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ATA and the Battle of Britain

This is the entry for 4 September 1940 from the diary of J A V Watson, who was ATA’s chief technical pilot (also known as “Molotov”). This entry vividly describes ATA’s work 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 tyres 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.

More extracts from the diary of   J A V Watson

2 March 1941

Today I intended to observe the airspeed of the Oxford at the moment of unstick.  And for the first time in my experience the ASI (Air Speed Indicator) was not working!  So I made a circuit and approach with plenty of power on, and succeeded in doing a good landing.  Fortunately I am now familiar with the attitude of the Oxford on the approach and the feel and sound of it at 85.  And I knew she would be unlikely to stall with flaps down, nose down and -2 boost.

The trouble was that the mechanic and I had not noticed the red flag on the pitot head which marks the stocking applied to keep the rain out.

Later I had two intelligent girl pupils – Mrs Lambton and Miss Broad.  Quite a relief after the dense male specimens I have had for the last two days.

Note: Ruth Lambton joined ATA in June 1940 and in 1943 became one of 11 ATA women cleared to fly Class 5 4-engined bombers.  Ruth later married Ed Ballard, one of the American men flying for ATA.  The ATA logbooks of both of them are held at Maidenhead Heritage Centre.  Jennie Broad joined ATA in July 1940 and served until  June 1943.

5 March 1941

Thicker mist this morning. I took the two Met. blokes and my colleague up to have a look at it.  We came out at 4,500ft over Princes Risborough. On the north side of the Chiltern Hills we could not see the ground. A layer of stratus cloud was on the deck. In the afternoon I had another look at it, but it was no good for dual cross country.  Herbert Broad, the Hurricane Test Pilot, had lunch with me as he was unable to get back into Langley.  I learned much of interest – Hurricane developments etc.  Apparently each Hurricane produced is flown to 25000ft at +9 boost and 2850 rpm. Without military load the rate of climb is 4000 feet a minute!  Level speed is checked at 17,000ft and again at 25,000 with high gear selected on the blower.  They then dive to 380mph before checking the lateral trim.  After the dive, the trim is permanently different – presumably due to the flexing of the structure, controls, etc.

5 March 1941

This evening an American doing his first solo on the Battle, got one leg stuck up and one down. He behaved with great calm and skill. Dropped a note to the fascinated spectators on the tarmac, who could do nothing to help except get out the ambulance and the fire engine. His predicament was complicated because he had no flaps or brakes either; complete hydraulic failure. His first touchdown was too fast – there being no wind at sunset – so he went round again.   His second touchdown was perfect. The machine slithered around 180 degrees & damage was limited to the week tip; even the propeller and radiator escaped injury.  We clapped a very neat piece of flying.

9 March 1941

Did the acceptance flights of three new Oxfords with the newly joined Bergel, formally of the “Ev News”.  (Hugh Bergel  became Officer Commanding No.9 Ferry Pool at Aston Down.  He flew over 105 types of aircraft for ATA! His logbook is part of our collection.  Bergel’s book “Fly to Deliver” is worth a read.)

After lunch I had to take George Kemp home to S. Wales, Sloper to Weston-s-Mare. The pupil on board was commander Gallery US Navy from the American Embassy.  The forecast was 4 miles and 1000 feet in the Bristol Channel but 1 miles and 300 feet south of Swindon. So we decided to Bradshaw down to Minehead (Bradshaw was a railway guide, so this means following railway lines). Across the 16 miles of water to St. Athan the vis was only 1 mile & we flew at 100 feet, 150 mph.  The trip back was distinctly sticky, continuous low cloud and visibility mostly 3 miles but sometimes less.  Coming along the valley from Frome to Newbury, I reassured the Commander by pointing out that we had got over the “summit” of the Kennet & Avon Canal because the lock gates were now like this < < instead of this > >.

After landing at White Waltham Commander Gallery had slapped me on the back & said “Thanks, skipper – that was an instructive trip”. I said it was an example of how not to do a cross country – but the only way to do it safely under the prevailing conditions.

13 March 1941

Today there was a sunlit mist with visibility going from 1 mile to 3 miles and better in places. We did four hours very pleasantly & passed out four Americans and a Polish aircraft designer.  Near Swindon, I suddenly saw a Hurricane, blinding towards the sun, aiming straight at us on the port beam. He was on us in a flash. I yanked the machine up and he flashed past just underneath us. I don’t think he saw us at all, until we were over him. It was the narrowest shave I have ever  seen in the air.

31 March 1941

This week I have been more towards Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire.  navigation is different over there. Flat land; no hills to recognise one’s general position if off course.  Today I flew Claaz and Sloper to Weston Super Mare in lovely weather, with two Americans.  The aerodrome was waterlogged and partly unserviceable. Knowing this I arrived with tanks half empty and landed without difficulty. The take-off was OK since we were able to cross the boundary low down with the wheels going up.

A column of smoke froman oil tankfire rose 1000ft above Avonmouth (the port for Bristol) & spread 10 miles west.  The Huns bombed it last night.

1 & 2 April 1941

Low cloud and rain stopped all flying. Macmillan (Chief Instructor, seconded from BOAC)addressed the “faculty”.  Indicated he has 320 pilots awaiting test & training.  Wants 6 hours per day per aircraft + 2 hrs per pupil. Expects that we may have to use two aerodromes.   

Eventually White Waltham would become so busy with training aircraft that initial flying training was moved to Thame and Barton-in-the-clay, leaving the Advanced Flying Training School at White Waltham.

3 April 1941 – What a pity it all is!  At the time of this entry Watson was a navigation instructor.

Another fatal accident today. Poor Bodinnar – a most popular chap – crashed a Hurricane in filthy weather. That makes three killed in a week. The first was my American pupil Holcomb – who lost himself in a school Battle about three weeks ago; poor lad – he wa my least good American pupil.  He turned into the mountains off the Cumberland coast in a Master.  Then  millionaire Lowenstein (Belgian, friend of Diana Barnato) last Saturday did a circuit of White Waltham in lovely weather and crashed on the approach.  Whether he stalled on the turn and an engine failed I don’t know. (Aircraft was a twin engine Blenheim)  I suppose now at least a dozen good men have lost their lives ferrying in the ATA.  Satel (Poland), Horsey, Amy Johnson, Randall, Cummings, Fontes & others.  (The total was actually 19 casualties).

Today I did 4hrs 35 mins cross country – my longest day’s instruction, We got off course near Cambridge but after flying S.W. for some minutes I chanced to recognise a bend in the road at Great Chesterford near Duxford – on our road to the Broads. It was misty at the time – but then we were ably to find Duxford alright.

30 July 1941 – OOPS!

Chang, our only Chinese pilot, came in too fast and about 100 feet high over the boundary in a new Spitfire. He might have got away with it on dry ground, but his wheels locked and skidded on the sodden turf and he was still doing about 20mph when he went down a gun pit and over on his nose.  Then a school Hurricane had to land with the wheels stuck up. It only came out from repairs in the hangar this morning!

Note: Chang was the son of the Chinese nationalist leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

31 July 1941

Misty rainy trip with two good Americans to three difficult aerodromes to find – Stradishall & Wattisham (both in East Anglia). but they made a very good job of it.

Flight tested my No 1 Oxford for the sixth time today and was surprised that the starboard motor ran faultlessly.  She is quite our most attractive Oxford to fly, so shall be glad to have her back tomorrow.  It is not clear was causing the problem, but the piston rings were badly worn – probably by the clouds of dust during the recent dry spell.  

(Amy Johnson was ferrying an Oxford (left) when she was killed in January 1941)

One of our taxi pupils, evidently having flown too much recently, developed “nerves” in the bad weather this afternoon.  When he arrived at White Waltham he just “threw” his aircraft on to the ground on one wheel cross wind, to the alarm of pupils & instructors alike. He ought to be sent on leave for a rest.

9 August 1941 – not impressed with the Lockheed Hudson

This entry shows Watson in full test pilot mode and underlines what a service he did to ATA when he compiled Ferry Pilots Notes.

Flew Lockheed Hudson 1 today… and did a couple of take offs and landings on a 1200 yard runway.  In flight the controls are lighter than the Lockheed 12 but it seems to me a poor sort of design. Slower than the Blenheim or the Wellington… and much more dangerous to land. Take off – very long run – at 46″ boost. As the wheels come up there is a smell of burning rubber when the tyres rub against the housing.  The approach with 60 degrees flap is made at 90 knots 1200rpm undershooting.  Then drag her over the hedge with 2000rpm and put her down firmly on the wheels – what a horrid shriek from the types. But it is the only way to stay down.  Definitely dangerous, in my view, compared with other types which fly faster and land slower, without any vices.  It’s the Fowler flap and short fuselage which causes the trouble.


American Ann Wood records in her diaries meeting a stream of bombers heading for Europe. Diving down to pass below them, her windscreen was filled with a quintessential English scene: a fox being pursued by a pack of hounds and red-coated huntsmen on horseback!


During the autumn of 1941 it was learned that a well-known circus was going to be sold, including its animals which included two elephants. The C.O at White Waltham had the bright idea that, since tractors were very scarce, elephants could be used for uprooting small trees, removing obstacles on the airfield and even hauling aeroplanes out of the winter mud.

A phone call to the circus revealed that one of the elephants was partly trained and the other not pink but ‘green’, that is untrained. Both were females, one 67 and the other 17 years old. The following letter was eventually sent to the controller of Expenditure.

It is not possible to obtain a price for these animals, but two are being offered for sale by auction at Horley on 15th September. A repres- entative from this department will attend the sale if you will be kind enough to indicate what amount we may bid.
For your guidance, I would point out that of 
these two animals, one is green, that is to say, 
untrained, but alleged to be docile; the other 
can apparently perform certain tricks.
It is doubtful, however, whether this ability 
would be of any real advantage to the Works 
and Bricks Department.
F. ELLAM, Captain
C.S.O., H.Q., ATA

It was planned to enrol the native mahot in charge of the elephants, and plans were made to house them. Alas this idea never came to fruition, as it was decided the elephants could be a liability in the case of an air raid!


First Officer Diana Ramsay (known to all as Wamsay as she couldn’t say her R’s) force landed a Tempest at White Waltham after its throttle jammed open. Touching down at high speed, it disappeared across the grass airfield, eventually tearing into a wood where the wings tore off. When the rescuers arrived, they found the fuselage wedged up a final barrier of larger trees. Sitting on top, with hardly a bruise, was Wamsay. She said she had started to walk back to the airfield, but had changed her mind as she was afraid of the cows in the next field. Anyway, somewhere in the trees she had left a velvet ribbon.


Transcribed from an audio cassette, made for his daughter, by Francis Francis, Commanding Officer of No.6 Ferry Pool at Ratcliffe in Leicestershire. Reproduced by kind permission of Mrs K Aranha.

My unit consisted of practically nothing but crooks, who were Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians and the odder-type-of English people, and they were the greatest survivors you could ever come across. If they wanted to get somewhere, or do something, in some form or other, they would succeed, but it was almost certain to be by illegal means. A great deal of my spare time was used placating Group Captains, Air Vice-Marshals and Air Commodores and people, from the sins of my illegal pilots, who had, on every occasion, done a MARVELLOUS job in delivering an aircraft, but it had frequently been done in ways that were not entirely approved-of.

One Christmas, during the war, I thought it would be nice to give a Christmas party to a few of my pilots and so my wife and I decided on the day and she figured she would be able to make some sort of arrangement for them. Despite rationing, you could manage to make a good sort of home-type party, if you did a lot of work and arranged it extremely well.

Finally the day of the Christmas party arrived, but it simply a HORRIBLE day. We had to do our full day’s work first and, taking one look at the weather and the forecast, I told my wife that I very much doubted whether we were going to be able to get anyone home. We DID fly in unbelievably-bad weather but, when the visibility got down to less than three-quarters of a mile, or half-a-mile, or so, and the dusk began to come in, there was no way you could fly; and what I had assumed was that they would deliver a number of aeroplanes, but they would never be collected by the ‘taxi-plane’, that went out to bring them back. And this, indeed, proved to be the case.

When I went home that evening, I said ”I’m back and about three others are back. One or two more might get back, but we’re certainly going to miss, at least, eight. Eight people will NOT be here for dead sure”. That was an Anson-load.

Well, we started up. In the end, I think, we got about five or six there. It was going to be, obviously, a bits-and-pieces buffet. You couldn’t have what NOW, in the year 1980, we call a PARTY. It would be a sort-of buffet of bits of things on bread and toast and biscuits and, possibly, a bit of cold chicken, or something of that sort, but it wouldn’t be what is, today, called a party, although, it was more fun than the greatest party in the world. Those days, you really appreciated what you COULD get.

And so we started off with, let’s say, six people and we were having a ball and, bit by bit, one came in, and two came in, and then, to my astonishment, we eventually found that all the people, who I thought would NOT be there, WERE there.

Well, I knew better than to spoil a good party, by asking how they got there, because I was reasonably sure that it must have been by some extremely-illicit way. So, the party went on, but there was a lot of whispering to my wife, when I knew they were saying “Don’t tell the old man what’s happened but this, this, this and this . . .”, so I didn’t even ask her.

We had a very pleasant evening and everything went off well – and the next morning, I had ‘em all into the office and said “And now, let’s hear the story, please”.

Well, it turned out that what had happened was as follows:

They had all gone out there, all delivered a number of aircraft, to different parts of England, and when the ‘taxi’ came round to pick them up, it was getting rather late and they wanted to do their very best to get back to base, which was only a matter of a mile, or a mile-and-a-half from my house. In their enthusiasm, they flew a little longer than they should, and it got darker and darker. They knew they were extremely close to the aerodrome, but they couldn’t see it because there was no airport-lighting, because we didn’t fly at night.

So, they found themselves very near the aerodrome, but not in sight, and it was getting dark, very fast. They figured there was only one thing to do – “We must land. Any moment we see a field large enough to land in, we will put the aircraft down”. It was an Anson, which carried ten pilots.

They had made a very good guess, because they were near the aerodrome and even nearer my home. So, they parked the plane, tied it down and wandered, bit by bit, into the house for the party.

After meting out suitable words and punishments, the next thing to do was to find out how we could get the aeroplane out. This was not so easy, because they had landed it extremely-skillfully in a very small field – too small for taking off from. However, there were a number of fields next-door to it and, if we could make a hole in the hedge, we would be able to take off, up the hill and over the ridge.

So, I went to the local farmer, whom I knew casually, and asked him if he would let me break down a wide-enough gap in the fence, to fly the plane through it, and get it off the ground. And, to my intense surprise, he said No, he wasn’t prepared to; we’d done enough damage, landing in his field.

So I said “Well, what value do you put on the two fields?” He mentioned not-a-very-large sum, so I said “Will you sell ‘em?” He said yes, he’d sell ‘em. Certainly. So, I bought his two fields and we made the gap in the hedge.

However, the next thing we found was a problem BECAUSE, if you went UP THE HILL and got to the leveling-off place, from where you started off, you could not see the gap in the hedge – so we had to provide PEOPLE, who would produce a line for the take-off pilot to see where he was going.

And, to do this, we quickly got in touch with the local clergyman and the local school and wondered whether they would like to come and see an aeroplane (which was a perfectly unclassified old Anson that was doing no harm to anyone and could never be used as a warplane, in any way) and they thought yes, this would be a very good idea. – and we said, well there is a TINY catch to it, we are going to take it off, immediately after they’ve had a look at it, and do you think they could stand and make a bit of a line, so that we would run her up the hill and over the hills and far away . . .

And they agreed, this would be quite a reasonable thing, so we got all my pilots (the ones who had landed) to hand over their sweets-ration, which was a pretty small one, and we, in due course, got a few of the local schoolchildren to come out, and they took a look at the plane – not from too close, but they walked around it and said “Oohs” and “Ahs”, and we gave them all a few small bags of sweets, and they made the line and, in due course, we were ready to take off.

I thought that, since all my chaps had broken the law, I might as well break one, too, so I decided to take it off and up the hill I went and we got it back on our own aerodrome.

I have a sneaking feeling that, somewhere along the line, my headquarters got to know about it, but they were kind enough never to ask any difficult questions. No harm was done to anyone. A lot of aeroplanes were delivered. No pilot wasted one minute of his time; they were all flying the next day. Only I was mixed up with getting it back to the aerodrome and the schoolchildren got some sweets.

The local clergyman was happy. The local schoolmaster was happy.
The local farmer was happy. In fact, he was so happy that he agreed to take no payment for the fields, at all. We hadn’t gone through any paperwork. They’d never really been sold. I think he probably always meant to do this, if the operation was a success, so we repaired his field, we put back his hedge.

Everybody was happy. No harm had been done to anyone and we had a jolly good Christmas party.

End of story.


In February 1944, Francis Francis, millionaire C.O at Ratcliffe Ferry Pool, had a Beaufort to deliver from Cosford to Melton Mowbray. In deteriorating weather he ignored ATA rules, climbed above cloud and then couldn’t find a hole to get back down. He even went towards flat East Anglia, descended in cloud to 3,000ft, where the icing was so bad that he climbed back up again. Running short of fuel and calculating he was somewhere near Chester, he trimmed the aircraft so that it would head west across Wales to the Irish Sea. He baled out, which upset the trim of the aircraft so that it flew in circles as he floated down. Eventually it got on a straight course and eventually plunged into the sea. He landed safely. Family legend says that he was so embarrassed by losing one of His Majesty’s aircraft by his own stupidity that he sent the Air Ministry a cheque for a new one! The subsequent ATA inquiry found him responsible for the loss of the aircraft.