Marion Wilberforce (1902 - 1995)
As we look to celebrate the 85th Anniversary of the first flight of one of our most iconic aircraft designs, the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire, perhaps we should spare a few moments for those pilots of Britain’s most famous fighter who gained little recognition.
Flying Spitfires is the dream of most pilots and there are amazing stories of dogfights and heart-stopping encounters.
However, we should spare a thought for those often-unsung women who climbed into so many different aircraft during World War II (often with little or no instruction) to deliver these magnificent new flying machines to the frontline pilots. Some had never even seen a Spitfire before their first flight let alone understood the unusual characteristics of taxying, take off and most difficult of all, landing!
One of these unsung female pilots was Marion Wilberforce, a Scottish Aviator and one of the first ever members of the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and a lady whose story needs to be told.
One of seven children and born on 22nd July 1902, Marion’s father was John Ogilvie-Forbes, the 9th Laird of Boyndlie. Such was her formidable character that she took over the management of running the House and Estate, despite being only 12 years of age. By 14, she could be found on horseback, collecting the rent money from estate tenants who rarely tried to take advantage of her young age.
Home-schooled by a series of French governesses, she spent 2 of her teenage years in a convent near Stoney Stratford. She later attended Somerville College, Oxford where she gained a degree in agriculture. After moving to Reading University, she became a leading member of the Women's Mountaineering Team, taking charge of numerous student expeditions to Snowdonia and the French and Italian Alps. Nobody argued with Marion as she had also obtained a certificate of merit in jiujutsu.
Once ‘finished with school’, she financed flying lessons by working for various outdoor magazines in London, eventually joining 2 of her brothers in obtaining her Private Pilot’s Licence in 1930.
Using the money she had earned on the Stock-Market as a child, she purchased a De Havilland Cirrus Moth in 1937, before graduating on to a DH Hornet Moth within a year or so. A measure of her business sense was that for tax purposes, her aircraft were always recorded as ‘farm implements’, kept in a barn, and used to ferry poultry. Occasionally, she would also transport Dexter cattle, which she bred precisely because they would fit into the aeroplanes.
On 16th December 1939, Marion joined a group of twelve women pilots who were assembled at Whitchurch Aerodrome, where they flight-tested in a De Havilland Gypsy Moth.
The group were quickly reduced to a group known later as ‘The First Eight’ and Marion was selected alongside Joan Hughes, Margaret Cunnison, Winifred Crossley-Fair, Mona Friedlander, Gabrielle Patterson, Margaret Fairweather and Rosemary Rees, all destined to report for duty under the command of Pauline Gower.
Marion was chosen as 2nd in Command of this new group of women who were tasked with one of the most hazardous jobs in aviation - ferrying brand new (and often unproven) aircraft to and from factories, and dispersals to operational RAF stations around. She officially joined the ATA in February 1940, primarily as First Deputy of the No.5 ATA Women’s Flying Pool, based at De Havilland Aircraft, Hatfield.
When she arrived at Hatfield, she had flown a little under 900 hours although by March 1943, she had flown a further one thousand and eight hundred hours more. During this early part of World War II, she flew over 30 different types of aircraft, although the prejudice encountered from male colleagues resulted in the ATA women only being allocated to non-operational aircraft.
By mid-1941 however, the determined and talented Marion
Within weeks she had flown her first Spitfire, the second such aircraft donated by the citizens of Grimsby and which she convinced the factory to name the aircraft Grimsby II.
During 1942, she flew a whole range of twin-engine medium bombers, although within 2 years she became one of only eleven women pilots trained to fly four-engine bombers, such as the Avro Lancaster. By the end of World War II, Marion had flown most of the 147 different type flown by members of the ATA.
On one occasion she arrived at Hatfield to discover the workers were on strike and her aircraft could not be released. Never shy or retiring, Marion went to the canteen, stood on a table, and gave a resounding speech about the war effort - this secured the release of her aircraft.
One of her colleagues at Hatfield was Amy Johnson, one of the most famous British female aviators. Marion knew her well although she was irritated when asked for her opinion of Amy, she would have to bite her lip as she considered her to be ‘overrated and a poor flyer, prone to panic’. It should be noted that she is never quoted as saying this in public.
During WWII, over 20,000 Vickers Supermarine Spitfires were produced in the Supermarine Works Southampton and Castle Bromwich factories, so the women flyers were based at two separate ferry ‘pools’ close to the Spitfire factories – one in Hamble, Southampton and the other near Cosford. The women worked 13 successive days on, followed by two days off. Each day’s routine – flying to and from factories, front line squadrons and maintenance units – would begin at the ferry pools with the handing out of delivery chits. They flew ‘blind’ with just maps, a compass and a watch, though some would eventually make it their business to teach themselves instrument flying by scrounging sessions in an early flight simulator called a Link Trainer. It is hard to imagine but it was not until after D-Day in June 1944, that the female ATA pilots were taught how to use radios.
In 1943, Marion was appointed Commander of the No 12 Ferry Pool at RAF Cosford, one of only two women Pool Commanders in the whole Air Transport Auxiliary which boasted 1,152 male and 168 female pilots. From Cosford, she delivered Spitfires and Avro Lancasters all over the UK, with many being onward flown to South Africa, India and the Middle East and used in numerous areas of conflict throughout the war. On some days, she would ferry as many as four different aircraft, hopping from one aerodrome to another, and in the second half of 1944 alone she made some 114 deliveries.
Whilst this may appear to have been a relatively safe role, 1 in every 10 female pilots in the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary lost their lives during the war. Unfortunately, precise records of flights are difficult to find but we are certain that the number of deliveries and transfers conducted by Marion would be counted in the thousands. At the end of the war, Marion transferred to the ATA Air Movements flight, transferring aircraft as far afield as Pilsen, in Czechoslovakia.
Post war, her dislike of ‘unnecessary noise in the aeroplane’ meant she would frequently fly without a radio and on one occasion she disrupted a NATO exercise as she circled the airfield waving her wings, waiting for someone to show her a flag indicating that she could land. When no flag was seen she assumed that nobody was about and so she landed only to be greeted on shut down by 12 heavily armed soldiers. She frequently navigated by following the features on the ground below, using fields as airstrips.
Marion continued flying around Britain and Ireland, visiting friends, or crossing the channel, landing unannounced at private airfields around Europe. When feeling bored she would take off from her home base in Essex, heading for lunch in Luxembourg or an opera in Vienna. On one occasion in 1953, she accidentally strayed out of Austrian and into Russian airspace, only to find herself being shot at. Thankfully, it was only warning fire and she hightailed it back to the UK.
Marion was 80-years old when she decided that the time had come to give up flying.
In civilian life, she always flew De Havilland Hornet Moths, of which only thirty were made. She rarely flew ‘two up’ and her first aircraft had the luxury of leather seats and a fully enclosed two-seat cabin. Whilst this may have seemed decadent at the time, it would most certainly have been uncomfortable sitting alongside a calf or a dozen chickens. With her roots in agriculture, it was little surprise that her second Hornet Moth was purchased from a butcher in Aberdeen, and when she stopped flying it was sold to an Australian sheep farmer.
In peacetime, she was best known in aviation as someone who did what she was not meant to do. She would be seen ‘skirting the ground at two hundred feet to avoid radar’ often on a route she should not have been on.
Although offered an MBE at the end of the war, this was quickly declined along with many requests for interviews regarding her service career.
Marion passed away on 17th December 1995 (aged 93).
This snapshot of one woman out of the millions in Britain who were ‘doing their bit’ throughout World War II, working on the Home Front in all sorts of less visible or glamorous jobs, adopting comradeship and endurance unimaginable to us now.
One thing is for certain however, whilst the 85-year-old Spitfire may have been a hero of World War II, the likes of Marion and her fellow pilots of the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary were the real heroines!