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Thursday, April 22, 2010


Nobody likes a show-off – that was something I learned from a very early age. Because I was a show-off. And my elder, cooler sibling continuously instructed me to stop. But allow me this one little opportunity to show off my grandmother. I won’t take up too much of your time and I promise not to do any cartwheels.

I’m sure we’d all prefer there were no wars and we lived in peace, but as that was not, is not and will not ever be the case, I’m going to show off about my grandmother, Benedetta Willis, who flew in the second world war.

Of course, women weren’t allowed to fly in the RAF, on the front line. The very mention of the idea had the press declaring that women were out of their minds and should be back preparing supper for their husbands, where they belonged. But a small group of women could not be told. A small group of women joined the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary.

Yesterday my sister, mum and I went to meet an historian near White Waltham, the home of the ATA. He’s a very clever man and seemed to know more about our grandma than I did.

As did Mum. My dear old grandma died last year and never have I felt more regret at not absorbing more of her tales than I did yesterday. Mum can share no such regret – she knew everything. I used to spend a lot of time with Grandma, but we mostly played Scrabble or talked about the man she would have married if he hadn’t become a Japanese prisoner of war.

Now I wish I’d grilled her about her war efforts. Because they were many.

Aircraft factories were a prime target for the enemy, and in fact were often bombed, so as soon as the aircraft were ‘flyable’ (i.e, not finished) Grandma was on hand to fly them to maintenance depos elsewhere in the country. There they would be finished and handed over to the RAF pilots to use on the front line. My grandma flew them while they still had buttons missing.

We had a gander at Grandma’s log book. 344 deliveries comprising of 52 tiger moths, 135 spitfires, six mustangs, four barracudas and numerous others. Some she only flew once, and was given a little handbook which she would read while flying, which would explain how to land the craft. If I found myself in charge of a plane and the only way to land it was to read a handbook, you can bet your bottom dollar the ensuing panic attack would be met by nothing but certain peril.

In 1943 Grandma found out she was expecting my father. Hesitant to tell her commanding officer that she was pregnant, she was met with an enthusiastic: ‘Mrs Willis, raising a child is a wonderful thing and no less important to our country than flying planes. You shouldn’t be ashamed to go and start a family.’ Grandma thought it best not to tell her commanding officer that she already had two small children at home.

Grandma was the second of only five women to be given RAF wings and the press soon did a U turn. Women were on the front pages, smiling as they climbed aboard their crafts. ATA women were respected and wore trousers. A feat so bold their tailor stitched their crotch at their knees because he was too embarrassed to measure up their inside leg.

These women paved the way for us to work alongside men at equal pay. It saddens me to walk through Bristol town centre on a Saturday night and see the type of women my Grandma actually paved the way for. I’m pretty sure she didn’t dare have her inside leg measured so that these girls could walk around in their pants.

While we sat with Mr Poad, the historian, and absorbed some of the fascinating facts about Grandma and her compatriots, I couldn’t help thinking that my grandchildren couldn’t really sit in a room with a historian and pour over the incredible facts of my life. Last night I fell asleep during a film. This morning I forgot to put any socks on and have slightly cold toes. Not really country saving stuff is it?
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