Historical Connections

Rossa writes of when family is a bit out of the ordinary:

I am very fortunate to be part of a widespread family that has had more than its fair share of pioneers. To say it couldn’t happen today is not completely true, but these ancestors and members of my family went to places very few people had been before and also became part of a personal family history that I’d like to share.

The Spitfire Lady

This week I was very interested in the programme about the Spitfire Ladies on BBC2. That is because it featured Freydis Sharland, now 89, who was my late grandfather’s first cousin, (making her my first cousin twice removed) and now a grandmother of nine. We have a big family!

To say she was an amazing, remarkable woman would be an understatement, as were all the other Spitfire ladies both past and present. It has taken until very recently for their contribution to history to be acknowledged with a medal commemorating their achievements and now a televised record for posterity.

Freydis Sharland, 3rd from the right.

She first flew a Spitfire when only 21 years old, the first of over 100. To do that she had joined the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary, and became a ferry pilot. She was one of a band of over 150 intrepid lady pilots who were recruited to fly some of the second world war’s most iconic planes from the factory to the RAF pilots on the front line. Not just the Spitfire but everything from a Tiger Moth up to a Lancaster Bomber. Often they would fly 4 or 5 different planes in one day.

Their job was just as dangerous as the men’s. They flew without instruments or radios, unarmed and in atrocious conditions at constant risk of enemy attack. The casualty rate among the women of the ATA was almost as high as that among the men of Fighter Command. As well as the enemy, the women also had to deal with an old- fashioned macho culture in the RAF. They had to battle for the right to wear trousers instead of skirts and silk stockings in open cockpits where the wind chill could reach – 30 deg F.

Freydis (on the left) was often mistaken for an officer as she is over 6’ tall. That was soon put to rights when she took off her flying helmet and her hair tumbled down to her shoulders. She is reputed in our family to have taken her cat with her on some of her missions to rescue soldiers who were evacuated from the beaches of Northern France.

And once the war was over there were no jobs as pilots for the women in civil aviation as the demobbed RAF boys took all the jobs in civvy street. Freydis became a trainer with the Women’s Junior Air Corps and once delivered a Tempest aircraft single- handedly to Pakistan – where she was refused entry to the officers’ mess because she was a woman.

By VJ Day, at the end of the war, 8 other members of our family had been lost including Derek, Freydis’s brother. In some ways I think she was sorry the adventure was over. Eventually she married and had three children. She gave up flying until the eldest reached 17.  However, as soon as she could she went back into the air. She was still flying microlights in her 70s.

There’s a good interview with her here if you’d like to hear her story told in her own words.



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1 comment for “Historical Connections

  1. October 3, 2010 at 22:03

    Very interesting, thank you 🙂

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