The Air Tranport Auxiliary
Factories were working flat out throughout the war producing aeroplanes, but with so many trained pilots engaged in active combat duty, more were needed to do the vital job of getting planes from the production line to RAF bases.
Chairman of the Maidenhead Heritage Centre, Richard Poad, explains to Jules how the Air Tranport Auxiliary took up that challenge. Originally formed with pilots too elderly or infirm to join the RAF, it wasn't long before another group of people signed up.
Pauline Gower was the daughter of an MP, and with 2000 hours flying experience, she was well placed to lobby for women to be allowed to join the service. And in the autumn of 1939, Pauline got her way. On the 1st of January 1940, eight women joined the ranks of ATA pilots.
Women originally were stuck flying older, less powerful aircraft, but they graduated from Tiger Moths to Hurricanes and Spitfires. The women also became a valuable propaganda tool for the government – in 1944, one ATA pilot, Maureen Dunlop, made the front cover of the Picture Post, and became the face of the ATA.
Jules meets two female pilots who signed up to fly for the service – Molly Rose and Joy Lofthouse. The women explain that flying the planes was not straightforward. With no radios, and unable to use instruments, the women had to rely on map reading to navigate. Flying through barrage balloons and dodging anti-aircraft gunfire was tricky enough too, but ATA pilots were often expected to climb in the cockpit and fly a plane they'd never seen before. Molly, for example, flew over 37 different types of aircraft during her time with the service.
Between them the pilots of the ATA moved an incredible 309,000 aeroplanes – more than 140 every single day of the war.
With rationing causing restricted supplies of sugar, Britain had to look elsewhere to satisfy the public's sweet-toothed appetite.
The solution came from a natural alternative – and soon the nation's back gardens were a hive of activity, as Britain started bee-keeping. Joy Simpson from the Swindon Beekeepers' Association explains how honey was actually used during the war as an effective healer of wounds as well as being used for cooking.
In 1943, the Ministry of Food recognised that a nation of amateur bee-keepers would be beneficial, and announced that every household keeping bees could claim 10lb of sugar for feeding bees in the winter, and 5lb in the summer. With hives able to produce up to 60lbs of sugar a year for very little cost, bee-keeping soon became a popular activity.
After a while, however, the government established that honey yields weren't tallying with the amount of sugar being supplied for the scheme. A plan to dye the bee-keepers' sugar green was soon abandoned after bees started producing off-putting green honey.
Jean Tuck recalls how as a four-year-old, she would help her father Sidney Lewis with his bee-keeping. Sidney worked at a local RAF base, and like many, would swap or sell honey with locals for other foodstuffs or some extra cash. When the family moved to the Wiltshire village of Clyffe-Pyaprd, Sidney met some prisoners of war keen to sample his sweet wares. But with no money, the POWs offered to paint Sidney some honeypot labels in return for some of his golden nectar. Jean shows how she still has the labels, after the family decided they were too good to be stuck to jars.
Make do and mend
Anne Stamper is honorary archivist of the National Federation of Womens' Institutes, which played a key role in a campaign to free up valuable workers and factory space for the war effort. Clothes were rationed from June 1941, with an allocation of only one new outfit per person per year. As a result, households had to get used to re-purposing material and patching up old clothes to prevent their families wandering around in tattered rags. The government and WI produced films and leaflets showing how to get the most out of what they had.
Anne explains to Jules how shoes could be made from old felt hats or deck chair canvas, and how an 'easy cot' for carrying babies could be made from a large piece of material. A shortage of stockings meant women often painted gravy browning on their legs, before getting their friends to draw a 'seam' up the back of their legs with an eyebrow pencil. Ingenious, but perhaps not too convincing!
Knitting was another popular way of rustling up clothes during the war, with women, children and men across the country picking up needles.
Joyce Meader shows how everything from swimsuits to hats could be knitted, before explaining to Jules how comfort committees were established. These groups would get wool rations returned for knitting woollen goods for the RAF, Royal Navy, and soldiers. Everything from socks and scarves to body belts and balaclavas were knitted by the committees, helping to keep our troops warm on the frontline.
Tania Szabo and the Special Operations Executive
At an airfield in Tangmere, Jules meets David Coxon from the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. During the war, the airfield was home to RAF Tangmere, and at night, small Lysander aircraft would carry secret human cargoes from England to Occupied Europe.
The Special Operations Executive was established in 1940, with the aim of carrying out espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. Maurice Buckmaster headed the F Section of the SOE – responsible for missions in France. Jules meets Maurice's son Michael, and hears how SOE agents had to identify resistance movements working against the German occupation, and undertake key missions to destroy factories and blow up railways.
The dangerous work of the SOE meant that the average life expectancy of a SOE wireless operator working in France was only six weeks. If an agent was captured, they could expect to be tortured to give up valuable information, before being killed.
Violette Szabó joined the ranks of Special Operations Executive agents in 1944. Her French legionnaire officer husband Etienne had been killed two years earlier in action, and Violette's daughter Tania explains to Jules how that, combined with the fact that her brothers were fighting in the war, made Violette determined to do her bit for Britain. Jules joins Tania in the gardens of the Violette Szabó Museum in Wormelow to hear her mother's story.
Leaving two-year-old Tania in England, Violette's first mission took her to Rouen in France to check on a betrayed resistance movement and organise destroying a viaduct. With her mission a success, Violette was promoted before being sent back to France to disrupt German troops advance to Normandy. On the 10th of June, Violette and a colleague were ambushed, and a previous injury from parachute training was to prove disastrous.
Violette sprained a weakened ankle trying to escape, was caught by the Gestapo, tortured daily, and ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp.
With the Germans by now realising that the war's end was fast approaching, Heinrich Himmler sent out an order that all British and American captured agents should be shot. Violette was only 23 when she was killed.
Violette's story became the inspiration for the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride, starring Virginia McKenna.
- Jules Hudson
- Jules Hudson
- Executive Producer
- Simon Barnes
- Executive Producer
- Simon Barnes