The women of the Battle of Britain

Lettice Curtis, Jenny Broad, Wendy Sale Barker, Gabrielle Patterson and Pauline Gower of the Air Transport Auxilary in 1942 | Public Domain | Wikimedia

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July is the anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Britain, one of the great turning points of World War Two. While we rightly honour the many men of the RAF who beat off the threat of the German Luftwaffe, putting a halt to Hitler’s invasion plans, the contribution of women is less well known today.

The truth is, the Battle of Britain would not have been a victory without the determined graft of countless women – both on the ground and in the air. Many people who now use Ancestry to trace their family trees may be surprised to find that their own mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers may have been among the trailblazers who made such a difference during those dark days.

Although they weren’t allowed to become combat pilots, women did take to the skies as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary, flying Spitfires, Hurricanes and other iconic aircraft between factories and military bases. Speaking to Jacky Hyams, author of The Female Few, a veteran of the ATA named Joy Lofthouse recalled how ‘you didn’t know what type of plane you were going to fly that day. You’d get out of a Tiger Moth after delivery and then into a Wellington bomber. After that, you could be flying a Spitfire.’

Perhaps the most famous ATA pilot of all was celebrated aviator Amy Johnson

The infamous Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, was disgusted at such wanton defiance of gender expectations, dubbing the female pilots of the ATA ‘unnatural and decadent women’. He would probably have been particularly appalled by society girl Mona Friedlander, who gave up an existence of glittering privilege to undertake the often dangerous ATA delivery flights. Her decision was even reported in a newspaper, which noted that the new pilot was a ‘wealthy London society girl, aged 24, who loves dancing, swimming, travelling and entertaining in her father’s spacious Park Lane apartment.’

Another upper-crust figure who signed up was Margaret Fairweather, whose parents were both MPs, and who became the first woman ever to fly a Spitfire. Perhaps the most famous ATA pilot of all was celebrated aviator Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia. Johnson would unfortunately die in the line of duty, when bad weather caused her to bail out into the Thames and drown.

Delivering planes to airfields across the nation was crucial during the Battle of Britain. But equally important were the members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) who stayed firmly on the ground. Their roles ranged from radar operators and aircraft mechanics to meteorologists and ‘plotters’, who shifted markers around on large maps to keep track of what was happening in the air.

These plotters, familiar to many of us thanks to countless movies about World War Two, were part of the ‘Dowding system’, the radar interception network which alerted the RAF to imminent Luftwaffe strikes. Training up as a plotter was tough. One Colchester woman, Joyce Anne Deane, later recounted how they were housed in a Dickensian workhouse where ‘lavatory doors didn’t shut and a bath was a rare event’.

It caused a bit of a stir at the time, these women being awarded a man’s medal

Three of her WAAF peers stationed at Biggin Hill became the first women to be given the Military Medal, after staying at their posts when their base was targeted by the Germans during the Battle of Britain. The women – Helen Turner, Elizabeth Mortimer and Elspeth Henderson – were commended by Biggin Hill’s commanding officer for their ‘amazing pluck’. However, the ingrained sexism of the day meant that the awarding of the Military Medal was controversial. As Elspeth Henderson’s daughter Heather later said in an interview, ‘It caused a bit of a stir at the time, these women being awarded a man’s medal.’

Time and again, women proved that gender distinctions were meaningless. Take the example of Beatrice Shilling, a daredevil racing driver and engineer, who single-handedly solved the problem of Spitfire and Hurricane engines cutting out during dogfights. This was due to a flaw in their engines, which Shilling rectified using a small thimble-shaped piece of perforated metal which became rather dubiously known as ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’.

Thousands of our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers also worked in Bletchley Park, the top secret home of the geniuses who cracked the German Enigma code. Indeed, it’s estimated around 75% of the Bletchley Park staff were women. Many were high-society debutantes, whose elite status meant they were considered highly trustworthy, while some were handpicked for their talents. Among them was Mavis Lever, a convent-educated Londoner who was recruited by British intelligence while studying German literature at university, and was dispatched to work as a Bletchley Park codebreaker at around the same time the Battle of Britain was beginning.

One of her colleagues was Joan Clarke, who was talent-spotted while studying mathematics at Cambridge. She would later become engaged to the most famous codebreaker of all, Alan Turing, and was portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film The Imitation Game.

The countless other women of World War – from caterers to codebreakers – may not enjoy the same historical limelight. But their stories can still be discovered by searching on Ancestry to discover how your own family members might have made a difference during the Battle of Britain, and in the turbulent years that followed.