In the days building up to D-Day, everyone knew 'what a dreadful day it would be ahead' but knew that it had to happen to end the war, according to one of the female ‘Spitfire Girl’ pilots of World War Two - as she described her memories of flying over the miles of military convoys lining country lanes in the run-up to June 6th, 1944.
Veteran female pilot Joy Lofthouse, in one of the last documentaries in which she was recorded before her death, also spoke of how the wartime generation endured the pain and hardship that came with losing loved ones during the war, saying:
“One had to be stoical.”
“The wartime generation, we’re used to getting on with it – it’s what we do.”
Joy, who died aged 94 in 2017, was one of a small group of female pilots, known as the ‘Spitfire Girls’, who served with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and who flew a range of aircraft, from Spitfires to Barracuda bombers to Mustang fighters.
They delivered the planes from factories where the aircraft were built to Royal Air Force squadrons at various locations.
The role was a vital cog in the wheel of military planning - ensuring RAF pilots were free and ready for combat, ensuring they were not tied up manoeuvring aircraft around the country and making sure planes were where they needed to be, ready for action.
She and her fellow ATA pilots, who were also often referred to as the ‘Atagirls’, could sometimes face hazardous journeys as they flew with only basic tools for navigation and without radio communication - not only having to keep a look out for enemy aircraft, but other life-threatening encounters such as anti-aircraft barrage balloons as they flew, often at low heights, to get planes into position at airfields at various bases.
Hydrogen-filled Barrage balloons, which were blimp-like kite balloons raised up thousands of feet into the air and anchored to ground by cable, dotted the skyline of Britain during the Second World War around areas deemed at risk of enemy attack such as industrial areas, ports and harbours.
They are reported to have done little to prevent raids by high-level bombers but are said to have had some impact on the flight patterns of German Stuka dive bombers.
The balloons also posed a risk to friendly forces as well as the enemy – especially pilots flying with little navigation equipment.
The ATA pilots’ worst enemy, however, as they flew without comms or any of the technological advancements of modern flying, was the weather.
Listen to 'Tea With A National Treasure – The Joy Lofthouse Story' in the link above
In one of her final interviews before she passed away, Joy spoke to BFBS Radio presenter Amy Casey, describing how she had been working in a bank before applying to join the ATA, five years into the war in 1943, and telling her story of how she became a vital part of the war effort.
In the BFBS Radio documentary, Tea With A National Treasure – The Joy Lofthouse Story, revisited here today as we mark D-Day 75, she describes one of her strongest memories of flying over the landscape of the south of England as military vehicles began massing in country lanes, and fleets of boats and barges began lining up in the Solent ahead of Operation Overlord – the codename for the Allied operation of the Battle of Normandy that was to successfully liberate German-occupied Western Europe in the Second World War.
In words that might seem chilling to family life today, she describes in a stoical, matter-of-fact manner, how she and the people around her steeled themselves for what they knew was fast approaching – that loved ones would be going into a battle from which many would not return.
She said: “The build up to D-Day, they tried to keep us as quiet as possible, although I’m sure the Germans could see it from the high altitude.
“I still think we were clever - until the last minute they still thought we’d go across the Pas-de-Calais, not to Normandy, but for months before D-Day, no one was allowed to travel to the south coast, unless you lived there, because from the air, of course, we could see what they wanted to stop people seeing.
“It was all the mechanised vehicles parked up the lanes, all through the New Forest and you could have walked across to the Isle of Wight on the barges, there was so many of them.
“And then, when you flew again on June 6th - it was all gone.
“And we knew what had happened of course.
“I didn’t have a brother but some of the girls had brothers and even a husband, one or two had husbands, that they knew were there.
“We couldn’t see Normandy from where we were.
“We knew what a dreadful day it would be and yet we knew in our hearts that it had to be.”
She talked about how the campaign by Air Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris to try to stop the war by saturation bombing across Nazi Germany – a mission seen as controversial by some today due to the number of civilian areas targeted – had failed.
The view among many was that another tactic was needed.
It meant that many in Britain were aware, or at least sensed, that a major new operation was about to launch.
She said: “So we knew we had to get back into Europe if the war was ever going to end.
“Although D-Day was very sad, it was really the beginning of the end … we hoped.
“So for the first time, well one is young and one doesn’t think about it very much, but we thought ‘perhaps I’m doing a little bit towards the war effort.”
In terms that echo the ‘Keep Calm, Carry On’ motivational posters produced by the British Government in 1939 as the country prepared for war, Joy describes the attitude of the British society at the time.
She said: “When one is asked what makes the wartime generation so different, I think we had to be stoical.
“We had to have backbone.
“I think I’ve got it right that in the ten years in Afghanistan, we lost 400 people.
“Well, during the six years of war, my late husband ... although he wasn’t my husband during the war ...
"... one squadron alone, 7 Squadron, lost a thousand men.
She added: “One couldn’t – I had no brothers but I lost a brother-in-law, my sister’s husband, and a cousin - but one couldn’t talk to anyone who hadn’t lost someone in the war.
“So one had to be stoical.
“I mean, one had never heard of depression – that’s a new thing I think.
“Too much to do to be depressed during the war.
“I often give the example you see, beginning of this century, 2000 my mother died, admittedly she was nearly 98 but it’s still losing your mother – 2002, my husband died, and in 2004, I lost a son with cancer.
“You have to just have to either give up or get on.
“And the wartime generation, we’re used to going on – it’s what we do.”
In Tea With A National Treasure – The Joy Lofthouse Story, Joy also tells the story of her role as a female pilot in the ATA, in a group of women who became the Sweethearts of World War Two and who became a renowned group of trailblazers at a time when flying had been traditionally a male preserve.
In the interview, one of her last interviews recorded months before she passed away, Joy said: “I left school at about 17 and a half when war was declared in ’39.
“And I went to work in Lloyds Bank. I have no brothers, so I had no one in the air force, but all my first boyfriends – and as I have to say to today’s youngsters, it just meant what I said a ‘boy friend’ like you had girl friends – not the connotation boyfriends has now.
“But they were all pilots under training because we’re surrounded by air fields in Cirencester.
“They were 19-20-year-olds, a lot of them from the Commonwealth, abroad for the first time.
“I was so inspired by what they had to talk about. The beauty of flying.
“I used to read the aeroplane magazine to see if I knew what they were talking about.
“And, in 1943, in the magazine, I saw a news item that said, ‘The ATA had run out of qualified pilots', and were training ‘ab initio’ meaning ‘from scratch’ and I thought it felt better than working in a bank, so I applied.
“They had a great many applications, and so there were a great many requirements on the application form.
“You had to be 5’ 6” which a lot of the original girls, I mean our most famous pilot Joan Hughes was only about five-foot-nothing, and you had to have good academic education, like maths, a very strict medical, with colour-blindness testing, and then when I went for my interview, they were very pleased that I was athletic, because if you have ball sense you’ve got good coordination.
“So I was accepted. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a snag, because then my bank manager said he wouldn’t let me go.
“He said I was in a reserved occupation, I’d replaced a man who had gone to war.
“He could not have stopped me going into the regular forces, but of course ATA was not regular forces.
“We never swore allegiance to the king or took the King’s Commission or anything – we were civilians in uniform.
“So he held me up, wouldn’t let me go, and I never know why I finally got released for about three months so I didn’t get in until December ’43, when the weather was worse of course.
Speaking about her first impressions when she first arrived in the job, she said: “Well, of course I was very excited because every phone call I had had, I was afraid it was going to be ATA saying they didn’t want me anymore, because I was so slow in being released.”
She described how the ATA had become very advanced by that stage, from modest beginnings.
There were 15 pools of pilots, around the country, from Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland, to Hamble, in Hampshire, England, to a pool in Northern Ireland.
There was also a training school at Thame in Oxforshire where the would-be pilots would learn the basics of flying and navigation from a small, grass airfield near Oxford.
Joy said: “We started off without seeing an aeroplane. We had nine days technical training. It wasn’t very technical, we just learned what went on in an internal combustion engine, and how it worked, and quite a lot about the weather, because of course the weather was our biggest enemy.”
The pilots would not take off unless the weather conditions were considered suitably safe.
Low cloud ceilings, low visibility, convective activity such as thunderstorms, high winds, ice and the conditions on the runway are all factors that affect air traffic and a pilot’s take off. Joy said:
“We didn’t take off until 800 foot ceiling, 1500 yards forward visibility.
“But of course one can take off in that weather, and still run into bad weather quite quickly.
“And as we had no radio and no instrument rating and no blind-flying training at all.
“And then we had, well, you couldn’t really call it navigation, it was more map reading if you like – set the compass the way you thought you should go and allow for the wind, and what your ETA (expected time of arrival) should be, when abouts you should arrive at your destination.
“It was as basic as that.”
Joy told how she passed her application exam and arrived at Thame, and that was the first time she encountered an aeroplane in close proximity.
New beginner pilots were taken by bus to a smaller airfield strip at Barton In The Clay, now known as Barton-le-Clay in Bedforshire, and were assigned an instructor.
They trained in Miles Magister planes - a British two-seat monoplane basic trainer aircraft built by Miles Aircraft for the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm in the 1930s and 1940s – and after just ten to 12 hours of training, the pilots were up in the air flying solo.
Joy said: “Just to fly the training aircraft, not everything – that was just the very first step.
“An even that, you still stayed there and did quite a bit with your instructor like learning to get out of a spin, forced landing … he would cut the engine and you wouldn’t touch down, he’d seen a decent field and you would just skim past it.
“And then you would do 24 cross-countries, to brush up on your map reading – some with, some without the instructor.
“Some time during that time, I can’t remember when, you went to London to Austin Reed to be measured for your uniform – and you got your wings.
“You got your wings once you’d done the 24 cross-countries.”
She described how that training then qualified them to fly a range of classes of planes, including single-seater fighter planes and faster twin-engined aircraft.
She added: “And the war, unfortunately - I say unfortunately, I shouldn’t I suppose - ended before I could get on to fast twins because I desperately wanted to fly a Mosquito, and I never did.”
The veteran pilot spoke of the pride she and her fellow flyers had as they wore their uniform as they served their country during a time of war.
She said: “Speaking about the first time she put on her uniform, she said: “That was a great thrill.
“Also one more step in the right direction, you know, because our ultimate goal – we were only three years away from the Battle of Britain – so it was that we’d fly a Spitfire but every step of the way you weren’t too sure if they were going to accept you or say they didn’t want you anymore.
“Of course you were very proud walking about in it, and it attracted a lot of attention.
“It was the same colour as the Australians’ uniform, and people thought you were Australians, and they weren’t quite sure what the wings were about.”
She said that, because the ATA was formed by Gerard d’Erlanger, who was director of British Airways and later BOAC at the outbreak of the Second World War, the uniform was geared around British Airways -–navy blue with gold wings, but instead of insignia of rank on the sleeve, the rank insignia was worn on the shoulder.
Joy said that she would only be guessing at how long it took her to start flying after leaving her role at the bank, saying: “I would have to look in my logbook to know” but goes on to explain how she was based near to where Submarine Spitfires were built.
She said: “All our pools were near a factory, and we were near Eastleigh of course, a Submarine factory down there.
“So a lot of our work, because I was only qualified for trainers and single seaters, were Spitfires.
“I did fly a lot of Spitfires.
“But anything that came on the books within your category, you could fly.
“We didn’t have messes, we were billoted out, or some of the older girls took cottages.
“If you didn’t have transport and not a lot of people did, transport would come around in the morning, and pick you up and take you into work.
“And then we all sat around waiting for the weather to fly.”
Describing how ATA pilots came from countries from around the world, she said: “I often think that the rest room as we called it at Hamble would make a good television programme, because we were such a mixed bunch.
“The Poles would be talking Polish in one corner, the girls from South America chattering Spanish in another, people with material on the floor trying to cut out a dress.
“I learnt to play Bridge there, so there was always something going on, and then when the weather cleared of course, sometimes you had no time at all, you went straight in and flew in the better weather, but if you were waiting for the weather, the hatch to the operations would open and they would hand out the chitties.
“We got little bits of paper that told you where you were going and what you were going to fly.
“And that was the exciting bit because people were saying ‘what have you got’ and ‘where are you going’ and ‘have you flown it before?’
“That was the exciting time.”
“And then you just went off and flew it.”
She explained that she did not even have her driving licence before taking to the skies.
“I was only 17 when war was declared, and anyway, not many people in those days had cars – it was all bicycle or public transport, although my father did have a car but I think the driving age then was 18.
“But if you hadn’t learnt to drive before of course, there was no petrol to teach young girls to drive, every gallon of petrol came across the Atlantic in the convoys, no North Sea gas or anything, and what little petrol there was went to the farmers and the Forces and people who had to get to work of course, compulsory work.
“Thank goodness they didn’t ask me at my interview but I’m not sure whether, well I suppose it might have helped.
“I don’t think I realised then, but I do realise now, that I found far more difficult taxiing than I did flying.
“Because when the ground engineer would beckon you to where he wanted it parked, he would say, ‘Just park it just there maam, and you weren’t quite sure how much throttle to give it, to get it exactly ‘there’ which I think was a lack of spatial awareness that I would have got from having driven a car.
“But I make people laugh saying ‘I never knocked him down’, so I suppose it wasn’t too bad."
Describing the first time she got to see a Spitfire up close, she said: “You were very excited of course. This was the culmination of everything you’d hoped to be doing when you joined.
“Very fast of course, and also, from what I remember – I remember events but you can’t remember feelings as much – but all I remember is that when you opened the throttle, it was a vast surge of course and you look at your instruments, you throttle back to cruising speed, you shut the hood, and you think ‘heaven, will I ever find the airfield again?’ – you’ve gone so far away in this fast aircraft.
“You’re never too sure if you’re going to find where you’ve left, but you do of course because we were certainly very well trained.
“Afterwards of course, one doesn’t get blasé about it but it was always exciting flying Spitfires, I flew over 50 I think.
Telling of her experiences of flying Spitfires, she told of some nail-biting moments.
She said: “It probably wasn’t even dangerous but when the Spitfire at about Mark 12 changed from the old Merlin engine to the Griffin engine, a very much stronger engine, the senior girls said just look out Joy for the strength of opening her up, go slowly, open up gently, and she’s a great swing, a torque to one side, opposite rudder.
"I did everything I was told and I was making straight for the Southampton barrage balloons.
“Only for, it seemed like minutes, but it was probably only seconds, and the moment the prop gets into the air flow, your instruments are controllable again, take over, so I was able to straighten her out but it was, just, you know, one of my nine lives gone.
“And then one other occasion, I didn’t have a great many incidents, one other occasion, also taking off a Spit somewhere in the Midlands, and you always take off with the canopy, the hood, open, in case because when you have got full throttle on an aeroplane, if anything’s going to go wrong, that’s when the engine’s going to cut off.
“So if the engine had cut and you had to land straight ahead, it would be so much easier to get you out somehow if you had the hood open.
“So one took off, throttled back to cruising speed, shut the hood, and as I went to pull the hood, it flew away in my hand.
“But there was no bump and I felt the controls were okay, so I just did a 180 degree turn and landed back again, and they probably thought ‘stupid woman’, you know, she’s done something wrong.
“But the logbook, and they all had logbooks, rather like cars do, it said ‘canopy trouble’, so they’d obviously had a lot of trouble with the hood, and they hadn’t fixed it.
“So I didn’t even have to go before the court of inquiry.
“We did have courts of inquiry just like the RAF, and they either said it was pilot error or engine malfunction, but in that case they didn’t even report it. It was just a matter of I rang up base and said I’m not going to be where you think I am, I’m where I started from. So you got the taxi to come to a different place that’s all.”
Speaking about some of the women and trainers involved in the ATA, she goes on to explain how, as the women in the unit were paid the same as their male colleagues, those involved at the time did not even think about sexual discrimination, saying:
“We were all in it together.”