15 February 1940 at White Waltham

15th February 1940 was the day that ATA finally began ferrying aircraft as an independent civilian organisation from its new headquarters airfield at White Waltham just outside Maidenhead. This was now home to ATA’s No.1 Ferry Pool staffed by a motley bunch of “ancient and tattered airmen”. For the next year the airfield was shared with RAF Elementary Flying Training School 13, which caused a degree of conflict. ATA’s operations were based in a little wooden hut built at the end of one of the RAF hangars (above).

One of the first pilots based at White Waltham was Graham Head, who had joined ATA right at the start of the war. His diary entries around that time are reproduced here. He didn’t actually fly until 24 February due to poor weather.


  Photo by Robert Wadsworth

We are very sad to report that Eleanor Wadsworth, one of the last surviving pilots of Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), died shortly before Christmas 2020 at the age of 103.  She served with ATA from June 1943 to the end of September 1945.

Eleanor spoke about her time in ATA in an interview for Maidenhead Heritage Centre filmed in 2011.   She was born in Nottingham and joined ATA as an architect in the Works Department at ATA’s White Waltham HQ, “designing parachute packing rooms, male and female toilets and rest rooms for pilots”.  When the department ran out of work she was one of the first 6 non-flying staff to be offered the chance to learn to fly.  She said “I always liked a new challenge” and so she went to ATA’s Initial Flying School at Thame and Barton-in-the-Clay.  After ground school, Tiger Moths and Magisters were used for her basic training with Dennis Lead as her instructor.  After being checked out by ‘Timber’ Woods (“a nice old boy”), lots of cross country practice was required before being allocated air taxi work in the Fairchild Argus.  Then back to school for high speed training on the Harvard and thus to the Hurricane, Spitfire, Hellcat, Mustang and others.  In all she flew 22 different types, with a total of 215 hours flying on 19 different single types and 86 hours on twin engine aircraft (Anson, Oxford and Dominie).

She never attempted any aerobatics (strictly forbidden), being happy to fly straight and level and “sit back and enjoy it”.  She loved the Spitfire, which she described as “remarkably subtle to fly” – although the check points went past very quickly.  Luckily she loved maps!  One aircraft she disliked was the Fairey Barracuda, a “remarkably ungainly contrivance”. Its bi-plane predecessor the Swordfish was “OK if you weren’t in a hurry”, but when she was allowed to take controls of a Liberator in which she was a passenger, it was “a heavy-handed kind of aircraft, a bit like driving a bus”.

Eleanor’s most worrying experience was when flying a Fairchild air taxi fully laden with 3 passengers, including Flight Captain Joan Hughes.  Immediately after take-off a piston came through the engine cowling, requiring a smart turn to the left in order to land successfully on a cross runway.

Eleanor was based for short periods at Sherburn-in-Elmet and Cosford, before settling at No. 6 Ferry Pool at Ratcliffe, where she found the Americans based there “very refreshing” and shared her family’s caravan with her friend Mary Wilson.  Most importantly she met her future husband Bernard Wadsworth, who was a Flight Engineer with ATA.   She and her fellow ATA pilots will for ever remain an inspiration to women everywhere.  Rest in peace, Eleanor.

“She has slipped the surly bonds of earth”            

ATA in the thick of the battle of Britain

September 15th is Battle of Britain Day. Though ATA was a civilian organisation, sometimes its pilots found themselves in the thick of the battle. This entry for 4 September 1940 is from the diary of Flt Capt J A V Watson; it’s quite a story. If you scroll down to the entry for 20 July you’ll find records of other ATA pilots delivering aircraft during the Battle of Britain.

The battle of Britain at its height. I landed a fully armed Hurricane at N. Weald in Essex (from Aston Down) 10 minutes after the Hun dropped 500 bombs there.  The airman who waved me in was wearing all he’d got left – Tin helmet, pyjamas & sea boots. He looked very amazed when I said “This war’s getting quite brisk isn’t it?” I didn’t realise that the blitz had just happened. He had a bullet through the front of his tin hat which had torn the seat of his trousers! The hangars were burning, all the buildings were partly demolished, & bomb splinters were all over the aerodrome – still hot so I picked a few up. I had difficulty selecting a landing path between the craters. But remarkably few aeroplanes were damaged.

Later a Hurricane caught fire in the air & landed wheels up in flames. Neither the ambulance nor the fire tender could go out to it. The ambulance was on its side & the fire tenders tires were all burst by blast. The pilot escaped but there were some thousands of machine gun bullets in the fire & these were going off for two hours afterwards, so no one could go near. Delayed action bombs also blew up at intervals so my taxi could not come to collect me. The operations room arranged a lift for me to Hatfield in a Blenheim. The Sergt. pilot landed at Radlett in error, and asked me up in front to navigate him to Hatfield! Visibility about 20 miles. Amy Johnson gave me a lift home from there in her Anson.  Thus I hitch hiked my way home after an exciting day – but the damage at North Weald was depressing, but thank God, the casualties were remarkably few.

ATA and the Battle of Britain

80 years ago on July 10th 1940 the Battle of Britain began. ATA was still a young organization with around 100 pilots.  What better reason to trawl through the handful of logbooks (among the 140+ in our collection) which were kept by ATA pilots serving at the time of the Battle of Britain.  We have managed to find these entries which we hope will interest you. You can find all these logbooks in the online archive on this website https://archive.atamuseum.org/logbooks.php

Philip Wills (later Director of Operations)

17 August               Hurricane                St Athan – Tangmere

19 August               Spitfire                    Kirkbride – Middle Wallop

Jimmy Nettleton

First Officer Jimmy Nettleton pictured in 1944

28 August               Spitfire                    Hamble – Westhampnett (now Goodwood)

Stanley Brown (seconded from BOAC)

3 September           Hurricane                White Waltham – Kenley

10 September         Spitfire                    Brize Norton – Middle Wallop

27 September         Spitfire                    Little Rissington – Warmwell (satellite of MW)

30 September         Hurricane                Aston Down – Middle Wallop

15 October             Hurricane                Wroughton – Shoreham

Arnold Watson

4 September           Hurricane                Aston Down – North Weald (Essex)

Josep Carreras (the only Spanish pilot in ATA, the first ATA pilot to fly a Liberator bomber and an instructor on Catalina flying boats)

10 September         Spitfire                    Brize Norton – Middle Wallop

Peter Mursell (later Director of Training)

23 September         Spitfire                    ??? – Tangmere

29 October             Spitfire                    West Malling – Gravesend

The ‘official’ end of the Battle of Britain was 31 October 1940.

Supermarine Walrus

The only aircraft I actively disliked….

So wrote ATA pilot Mary Wilkins (later Ellis).  She went on “It flapped about all over the sky. On land it was like a penguin but apparently it was good on the sea. It had a mind of its own.

Supermarine Walrus – no other aircraft like it.

The Walrus amphibian, designed by Supermarine, first flew in 1933 and remained in production to 1944.  It is remembered as an air-sea rescue aircraft and for being the least favourite plane of ATA pilots, who ferried it 1482 times.  Many were built by Saunders Roe at East Cowes IOW and flown out of Somerton airfield, the size of a postage stamp, which made take-off ‘difficult’.  It had a ‘pusher’ airscrew, a maximum range of 600 miles and a cruising speed of 95mph.

Lettice Curtis wrote that there was no other aircraft like it.  On the ground it waddled along like a duck. Once it was airborne, it climbed away swinging gently fore and aft in a pendulous motion.  Diana Barnato Walker said it got airborne when it felt like it, then wallowed along and flew more like a boat than an aircraft.  It had an undercarriage warning horn which sounded every time the selector lever was moved to remind the pilot to check it was in the correct position for a land or a water arrival.

The Museum knows of only 3  accidents involving a Walrus.  Anne Walker (later Duncan) took off from Somerton airfield at Cowes in a crosswind, a hazardous performance with all that double wing.  She swung, finishing up at the end of the take-off run in a haystack.  She was knocked out and the whole caboosh went up in flames.  Luckily a baker’s boy was cycling along the lane beside the aerodrome boundary.  He pulled Anne out of the conflagration, then rescued his bike plus some of the singed stuff. (Mary Ellis – A Spitfire Girl’)

Philippa Bennett (based at Hamble) ferried the Walrus 41 times between July 1942 and November 1945 (her logbooks can be viewed on this website https://archive.atamuseum.org/logbooks.php). She once forgot to pump the wheels down. She made a really beautiful gentle landing – but on the two underwing floats. The aircraft was undamaged!  A male pilot from another ferry pool was over the tree-lined Severn gorge near Ironbridge when he had a complete engine failure. Rather than crash into the tops of trees, he landed on the water, threw out an anchor and waded ashore.  The accident report commended the pilot and stated ‘the aircraft was slightly damaged when the tide receded’. (In Shropshire? – Ed.)

Detail from ‘Morning on the Tarmac’ (IWM),  a 1941 painting by Eric Ravilious, one of Britain’s best 20th century artists who became an official war artist.  Ravilious died on 2 Sept 1942 when the search and rescue a/c he had joined failed to return from a search and rescue mission off Iceland.

ATA pilots were forbidden from landing on water.  However Capt. Arnold Watson’s diary (available to read on this website) has this entry for 10 November 1942.  Read what ATA’s expert thought!

I’d not flown a Walrus amphibian before. I found it rather more tricky than the Grumman Goose since it is more top heavy & the rudder is abnormally sensitive on land power on. Admittedly we were completely cross wind on the runway, which made it worse.

On the Solent, waves about two feet high light wind, we made four landings & take-offs. The landing was easier under these good conditions than on land. Even power off at 65 knots approach – as for a force landing. The angle of descent is not steep, since there are no flaps, no undercart & no constant speed airscrews. The hold off is normal & the touch-down must be in a level attitude – or only slightly nose up – not 3 pointer. After touching, the stick must be held firmly back. The water drag produces rapid deceleration.

The take-off on water requires a special technique & more run to get up speed than on land. To start ailerons are put hard over to the right, the elevator is given a steady backward pressure all the time she is accelerating.

At about 100 feet, the engine was cut on take-off, & a landing straight ahead was made with no great difficulty on water. My instructor was pleased by this, & the fact that I had quickly got used to operation on water, & was prepared to send me solo.

The last time I flew a “pusher” was the Douglas Engine (17 h.p.) Kronfeld Drone at Brooklands about 1934 or 1935!