sun 23/06/2024

Spitfire Women, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Spitfire Women, BBC Four

Spitfire Women, BBC Four

Fascinating documentary about female pilots and their wartime escapades

Margaret Frost: One of the immensely engaging ATA pilots who talked about her wartime experiences

“It was the best part of my life,” said one silver-haired lady in ringing tones, while another described it as “poetry” and a third as “the aeroplane and you were one”.

What these doughty octogenarians were describing in this gem of a film was flying Spitfires during the Second World War.

The three women – and a few more more tracked down by director Harvey Lilley – are among the last-remaining women who served in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a 1,000-strong male-only preserve when the war started, but which had 168 female members by its end. The ATA delivered aircraft from factories to RAF bases around the UK, and the fascinating story of the women's section was told in Spitfire Women through a mix of archive footage, dramatic reconstructions and interviews with the immensely engaging former pilots, all self-deprecating to a fault.

Pauline Gower, a joyrides and taxi pilot with an astonishing 2,000 hours of flying experience in 1939, used her high-level connections (her father was a Tory MP) to have women accepted in the ATA. She faced huge opposition initially, but needs must and the RAF and government eventually conceded. She was made head of the women’s section of the ATA and in January 1940 the first batch of eight female pilots arrived for duty. As the women’s worth was recognised, the numbers quickly grew, but prejudice remained; one of the interviewees recalled how one senior RAF officer refused to be flown by her and took over the controls himself, while women had to have clocked up 500 hours of flying time (many more than male pilots) before they would even be considered for the ATA.

Gower used other connections, too, to further the female pilots’ cause. At the time of the phoney war before the Battle of Britain commenced in the summer of 1940, the British media were desperate for stories and the female pilots were a gift. It was, said author Giles Whittell, who supplied many of the terrific anecdotes in the film, the beginning of a media love affair throughout the war, when the pilots were routinely presented as glamour girls and heroines.

Most of the women came from rich families and fell into two distinct groups, he said. There were the "Head girls" who saw what they were doing as their duty and just got on with it, and the "It girls" who, while working as hard as anybody, partied hard, too. The latter group was led by socialite Diana Barnato Walker, who would reapply her lipstick before exiting a plane she had just delivered, and was famous for her parties at her father’s estate in Surrey. She also occasionally flew down to Cornwall from her Southampton ATA base just for lunch.

The heroine for all the women was pioneer aviator Amy Johnson, herself a member of the Auxiliary, and one of the 10 per cent of ATA pilots who died on active service. The ATA made tough demands because unlike RAF pilots, who flew only one type of aircraft, ATA personnel would fly several different types - among them Tiger Moths, Messengers, Dakotas, Oxfords, Wellingtons, and, of course Spitfires - sometimes in the space of one day.

The planes all had different cockpit layouts and controls, and the women had only a manual for basic flying information, and they often flew in extremely challenging weather. But they took it in their stride, as Molly Rose, who had gone straight from her finishing school in Paris to working as an engineer in her father’s aircraft factory, drily attested. “I came face to face with one of the Cotswold hills...”

The film’s title, then, appeared slightly misleading until we were told that the women, who initially were allowed to transport only trainers, took charge of the zippy single-engined aircraft from September 1941. “We used to compete to get a Spitfire,” said one of the women, explaining that the small cockpit was a snug fit. “It was like putting on a coat.”

There were lovely stories of innocent, and not so innocent, camaraderie between men and women - “We had lots of boyfriends. There were always plenty of escorts,” said one - while Molly Rose recalled amid hoots of laughter the time when her bottom was pinched when she was derrière-up mending something in a plane. “I just laughed loudly,” she said. “If I had been prim they would have discarded me.” But being a gel had its advantages. “If I got stuck with a jolly old bolt someone would come to my aid,” she said.

Spitfire Women, shown as part of the BBC’s excellent Battle of Britain season, was an absolute treat and serves as a fine tribute to those brave, pioneering women, only one of whom was able to fly planes commercially after the war.

Socialite Diana Barnato Walker would reapply her lipstick before exiting a plane she had just delivered and occasionally flew to Cornwall for lunch

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