The ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary), a British civilian organisation, was set up during the Second World War to convey planes for the RAF, freeing up combat pilots for combat duty. Pilots were drawn from those who were unable to qualify as combat pilots, but who were still able to fly a plane. They included those with only one leg or one eye, and women.
Joining up at 17
Molly joined the Air Transport Auxiliary when she was 17 years old, she only had a few hours flying experience before signing up. After she was accepted, she joined the 160 women flying fighter aircraft to air bases in readiness for front-line missions.
The Supermarine Spitfire became her favourite. “It was a thrilling moment,” she said. “The takeoff was fairly easy. And then suddenly you were up in the air and the sky was all yours.”
“In those days you did not have to keep to flight paths and heights. You just got into the air and had the fun of those powerful machines in the sky.”
“It was a job, and we did it as well as we could.”
It wasn’t all easy living in the ATA. Pilots also had to fly in bad weather, often in planes that hadn’t been flight-tested and were without the full range of instruments. Molly herself survived a crash landing, and returned to deliver over 500 aircraft during her time in the ATA.
Molly Rose (second from left) in her ATA overalls.
Even though the ATA only ferried planes across Britain, they still encountered enemy planes occasionally and came under fire. The ATA lost more than 170 pilots during the war, including over 15 female pilots.
“When you are 21 or 22, you feel very capable, very sure of yourself,” says Molly. “You think you know all the answers and if you think you know the answers, you simply get on with the job.
“I don’t like the over-glamorisation of what we did back then. It was a job, and we did it as well as we could. But everyone was doing their part for the war. Ours was just a more interesting job than most.”
These women are a menace
Though they were paid the same as male pilots (the first time that the British Government gave equal pay for equal work), the female pilots in the ATA also had to deal with people doubting their abilities.
Grey, Editor of Aeroplane magazine, wrote in 1941: “The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose around as an air raid warden and yet can’t cook her husband’s dinner.”
Their fellow pilots did not have any qualms about the “Spitfire Women” though. Peter George, a fellow pilot, said “They were steady, sometimes even steadier than the men.”
Carrying on in the face of adversity
Seven days after D-Day Molly was told that her husband had been blown up in his tank. He managed to survive and was been captured as a Prisoner of War, but for six months Molly believed that he had died in France. He would spend 11 months as a PoW before being able to return home after the war ended.
“So many of our friends were in the services and were killed,” said Molly. “You could hardly enjoy what you were doing, but I was lucky enough to have had an extremely interesting and exciting job. I am just satisfied to have done something useful.”
Sadly Molly passed away this year, but not before recording an interview for The Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance.
Saluting the ATA
This year is the 80 anniversary of the first flight of the spitfire, and the Legion made a Festival Salute to the ATA and their contribution to the RAF during the Second World War.
Former ATA Girls Joy Lofthouse and Mary Ellis were present at the Festival to represent the ATA.
Joy joined the ATA a year after Molly in 1943 at the age of 20. She joined after seeing an ATA advert in an Aviation magazine, and thought it sounded much more interesting than working in a bank. Joy went on to learn how to 18 types of aircraft, including the Spitfire, to airbases around Britain.
Mary Ellis and Joy Lofthouse at the Festival of Remembrance, flanked by two members of the Air Cadets.
Mary joined the ATA early than both Joy and Molly, signing up in 1941. When she was at school Mary was hopeless at sport and so instead learnt to fly instead. Mary was based at Hamble on the south coast and during the war she single-handedly delivered 76 types of aircraft, including 400 spitfires.
After the ATA was disbanded at the end of the war Mary continued to ferry aircraft with the RAF. She was also a personal pilot to the man who later bought Sandown airport. When she became the managing director – she was the only female commandant of an airport in Europe.
"They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.”Lord Beaverbrook
The ATA made an immeasurable contribution to the war effort during the Second World War. After the war ended the organisation was disbanded, but not before Lord Beaverbrook gave them an appropriate tribute, saying:
“Without the ATA the days and nights of the Battle of Britain would have been conducted under conditions quite different from the actual events. They carried out the delivery of aircraft from the factories to the RAF, thus relieving countless numbers of RAF pilots for duty in the battle.
“Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in the battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.”