Black Country Bugle
Unsung heroines of WW2
EMILY RETTER learns all about the women who flew in the face of danger
THEY called it the “graveyard run”, flying a near-wreck of a decommissioned plane to wherever it needed to go. There might be a scrap of paper attached somewhere with a handwritten warning, “flaps don’t work” or “undercarriage dodgy”. Worst case scenario, they would find the fault mid-air.
But they flew anyway, because that was their duty as pilots with the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation created in 1940 to support the RAF, ferrying new, repaired or damaged aircraft between factories or squadrons during the Second World War.
Unofficial motto “Anything to Anywhere”, the ATA are the lesserknown airborne heroes of the war – and 168 of them were women. They flew without a radio, zero contact with the ground, unarmed, and possibly without ever having flown that model of aircraft before.
No surprise then that 173 ATA pilots died, a death rate of one in 10, which was as high as military combat units. 16 of them were women.
Candy Adkins’ mother Jackie Moggridge was, at 18, the youngest of these female “few” and survived the war. But Candy says: “They all had many near-misses. She landed more than a couple of planes where the undercarriage was not coming down.
“And they had no contact, so they would not know when the barrage balloons were going to come up in an aerodrome if there was an air raid.
“Once, she managed to get past the balloons and land, but couldn’t stop and was heading towards men in a gun tower, so veered off and ended up in a hedge. She clambered out.”
ATA pilots flew up to 149 different planes and could not be trained on each model. Initially the women were only allowed to fly Tiger Moth biplanes. It was a year before they were deemed capable enough to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes.
ATA fliers relied on their “ferry pilot’s notes”, tiny guidebooks which they even consulted mid air, a page per plane.
With a lack of technology and contact, weather was a huge risk. Candy says: “They had a map and compass, followed rivers and train tracks. If cloud came down, they were stuffed.
“My mother flew to Scotland a lot and if they went above the cloud they could fly into a mountain.”
Jackie survived, but friends did not, including her heroine Amy Johnson, 37, a record-setting pioneer who bailed out of her Airspeed Oxford into the Thames estuary in January 1941, after going off course in poor weather. Her body was never found.
Others included First Officer Dora Lang, 29, and flight engineer Janice Harrington, 23, travelling with her, who crashed and died on March 2, 1944. They were forced to circle their de Havilland Mosquito Mk VI plane before landing, and it stalled. They are buried together.
Third Officer Lesley Cairns-murray, 28, was the last female pilot to be killed in the war, days before VE Day, when her Lockheed Hudson lost control. Their names are commemorated only within all the ATA dead listed on a plaque in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Even there, Lesley’s name was mispelled Leslie and she was mistaken for a man, referred to as a “son”. A decade later, her family eventually succeeded in changing it.
It took until 2008 for the Veteran’s Badge to be awarded to those ATA veterans still alive in recognition of their service. Jackie, who died in 2004, missed out as it was not awarded posthumously.
The ATA heroes are now being remembered in a new exhibition, Women & War: Hidden Heroes of World War Two, at the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum in Kent, alongside those who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).
Katie Edwards, museum director, says: “When we think of the war, we don’t have an image of women in the air. The ATA were often flying in terrible conditions with only their ferry pilot notes, it was not uncommon to see them going through their books before they took off or mid-flight.”
Women were finally allowed to join the ATA months after the men, following lobbying from Pauline Gower, an accomplished pilot and daughter of the MP Sir Robert Gower.
The women did not have equal pay initially, and never received it during training. Many were wealthy, hobby fliers. Jackie’s story was different. She was born in Pretoria, South Africa. Her mother was a hairdresser, and her dad died before she was born.
She learned to fly via an American correspondence course and had her “A” pilot’s licence by 15. Her mother managed to arrange for her to go up in a plane for her birthday, and she piloted her first aircraft at 16.
In 1938, she was accepted to the Aeronautical College in Witney, Oxford, to get her “B” pilot’s licence and was there when war broke out.
Initially a post in the WAAF as a cook was all that was open to her. Laughing, Candy says: “She couldn’t boil an egg.” Jackie later worked at a radar station, and in July 1940, she was the 15th woman to join the ATA.
She appeared fearless. Once, seeing a German buzz bomb – an armed, unmanned aircraft – she chased it. Candy says: “She thought if she tipped the wing she might be able to get it off course. But she couldn’t catch it.”
After the war, Jackie was awarded the King’s Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air, and married her sweetheart, Army Lieutenant Colonel Reginald Moggridge, who she had parachuted chocolate and love notes to, attached to hankies, when she flew over his barracks.
Jackie had two daughters, but never thought of giving up her career. She joined the Women’s RAF Volunteer Reserve, became one of the first five women to gain her RAF wings, and was the first woman to captain a scheduled commercial flight.
After she died, aged 84, her family scattered her ashes from a Spitfire she had once flown.
One of Jackie’s favourite ATA service stories was about the time she had given a lift to a male RAF officer in terrible weather.
Met by a commanding officer, her passenger complained: “Not only did you send me a mere schoolgirl, but she was reading a novel.”
Indignant, Jackie replied: “They were my ferry pilot notes. I’ve never flown that plane before.”
■ Women & War: Hidden Heroes of World War Two, is on now at the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum in Kent.
■ Read Jackie Moggridge’s autobiography, Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky