Freydis Sharland (nee Leaf) was born and raised in Cambridge and attended Wykham Abbey School. She shared her wartime memories in a recorded interview with Matthew Smaldon in 2009.
One evening I was at a dance in Cambridge and I as I danced with my father he said to me, “I think I really must let you go and learn how to fly because I am learning too.” The three of us, my father, my brother and I all learnt at Marshalls Flying School. I was about 17.
There were one or two other girls, Veronica (Falkirk?) who became an ATA pilot with me, she learned to fly there, but I didn’t meet other girls all that often. We were taken for granted by the men there. Of course, women had been flying from the very start.
We learnt to fly on Gypsy Moths, the same sort of little moth that Amy Johnson flew to Australia, so we were in good company. They also taught people to be fighter pilots at Marshalls and had battles around circuits.
Once the war started all civil flying stopped so I couldn’t do any more. Father joined the Barrage Balloon Battalion and my brother was already in the Wavy Navy, the RNVR. At the outbreak of war I was living in Twickenham. My mother was in a Red Cross group and I worked as a VAD in a military hospital in Colchester for about a year. I was dying to get into the ATA but every time I wrote to them they said no. My four hours and forty (minutes) solo was not enough. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1942 that they ran out of people with more flying than me and they gave me a flight test at White Waltham aerodrome.
The instructor told me to take over the plane, start up the engine and take off which I did. Then we did some circuits and we flew, climbed and descended and various other manoeuvres he asked me to perform. All the time I kept an eye on where the aerodrome was because, I thought, “I bet he’ll ask me to find my way home.” which eventually he did. I knew exactly where it was so I turned to the aerodrome and flew home. I did a circuit there and landed , went into the club house and waited. Then I heard I had passed my flying test and they would try to get me into the ATA.
My father was very supportive. He knew it was rather dangerous and risky but he knew it was a good job and took a great interest in it. Mother was very long suffering about it all but she accepted it was the war and that I was doing something useful. My brother was very keen on my flying and joining the ATA.
It took a little while because I was quite useful as a nurse and the thinking was, why go off doing something else when you are perfectly alright doing nursing. They did eventually let me go.
The ATA was started in 1939 by Gerard d’Erlanger, a banker and a private flyer. He had a group of friends who had done a lot of flying but were too old or infirm to join the services and he wrote to them suggesting they start an organisation to do some flying for the Air Force and the Navy to save time for the contact pilots. Eight women who had learnt to fly and were acting as flying instructors were recruited as the first women in the ATA and to start with they were just flying Tiger Moths to Scotland, which the men didn’t want to do as it was so cold. As things tightened up, the work became more important and they did more flying after they had been trained on single seater fighters and twin engine aircraft and that’s about the time I came in. We started off with Miles Magisters, little single engine training planes, that sort of aircraft and then went back and did training on twinned engine aircraft, Oxfords, Ansons and Rapides, and then on heavier single engine things after which you were able to fly Hurricanes, Spitfires in fact any single engine or twin engine plane that needed ferrying.
I was stationed at Hamble, down near Southampton. There was a whole factory turning out Spitfires so we flew those sometimes. It was all rather exciting. We flew them to maintenance units where various modifications would be made or to the squadrons who would be flying them in combat.
I also flew Ansons, Oxfords, Bostons, Wellingtons, Blenheims and after the Spitfires and Seafires we flew Tornados, Tempests and Mosquitos. We got quite keen on flying new types and there was quite a lot of competition with everyone trying to fly as many aeroplanes as they could. It was always interesting in the morning when you got your chits. These told you what they wanted you to fly and where to.
The weather was our limiting factor and if we couldn’t see the ground we would be lost so we could only fly when the weather was clear. We didn’t have radios, that was all kept for the combatants. We lost about 10% due to bad weather or errors of judgement – like flying into a hill or something but on the whole, the planes we collected were new, beautifully maintained with nothing wrong with them at all. If anything went wrong it would be down to the pilot.
We did get caught in bad weather from time to time. I remember feeling quite worried and frightened wondering whether I’d get through but if you allowed yourself enough time and were sensible about summing up the conditions you usually got through alright but when you landed you felt great relief!
The Spitfire was one of my favourite aeroplanes. It was so light, so manoeuvrable and you fitted into it so well, it was such a nice little cockpit. It was quite fast, so you had to take extra care in bad weather.
The Mosquito was quite hard to fly. Once the wheels and flaps were down it had quite a high stalling speed and you had to be very careful to keep well above that speed otherwise ‘Ping!’ one day you’d hit the ground and that would be the end of you.
I was up at Sherburn in Elmet in Yorkshire for a while and from there I flew up to a place in Scotland called Evanton, a Fleet Air Arm airfield. If the weather was bad on the way back I would put in at Leuchars. They were very nice people there. They’d all come in off operations and were spending a few months recovering from it all. They were great fun and I loved going there.
Navigation was quite easy. We had maps with us and I compared them to what I could see on the ground. Before you left you worked out the heights at which it was safe to fly and what large things, like lakes and mountains, you would see on the way, where you would see them and when, so that as they came up you knew you were on course until finally your destination turned up and that was that. It wasn’t terribly difficult, rather basic, and of course you got to know England like the back of your hand almost. If you got into difficulties you could often follow a railway line although there were some places, like the Midlands, where there were so many railway lines so that was no good. You would look for a lake or something like that.
I had some close friends in the ATA, particularly Margaret Frost, who came from Wales, and Joy Lofthouse. We used to see quite a lot of each other if we were on the ground but when we were flying we tended to do different things so I didn’t see them as much. We had quite varied backgrounds, Margaret’s father was a parson and I think Joy would have considered herself to be working class but I suppose most of us came from fairly privileged backgrounds in that they had enough cash to learn how to fly. That has been the limiting factor all through my life. It’s expensive, flying.
Pauline Gower, our Deputy Commandant was determined to do her best for us. We were paid less than the men in the ATA and when she showed Sir Stafford Cripps the records of what we’d all done he said, “They do the same work as the men and take the same risks, why aren’t they paid the same?” We said, “Why indeed?” and in 1943 we received equal pay and I became quite rich. I’d never had so much money in my life and I was able to put some by and make the deposit on a flat. That was lovely and entirely due to Sir Stafford Cripps giving us equal pay. It was perfectly justified, we were doing the same work and it was stupid to differentiate and give us so little money.
It was mostly men at Sherburn and on the whole they were very good and accepted us. We were trying to do the best we could and we realised if we made mistakes in aeroplanes some men would come down on us like a ton of bricks and say, “You see! I told you women can’t do it!” In fact women could do it and they did it quite successfully.
One day, when I was flying at White Waltham, I had an Anson taxi plane and I had to pick up an ATA pilot and another man and take them to an aerodrome from where they were flying to France. However, this pilot said “I refuse to fly with a woman!” and as he was senior to me I couldn’t really say much. He took over and I had to sit in the back feeling absolutely furious but I just had to accept it.
On the whole, things went smoothly but I did fly a Tiger Moth that was turned over in the slipstream of a Liberator. I was delivering it to a place in Wales and I could see all these Liberators lined up and one of them had started his engine. I should have stopped and waited for someone to hold my aeroplane but I didn’t, I thought I’d try and rush along behind him and get through but of course I didn’t. The Tiger Moth was a very flimsy little aircraft and the slipstream just turned me over. That was rather bad, it wasn’t too badly damaged – just the wings and the propeller, but I had to deliver it in a rather miserable state and I was responsible for it which was a black mark on my record.
You never knew what aircraft you would be flying or where you’d be going the next day, The RAF would ring up the pool in the night and the Operations Officers would take down a list of all the aeroplanes they wanted delivered the next day and where to, and then they’d work out who should do what.
You always tried to stay as safe as you could so that your aeroplane was brought safely to the squadron which was, of course, the whole point of it.
The war ended and I was very sad to stop flying because it had been such a wonderful job. I was very glad that the war was over, my brother had been killed by then and it wasn’t until afterwards that one had time to mourn the people who’d been killed, my brother and my cousins. I felt so sad for them that I didn’t go to any parties (the one I had been invited to was supposed to have been very good) I just went home. I felt the people I should have been celebrated with weren’t there.
Although I felt lucky, I always thought I’d live to see eighty. It was a sort of ingrained knowledge. I continued flying after the war and I got my commercial license and became the British Air Racing Champion in 1954. (ed. The first woman ever to hold the title – Flying a Hawk Major )
I never made much money, though. I packed it in when I was about seventy. I didn’t really want to fly much then.
Recorded under TAPE 4317 Listen here