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Spitfire Women Of World War II

May 13, 2010

Spitfire Women of World War II

By Giles Whittell

HarperCollins 2007 292 pages.

I had loved the idea of this book, and really wanted to read it, since I read Sassymonkey’s review on her blog. WWII history fascinates me, more the social history and womens’ history than the battle history. So this was a perfect fit. And flying women even more so. My great-aunt was with the first class of WASPs- women Air Force service pilots. Jackie Cochran was a familiar name, before I read Whittell’s account of her as a brash, driven, rags to riches socialite who created a name for herself (literally- after a tough childhood, she reinvented herself with a surname she appears to have chosen from the phone book.) Reading about the British women who were pilots, in a program pioneered by Jackie Cochran and Pauline Gower, I wish for a similar account of my great aunt and her colleagues.

This book gets it right. The right balance of historical background, individual pilots, the culture of the ATA as a whole, ATA’s context in the war, how some of the planes work, what it was like for women to be pilots in general, and the war in particular. The way it’s constructed here, flying was a rich society woman’s game, for the most part. Women who joined the ATA either grew up with money, or married into a higher social echelon.

Which– when you consider that they were wearing flight jumpsuits, squishing into tiny cockpits and risking death… surprised me at first. But Whittell gave good context, in the stories of other wartime pilots from all walks of life, joining up to “do their bit.” Mansions converted to army bases. Women and men, dealing with the threats of death and war by working hard to complete their missions, and playing hard- at Army dances, or nights out in London, drinking and dancing, and dating. (Many narratives of wartime romance throughout.) There were a few pilots who came from places other than England. Margot Duhalde came from Chile, speaking no English when she arrived. Maureen and Joan Dunlop came from Argentina. Jackie Sourour came from Cape Town.

I was surprised to read just how many ways there were for women, who weren’t seeing official combat, to die. Plane malfunctions. Plane sabotage ( everything from engine malfunctions shoddily fixed by surly mechanics to sugar in the gas tank, from RAF or male ATA cohorts.) The women weren’t allowed to have wireless, and weren’t taught to use instruments to fly, which meant that they were only supposed to fly in clear, cloudless weather. Over and over, women having near escapes, or no escapes, from a sudden blanket of cloud or fog. One woman had a male pilot friend draw instrument diagrams and instructions on a club tablecloth when they were out to dinner. Those instructions saved her life. Or women’s planes were shot down, even by friendly fire, when they were ferrying them from place to place. A lot of death, and very little time to mourn properly before another mission to fly.

Whittell handles it well, though, with the right pacing, the right attention to each woman’s story in his ensemble, told through reminiscence and narrative. A little analysis, too, but it’s gentle, and mostly leaves the reader alone to witness these women’s experiences, to know what it might have been like for them to wedge into the snug cockpit of a Spitfire, to feel the plane respond as they lifted into the air. Patriotism and freedom in the civic sense, but also the freedom to be a woman taking risks and thriving in an exciting place well outside normal peacetime social constraints.

The only real flaw in this book is that it’s hard to find in the US. I hadn’t seen it in the library system, and ultimately I think special ordering may be the way to go.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2010 11:53 am

    Sorry, it’s one of my “elusive Canadian books” as Denise used to call them. Actually, it’s British but Canadian stores tend to carry British books as our histories are so intermeshed.

    Since you had to special order it I’m really happy that you enjoyed it.

    (By the way, have you tried the Book Depository? It’s a good way to get those British books…or just books that you prefer with the British covers…)

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