Untold story of Battle of Britain heroes the Air Transport Auxiliary to be told in Maidenhead

By Culture24 Staff | 05 October 2010
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A black and white photo of pilots on a plane
A group of female pilots from the Air Transport Auxiliary posing with a Spitfire at Hamble Airfield, Southampton
Before they had even fired a shot in anger, the aircraft involved in the Battle of Britain had already been on a few daring journeys.

An estimated 309,000 planes were ferried between factories to Royal Air Force and Royal Navy airfields during the Second World War, transported by members of the often-overlooked Air Transport Auxiliary.

Consisting of little more than 1,000 civilian pilots - many of whom were women who had battled against prejudice to sign up - this small force were as skilled as they were dextrous, flying everything from Tiger Moth trainers to Spitfires, Hurricanes and heavy bombers from a fleet of 147 designs.

Their name was originally thought to have stood for Ancient and Tattered Airmen, in reference to the age of many of the pilots. Several had lost eyes or arms in battle, and their members came from as far away as Canada, Australia, the US and Poland.

Pilot Diana Barnato Walker climbing into a Spitfire
Their headquarters were based at White Waltham Airfield in Kent, and now a new museum is aiming to provide a lasting tribute to the ATA at the nearby Maidenhead Heritage Centre, aided by a £50,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which will be put towards the creation of a permanent exhibition, Grandma Flew Spitfires, and a study centre.

"The grant is a real vote of confidence in the project," says Centre chairman Richard Poad, who wants to pass on the "fascinating heritage" of the Auxiliary.

"Theirs was a truly amazing contribution, and perhaps the least known of the home front war achievements. Many ATA pilots had only flown light aircraft before the war."

Eight female pilots signed up on New Year's Day 1940, and more than 150 were ultimately enlisted. Britain's youngest pilot, Joan Hughes, and Lettice Curtis, who was the first woman to fly a four-engine bomber, were among the ranks. Legendary long distance extraordinaire Amy Johnson was one of their colleagues until she died during a typically brave ferry flight in treacherous conditions in 1941.

The women were also pioneers of equal rights, fighting for pay rises and overcoming male prejudice to take on their roles.

If planners succeed in their bid to open the £150,000 museum early next year, it will reveal maps, photographs and operating manuals used by them, as well as leather flying jackets, sheepskin gloves and helmets, fully archived and conserved by a willing array of volunteers.

The Heritage Centre has launched a public appeal to raise more funds, spearheaded by Prince Michael of Kent and Home Secretary Theresa May, who is the MP for Maidenhead. Visit the project online to find out more and donate.
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