The Attagirls - Unsung heroes of WWII.


They and others answered the call to serve a nation at war.

(Previously published in 2018 and republished today, on Remembrance Day).

When war began in 1939, many Canadian men answered the call to duty. Women also wanted to contribute to the war effort, but were only allowed to serve in medical or nursing roles. That changed as the war effort ramped up in the early 1940s.

“We serve so that men may fly” was the initial motto of the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

How is it that we hear so little of the 168 women who became the top guns of WWII?  They flew Spitfires, Hurricane fighters, Wellington and Lancaster bombers and a total of over 40 different types of aircraft.

Male pilots received much of the glory that was certainly due to them, but what about the women?

Female aviators fulfilled a much needed role during the Second World War. Unfortunately, their stories have been largely forgotten.

The needs of war: new recruits

When war broke out, Canadian women were not allowed to enlist much less fly planes. In 1939, enthusiasm was high and many men enlisted. As war continued and no end was in sight, both the British and Canadian governments were in dire need of new recruits, particularly pilots.

The Brits needed pilots to fly planes from factories and airfields to their military bases.

In Britain, women had been serving in uniform, since before the war began. When Britain started sending women of the WAAF (British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) to Canada as part of their training teams, the Canadian government was in a difficult position. It was forced to reconsider its policy of allowing only men to enlist.

Canadian women play an active role in war

The Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Force or CWAAF was formed in 1941. Initially, 150 women were chosen from 2000 applicants. The first women were sent overseas on active duty in 1942.

Other noteworthy facts:

  • 17,038 women served in the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women’s Division) during WWII.
  • 30 died in active service.
  • Women served in 69 of 102 trades.
  • Women were initially paid 2/3 of men’s wages for similar positions but that wage was increased to 80% of men’s wages in 1943. (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

At the end of the war, women had not served in combative capacities, but they had done their part in over 65 different jobs that had previously been the exclusive territory of men including aero-engineering, photo interpretation, radar mechanics, and wireless operators. (Canadian Aviation Historical Society )

photo by rob bye at unsplash

The Attagirls

The WWII Attagirl - forgotten war heroesThe “Attagirls” are a specific group of female pilots from around the world who enrolled in the National Women’s Air Reserve. The youngest pilot was 17 years old. There were 168 female pilots employed by the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain during WWII.

They were named the “Attagirls”. (acronym ATA for British Air Transport Auxiliary- this organization hired both male and female aviators.) The women quickly became known as Attagirls because of their ability to fly more than one type of plane.

The main duty of the ATA pilots was to fly planes from the factory to the airfield or to pilot air ambulances. They often flew planes they had never flown before. Their job was crucial as casualties mounted during the war and pilots and planes were lost.

Glamour girls with flying experience

The female pilots were the glamour girls of the war.  The features vintage photos that shows they were photographed and featured on front pages of newspapers and magazines. They were very photogenic in their flying uniform, but they were something of an oddity as well.  People had never seen female pilots before. They were certainly trailblazers in many ways and were the first wave of female pilots to receive equal pay to their male counterparts.

Many of the women in service for ATA were experienced pilots who flew as civilians before the war, and had already accumulated many hours of flying experience.  For example, Marion Alice Powell from Toronto, Ontario, was the manager and chief flight instructor at the St. Catherines Flying Club in 1942.  She joined the Attagirls after being turned away by the RCAF.

Amy Johnson became a “poster girl” in Great Britain before war was declared. Her solo flights in the 1930s broke several records including fastest flight from Britain to Moscow and Britain to Japan. Johnson died while serving the ATA in 1941.

Pauline Gower had over 2000 flying hours and had flown 30,000 passengers when war began. She is the woman who is credited with convincing the upper brass that a female section of pilots should be added to the ATA.

gerry smith photo at unpslash


More information and original footage of WASPS

The BBC documentary Spitfire Sisters, Women of the ATA, (available on YouTube) has excellent original footage and interviews with the women who piloted planes during the war.  Many of them affirm that above all, the Spitfire was the plane they loved to fly because it was highly responsive and fast. Another excellent documentary "WASPS Women Air Service Pilots in World War Two" concentrates on American female pilots who served during the war.  This video is also available on Youtube.

There are three “Attagirls” still living today: one Canadian, Jaye Edwards,  (recently featured on our national news network), one American, and one British.

After the war, the WD ceased to exist and women became an integral part of the RCAF.  The WD motto also ceased to exist and women and men adopted the same motto: "Per Adua ad Astra"  - "Through Adversity to the Stars".

gerry smith photo at unsplash

Photo credits:

Photo of planes in formation: rob bye at unsplash

Photo of British and American Spitfires: gerry smith at unsplash





2 Responses

  • What an interesting and informative post Louise, thank you for sharing. Your painting is fantastic also, you must be pleased with the final result ?

    • Yes, for what it is…I am pleased. The research and writing of the text took longer than the painting itself which is not usually the case. I just hope I got the correct facts! Thank you Sally!

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