The pivotal events of summer 1940 saw the first major all-aircraft campaign of World War Two, as the German Luftwaffe launched a deadly air campaign against Britain.
While women were not allowed into direct combat in the air, they represented 168 pilots involved in the Battle of Britain. These women were part of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), who ferried a selection of 147 types of aircraft across the country between repair workshops and air bases ready for war.
Meanwhile, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) remained steadfast on the ground. Their roles included radar operators, aircraft mechanics and ‘plotters’, who kept track of what was going on in the skies on large maps and alerted the RAF to imminent Luftwaffe strikes.
Not only was the hard graft and heroism of women essential to the successful defence of Britain in 1940, but individuals such as these 5 laid strong foundations for the future of women within military aviation.
1. Katherine Trefusis Forbes
The first commander of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Katherine Trefusis Forbes helped to organise women within the air force, paving the way for women’s involvement in the armed services during the Battle of Britain and beyond.
As Chief Instructor at the Auxiliary Territorial Service School in 1938 and Commander of an RAF Company in 1939, she already had the skills and experience necessary to lead the new air force.
Katherine oversaw the fast expansion of the WAAF; an incredible 8,000 volunteers joined during the first 5 weeks of the war. Issues of supply and accommodation were solved, and policies on discipline, training and pay were set out. For Katherine, the welfare of the women in her charge was top priority.
2. Pauline Gower
Already an experienced pilot and engineer by the outbreak of war, Pauline Gower used her high-level connections – as the daughter of an MP – at the beginning of World War Two to establish a women’s branch of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ATA’s role of transporting planes across Britain, from repair shops into battle, was crucial during the Battle of Britain.
Pauline was soon put in charge of selecting and testing whether women pilots were up to the task. She also argued successfully that women should be given equal pay to their male counterparts, as women had until then only been paid 80% of male wages. In recognition of her contribution to air service, Pauline was awarded an MBE in 1942.
3. Daphne Pearson
Daphne joined the WAAP as a medical orderly when war broke out in 1939. In the early hours of 31 May 1940, an RAF bomber was shot down into a field near Detling in Kent, detonating a bomb on impact. The explosion instantly killed the navigator but the injured pilot was trapped in the burning fuselage.
Daphne freed the pilot from where he was trapped in the flames, dragging him 27 metres from the burning plane. When another bomb exploded Daphne protected the injured pilot with her body. After the medical crew arrived to help the pilot, she went back in search of the radio operator, who had died.
For her heroism Daphne was awarded an Empire Gallantry Medal (later the George Cross) by King George V.
4. Beatrice Shilling
During the Battle of Britain, pilots had trouble with their Rolls Royce Merlin plane engines, particularly in the famous Spitfire and Hurricane models. Their planes would stall when performing a nose-dive, as negative g-force forced fuel to flood the engine.
German fighter-pilots on the other hand did not have this problem. Their engines were fuel-injected, which allowed them to evade RAF fighters when diving swiftly downwards during dog fights.
The solution? A small brass thimble-shaped object that not only prevented the flooding of the engine with fuel, but could easily be fitted to a plane engine without taking it out of service.
The RAE restrictor was the ingenious invention of engineer Beatrice Shilling, who from March 1941 led a small team in fitting Merlin engines with the device. In honour of Beatrice’s solution, the restrictor was affectionately nicknamed ‘Mrs Shilling’s orifice’.
5. Elspeth Henderson
On the 31st August 1940, RAF Biggin Hill base in Kent suffered heavy bombing raids from the German Luftwaffe. Corporal Elspeth Henderson was manning the switchboard in the Operations Room, keeping contact with 11 Group headquarters at Uxbridge.
Everyone was quickly ordered to take shelter, but Elspeth maintained the line with Uxbridge – the only remaining line intact – allowing aircraft to continue being directed. Refusing to leave her post, Elspeth was knocked over by one of the blasts.
She had also led the effort to uncover those buried during the first blasts from the Germans on Biggin Hill.
In March 1941 she went with the 2 other courageous WAAFs, Sergeant Joan Mortimer and Sergeant Helen Turner, to Buckingham Palace to receive her medal. While there was public criticism for the award of what was perceived as a man’s medal to women, there was overwhelming pride at Biggin Hill, as these were the first women in Britain to ever receive the honour.