Debutantes and Spitfires

by Robert Whiston. June 19th 2010

As World War II recedes ever more into the mists of history it becomes increasingly difficult for a modern generation to distinguish fact from fancy, let alone fiction. The process is not assisted by a media and documentary industry that does not shirk from polluting facts if the unvarnished truth makes for a less successful programme.

World War II has experienced something of a gender ‘make over’ in the last 20 years. Perhaps nothing more epitomises this corruption of the heroic struggle than those ‘plucky gals’ of the ATA, ferrying fighters from factory to airfield.

What could be more glamorous than women portrayed as doing their bit saving Britain from the tyranny of the Nazis ?

Left: wealthy debutante Miss Diana Barnato-Walker joined the ATA in 1941.

The ‘destiny of Britain hung on the thread’ provided by the girls of the ATA, is the legend the public is asked to swallow. The truth is very different and much more modest.

The ATA (the Air Transport Auxiliary) was set up in Sept 1939; initially there were 22 men and no women pilots. It was January 1940 before a women’s section of the ATA was set up by Pauline Gower, a pilot and aviation administrator. [1]

Throughout the war most of the pilots were men who had been deemed ‘unfit for active service’. Some of these men had only one leg, or one hand, or one arm, and others had limited vision or only one eye). [2] In contrast, all the women that were accepted into the ATA had command of all their limbs and all their senses.

Women did ferry desperately needed fighter planes and light bombers from the factories to the various airstrips (and to ports for the Fleet Air Arm), no one is disputing that fact, but this is perhaps another example of over-egging the issue (see ‘SOE’ and ‘Fighting the Blue’ below).

By 1944 there were said to be 659 pilots in the ATA of whom 108 were women. [3] Another source puts the overall wartime strength of the ATA at 1,152 men and 600 women. [4]  But what of the really crucial years from end of 1939 to the end of 1940 and into 1941 ?

A name synonymous with flying and the ATA is Amy Johnson. Her pre-war record-breaking flights around the world filled the newspapers of the 1930s. Although she joined the ATA on May 20th 1940, ironically, she did not pass the ATA flight exams first time despite having logged 2,285 flying hours.

Various websites and sources produce a bewildering array of sometimes contradictory claims. These confusing claims can worked through by following the career of the wealthy debutante, Miss Diana Barnato Walker (b Jan 1918 – d April 2008). She provides a benchmark, of sorts, to work out how and when women entered the ATA. 

Before the war Miss Walker had already made her first solo flight. In early 1941 she applied to the ATA and became accepted for training as, quote, “one of [its] first women pilots.”  The inference was that she was, in 1941, one of a very small group of women pilots.

Diana Barnato Walker was probably not a contemporary of celebrity aviator Amy Johnson, who famously died in 1941 flying in bad weather she was advised to avoid by the ATA.

All ATA pilots had to pass “intensive flight instruction” and pass tests in primary trainer aircraft.

Left: a late variant of the Tempest.

Only after theses processes did Diana Barnato Walker join her first ATA Ferry Pool (FP), No.15 FP at RAF Hamble, on 9th May 1942. We can conclude from this that following Amy Johnson’s crash when flying off-course the time gap between induction and ‘licence to fly’ was about 12 months.

By May 1942 Diana Barnato Walker was regularly flying ‘low-powered’ aircraft – possibly a trainer like an Oxford, the sort Amy Johnson was killed flying.

Only later that year (1942) did she undergo extended training to fly more powerful machines including the Spitfire and Mustang Mk1, (this was in 1942 so not the P-51D variant we are more familiar with). When the Hawker Tempest came out in 1944 she learnt to fly those. [5] The danger to Britain of a Nazi invasion was in 1940, not 1944, when the balance of power had shifted in favour of the Allies since 1942.

Diana Barnato Walker was one of those few larger-than-life characters who both men and women can admire.

Left: an English Electric Lightning

In 1963, for instance, she talked her way into being allowed to fly Britain’s then fastest jet interceptor – the English Electric Lightning (reputed to have the fastest climb rate of any contemporary aircraft). Flying at Mach 1.65 she thus became the first British woman to break the sound barrier. She also established by this flight a world air speed record for women.

By September 1941, the ATA pilots (men and women) were ferrying all types of operational aircraft. By the end of the war they had delivered 309,011 aircraft of more than 200 types including; Swordfish, Albacore, Sea Otter, Typhoon, Mustang, Walrus, Spitfires, Flying Fortress, Stirling and Lancaster.

 Left: the Avro Stirling – this was the first 4 engined bomber my father worked on when an RAF mechanic (a head for heights was essential). [6]

Every year brings another 50th, 55th, and 60th anniversary of everything from ranging from Chamberlain’s fateful declaration, Dunkirk, Arnhem, D-Day landings and the fall of Rome or Berlin.

We don’t have any more Harry Patches [7] and those men who survived the next World War are too frail, or dead, to attend the ceremonies held for them.

All these anniversaries are trigger dates for the media to create yet another inexpensive money-making programme.

The most recent television series has been ‘Land Girls’ which, while inoffensive, is but one in a long line of media gender bending offerings that were pioneered by the code breakers at Bletchley Park (repeated in many formats over the years). Having known a local man intimately connected with Bletchley Park and the assigned tasks allotted staff, it is clear the breakthrough work was done by men not women.

The made-for-TV series such as ‘SOE’ and “Fighting the Blue” both tended to exaggerate the importance of women to an embarrassing degree. Between occasional bursts of hyper activity everyone experienced many more hours of monotony setting up a very humdrum existence.

This was certainly the case for women who tended to be chosen as radio operators in SOE cells.[8]

The women of the WAAF plotted enemy aircraft movements that saved lives during the Blitz. They helped run the ARP and some were ARW (air raid wardens); others were volunteer nurses. The point to e made is that everyone did what they could and there were no special prizes for being either a man or a woman doing it.

Many men and women worked long hours in dreary factories where the monotony was made bearable by the tunes of the BBC’s ‘Music while you work’.

With regards women’s contributions to the Bletchley Park saga, women were predominant in operating in the rooms/huts that monotonously intercepted Wehrmacht and Abwehr radio traffic. But to reach this level of competency they had to be taught the skills – by men.

Transcribing Wehrmacht and Abwehr intercepts was another tedious job and again women were used in the main. However, this has to be set against the tedium of many jobs and tasks that fell to the lot of some. The lingering impression given in the Bletchley Park saga was that the codes would not have been broken had it not been for the women working there.

Programmes like the BBC’s Women’s Hour perennially major on the allegedly huge and unique contributions made by women but at best they were marginal and supplemental to the effort and numbers contributed by men.

Yes, women like my mother made a contribution but as the Tables below show it to be not overwhelming and it would not be something my mother would want to claim.

Over the past 20 years a new generation, quite detached from World War II, has tried to grasp the enormity of a ‘world at war’ and the history surrounding it.

The concern must be that if corruption of events is currently underway, what will be the perceived and accepted truth about the 1939 – 1945 war two generations from now ?

When events have already begun to be misinterpreted (or reassessed), there is a suspicion that it may not be fro ignorance but the result of attempting to fulfill a political agenda. There is also a danger of applying today’s moral values to yesterday’s decisions. No clearer case of this is the atomic bombed being dropped on Hiroshima – a good decision that now leaves us writhing with angst.


In 1939 Britain had a population of 47.7 million (47,762,000). Fig 1 shows the total amount of Manpower available to government in the years from 1938 to 1945. In 1938 there were 19 million people that could be diverted into divergent actives.

By 1945 there were over 21 million available (over 14 million male and over 6 million female). The number and sex of those working in munitions and in the general category of ‘the war effort’ are shown in Fig 2.

From 1938 male employment fell from 12 million to 10 million by 1945 and female employment rose from 4.6 million in 1938 to 6.2 million in 1945 (Fig 2).

In broad terms, female employment went up approx. 2 million and male employment fell by 2 million – but that was still less than half the number of men working in the war economy. Curiously, less people were employed by 1945 (16.4m) than in 1938 (17.3m), and the peak year of employment for women was in 1943.

Fig 3 (below) shows how many men and women were diverted into the armed services between 1938 and 1945. The ATA and other auxiliary women’s units do not begin to emerge in quantifiable numbers until 1940. At no time did women in the forces represent more than 10% of armed forces and unlike today proximity to a war zone was unheard of.

Finally, Fig 4 illustrates that the allegation that “men took jobs away from women” at the end of the war is totally untrue and is simply an urban myth.

The plain fact is that, making allowances for wartimes rises and falls, the post-war employment situation saw more women employed – not less – than ever before. An increase of well over a 50% from 4m (4,258,000)  in 1938 to 7m ( 7,269,000) by 1952.

Changes in the law after the war (1946) to the National Insurance Act 1911, extended coverage to previously exempt categories. This results in totals slightly at variance from Fig 2 above. To adjust for that Ministry of Labour and National Insurance (Table 121) have been used which smoothes out the transition. From a level of 4,471,000 in 1939 female employment reached 7,269,000 by 1952 – amost a doubling.


NB. By comparison to the 950,000 girls employed in Britain (see Table above), and admittedly a rough guide, the German ‘Bund Deutscher Mädel’ or BDM, numbered many millions. The BDM, whose membership was restricted to unmarried, single, Germanic girls, was integrated into German social and economic life. The BDM had 3 classifications by age; 10 – 14 and 14 – 18; with the third class BDM-Werk Glaube und Schönheit for 17 to 21 single girls being entirely voluntary. The BDM was part of the larger Hitler Youth movement which by 1940 had eight million members. According to one source (, a Hitler Youth publication focusing on the Jungmaedel service, over 7 million girls were already members of the League of German Girls by 1940 – the year membership became mandatory for girls (the number of boys falling away as they were conscripted at ever earlier ages).

Some 3 million BDM girls worked in the German labour force, e.g. munitions factories, nurses, replacing men conscripted. Although it was against the Nazi ethos to put women in the armed forces or for married women to forsake their children and family life, nonetheless some single BDM girls worked as translators in the East. Here they helped German settlers from the Baltic and Poland who did not speak German or know German customs. They helped set up reception camps and nurseries for the new immigrant’s children which is rather reminiscent, one feels, of ‘kibbutz’ living. After 1943, when the Allies air raids increased, some BDM girls were used to man searchlights and flak batteries. Just how many is unclear. At the end of the war it is estimated that some 3,500 German women, mostly from the BDM, had served at one time or another as work/concentration camp guards but not, it is thought, at any ‘death camps.’


[1]The ATA was a civilian organisation set up by Gerard d’Erlanger, Director of British Overseas Airways Corporation, under the auspices of the Air Ministry. As such it was free to accept overseas volunteers. By the end of the war it had  ferried over 300,000 aircraft between factories and front-line airfields





[6] It was unique among heavy bombers in that it could out-turn its night fighter pursuers, e.g. Ju 88.

[7] Private Harry Patch, died Aug 2009. He was the last surviving ‘Tommy’ from WW1.

[8] My former headmaster, Sydney Eade, was an SOE operative. He spoke perfect French and was mentioned in dispatches.


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