Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe. Over the next few days we’ll be sharing stories of pioneering women who placed important roles in the Second World War, from flying planes, to setting up key wartime organisations, to singing for troops across the world, to working on the land.
Today is all about the incredible Commander Margaret ‘Margot’ Wyndham Gore of the Air Transport Auxiliary.
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was a Second World War civilian organisation set up to ensure that the military planes needed by the R.A.F were in the right places at the right times. Through the war, damaged planes, new planes, and planes needing repair were ferried between factories, maintenance units and onto the airfields where they were needed. Around 1,250 pilots from 25 countries served in the ATA, ferrying many thousands of aircraft of 147 different types, usually at short notice, in poor weather and with little training. Due to the shortage of pilots, recruits were usually men who were too old or unfit to fly for the RAF. Among their number, notably, were also several women. The armed forces had barred all women from taking on a combative role, flying or otherwise at the time.
Originally based at Hatfield and later headquartered near Maidenhead, women counted for around 170 of the pilots of the ATA. After the war four of them were awarded the OBE. One of these women was Worthing-born Margaret ‘Margot’ Wyndham Gore, who also rose to become one of only two female commanding officers of the organisation.
Gore (1913-1993) was born on Brighton Road in Worthing but spent many of her early years in Ireland. Her plan was to train as a doctor but her father losing his job in the Great Depression put paid to her dreams, and she had to leave school and train as a secretary in order to contribute to the family. It was while she was doing this that she started to become interested in flying. She took to her new hobby so much that she got a job at London’s Smithfield Meat Market where the 5.00am starts meant she’d be able to make her afternoon lessons at Romford Flying Club on time.
Eventually Gore, who had been described as ‘a steady and reliable pilot’ passed her Flying Instructor qualification and when the Second World War broke out, she was one of the second batch of women to join the ATA, becoming ‘W10’ as the tenth female recruit.
Originally the ATA women ferried small De Havilland Tiger Moths from the Hatfield Aerodrome near where they were manufactured to Scotland. As the war progressed, however, they were required to spread their wings – literally – and fly anything that they were asked. This included fighter planes, such as the Spitfire, Hurricane, Wellington, Tempests and massive four engined bombers such as the Lancaster. With so many aircraft on the roster, and the quick-moving nature of the job, proper training was a luxury.
In a fascinating interview that Gore gave to the Imperial War Museum in 1986, now preserved as oral history accessible on their website, she explains the process of being introduced to the Hurricane bomber as ‘[the instructor] showed us a few of the knobs and then we just had to get in and fly it.’ Because they were required to stay within sight of the ground, ATA pilots weren’t trained in the art of flying with instruments, and had to use paper maps, compasses and watches to navigate. Gore remembers flying with a manual on her knee. Pilot Marion Wilberforce, the deputy commander of the ferry pool at Hamble near Southampton would simply land her plane in a field and ask any nearby farmer or passer-by for directions if she was lost.
Of the many dangers the women faced on a daily basis, Gore remembers the vagaries of the weather as being particularly hazardous. Decades before the precision of meteorological forecasting we now take for granted, no one really knew for sure when a storm would erupt or fog suddenly set in, and the pilots would have to rely on a combination of memory, perilously low flying and instinct to be able to land safely. Gore also remembers the nerve racking occasion she was bringing a Spitfire down to land near the factory in Southampton when the air raid started to sound and she narrowly missed a barrage balloon because, in the panic, the airport had forgotten that she was due to arrive. Sadly a number of women died serving the ATA, including legendary British airwoman, Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly from London to Australia.
At the start of the war many people’s confidence in the idea of female pilots was shaky, with the editor of an aviation magazine describing the menace of ‘the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of hospital properly.’ It didn’t take them long to prove their worth with the press dubbing them the ‘Attagirls’. Gore herself commented in her interview, that when she arrived in a large plane jaws would sometimes drop ‘there was surprise… particularly later on when we came in four-engines. They did look very startled when a rather small person got out of a very big aircraft.’
Promoted to Commanding Officer at the Hamble Airfield, Gore managed to see through the war unscathed. When it ended, she signed up for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force Volunteer Reserve (Flying) List, designed to train pilots for non-operational duties in emergencies. Later she became Managing Director of a London flying club before training as an osteopath.
Although the ATA remains one of the less well known stories of the Second World War, the organisation was a resounding success, which made a major contribution to the smooth running and effectiveness of the RAF. Its decision to grant female pilots the same wage as their male counterparts in 1943 was an early and rare example of wage parity.
Many of the courageous women who joined had already made – or went on to make – aviation history. Chilean Margot Duhalde, who joined the ATA aged 19 without being able to speak a word of English, went on to become Chile’s first female military pilot and its first female air traffic controller. Toronto-born Elise Joy Davison, who was one of the first of the organisation to lose her life while flying, had been Canada’s first female owner of an aircraft company. Fellow Canadian, Marion Orr, was the first woman to run a flying school in the country. Joan Hughes from Essex, flying from the age of 17, had been the youngest female pilot in Britain. Gore’s fellow Commanding Officer, Aberdonian Marion Wilberforce, who declined an MBE at the end of the war, was still flying into her eighties. Diana Barnato Walter went on to become the first British woman to break the sound barrier. Mary Ellis, who died only in 2018 aged 101 continued to ferry aircraft for the RAF and was one of the first women to fly the Gloster Meteor, Britain’s first jet fighter. In 1950 she became the manager of Sandown Airport on the Isle of Wight and Europe’s first female air commandant, a position she filled for twenty years.
Listen to Margaret ‘Margot’ Wyndham Gore’s interview for the Imperial War Museum here.
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett