River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Air Transport Auxiliary

May 2010

Ron gives us an over-view of an important wartime organisation know as The Air Transport Auxilliary

The ATA was a small heroic group that many of those born after the second world war will never have heard of. It was formed in 1939 following a suggestion by Gerard d'Erlanger, a director of BOAC. The original intention was that a group of volunteer civilian pilots should be employed to deliver mail and medical supplies but their role soon expanded to include ferrying of light aircraft from the factories to the service units, thereby leaving RAF pilots for active duty, and soon there was no limit on the type or size of aircraft. The group grew quickly in the early days of the war recruiting pilots deemed unsuitable for active service due to age or some medical or physical condition, to the extent that they had pilots with one arm, one leg or one eye. The only recruitment criterion was 'can they do the job'. In the early days they were not well trained or well equipped, it was said that planes were sent to airfields in France in 1940 when the only aids to navigation, apart from their compass, was a tourist map and some picture postcards. Many of the volunteers were women and they played a significant role in the unit throughout the war.

Initially the group was something of an ad hoc arrangement but matters were quickly formalised. The unit was based at White Waltham in Berkshire but there were satellite groups around the country. They had their own training school where pilots were trained and passed to fly aircraft of a particular class. Once a pilot was qualified for a particular class he/she would be expected to fly any aircraft in that class even if they had never seen that type before. Pilots could qualify for more than one class. Their training was specifically for their ferrying work, they were forbidden from aerobatics or blind flying even though some were capable as a result of previous experience. Each aircraft was seen as vital to the war effort and the pilots had strict instructions for no risk taking. They wore similar uniforms to the RAF and had similar ranks but with different names, for example their Senior Commander was equivalent to a Group Captain - their 'wings' were similar to the RAF but embroidered with gold thread and with 'ATA' in the centre in place of 'RAF'. The large majority of ATA members were UK nationals but there was a significant number from overseas with a notable US contingent and, of course, our friends from the Commonwealth, Canadians, Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans, as well as Dutch and Poles - there was even one from Chile.

As the war progressed the size of their task increased, by the end of the war they had flown 415,000 hours and delivered 308,000 planes, most were new but some were repaired or damaged, they had also transported 3430 personnel without mishap and 883 tons of supplies. Their unofficial motto was "Any plane, anywhere". There were 166 women and they comprised one eighth of the group and some women were flying everything from Spitfires to Lancasters, the only planes that were not flown by ATA women pilots were the big Sunderland flying boats. Unusually for the time, the women were paid exactly the same as the men, this compared very favourably with women pilots in a similar role in the USA who were paid 65% of the men's pay. It needs to be remembered that there was a very large number of types of aircraft being manufactured in Britain as well as some obtained from the US. The ATA delivered 130 different types, to list them all would take up too much space but one might mention, Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings and Fortresses, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs, Blenheims and Mosquitos, Swordfishes and Bulmars, Ansons and Oxfords and many others. Some were notoriously a little difficult to fly.

Flying was more hazardous than it is today, there was more scope for pilot error, weather could clamp down unexpectedly, new planes were only briefly tested by the manufacturer and may have had hidden faults. For one reason or another 150 men and 15 women of the ATA were killed, including the famous aviator Amy Johnson. Some were decorated with civilian awards CBE, OBE etc and one received a George Medal. Although control of the group moved around before settling with the Ministry of Production in 1941, Commander Gerard d'Erlanger remained responsible for the administration throughout.

I never stop being amazed at the achievements of the British nation during that war, the enormous tasks that were undertaken - evacuating and billeting hundreds of thousands of children in just a few days, building dozens of airfields, training and equipping armed forces of millions, organizing food rationing. The manufacturing task was unbelievably mind boggling and was undertaken on a huge scale - from rifles to battleships, radio sets to bombers, uniforms to barrage balloons. The demands for energy, mainly produced from coal, were immense. All this was successfully organised and undertaken whilst their efforts were being disrupted by bombing raids and having to deal with large numbers of homeless generated by the raids.

That number of aircraft delivered by the ATA, over 308,000, nearly all of them built in Britain, is just another indication of the extent of the national effort. When I look at the way we don't do things these days I am appalled. It takes forever to get planning agreements to do anything, with appeal after appeal and lawyers getting rich. Minority groups are able to delay, even prevent, many developments that maybe in the national interest. We spend a fortune on talking about doing something rather than spending the money actually doing it.

Ron Watts

Copyright remains with independent content providers where specified, including but not limited to Village Pump contributors. All rights reserved.