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The story of the unsung heroines who flew the newest, fastest, aeroplanes in World War II – mostly in southern England where the RAF was desperately short of pilots.
Why would the well-bred daughter of a New England factory-owner brave the U-boat blockades of the North Atlantic in the bitter winter of 1941? What made a South African diamond heiress give up her life of house parties and London balls to spend the war in a freezing barracks on the Solent? And why did young Margaret Frost start lying to her father during the Battle of Britain?
They – and scores of other women – weren't allowed to fly in combat, but what they did was nearly as dangerous. Unarmed and without instruments or radios, they delivered planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary to the RAF bases from which male pilots flew into battle. At the mercy of the weather and any long-range enemy aircraft that pounced on them, fifteen of these women died, among them Amy Johnson, Britain's most famous flyer. But the survivors shared four unrepeatable years of life, adrenaline and love.
The story of this 'tough bunch of babes' (in the words of one of them) has never been told properly before. The author has travelled to four continents to interview all the surviving women pilots, who came not just from the shires of England, but also from the U.S.A, Chile, Australia, Poland and Argentina. Paid £ 6 a week, they flew up to 16 hours a day in 140 different types of aircraft, though most of them liked Spitfires the best.
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‘Thrilling...I love this kind of book.’ Times
‘Some of the Air Transport Auxiliary's female pilots may have objected to being called “tough” simply because they were women – but they were as tough as nails all the same, as this superb account makes clear. They flew unarmed, without instruments, in atrocious weather, and hardly paused to grieve when their comrades started crashing into hillsides. At long last these magnificent women have the tribute they deserve.' Sir Ranulph Fiennes
‘Impeccably researched and written...and absorbing.’ Times ‘Books of the Year’
‘The strength of Whittell's book is as a collection of stories of unusual young women living colourful loves and doing skilled, resourceful, brave and risky work, which cost sixteen of them their lives.’ TLS
‘[a] most engaging book...[with] intensely human stories. Whittell tells the story with suspense, perfect context and technical detail. It is quite impossible to read Whittell's book without emotional engagement...one is all but overwhelmed by the sense of utter admiration. And of gratitude, indeed.’ Times
‘An eye–opening and at times very moving illustration of the courage and sacrifice of women who deserve to be remembered alongside their more celebrated male counterparts.’ Literary Review
‘The breadth of Whittell's research leaps of the page in telling encounters with the now–aged survivors’ The Scotsman
'Extraordinary stories of women who had little fear and minimal concern for the enormous step they were taking in banging “Good grief, it's a girl!” condescension on the head.' Good Housekeeping
‘Giles Whittell's affectionate book reads like a Boy's Own adventure turned on its head...and uncovers some exceptional tales.’ Financial Times
‘A stirring story, well told.’ TabletFrom the Author:
About the book
Of Pilots and Politics by Giles Whittell
One of the more sobering moments in the research for Spitfire Women came as the sun began to set over the dry hills of northern Arizona, and Kay Hirsch suddenly stopped talking. We had been deep in conversation about her wartime flying for perhaps four hours – first in a hotel coffee shop, then in the living room of her home on the outskirts of Prescott. She had made soup and sandwiches for lunch, and tea at tea-time. We had talked about her recruitment by the ATA from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, her training and her feelings of isolation on first being assigned to the all-women’s ferry pool at Hamble, where most of the pilots were vastly more experienced than she and not especially friendly.
This question of group dynamics was a delicate one. Kay wanted to be truthful, but didn’t want a writer whom she scarcely knew to seize on her memories of loneliness and use them to distort the record instead of setting it straight. I had the impression that after some initial doubts prompted by previous interviews that she had regretted giving, Kay had decided to trust me. I was wrong. ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ she said sternly, after a long pause. ‘You’re not going to muck it all up, are you?’ All non-fiction involves cherry-picking other people’s stories. It can be a strangely brutal process, especially if the stories are also precious memories, shut away for generations for fear that they may be misused or misunderstood – and many of the Spitfire Women were as fearful in this respect as they were fearless in the air. So I did my best not to ‘muck it all up’, but was still nervous on publication. Never mind the general reader; what would the pilots think?
Mercifully, they seemed to approve. Kay wrote, on an old-fashioned aerogramme, to say she was pleased the book was out even if she wished I’d made clear that only 17 of 2,000 applicants for ‘ab initio’ flight training actually became ferry pilots (and I’m glad to have the chance to make that clear here). The irrepressible Margot Duhalde emailed a brisk thumbs-up from Santiago, where I’d drunk some exceptionally good Chilean Air Force cabernet sauvignon with her at the Air Force country club. But the most gratifying response was from a pilot they both remembered well, not least because her story was so hard to forget. It came in the form of a radio interview. The pilot was Betty Keith-Jopp, and the interview was with BBC Radio Scotland, after a producer had read in the book about Betty’s extraordinary escape from the bottom of the Firth of Forth, and had phoned her at her home in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, to hear it in her own voice.
Of all the ATA women I interviewed, Betty was the most nervous. This was partly because of an instinct to defer to pilots who attained higher ranks in the ATA (like Kay, she joined late in the war) and partly because she was still mortified at having lost a plane in the process of saving herself. But she had steeled herself to describe it all to me, and she did it again for Radio Scotland, prefacing her account with extraordinarily generous praise for the book.
That interview seems to have started something. Among the listeners was Nigel Griffiths, MP for Edinburgh South and a keen private pilot. Nigel read the book over the Christmas holiday and phoned me afterwards bubbling over with admiration for what the women had achieved. Towards the end of our conversation I mentioned that few of them had received any official recognition beyond a standard certificate of service. Twenty thousand surviving land girls, by contrast, had received a belated but warmly appreciated campaign badge from the Government the previous year.
Nigel knew all this already, and intended to do something about it. He first sought cross-party support (from Gerald Howarth of the Conservatives and Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat, both fellow pilots), then emailed Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister’s decisiveness in matters of state was being questioned on all sides at the time, but there was no hint of it in the matter of the veterans of the ATA. His support for Nigel’s idea for a ‘badge of honour’ was instant and unequivocal, and on 20 February he confirmed his approval at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The following day The Times published a front-page picture of Lettice Curtis climbing into a Spitfire. Her own book on the ATA, as it happens, is titled The Forgotten Pilots. If at last they have been unforgotten, it has been a privilege to help.
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Book Description HarperPress, , 2007. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0007235356
Book Description HarperPress, 2007. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110007235356