The forgotten story of the women who made the Spitfire soar

As the Battle of Britain anniversary approaches, a new BBC series celebrates the lost stories of the Spitfire's female pilots and engineers

A woman of the ATA climbing into the cockpit of a Spitfire in 1944
A woman of the ATA climbing into the cockpit of a Spitfire in 1944 Credit: Picture Post 

"Unnatural and decadent women." That was the judgement of Hitler’s propagandist, Lord Haw-Haw, on a generation of female aviators and factory workers who kept the Spitfire fighting-fit. 

From an elite group of glamorous fliers to Fighter Command plotters and quick-minded engineers - the story of the Second World War's most famous plane is peppered with women - many of their stories untold in the decades since the conflict.

Now, a new BBC World Service podcast series, narrated by Downton Abbey actress, Tuppence Middleton, tells the story of the war’s greatest fighter and the fascinating women behind its success.

One of those was Beatrice Shilling. As a child, she spent her pocket money on spanners and screwdrivers, and by the of 16 she had bought and dismantled a second-hand motorcycle. By the time war broke out in 1939, she was a senior engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, racing motorcycles at Brooklands racetrack in her spare time. 

The Spitfire was the best fighter plane of the war but in a dogfight it had a fatal flaw. In a steep dive, the connection between the fuel tank and the engine could be severed, stalling the engine. 

Beatrice Shilling sits astride her Norton motorcycle at the Brooklands race track in 1935 Credit: Hulton Archive 

Beatrice and her team came up with a solution: an apparently simple washer that regulated the flow of fuel through the carburettor. Beatrice toured RAF stations on her Norton motorcycle, fitting the new device herself. Grateful Spitfire pilots were quick to christen the new device, ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’.  

Among those pilots was an elite group of female fliers. The 168 women of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) had a distinct perfume of 1930s glamour about them as they ferried Spitfires from factories to Royal Air Force bases. The ATA was established at the outbreak of war to free up young, male pilots for combat duties. 

Initial recruitment came from men deemed too old or unfit for active service, but Pauline Gower - a keen aviator and daughter of a Conservative MP - was convinced that femalefliers could aid the war effort.

Opposition was intense. The editor of Aeroplane magazine, C.G. Gray wrote, “The menace is the woman who thinks they ought to be flying a high speed bomber, when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of the hospital properly.” But set against Pauline’s relentless enthusiasm, resistance was futile. In late 1939, officials relented and she was given command of an ATA women’s section, swiftly recruiting her first batch of pilots.

The first delivery by the female pilots of the British ATA on January 10 1940 Credit: The first delivery by the female pilots of the British ATA on January 10 1940

There was Lady Rosemary du Cros, an international skier, dancer and socialite. Next to sign up was Marion Wilberforce, daughter of a Scottish Laird, reputed to carry prize bullocks in the back of her own plane. Great Britain Ice Hockey player Maria Friedlander and flying circus star Winnie Crossley took to the air, along with Joan Hughes, who had flown her first plane at the age of 15.

The press were initially sceptical but the glamour of the story was irresistible. Joan Hughes wrote, “We were regarded as a sort of joke.  You know, there were only eight of us, and they used to call us ‘Atta-Girls’ – A-T-A you know – ‘here come the girls’ and everyone used to roar with laughter. It was fun actually.  Much nicer than people looking down their noses.”

Theirs was a tough job. Issued with nothing but a small pamphlet of instructions, they would have to navigate, without radio assistance, hundreds of miles across country in all kinds of weather. Low cloud, fog and barrage balloons over cities were a constant threat. Seventeen women died in ATA service.

Despite the dangers, the opportunity to fly the latest high-tech aircraft attracted recruits from all around the Allied world. Jackie Sorour, a South African pilot described the intense excitement of flying a Spitfire: “A little awed but stimulated by the urgent throb of the Merlin engine, that seemed to tremble with eagerness to be free in its own element. As the ground fell away at fantastic speed, I felt exhilarated by the eager, sensitive response. Singing with joy and relief, I dived and climbed and spiralled, round the broken clouds.”

But there was nothing glamorous about the factory in Southampton that built the Supermarine Spitfire. In 1940 it was a prime Luftwaffe target. Joan Tagg, an 18 year old typist, kept a diary throughout that desperate summer. Stories of Guildhall dances with her best friend, Peggy Moon, are constantly interrupted by the roar of German bombers.

A ferry pilot of the ATA in the cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire fighter, September 1944 Credit: Picture Post 

Raid after raid missed the factory, but each siren sent workers running for shelter and disrupted production of vital Spitfires. Eventually, the management made a frightening announcement. “We have now heard that because so much time is being lost at work we are only to get the warning to leave when the ‘immediate danger’ hooter blasts out.”

That left little time to reach the air-raid shelters, a five minute sprint away. When the bombers found their target, the result was inevitable. Workers were caught in the open as bombs exploded around them. Joan hid beneath machinery, while Peggy made it to a shelter. A stray bomb crushed the shoddy shelter and Peggy Moon and many other workers were killed.  

Spitfire production was halted but a plan was hatched. Rather than rebuild a single factory, production would be dispersed. All around the south of England buildings were requisitioned. Car showrooms, bus depots, a glove factory and even a laundry were pressed into service as makeshift Spitfire factories. New factories needed new workers and women in rural towns such as Trowbridge and Chandler’s Ford got their first taste of industrial production.

While Wiltshire’s milkmaids and farmhands were being transformed into riveters and panel-beaters, Peggy Balfour was joining an elite force – the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. 

“During my interview at Farnborough I was asked what I should like to do in the WAAF. Just anything to do with aircraft, I told the senior WAAF officer," she recalled. "She told me told me she thought I should go into Fighter Command as a plotter and work in a Sector Operations Room. I had no idea what that meant. Plotting — anything to do with spying? Surely not. But Fighter Command sounded fine. I signed up for that at once.”

Seventeen women of the ATA were killed during WW2 Credit: Hulton Archive 

Throughout the Battle of Britain, Peggy played a crucial role, operating as a bridge between the radar stations spotting German bombers and the Fighter Command controllers sending Spitfires and Hurricanes to meet the threat. She was well aware of the desperate acts of bravery going on in the skies above – her boyfriend was a Spitfire pilot. She had met Squadron leader Jack Lawson at a dance and their romance was sealed when he flew her home in his Spitfire, sitting on his lap. Their moments of pleasure were brief and intense as German raids intensified.

“June and July were very busy months in Ops. I received letters from Jack, written in haste, telling me how the squadrons moved around – how once his aircraft had been shot up. And how, at one airfield they visited, they were able to make use of the swimming pool there – lovely during the hot weather – but only once. The next day – nothing, it had been blasted to rubble, and they were off again," she wrote in her diary.

Jack and Peggy survived the Battle of Britain but Jack’s Spitfire was shot down a year later in a raid over Rotterdam harbour as the RAF took the battle to occupied Europe. Peggy lived until 2000. She never married and left this vivid memory of Jack in her wartime diary, “Standing here I suddenly knew that no one else would ever take Jack’s place.  For me, that was it forever. I didn’t tell him, not wanting him to think about anything else but flying.”

Alasdair Cross is the producer of ''Spitfire: The People’s Plane', which is available on BBC Sounds and airs on the BBC World Service on Sundays at 11:30pm