Monthly Meeting Report

Our monthly meeting held in St. Peter’s Church on 11th September was well attended by members. We opened as usual with various announcements. These included upcoming trips and visits, a free first aid course as well as an appeal for a new treasurer to start in 2019. The new RU3A Autumn magazine was also available free of charge which included a variety of articles written by members as well as accounts of group activities.

Our speaker for the second half of the meeting after the coffee break was John Whitfield. His entertaining talk was entitled “Women Pilots of World War 2”. Although some knew the gist of this, John was able to enlighten and embellish the accounts of how women pilots were recruited and tasked with the movement of aircraft around the country during the war years although they were never allowed to fly in combat or with loaded guns. Interestingly the Russians also used women pilots but, in their case, they were allowed to fight alongside their male counterparts.

The UK approach was to set up a new unit called the Air Transport Auxiliary, consisting of both men (those who were not fit enough to become fighter pilots) and women who already knew how to fly. These women were mostly from wealthy upper-class families, where they had privately gained their pilot’s licence. The new ATA unit initially recruited 10 women some of whom came from Poland, Chile and South Africa. By the end of the war the numbers had grown to 160 women and 600 men.

Initially the women were only ‘allowed’ to fly small, single engine and slow aircraft, but gradually their expertise in being able to handle a wide variety was proved and they became an essential part of the ATA, eventually flying Hurricanes, Spitfires and Wellingtons. John went on to tell us amusing and somewhat extraordinary anecdotes of the trials and tribulations of some of the main characters whilst they were ferrying both new aircraft from factories to airfields as well as taking damaged aircraft to be repaired or scrapped. The biggest danger was flying in cloud as the women weren’t trained to fly by instruments alone. They followed roads and rivers in order to navigate and were told not to take off in cloud and to turn around or even parachute out if cloud came down whilst flying.

Amy Johnson, who joined the ATA in 1941, thought she knew better and decided to ferry a plane from Blackpool to Oxford but ended up in cloud over the Thames estuary. With no fuel she parachuted out only to land in the sea. It being a cold February day, she didn’t last long in spite of a ship trying to rescue her but being stranded on a sandbank.

When the Americans entered the war, several women fliers came over to join the ATA. By the end of the war the ATA women’s division had been an essential part of the war effort, ferrying aircraft of all shapes and sizes, often after only reading an instruction book! They certainly did a remarkable job for which we should all be grateful.

In his talk the speaker, John Whitfield, referred to the book “Spitfire Women of World War 2” by Giles Whittell, and recommended it to members who wanted to find out more.

Our next meeting will take place at 10.00 a.m. on Tuesday October 9th, where we will have the choir “Yesteryear Acapella” to entertain us. After that we have “Coffee and Conversation” at the Centre at 10.00 a.m. on Monday, October 15th.

If you are interested in joining the U3A, why not come along as a guest to find out more? Alternatively visit our website at https://u3asites.org.uk/ravenshead/home (or just search for Ravenshead U3A).

Terry Moore, Ravenshead U3A committee member.