AIR TRANSPORT AUXILIARY
WOMEN OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was formed in September 1939 as an aid to the Royal Air Force (RAF), but not an integral part. The object was free up RAF pilots for combat duties, and consequently women pilots were employed to deliver aircraft from the manufacturing factories to airfields all over the country. Most of the women who served were from fairly wealthy backgrounds who had been able to obtain a flying licence prior to the war and were therefore qualified to fly these aircraft but not on combat missions. After initial reluctance they were accepted by the RAF, especially later in the war when they began to deliver four engine bombers.
During the course of the Second World War the ATA employed 168 women and 1,152 male pilots.
Below are some of the women of the ATA.
Lettice Curtis was born on the 1st February 1915 at Denbury in Devon and was the daughter of barrister Lord of the Manor of Denbury. She was educated at Benenden School and St. Hilda’s College, Oxford where she studied mathematics. She also excelled at sports and represented the university in lacrosse as well as being the captain of the universities women’s lawn tennis and fencing teams. She learned to fly in 1937 where she earned a B-class licence. In July 1940 she became one of the first women to join the British ATA and remained there until the organisation was closed down on the 30th November 1945. Lettice graduated to fly all wartime aircraft and was one of the first dozen women to qualify to fly four engined heavy bombers. She was the first woman pilot to deliver an Avro Lancaster bomber and she also delivered the Handley Page Halifax and the Short Sterling bombers. She flew continuously throughout the war delivering all types of aircraft through all weather conditions to various destinations. Having flown over ninety different types of aircraft she was introduced to the US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the 26th October 1942 as the first woman pilot to be trained on four engine bombers. At the end of the war her final ATA rank was as First Officer. Post-war she became a technician, flight development engineer and flight test observer at various aircraft establishments. Lettice took an active part in British air racing and was a founder member of the British Women’s Pilot’s Association. She qualified to fly helicopters in October 1992 but voluntarily gave up flying in 1995. Lettice died at the age of 99 on the 21st July 2014.
Mary Ellis was a pioneering aviator and woman pilot in the ATA delivering aircraft from factories to squadrons in the Second World War. She was a pilot who overcame public disapproval to fly hundreds of Spitfires, Hurricanes and heavy bombers to the front line during the Second World War. She joined the ATA in 1941, after Britain allowed women to fly military aircraft. Mary Ellis, whose maiden name was Wilkins, was born on the 2nd February 1917 and lived on a farm in Oxfordshire. She grew up with her five siblings close to a Royal Air Force (RAF) station. She took her first flying lesson when she was a teenager at a nearby flying club. After hearing a radio advertisement seeking female pilots she joined the ATA in 1941. The decision to allow women to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes during the war was met with widespread resistance in Britain. Eventually the female aviators proved they were up to the job and they were accepted by the RAF especially later in the war when they began to deliver four engine bombers. By the end of the war Mary had spent more than 1,100 hours flying dozens of different types of aircraft, including 400 Spitfires and 47 Wellington and numerous Lancaster bombers. She held the ATA rank of First Officer. After the war she was invited to the join the RAF and was alleged to be one of the first women to fly the Meteor jet fighter. She went on to work as a private pilot for a wealthy businessman, who bought Sandown Airport on the Isle of Wight, where Mary was appointed manager in 1950. She married a fellow pilot, Don Ellis, in 1961 and they lived close to Sandown Airport. Her husband died in 2009 and Mary died aged 101 in 2018.
Amy Johnson was flying an Airspeed Oxford from Prestwick via Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford for the ATA on the 5th January 1941. There were extreme weather conditions and she went badly off course. She bailed out of the aircraft when the plane reportedly ran out of fuel. The aircraft crashed into the Thames estuary near Herne Bay. Her parachute was spotted coming down by the crew of HMS Haselmere who went to her rescue, but there was a heavy sea which was intensely cold. Despite the efforts of the Haselmere commander to rescue her, Amy Johnson died in the water and her body was never found. As a member of the ATA with no known grave she is commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. Amy was born in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire on the 1st July 1903. She was from a wealthy family and finished her education at the University of Sheffield. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. Amy worked as a secretary to a London solicitor and was introduced to flying as a hobby. She gained her pilot’s “A” licence on the 6th July 1929 and later that year she obtained her ground engineer’s “C” licence, the first woman to do so. She purchased a second-hand de Havilland DH60 Gypsy Moth with the funds her father had supplied. In 1930 she flew solo from England to Australia where she achieved worldwide acclaim. With co-pilot Jack Humphreys she flew from London to Japan via Moscow and Siberia in record time in a de Havilland DH80 Puss Moth. She married Scottish pilot Jim Mollison in July 1933 and they flew on many record breaking flights together. In 1938 she divorced her husband reverted back to her maiden name. In 1940 Amy joined the newly formed ATA and rose to the rank of First Officer. Her former husband also flew for the ATA throughout the war.
Although not part of the ATA, Hanna Reitsch was one of the best known German test pilots of the Third Reich. She was playing her part in the war effort all be it on the side of the enemy. She was born into an upper-middle-class family on the 29th March 1912 in Hirschberg, Silesia. She developed her fascination for flying at an early age, and she began flight training in 1932 at the School of Gliding in Grunau. Hannah enrolled in a German Air Mail amateur flying school for powered flight whilst a medical student in Berlin. In 1933, she left medical school to become a fulltime glider pilot/instructor at Hamburg in Baden-Wüttenberg. During this period she set an unofficial endurance record for women at eleven hours and twenty minutes. By the time she was drafted into the Luftwaffe In 1937 she had test flown many gliders both in Germany and overseas. She became the first female helicopter pilot, flying the first fully controllable helicopter, the Focker-Achgelis Fa61 for which she received the Military Flying Medal. During the Second World War she received the Iron Cross, Second Class, from Hitler on the 28th March 1941 for her involvement with the test flights of the Junkers Ju87 Stuker and Dornier Do17 bomber projects. Among the many of Germany’s latest designs Hannah was asked to fly was the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt ME162 Komet in 1942. She was awarded the Iron Cross First Class following a crash landing on her fifth flight. The crash left her badly injured for which she spent five months in hospital. She was involved with the experiments on manned flights of the V1 Rockets in 1944, but these plans were never implemented. During the final days of the war she flew from Gatau Airport to an improvised airstrip near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in order to meet up with Adolf Hitler. She flew the same plane, which was the last one out of Berlin, out of the same airstrip and the advancing Russians attempted to shoot the plane down. The Russians were afraid Hitler was attempting to escape, but Hannah succeeded in getting the aircraft away safely. Hannah and her passenger were soon captured and interviewed by U.S. military officers. She was part of a team of scientists who researched and tested fifty two different German aircraft and she was to provide valuable information regarding piloting in general. She was held for eighteen months and after her release she settled in Frankfurt. She continued flying until her death on the 24th August 1979 from an apparent heart attack. There was speculation she may have taken the cyanide pill she had been given by Hitler but it has never been proven. Hannah had never been married. Royal Naval pilot Captain Eric Brown who had assisted the U.S. intelligence when she was interviewed after her capture, referred to her as “the expert of experts.”