Chloë Emmott reviews a TV documentary which casts light on the women who flew fighter planes in World War II
This charming and thought-provoking BBC4 documentary told the story of the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), who delivered aircraft from the factories to RAF bases during the Second World War. One central character of this story was the formidable Pauline Gower, daughter of an MP and expert flyer, who was instrumental in gaining women the right to fly in the ATA and later ensured they could fly fighter planes. The entrenched sexism of the RAF was a formidable opponent; the first eight women of the ATA needed more flying hours than their male equivalents to qualify. However the prospect of ‘pretty young things’ flying in the ATA became a dream come true for the press, and the women had popular support, if only for being somewhat of a novelty. However with the escalation of the war and the increasing need for more pilots, more women were taken on board. More than 100 women served, from all over the world, and a women-only division of the ATA was formed.
Due to stereotypes and the perceived gender roles that still permeate our culture, the sight of a well-to-do older woman one would more readily associate with home-made cakes and jam recalling her experiences flying a fighter plane has an air of incongruity, however the passion these women had for their job and flying shone through and was one of the most potent aspects of the documentary.
Many of the surviving women were left to tell their own stories and these stories formed the bulk of the documentary with minimal intrusions from cheesy reconstruction footage and talking head experts. The women’s stories and anecdotes, including perplexed Roberta Leveaux from the US, recalling her horror at the British habit of kippers for breakfast, brought home the real human angle behind this story and the profound fondness with which the women recalled their time in the ATA.
The sight of these women now, many frail with old age and decked out in floral blouses and sensible cardigans, emphasised how these were not super human women but ordinary women (albeit women in a social position allowing them to fly). This is, I feel, an important point; a point that reinforces the fact that women as a whole and not just rare exceptions are, and always have been, as capable as men.
These women were not only doing a ‘man’s job’ but doing it with such passion, grace (full makeup and manicures were cockpit essentials) and they enjoyed it. Really enjoyed it, recalling with fondness the daring manoeuvres they would perform in mid air and how flying a spitfire was ‘poetry’. Many of the stories involved the women out-doing their male counterparts, particularly Lettis Curtis, who successfully flew a spitfire to its destination in weather deemed too dangerous by her male colleagues, who were apparently quite put out by the incident.
At one point a plane was searched for a ‘pilot’ as the men at the base she had flown to did not believe Mary Wilkins-Ellis could have flown a large Wellington Bomber herself! Though it was only briefly touched upon, the sadness these women felt at being pushed back into ‘women’s roles’ after the war was something I found particularly moving; many women described their years in the ATA as the best of their lives.
However, for all the freedom they enjoyed, there was no escape from the realities of war, one of the most moving moments came when Freydis Sharland recalled how her brother encouraged her ambitions to join the ATA after an initial rejection and warned her of the inevitable loss war brings, a warning made even more poignant by his own death in service. This excellent documentary is a refreshing antidote to the Hitler-centric fare found in many WWII documentaries and highlights an often overlooked fact that it is not only the brave men we need to thank; these women and many others like them deserve as much respect as their male counterparts and that we owe them respect as well as an apology for how they have been continually overlooked and forced out of their, often beloved, wartime occupations to make room for returning men.
This documentary steered clear of anything overtly political, but highlighted these issues in a subtle way, allowing us to think for ourselves about how those women felt being allowed a short taste of freedom and equality only for it to be taken away after victory in a war fought for freedom, emphasised by the fact that sadly these amazing women often don’t get the public respect and thanks they so deserve.
I am reminded of Simone De Beauvior’s words on how men are seen as the default, and women are seen as the ‘other’, with our histories being overlooked and categorised as ‘trivial’, ‘domestic’ or, when they fall outside the realm of what is seen as ‘women’s roles’, often just plain overlooked or hyped up as a rare exception. Yes these women were exceptional, yet their exceptionality is enhanced by their ordinariness. It doesn’t take much for a super hero to do heroic deeds, but for ordinary women to do such a thing and to do it so well, now that’s extraordinary. I only wish the stories of these women were as well known and celebrated as they deserve to be.