as a good thriller, to fit within the impossible-to-put-down category, what it almost certainly needs is characters – interesting characters, sympathetic characters, characters about whom you quickly come to care.
Spitfire Women of World War II is packed with such characters – indeed you can only give a little credit to the writer, Giles Whittell. For who could not be grabbed by a character such as Mary de Bunsen, who had only limited use of her right leg as a result of childhood polio, had been born with a then-unfixable hole in the heart that frequently left her breathless after minimal exertion, who wore bottle-thickness glasses, who in the early stages of the war had worked for a Tiger Moth dealer in Devon as a test pilot before ending up flying a military Spitfire. Or Margot Duhalde, the 19-year-old from Chile, the first woman to get a commercial pilot’s licence there, who left her home in April 1941 speaking no English, with no English relatives, to get to England to fight the Germans.
The “Spitfire Women”, although not all of them got to fly the fighter pilots’ favourite plane, were the 164 female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Once planes had been built a British factories, or shipped from overseas, or repaired after major damage, or indeed had to be scrapped, they had to be transported to where they were needed. So:
“In all, the ATA delivered 308,567 aircraft, including 57,286 Spitfires, 29,401 Hurricanes, 9,805 Lancasters and 7,039 Barracudas of the type that took Betty Keith-Jopp to the dark floor of the Firth of Forth. In mid-1942, when British aircraft production reached its peak, the ATA was moving more planes each day than British Airways did on a typical day in 2006.”
Those were the main sort of aircraft, but there were many more, and many variations on each type. The pilots were expected to fly pretty well what they were given – sometimes a couple of different types in one day. Of course the pilots couldn’t know the details of every aircraft, so they relied on notes, surely a disquieting experience for passengers to watch their pilot read the “Ferry Pilot Notes” before takeoff and landing.
What was worse, and what killed many pilots, men and women, was that they had no instrument training. This was a deliberate decision by officials – a calculation that the cost in time and resources would not pay off – which meant of course, that some pilots died. Whittell begins the book with the tale of Betty Keith-Jopp, named above, who was flying that “lumpy, underpowered torpedo bomber … with a history of unexplained crashes”, who was trapped in unexpected clouds over Scotland on one flight in 1945, and eventually crashed on to the Firth of Forth.
She told Whittell about how she at first accepted her fate, as the aircraft sank, thinking of the insurance payment that would help her mother care for her disabled brother, and of Amy Johnson, who had died in similar circumstances four years earlier. But then survival instincts took over, she hit the canopy release, and bobbed to the surface, although without life jacket or other survival gear. It was pure, blind luck that a trawler – out still on the water because of earlier engine trouble – heard her shouts. Officials had done nothing to keep her out of the danger of being trapped in that unexpected cloud.
At the start of the war the idea that a woman would be flying a military plane at all would have been anathema. Sure there were daring female pilots from the pioneer age of aviation, but they were by definition celebrity oddities – nothing to do with the serious business of war. Indeed women might never have got to fly military planes at all, on Whittell’s account, were it not for the skilled, patient diplomacy of Pauline Gower, well-connected daughter of a Tory MP, who had actually - astonishingly for her class - flown professionally for her living, running her own taxi service with a plane she’d paid for by hire purchase. She was the world’s third female commercial pilot, and Britain’s first.
Whittell quotes from some of the resistance, such as that of C.G. Grey, editor of Aeroplane magazine, who was jaw-droppingly misogynistic in tone when describing “[t]he menace of a woman who thinks that she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor properly, or who wants to nose round as an Air Raid Warden and yet can’t cook her husband’s dinner.”
The women had to begin humbly and (literally) slowly on Tiger Moths, with open cockpits – a start that unfortunately coincided with a record cold spell in January 1940. Luckily the hierarchy had been persuaded that they should not have to fly in the skirts and silk stockings of their dress uniform – the original plan – but they were still sometimes so cold on landing that they had to be lifted from the cockpit by groundcrew. And the women were flying under enormous pressure – there was much popular resistance to their role, and just one crash might have seen it end almost before it began.
The women were all from the upper classes – as Whittell comments, when an hour’s flying instruction cost what an average shop girl earned in a fortnight, they could be no other. Yet the confidence that came - and the contacts - was probably essential in gaining the wary, slow acceptance that gradually came.
Of course, today, we asked the question, why were such clearly superb pilots not flying in combat, instead of many of the half-trained young men sent up to die, particularly during the Battle of Britain? Whittell asked that question of the formidable Lettice Curtis, aged 90, who rolled her eyes and responded: “This is the sort of imagination I am very much against. There was no question of it, and it was not a question you asked. It just never came up.” But he asked a senior male air force officer if they could have, and the officer responds that he’d no doubt at all Curtis would have made a good combat pilot.
There are not a lot of basic facts that were not already known in Spitfire Women, but it is moments like these that make it a fascinating read. Whittell speaks to these now elderly women, in many cases no doubt the last time that their words will be recorded, and he gets many to open up “ on the record” in ways they have never done. They were, by definition, exceptional women. Their tactics and approach to tackling misogyny and mistrust were of their time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t now be inspired by them, to learn from them, and we certainly should continue to celebrate their efforts.
Whittell has also written a newspaper feature about the women.