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15 October 2014
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Eager For The Air: The Story Of The Air Transport Auxiliary

by brssouthglosproject

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Chairman: Wing Commander Eric J Viles MBE, and Others
Location of story: 
Whitchurch, Filton, Bristol, and Everywhere
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
23 April 2005

There were two women only Air Transport Auxiliary ferrypools. One at RAF Cosford, and Hamble. This was probably taken at Hamble. A Spitfire sits in the background.

This story was submitted to the people's War site by volunteer Jackie Ashman Project Co-ordinator for the South Gloucestershire and North-East Area of Bristol, on behalf of Wing Commander Rtd. Eric Viles, MBE and has been added to the site with his permission. Eric Viles fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Eager for the Air - The Air Transport Auxiliary is a story about a little known organisation that became crucial to helping the RAF to obtain their aircraft, whilst keeping their pilots free to do their work.

The RAF had been ferrying aircraft from the aircraft manufacturer; the Bristol Aeroplane Company, in Filton, in South Gloucestershire, as indeed they had from other manufacturing sites from all over the UK. Then when WW2 was deemed imminent it was quickly apparent that their services would be urgently required elsewhere.

Some serious consideration was necessary as to what could be done to solve the shortfall in pilots. So it was in August 1939, that Gerrard d’Erlanger a member of the old-established banking family and a director of British Airways, wrote to the Director General of Civil Aviation, Sir Francis Shelmerdine, suggested that his ideas for the formation of a pool of civil pilots would be able to fly light aircraft in the event of the war which now seemed inevitable. From the Air Ministry records, holders of “A” Licenses with over 250 hours flying experience and no Service commitments were to be circulated. A few days later d’Erlanger and Sir Francis met and the work of founding the new organisation was entrusted to Gerrard d’Erlanger. The name of the Air Transport Auxiliary was chosen and the new unit was placed under British Airways for initial administration and finance. Later that month 1,000 holders of “A” and “B” licences were invited to apply, and from these some 100 replies were received. They came from all walks of life. The uniform chosen was to be dark blue and similar to that distinctive badges and buttons and a forage cap.

By this time British Airways had commenced its move from Croydon to Whitchurch Airfield, in Bristol, (this was later to become No 2 Ferry pool). The new Commanding Officer of ATA was instructed to make arrangements to receive, interview and flight—test the first 30 candidates at the West of England base. They came, George Curtis from his furniture workshop; Bert Yardley from his inn at Lichfield; Leo Partridge, connoisseur of antiques; Joe Ellam. RAF 1914-1919; Keith Jopp, journalist, incredible one-arm and one-eye die-hard of the last war; Wal Handley, speed track ace from Birmingham; Philip Wills, Shipping director and amateur glider pilot; Bradbrooke of the “Airplane”, well known journalist, and others. 29 were accepted for service but recruiting was to continue with a view to the collection of a further 30 pilots. It was at this point in time; that the Under Secretary of State made the unprecedented and memorable decision that women pilots of similar experience to the men would be enrolled for work in ATA and Miss Pauline Gower was invited to start at once on this new section.

So it came to be that nearly 66 years ago during September 1939, in the Royal Hotel on College Green in the City of Bristol, the first thirty pilots of the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary met. They were told that they would begin their duties as ferry pilots at RAF Filton and RAF Hucknall, from where they would ferry trainers, fighters and bombers, urgently needed by the RAF, from factories and stores to Air Force Stations throughout the country. This quickly spread to form ferrypools all over the UK.

The idea was that every ferry pool had some Fairchild Argos four-seater aircraft and Avro Anson to ferry pilots to various MU’s (Maintenance Units) and factories to pick up operational aircraft to deliver to the RAF.

Central Ferry Control was based at Andover in Hampshire; and at the end of each day’s ferrying, all the ferry pools would notify the Central Ferry Control of the aircraft that had not been moved that day. Then during the night, seven days a week there would be in addition to this, notification of all the new aircraft that had been manufactured at the factories and repaired at the MU’s. All these had to be collected and delivered wherever they were required. This had to done sometimes in bad weather conditions and without the modern aids that today’s pilots have, meant that there was often a backlog, and it was difficult to make sure the aircraft reached their destinations.

Eric takes up the story; This took up a huge amount of administration. Flight Officer Joan Van Blockland, the Operations Officer at No 9 Ferry Pool, Aston Down airfield nr Stroud, would decide who was to fly each aircraft each day. I would assist her sometimes when I was not allocated an aircraft myself.

These ferry pilots lived a hand to mouth existence. The RAF squadrons were naturally on the move all the time, so the ferrypilots had to fly aircraft wherever they were based, they had no radio, and they were not allowed to fly at night. There was no heating in the aircraft. They often flew aircraft into dangerous situations only to find on arrival that the airfield was being evacuated, such as in the Battle of France. The first delivery by the ATA on 18th May 1940 when Fairy Battles were flown to Nantes, only to find that the airfield was being evacuated, owing to German bombardment! It is hard to imagine nowadays how these “civilian ATA pilots” coped with many similar experiences during May and June 1940, and many flights were made to and from France, often with only postcards of the coast-line and different areas as the only form of map.

Into this very dangerous but exciting world Eric joined the ATA during February 1944 at the tender age of sixteen years and 9 months, as an Air Cadet. He went to the Air training Corps Squadron at Stroud, then waiting for selection for Air Crew Training, he was subsequently invited to join the ATA at Number 9 Aston Down Ferry Pool. Eric was a trainee, sometimes acting as flight engineer; he was to fly in over 40 different types of aircraft, throughout the rest of the war. He flew in 64 Albermarles bomber aircraft that were manufactured at Brockworth, nr Gloucester until September 1945 when the ATA was disbanded.

After the invasion of Europe — Operation Overlord “D” day 6th June 1944, as the troops advanced we started flying aircraft into Europe. We taxied Avro Anson’s to B 55 — Coutrai airfield in Belgium. This was where the pilot and I had to bring back a damaged Mosquito with a failed undercarriage to an airfield in Hampshire. I was still a trainee and my job was to start the engines and keep them going….

During my free time I played in a band called “The Melody Makers” as a drummer. That night I was to play at a dance and play the night away. After getting back with the damaged Mosquito, I grabbed my drums and with the rest of the band we just made it in time to the dance hall. We used to play all the great favourites, Glen Millar and the popular tunes of the day.

Spitfires were flown to Malta so the RAF could defend it. They were flown to Scotland by the ATA pilots, and then they were taken by the American Aircraft Carrier — “Wasp” which was to take them to Malta. When they arrived at Malta, they all took off from the carrier and landed on Malta for refuelling, and many were damaged from German bombardment. Winston Churchill asked for more Spitfires to be sent, and so it was repeated again, only this time the Spitfires were refuelled before going onto the Aircraft Carrier. When they arrived at Malta, some landed there from the ship, and some flew up overhead and guarded the airfield to fight off the German aircraft. They were more successful in delivering the aircraft this time. Churchill made one of his famous speeches which included “Who says that a Wasp cannot sting twice”.

The ATA delivered all the Dambuster aircraft, the specially adapted Lancaster bombers to 617 Squadron; these Lancasters were specially adapted to carry the famous bouncing bombs.

About ten years ago at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, 617 Squadron held a reunion and I was invited. I was filmed for the local TV news with an American, Jack McCarthy who went to Canada during the war and trained there joining the Canadian Airforce. He then joined 617 Squadron (the only American to do so). He led a formation of five Lancaster aircraft and hit the Sorpe dam. They damaged it but did not breech it. After the reunion he sent me a card thanking me, it stated "Thank You from Pilot A J - “T” — Dams Raid, night of 16/17th May 1943 by 617 Squadron — RAF.

The ATA played a great support role during the second World War, a role that not many people know about, but a crucial role nonetheless, and one wonders where we would be today without their brave and selfless help.

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