Lettice Curtis – a celebration of a pioneering wartime aviator Avaunt remembers one of the most outstanding British female pilots of WWII

Avaunt remembers the pioneering wartime aviator Lettice Curtis who, in her role ferrying new planes from factories to airfields, became the first woman qualified to fly a four-engined bomber.

In the summer of 1948, cinema audiences watched the shaky credits of a British Pathé newsreel announcing: “Spitfire Beats Jet”. A stirring brass soundtrack introduces the clipped tones of a narrator:

“At Lympne Airport in Kent a record entry prepares for the annual international air rally. Competitors from all over Europe make this air racing’s big day and it’s a day of records all round. There’s a record crowd including handsome Douglas Fairbanks and his attractive wife. There are records also from the competitors. Flying a borrowed Spitfire, a Devonshire girl, 33-year-old Lettice Curtis, set up a new women’s international speed record. Competing against ace jet pilots like ‘Cat’s Eyes’ John Cunningham, Miss Curtis’s old Spitfire puts up a performance truly worthy of the plane that eight years ago won the Battle of Britain.”

A week later, John Derry, one of the other competitors in the race, became the first Briton to break the sound barrier. Yet, irrespective of the quality of the opposition, that Devonshire girl herself was less effusive about her performance against some of the country’s leading test pilots, describing it simply as “unspectacular”. But then it took a lot to impress Lettice Curtis. She hated coming second. It was this fiercely competitive nature that had led to her becoming one of the most outstanding British female pilots of World War II.

An ATA colleague of Lettice Curtis
Although Curtis, like her ATA colleague pictured here, was initially banned from piloting heavy four-engined bombers, in 1942 she became the first woman qualified to fly them, delivering more than 400 by the end of the war.

An exceptional athlete at school and Oxford – where she represented the university in lacrosse, tennis and fencing (as team captain in the latter two) – Curtis graduated with a degree in mathematics before, in 1936, setting off to Canada, the United States and a tour of Latin America, returning to Europe as the only passenger aboard a German cargo ship. She was 22. It was then that, following a chance encounter with a pilot from her American adventure at a local airfield, she set her sights on becoming a commercial pilot.

As a young woman in the 1930s it was almost inconceivable that Curtis would actually be able to find a job flying aeroplanes but, by 1938, she had earned her licence. When war broke out a year later, she was earning five pounds a week doing aerial survey work from the cockpit of a de Havilland Puss Moth biplane.

In June 1940, Curtis received a letter from the Air Transport Auxiliary. Set up a few months earlier to transport men and materiel around the country, the civilian ATA soon found its primary role was ferrying brand new fighters and bombers to the frontline squadrons. An equal opportunities pioneer, the ATA welcomed pilots disqualified from military flying by age, fitness or gender. They weren’t fussy; the only requirement was that a pilot could do the job. There were teenagers, veterans from the last war, the short-sighted, long-sighted and one-eyed, the limbless and pilots from 26 different countries. And, of course, there were women.

Initially, the ATA’s female recruits were restricted to flying training and transport planes but as demand on the organisation grew, so too did pressure both to pay women the same as their male counterparts and put them in the cockpits of all 147 different planes flown by the ATA, from Spitfires and Hurricanes to Swordfish biplanes and Mosquito fighter-bombers. There was still doubt, though, as to whether women would have the physical strength to fly the RAF’s big four-engined heavy bombers – the Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster.

When her boss recommended that she be put forward for four-engined training, Curtis relished the opportunity to be first, but she was acutely aware that she was in the spotlight. If she failed, she would be failing all 166 of her female colleagues. The pressure was only made greater when, during her training, newspapers photographed her being introduced to the US First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, as the first female four-engine pilot. “Girl Flies Halifax” read the headlines, and she had not even flown the big bomber by herself yet.

By the end of the war, she had ferried over 200 Halifaxes, as well as 100 Stirlings, Lancasters and Flying Fortresses. And Curtis opened the door for other female ATA pilots like Joan Hughes – dwarfed in the picture above by a giant Short Stirling – to fly the big four-engined heavies, as the bomber war against Germany saw the need for replacement aircraft delivery to squadrons reach dreadful levels.

Like the merchant navy, the civilian ATA’s contribution was crucial to the country’s survival. Throughout the war their pilots delivered over 308,000 aircraft to the RAF and Fleet Air Arm. At the ATA’s disbandment ceremony in November 1945, Lord Beaverbrook, the minister of aircraft production during the war, said: “Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in the battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.”

Although no less proud of the organisation’s efforts, Lettice Curtis summed it up more succinctly: “How we did it without breaking our necks, I don’t know.”

This is an excerpt from issue 4 of Avaunt, on newsstands from 31st October 2016. Subscribe to Avaunt here.

Words: Rowland White

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