Peter introduces You to some of the Women of War

Since the invention of beer, anecdotal bar talk has been the bedrock of perception formulation for many people. This is why some of the personnel of a Royal Air Force squadron awaited the arrival of their first 3 De Havilland Mosquitos, to which type the unit was converting from less capable aircraft, with some trepidation.  Based on conversations with others, they knew that the Mosquito, a two seat aircraft, was the “hottest ship” in the R.A.F., but that it could be a handful to fly.

De Havilland Mosquito

They also knew that the delivery crews of their new “kites” would be civilians. The trio of aircraft soon arrived, made uneventful landings, taxied in and shut down in front of the watch office a). The airmen moved in closer to inspect the new aircraft. The entry hatch opened on one and the pilot, the sole occupant, stepped onto the ground. Eyebrows were raised when it was noticed that he only had one arm. The second pilot climbed down and pulling off their flying helmet, gave their head a toss. Eyebrows were raised even higher when the astonished crews gaped at her shoulder length blonde hair. The surprise was complete when the third pilot also proved to be female.  While the misgivings didn’t entirely vanish, they certainly were reduced. Thus was this squadron introduced to the A.T.A.

Women ferry pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) 

From 1938 on, the Royal Air Force was scrambling to attempt to achieve parity with the German Air Force (“The Luftwaffe”), which had growing numbers of modern warplanes, a cadre of combat experienced air and ground crews and a lengthy head start.

Allied pilots had to be trained in the harsh and complex business of aerial warfare, just as the ground crews had to learn to be able to refuel and rearm the Spitfires and Hurricanes quickly, so that they were available to intercept incoming raids. A control system had to developed, so that information provided by radar could be used by ground controllers to place defending aircraft in position to successfully counter these raids. The whole process was rather protracted, as “The Battle Of Barking Creek” b) illustrated. Pictured to the right – John Freeborn in 1944 (IWM) – One of the accused Pilots….

While all this was going on, the aircraft manufacturers stepped up production to meet the new demand. Each company had a roster of production test pilots to test the finished aircraft and make sure that they were ready for delivery to the air force. However, there were not enough test pilots to make these deliveries, and the service pilots were too busy trying to attain the skills necessary to survive in combat.


There was a need to form an organization to ferry all these aircraft to and from airfields, Maintenance Units c) and Civilian Repair Organization Depots d). Thus was born the Air Transport Auxiliary.

All civilian aircraft had been impressed e) at the start of the war, so a  number of male pilots were available, whom, through age or medical limitation, would not be able to fly combat. However, more pilots were needed. Pauline Gower, the daughter of an M.P., had been flying since the late 1920’s and had established quite a reputation as an aviation engineer. She proposed a Women’s Branch of the A.T.A., against some opposition, but the branch was formed and she was appointed as its head. A limited number of aviatrixes, as female aviators were know in the 1930s, were available. Her first group of 8 pilots started operations on January 1st, 1940. They ferried Tiger Moth trainers to Northern England or Scotland because 1) no one else wanted to fly open cockpit aircraft in the winter months and 2) because a trainer was less costly than a fighter, it would be easier to replace if a woman crashed it! The “First Eight” gave great service, knowing that other women were depending on their performance in order to get their own chance to serve.

Gower pressed for more responsibility for her pilots, to enable them to ferry more complex aircraft, up to and including combat aircraft. It had been felt that flying fighter aircraft was a feat beyond a woman’s physical and psychological abilities. However, as a result of the excellent performance of these eight women, it was decided to gradually expand their role. Steps were thus taken to recruit qualified women and provide “ab initio” f) flight training to them. The newcomers were trained at Barton-in-the-Clay in Bedfordshire, before receiving their Class 2 (see below) training at one of several locations. Upon completion of this training, the pilot was assigned to a “ferry pool”. There were 22 of theses pools eventually, located near aircraft plants for ease of access. Most had a “mixed” complement, but a number were all female.

The first 8 Women to join ATA. Barton-in-the-Clay, Bedfordshire, was used for ab initio training of ATA pilots, as a sub-section of No. 5 Ferry Pool, which became the ‘Training Pool’ at Thame

Due to the constant development of aircraft at that time, there were obvious variations between different types g), but also often some variation between different marks h). The ATA Conversion School was therefore established, to familiarize pilots with the different aircraft they would deliver.

Eventually they established 6 classes of aircraft to be ferried based on ascending levels of complexity of operation, ranging from Class 1, single engine trainers, through to Class 6, flying boats. A pilot had to prove competency in a class before being allowed to ferry any aircraft of that class. Even in these classes, there were some complications. For example, a pilot certified to fly Class 4 (i.e. twin engine aircraft) could fly most aircraft of that class. However, they would need Class 4 Plus certification to fly all Class 4 aircraft, as some had tricycle undercarriages i), which meant different takeoff and landing procedures. Once this was completed, they were posted j) to a pool as a trainee, before being reassigned as qualified, generally back to their “home pool”.

Ferry Pilot’s Notes” were created, handy little reference guides to assist in the smooth operation of the aircraft. They could also read over the “Pilot’s Notes” for the aircraft, but they often didn’t have time to do so before having to take off, since they generally had to ferry several aircraft per day, so they were usually in a hurry.

Normally they flew alone. When delivering a Class 5 four engine bomber , pilots had a “Flight Engineer” assisting them. Some longer ferry flights also employed a radio operator. The female ATA pilots ferried all classes of aircraft except for Class 6, and although they faced the same dangers as the male pilots, they earned 20% less pay. In the summer of 1943 after some tireless work by Pauline Gower, who went all the way to Parliament, this inequity was eliminated, however. Apparently the ATA was the first government organization in Britain to implement equal pay for equal work.

Aviators from over 30 countries flew with the ATA during the war. They did a magnificent job delivering aircraft, in fact, actually flying aircraft across the Channel once the Allies had moved off the Normandy beachhead. Women pilots were cleared to fly to Europe starting in October, 1944 and some actually delivered aircraft to Berlin after the German surrender.

They flew their solo ferry missions unarmed and  generally with no radio. After setting out from their home base, they would spend the rest of the day dispersed widely over Britain, delivering aircraft. As there had been no time to train them to fly on instruments, bad weather and poor visibility were always dangers. There were crashes, caused by weather, mechanical failure, pilot error and unfamiliarity with an aircraft. I have read two accounts of ATA pilots in their unarmed aircraft encountering Luftwaffe aircraft in flight and evading destruction. While the Allies did control the skies over Britain for most of the war, who’s to say that at least  one of the aircraft lost didn’t fall to enemy action? We’ll never know for sure.

As the war drew to a close, the need for ferry pilots decreased. The large numbers of qualified male pilots who would be released from service as the Royal Air Force shrank once again meant that the days of female ferry pilots were numbered. With World War II over, the ATA was disbanded in November 1945.

During their service, they had delivered well over 300,000 aircraft of 51 different types, ranging from Tiger Moth trainers to Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. 1152 male pilots and 166 female pilots had served. 129 men and 20 women had died doing their duty. There were 151 flight engineers, 4 of whom were female, and one of whom was killed while in service. 19 radio operators and 27 Air Training Corps Cadets were on strength as well.

A Stirling (L) and a Tiger Moth (R). Two very different aircraft. These women could fly anything!

A couple of notes of interest. A pilot who was qualified to fly a Class 5 aircraft would be expected, at a moment’s notice, to fly any one of 147 different types of aircraft, from trainers all the way to  four engine bombers, while a pilot who had a Class 4 Plus qualification only had to worry about flying 138 different types! 12 women eventually earned their Class 5 qualification, while 82 earned the Class 4 qualification. Jacqueline Cochran, a famous American pilot, was asked to recruit 200 female American pilots for the ATA. In the event, she recruited only 25, because she wanted to set up a similar program for the U.S. air arms. She was able to establish the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, and over a thousand women were employed in this regard in the continental United States. As an aside, any American who joined the Air Transport Auxiliary before the U.S. entered the war, and a number did, was NOT in violation of the Neutrality Act, because the ATA was a civilian organization.

Time has thinned their ranks now, only a few ATA pilots are still alive. They did an incredible job, delivering aircraft to the frontline, and thus freeing up frontline pilots to defend England and take the war to the Axis. They proved that women were just as capable as men when it came to flying high performance aircraft, and in fact, women can now fly combat aircraft in most air forces.

Mary Ellis

It took some time after the war for the exploits of the ATA to be recognized. Sadly, Pauline Gower died in 1946, after giving birth to twins. However, 4 female ATA pilots have been made Members of the Order of the British Empire, and a number of them have written their autobiographies. They are finally getting their just due.

A gentleman was at a Royal Air Force aircrew dinner in the early 1990s, and he was sitting beside a woman of similar age, whom he assumed to be a relative of one of the attendees. Pulling his logbook out of his briefcase, he opened it, turned to a summary page and showed it to her while saying “I flew 30 trips (operations) on Halifaxes.” She pulled HER logbook out, opened it to a summary page and said “I ferried 587 aircraft, including 202 Spitfires, 139 Hurricanes, 87 Lancasters, 63 Mosquitos, 45 Wellingtons, 22 Tempests, 12 Lysanders, 8 Swordfish, 6 Defiants and 3 Meteors k)!”

See you soon

Author’s note; I am prepared to write another column on female pilots in World War II. The Americans had the WASPs, while the Russians had women who flew combat missions. If there is interest, please let me know in the comments or by PM, as I don’t want to “bang on” about aircraft 😉.

  1. a) The administrative centre of the airfield
  2. b) Radar data was incorrectly analyzed, and RAF fighters wound up in a fratricidal engagement, with losses both in pilots and in aircraft.
  3. c) Central holding units, where aircraft could be stored before being issued to an operational squadron.
  4. d) Civilian run repair depots.
  5. e) Taken into service by the air force.
  6. f) Literally, “From the beginning” I never miss a chance to air out my Latin.
  7. g) An aircraft, for example, a De Havilland Mosquito.
  8. h) A variant of an aircraft. A Mosquito Mk II handled much differently than a Mosquito Mk XXX.

i)An aircraft with a nosewheel, such as a B-26 Marauder, as opposed to an aircraft with a tailwheel, such as a Lancaster.

  1. j) A personnel assignment.
  2. k) The first British jet fighter.


6 Responses to “Peter introduces You to some of the Women of War”

  1. Marlene Schuler Says:

    Very informative. Leave it to the women!

  2. Peter Montreuil Says:

    I have one vote for a “follow-on” column.

  3. Bang on, Peter. This is fascinating. I always love reading about unsung heroes, or in this case heroines. Do as deep a dive as you would like, too. I’d read it.

  4. June Pollard Says:

    Wow! I am also in favour of a ‘follow-on’ column Peter! Wonderful information re: Women of War – This is something I would love to read more about – thanks for posting the books written by 2 of these amazing women. I loved the story of the man & woman at the dinner in the 90’s when they compared log books! The look on the gentleman’s face must have been priceless!
    Thanks again for a ‘good read’ Peter!

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