The Spitfire was an extension of Charles Morrison’s very being as he flew at ten thousand feet from the factory at Castle Bromwich to the RAF station at Hornchurch. It was a beautiful evening for flying, and there seemed to be nothing else around. A gentle movement of the stick into a barrel roll, then back pressure into an Immelmann – half loop and half roll – repeated, the aircraft shivering near the stall at the top, but responding as the thoroughbred it was. He had plenty of petrol, and without ammunition and radio the aircraft was light and even more responsive than usual. He passed over North Weald and changed course, throttling back in order to lose height. Overhead of his objective, he entered the pattern and was given a green Verey flare; permission to land. Why could they not have a radio? A side-slip so he could see past the long nose of the aircraft, straightened up at just the right moment for a perfect three-pointer. No bounce. Taxi to dispersal, switch off, clamber out of the narrow cockpit, walk to the control tower to get the signature on his chit for the delivery. That done, the duty officer asked if he needed a lift anywhere.
“Not today, thanks. I’m being picked up.”
Just time for a cuppa from the NAAFI truck before he heard the drone of two Gypsy Queen engines. A Dominie – he still had difficulties not thinking of it as a Dragon Rapide – entered the circuit, got a green flare, landed smoothly, taxied over to the control tower and he walked toward it. The pilot appeared at the door. She stripped off her helmet and shook her head, though the neat crop of ash-blonde hair didn’t stir. “First Officer Morrison, I presume,” she said with a slight smirk, her voice a mellow, light alto.
“None other,” he agreed. “Second Officer Walters.”
“Come aboard, then. Want to sit up front? We’ve a few more pick-ups on our way home.”
He’d gradually become accustomed to flying alongside the few women pilots in the ATA. (Air Transport Auxiliary). He’d seen that they were as capable as most, better than some; they rarely bent an aircraft, and when they did it was usually a mechanical fault. Even so, his intellectual awareness couldn’t, at least at that point, overcome a conditioned, gut response; “Women don’t do this.” He knew perfectly well that they did, but...
He couldn’t actually sit ‘up front’ – there is only a single pilot position – but he sat in the forward most, right, passenger seat and peered into the cockpit. He watched as she prepared to fly, impressed with her attention to detail. She taxied out, waited for the flare, then smoothly opened the throttles and let the Dominie fly itself off the grass.
It was almost a tour of Eleven Group bases; Gravesend, Biggin, Kenley, Croydon, Heathrow. At the last they collected a pilot he knew well and didn’t much like, who elbowed his way forward and tried to bully the girl into letting him take over. Charles saw her expression, and interfered. “Hey, George – it’s her machine, and she’s done a fine job so far. Back off.”
They arrived back at White Waltham, and while Second Officer Edna Walters was seeing to her machine, he sought out his immediate superior, Flight Captain Stevenson.
“Excuse me, sir,”
“I thought you’d like to know ... at Heathrow, when we collected First Officer Marshall, he tried to bully Second Officer Walters into letting him take over the Dominie. I interfered, but, well; it’s just not on, is it?”
The other man looked at him thoughtfully. “No. I don’t think it is. If he’s so keen to be a taxi pilot, perhaps an assignment to fly an Argus for a couple of days?”
The Fairchild Argus is a single-engine, four seat, high-wing taxi aircraft, far from exciting to fly.
Charles Morrison smiled. “I think that would be most appropriate.”
“I think George is feeling a little put out just now. He’s just been turned down for Class Five training.” (Class five aircraft were four-engined bombers. ATA pilots were trained to fly, not just a specific aircraft, but classes of aircraft. Class One, Light Single Engine, Class Two, Advanced Single Engine, Class Three, Light Twin, Class Four, Advanced Twin, Class Five, Four Engined, Class Six, Flying Boats.)
Charles made his way to the mess, and headed for the bar. “Let me buy you one.” That mellow, light alto caressed his ear. “Least I can do after you stood up for me.”
He looked round, to see that heart-shaped face, framed with ash-blonde hair in a neat crop. “Thanks. I will, though there’s really no need. You were doing great.”
“Thanks.” She stepped past and caught the attention of the barman. “Two beers, Jeff, please.”
“Do you know everyone?”
“Only the important ones.”
She led the way to a table in a corner, out of the mainstream of activity. As they sat, it seemed that they were surrounded by a bubble of silence. Neither was aware of glances thrown their way. In particular, nor some rather acrimonious ones from First Officer George Marshall.
She learned that he’d been flying since 1930 and joined ATA in early 1940. H, that she’d grown up on a Yorkshire Dales sheep farm, but had always been fascinated by flying. She’d joined ATA partly to learn to fly and had qualified late in 1940. Initially, like other women, she’d been restricted to Tiger Moths and Magisters, but she’d moved up to Harvards and other Class Two aircraft in late 1941. Since then she’d qualified Class Three and, more recently, Class Four.
“What’s your favourite?” he asked.
“Oh, the Mosquito,” she said. “Yours?”
“You may find this hard to believe, but it’s the Tiger Moth.”
“I love flying. I love flying, whatever aircraft I’m in, but in a Moth it’s more ... primal, somehow.” He chuckled. “Having you ladies monopolise the Moths and Magisters was a real downer for a while.”
“I never minded flying the trainers, but it was a boost to move up.”
“Why the Mossie?”
“It’s ... everything. Performance, power, handling ... and a bit of a challenge, too. Two Merlins...” she sighed, reminiscently.
He finished his beer. “It’s been good chatting,” he said, “thanks for the beer. Perhaps I might buy you one another evening?”
“I’d like that.”
The next day, Charles found that Edna, himself and Joyce, another Second Officer were assigned Spitfires from Castle Bromwich. Their Taxi to the factory was an Argus flown by a sour faced George Marshall. He landed them – it was a rough landing – and once they were on their way to the flight shed, took off without a backward glance.
Charles walked with the two ladies to the flight shed. “Did you say something?” Edna asked, with a grin.
“May have,” he admitted, off-handedly. “George isn’t nearly the pilot he thinks he is, and he was out of line yesterday. That was a rotten landing, don’t you think?”
Both the young women agreed, laughing.
There were only two Spitfires waiting and they were met by an apologetic Alex Henshaw, the Chief Test Pilot for the factory. “Morning, Charles. I’m sorry, but there was a last-minute hitch with the aircraft to Tangmere. It’ll be ready in half an hour or so ... I hope.” He turned to the two women. “Good morning, Edna. I don’t think I’ve met your companion...”
The other woman, a pretty brunette, held out a hand. “Joyce Bennett. A privilege to meet you, sir.”
He grinned. “None of that! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Alex.”
“Edna, Joyce ... do you two want to take these machines? I’ll wait for the tardy one.”
The two women looked at each other. “Thanks.”
Charles and Alex watched as the two checked their aircraft, climbed in and got themselves settled. Two Merlins spluttered and coughed into noisy life and the Spitfires taxied out to face into what wind there was. They took off in succession and set course for their objectives.
“Was that a new pilot who brought you in? That was a lousy landing.”
Charles laughed, though his humour had a grim edge. “No, that was George Marshall. He’s in a temper at the moment.”
“Well, I hope he doesn’t come to collect any of my Spitfires while he’s like that.”
The aircraft Charles was waiting for wasn’t ready until after lunch, which consisted of a Spam sandwich offered, apologetically, by Henshaw. As a result, Charles didn’t complete his delivery until late afternoon, after which he had to find his way back to base by bus and train, a tedious and rather unpleasant experience.
He didn’t see Edna again for a couple of days, at which point he made good on his promise to buy her a drink. During the course of their evening, she turned very quiet. Then, hesitatingly, said, “Charlie, I’m being reassigned.”
“That’s the all girl one.”
“Well, one of them, yes. I expect we’ll get a lot of work from Longbridge and Castle Bromwich.”
“Should suit you, then. Except not too many Mosquito flights.”
“I know,” she sighed. “Except ... I’d really liked to have got to know you better.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re interested in this old man?”
“Come off it! You’re not that old. Anyway...”
“I expect we’ll still run across each other from time to time. It’s not the end of the world.”
It wasn’t. Not that time.
She left and he continued to fly.
There was a young woman – quite pretty – who came just about every day to bring the post, riding upon an ancient, upright bicycle. She was nicely rounded and probably would put on weight if she didn’t ride that bike every day. She was called Betty; actually, Elizabeth Evans, but nobody called her anything but Betty. Charles noticed her, of course. Thanked her if he was the one who received the mail. For some reason, she really took to Charles. With hindsight, one might suppose she had (as we used to say) ‘set her cap at him’. Certainly, she never encouraged any of the other men on the base.
Charles somehow found himself entertaining Betty with a drink, then another evening, to a film. A dance held at the base resulted in his walking her the couple of miles to her flat above the Post Office. Neither could be said to be drunk, but were, perhaps, disinhibited. A kiss led rapidly to stroking and fondling outside clothing on both their parts; not long after that, clothes were being disarranged, then removed. Charles retained sufficient presence of mind to say he had no protection with him – he had, after all, had no designs on the young woman – but she assured him she was ‘safe’. Perhaps she really believed that. Who knows.
For subsequent encounters, Charles made sure he was equipped with the necessary, and used them. The relationship continued for several weeks until he was reassigned to Lossiemouth. He could hardly have moved further away. As it happened, he was only there for a couple of weeks before he received another move, this time to Sherburn-in-Elmet, near Leeds. He was able to miss the tedious train journey, because Edna Walters arrived with a Spitfire for the nearby Maintenance Unit, and was taking a Tiger Moth south the following day. “I’ll drop you off at Sherburn,” she said with a smile.
“So, how are you?” he asked with more than polite interest.
“They moved me again,” she shrugged. “We’ll be seeing each other around, I expect. I’m based at Sherburn too.”
And they did see each other. Usually it was just for an hour or so in the evening when the flying was done, assuming they had both finished before they needed to sleep. But there were flights in company, and there were occasions when one or the other was the pilot for one of the taxi aircraft, Anson, Argus, or Dominie. In the build-up for D-Day, the intensity of working built to a climax. They were flying everything; trainers (Tiger Moths and Magisters) fighters, mainly Spitfires and Hurricanes, but also the new fighter-bombers, Typhoons. Transport and communications aircraft, light and medium bombers – including Edna’s favourite, the speedy, versatile Mosquito. There really was not much time for personal affairs. Charles, uncharacteristically had almost completely forgotten Betty in his increasing fascination with the remarkable woman, Edna Walters.
They’d been at Sherburn a month before they kissed – a kiss which brought home to both of them the significance of their growing relationship.
That wasn’t their only kiss, but there weren’t many more. A week later, he received a letter from Betty.
There’s no gentle way to tell you, but I’m pregnant. I don’t suppose you’d accuse me of promiscuity, but there’s no chance it could be anyone’s except yours. Please come to see me?”
There was no chance Charles Morrison would have ignored Betty’s letter, and his character would have required him to step up and ‘do the right thing’. A call to White Waltham saw him two days later, flying down there. First priority was to see Betty and reassure her he wouldn’t abandon her. An interview after that with his boss had him reassigned back at base, and a few weeks after that he was married to Betty Evans, and they lived together in her small flat while Charles continued to work out of White Waltham.
It was hardly a perfect match, but Charles played his part as honestly as he could; he just was not capable of undertaking anything without one hundred percent commitment. I suppose they were happy enough in their way.
A couple of weeks before Betty’s due date, Charles was asked to collect a Tiger Moth from Lossiemouth. He was warned that it had an intermittent engine fault that the local fitters couldn’t isolate, and it was wanted back at the factory in order to check it out.
Charles wasn’t worried. He liked and was comfortable with the Moth, and was confident that, even with an engine failure he could get it down safely. A flight north, uneventful but for a stop at Sherburn-in-Elmet to drop a pilot off and top off the tanks, had him at Lossiemouth by late afternoon. He wasn’t about to set off and fly the Moth at night, so got an early night after a discussion with the fitter responsible for the Moth’s engine, and set off at dawn the next day...
Three hours later, he was thinking of landing to refuel, both the aircraft and himself, not to mention stretching and warming up a little, when the engine faltered momentarily. Although it picked up again immediately, Charles was going to play safe and look for an emergency landing place. Only to find he could barely make out the ground. Within a few minutes it was lost to sight in a thick mist. The engine misfired again.
The Gipsy engine has a foible associated with carburettor icing. In the case of icing, the procedure is to shut the throttle to permit the system to work; not a natural thing to do. But Charles knew what he was doing and thought he had plenty of height. It seemed to work, and the engine picked up again. But what to do?
He shut the throttle and set up a glide, aware that he was approaching the Yorkshire Dales and he had to be careful of high ground. However, he was confident enough of his abilities and the manoeuvrability of the Moth that he wasn’t actually seriously worried. Until, that is, he noticed that the compass was spinning aimlessly.
Deep breath, Charles.
He slammed the throttle open and pulled back on the stick. The engine roared ... and cut. The Moth staggered and dropped out of the air into the side of a steep hill. Unconscious, with numerous broken bones, Charles couldn’t have got out of the wreckage anyway, but there was enough petrol in the tank to make the matter moot.
When he failed to land to refuel, he was noted to be ‘missing’, but the fog affecting much of his route precluded a search until the next day, at which point pilots were asked to look out for a Tiger Moth down somewhere between the North Midlands and Lossiemouth.
Who can tell why things happen the way they do? It was coincidence, of course, that it was Edna Walters who spotted the burnt-out wreckage whilst flying a Magister from Sherburn-in-Elmet. She noted the position and reported it on her arrival.