Monday, 30 November -0001

The SPITFIRE LADIES

Spitfires weren’t only flown by men. Women also played a key role in their remarkable history – and their efforts helped win the war, says Paul Beaver

Written by Paul Beaver
Girls flying Spitfires? Whatever next? That just about sums up the male-dominated aviation establishment of 1939. But that establishment reckoned without the passion, commitment and influence of Pauline Gower. With a European war on the horizon, Miss Gower was keen, like so many women, to play her part. And so she did.

In 1938, Pauline was appointed a civil defence commissioner for the Civil Air Guard. The organisation had been set up in July 1938 by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, who was a Conservative Party colleague of Pauline’s father, Sir Robert Gower MP. Wood wanted to create a pool of pilots who could assist the Royal Air Force in times of emergency and Gower, with his aviation connections, agreed to help. His daughter soon joined up.

The Wood scheme was civilian in nature, established in conjunction with local flying clubs and membership was open to any person between the ages of 18 and 50. Within a few weeks, more than 13,350 people had enquired about joining and 6,900 enrolled with associated flying clubs, which would now be entitled to government subsidy.

It was an effective move. When war came, there was a ready-made pool of expertise in aviation that could be utilised by the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a vital force tasked with delivering aeroplanes to and from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, and the Royal Air Force.

Spitfire-May29-01-590

Pauline Gower had been trained as a pilot in the 1920s and by August 1931, she had created her own air taxi service in Kent and took people for, very often their first, flight from pleasure grounds and beaches in the Southeast of England. She was a passionate believer in aviation and had caught the bug herself as a child when flying with Sir Alan Cobham during his promotional tour of the country.

Keen to promote flying herself, she contributed pieces to Girl’s Own Paper and Chatterbox besides having her poetry published in 1934 under the title Piffling Poems For Pilots. In 1938, she published Women With Wings. When Captain WE Johns came to write the Biggles series, the female pilot spin-off , Worrals, is said to have been modelled on Miss Gower and another prominent aviatrix of the time, Amy Johnson, who herself became an ATA pilot but sadly died in service over Herne Bay in Kent on a delivery flight.

When the ATA was first formed, it was a male-only organisation. That did not sit well with Pauline Gower and she was determined that women should also be part of the ATA. Even when they were allowed into the ATA, women were paid at a lower rate for effectively the same job and taking the same risks. Another cause for Pauline to take up! Pauline had all the hallmarks of a determined administrator and a feminist – although she would never have thought of herself in that latter role. Unashamedly using her father’s connections in Whitehall and Westminster, she overturned the two-tier system and all 166 female pilots achieved pay-parity with the 1,152 male ATA pilots. It was a national first and a world first in aviation.

Pauline Gower’s network of pilots stretched across the globe and once the word was out that pilots were needed, there were applications from Argentina, Australia, South Africa and the USA, as well as from female Dutch and Polish pilots who were stranded after the Germans invaded.

Spitfire-May29-02-590Queen Mary visiting a Spitfire factory, where many women worked on the production line

In 1942, an American equivalent to the British Air Transport Auxiliary was organised under the title Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), but interestingly, the types flown by Americans were limited and the women were only paid 65 per cent of the male ferry pilot’s salary.

So the girls in Britain achieved two significant breakthroughs that were not matched by their American counterparts: they were allowed to fly first high-performance fighters, such as the Spitfi re, and even heavy bombers, such as the Short Stirling. They also had pay-parity.

Flying a heavy bomber singlehanded required some nerve; normally such aircraft boasted a crew of six or seven. But the ATA’s training programme made it possible by a simple but highly effective process. This allowed for ‘class’ categorisation of authorisation to fly a specific type and, other than flying boats and carrier deck landings, almost anything else was possible within the five classes created. Pilots, both male and female, progressed up the class structure. Pauline Gower set high standards and ensured that these were met in flying and social life.

The ATA was created as a civilian ferry pool at White Waltham in Berkshire on 15 February 1940 and by 22 July 1941, having supported Fighter Command with the delivery of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain, it came under the Ministry of Aircraft Production, with the British Overseas Airways Corporation as administrator of the 14 separate ferry pools eventually created.

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Women were also a part of the Spitfire production process, especially when the Luftwaffe bombed the Southampton factory and the work had to be dispersed to less traditional manufacturing areas. The young ladies of Salisbury, Devizes, Reading, Trowbridge and at the Shadow Factory at Castle Bromwich were drafted onto the production line and, despite the long hours, seemed to have relished the opportunity to do their bit.

There were also female boffins in the Spitfire story. Most notable was Tilly Shilling at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, then the world’s centre of aeronautical excellence. When the Battle of Britain began, initial combats showed that Spitfire and Hurricane engines – the wonderful Rolls-Royce Merlin – cut out in negative-gravity manoeuvres in a dogfi ght. The boffins soon moved in. Tilly devised a quick and simple cure, touring the fighter bases in charge of a team of fitters to sort it out. She drilled a hole in the carburettor float that passed fuel to the engine and when the fighter was in negativegravity, it stuck. The answer was simple: put a hole in it. The hole became known to fighter pilots and engineers as ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’.

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Tilly Shilling was, like many women of her time, a polymath. She was, for example, the first woman to exceed 100mph when she rode her motorbike around the Brooklands Circuit.

Back in the air, the girls of the ATA were now delivering everything except flying boats and fighters directly to aircraft carriers. The Auxiliary was disbanded in November 1945 but sadly Pauline Gower was unable to bask in the glory that should have been hers as she died of cancer less than two years later. She was recognised in the King’s Birthday Honours in 1945 and many of her female pilots and engineers were also to achieve fame, including Diana Barnato Walker, the first British woman to fly faster than the speed of sound. Sadly several of the ‘Spitfire Girls’, as they become known, died in service.

There was then a hiatus for several decades. Although the Spitfire Girls were remembered, there were very few opportunities to take the art of Spitfire flying to a new generation. This all changed when Carolyn Grace, a housewife, took up the challenge that fell to her on the premature death of her husband Nick when she inherited a Spitfire. Today, she is the owner of a magnificent two-seat Spitfire Mk IX, which actually saw active service over the Normandy beaches in the hands of New Zealand pilots. The Grace Spitfire usually operates from Duxford.

Anna Walker, a Brazilian pilot now resident in Britain, also displays the naval version of the Spitfire, called the Seafire, as well as many of the Shuttleworth Collection’s high-performance aeroplanes.

Several other ladies have been busy learning to fly the Spitfire, including private pilot Cate Pye, extolling the world’s only Spitfire training course at the Boultbee Flight Academy based at Goodwood, the former RAF Westhampnett and home of the Revival.

There will be more of them. Watch this space!

Paul Beaver is author of Spitfire People, published by Evro Publishing, priced £25, which sheds new light on the people who made the Spitfire the world’s greatest aviation icon.


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