Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
My Life in the Sky
Head of Zeus, July 3, 2014
ISBN 9781 781859896
Spitfire Girl is a new paperback edition of this autobiography, first published in 1957, but long out of print. Head of Zeus has done a great service in reviving this title. HoZ are a newish independent publisher, with long time industry professionals Anthony Cheetham and Amanda Ridout at the helm. Their list seems to have a bias to female authors and issues, and as such are usually unlikely to feature much on this site. But Spitfire Girl is an absolute cracker, and I cannot think why I have not hunted out an old copy before.
Jackie had a somewhat charmed upbringing in South Africa in a family with sufficient resources to indulge her yearning to learn to fly. And it is very clear from the earliest pages that Jackie was bitten by the flying bug in her teens, in a way that most pilots will recognise. The sky was waiting for her, and she developed the skills to enjoy its charms – and witness its torments. Whilst flying is the core of the book, Moggridge writes tenderly about its impact on those dear to her. Her mother, as was to be expected of the era, was somewhat horrified about her daughter’s ambitions, more so when she left her homeland in 1939 to seek a commercial licence in the UK.
War of course intervened and a 19 year old Moggridge did not hesitate to join the WAAFs at the humblest rank, the notion of female aviators not having entered the brains of the Air Staff. There is plenty of amusement in her wry treatment of her first days in the service.
The creation of the Air Transport Auxiliary was heaven sent for the young Moggridge, and the book gives an interesting insight into the management style of Pauline Gower, its female dynamo. It had already become established by the time Moggridge joined, and with witty self-deprecation typical of her style she describes her faux pas on entering the crew room at Hatfield for the first time. “There were four or five women lounging on chairs and tables. One was laughing uproariously as I entered. I looked at her dumbfounded as I recognised the face that inspired me during my brief flying career and had flitted on the world’s headlines for a decade. Idiotically I rushed to her and gushed ’Miss Johnson may I have your autograph?’ She stared at me, astonished. Oh God I wished the floor would open up and devour me. How could I have behaved so inanely. Suddenly she grinned ‘My dear child. I’ll swap it for yours’.” A few pages later the author gives an interesting perspective on the circumstances surrounding poor Amy’s death – as she was doing a broadly similar flight at the same time.
Perhaps the fact she was an outsider enabled her to write so perceptively about the nuances of British society; more surprising then, that she does so in a quintessentially graceful English prose style. As she evolves from a naïve young girl into a more assured young woman she attracts a young army officer. Her account of his courtship (it is rather one-sided) is brutal, and she carries through this forensic self-analysis of all her relationships. Moggridge also captures perfectly the stresses caused by enforced wartime absences and the strains as other males hove into view. But once married, and established in her ATA career, her contentment soars. There were many interesting characters within the female echelons of the ATA, and it is a shame she does not describe them in any detail. I know from first-hand experience of meeting Diana Barnato Walker and Mary Atkins, and also of flying Joy Lofthouse, that these were a remarkable and entertaining cohort. Moggridge’s first pregnancy coincides with war’s end, and her method of announcing it is typical of her spirit.
Despite the strains of raising an infant in post-War Britain, Moggridge is keen to sustain an aviation career, and it is depressing to read of the misogyny endemic in the industry which prevented her from fulfilling her promise. The last quarter of the book relates her ultimately very satisfying employment ferrying Israeli Air Force Spitfires to Burma. [These are the same airframes that were recently the subject of a fruitless search in Burma/Myanmar.] That task was as exciting as it sounds. The description of the flying reaches at least the heights achieved by, say, Geoffrey Wellum, and she almost manages the lyricism of Saint-Exupery or Ernie Gann – she really is one of the best pilot writers I have encountered. The tribulations of flying down the Burmese coast in the monsoon season trying to reach Rangoon/Yangon resonated with me, as 13 years ago I followed the same track.
The end of the Burma flights marks the end of the book – which is a shame – it is a page-turner, and I did not want it to finish. The author did in the end go on to establish a career with Britain’s minor airlines, and it would have been atypical had she not conjured more magical stories from these times. But that was not to be, and they are either lost or secured in the family annals.
This is a wonderful book, which certainly will appeal to pilots and aviation buffs. It also deserves to reach a female readership interested in in the adventures of a spirited and pioneering woman.
If I have one criticism of Spitfire Girl, it is a minor one: the illustrations are reproduced in grainy b&w, inevitable perhaps in a modern paperback, but the material deserves better.