Mary Ellis: The Fierce Female Flyer of WWII

Mary Ellis lived an extraordinary life. She was an active flyer and British ferry pilot during the second world war. Later flying jet engines for the RAF, a claim only a handful of women would ever proudly hold.

Mary would put her life on the line to do what she loved. Completely fearless she knocked down whatever barriers faced her. Refusing to let anything, be that sexism or enemy fire, stop her from getting in her plane cockpit:

“I am passionate for anything fast and furious. I always have been since the age of three and I always knew I would fly.”

Pilot Mary Ellis in her cockpit.

Born Mary Wilkins, in February 1917, to a farming family in rural Oxfordshire, Mary’s passion for aviation was clear from the get go. Growing up close to Royal Air Force bases in Bicester and Port Meadow. She never missed a flying demonstration and her father, keen to fuel her dream, took her to as many shows as he could.

When Mary was 11 years old a flying circus came to town and her father paid for her to have a ride on a biplane (a thing you could totally let children do then…oh and if you were wondering, the plane was a de Havilland DH.60 Moth)

Like that, she was hooked. Mary was determined to become a pilot and spend the rest of her life in these magnificent flying machines. 

So, when she was 16 she started flying lessons and pretty quickly had her very own pilots license.

Hardly out of puberty AND already owning the skies – nice work Mary

In 1941 a call went out from the UKs ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) for pilots to help transport planes across the Chanel to the WWII front line. Naturally, Mary wanted to help the war effort in any way she could, so signed up and with 167 other brave female pilots who flew aircraft from Britain over to the front line flying squadrons. As well as transporting planes from factories to airfields over the UK too.

During the war Mary flew an estimated 1000 planes made up of 76 different types of aircraft, including 400 Spitfires, which were Mary’s favourite. She said of them:

“I love it, it’s everybody’s favourite, I think it’s a symbol of freedom.”

But, no matter her flying prowess, Mary didn’t always get the respect from others around her – sexism was a daily part of her life. 

Once when she flew a Wellington bomber to an airbase, the crew there refused to believe she’d been the one who flew the plane. They even searched the cockpit for the ‘real’ pilot. Mary remembered:

“Girls flying aeroplanes was almost a sin at that time.”

And it wasn’t just the troops. The press were very against the idea of women pilots seeing it as unbecoming and ‘unfitting of their sex’.

Mary’s mother also had her reservations about her daughter flying these monster machines. BUT, Mary refused to let anyone’s opinions stop her.

She loved being in the air. She loved to serve her country. And nothing could stop her from doing what she loved. 

Get it girl!

The job Mary, and the dozens of other women just like her, were doing was a dangerous one. Often the women had to fly a plane new to them, with no chance for test flights. They just had to rely on pilot’s notes to get the landings right.

And if they were taking a plane to the front line, the risks of getting shot down were high. In all 15 female pilots were killed while working for the ATA during WWII.

After the war Mary continued working with the RAF becoming one of the first female pilots to fly a Gloster Meteor Jet Engine, which had speeds of up to 616 miles per hour (991km/h)! They were absolute BEASTS!

In 1950 Mary moved to the Isle of Wight so she could take over running Sandown airport, she became the first woman air commandant, in charge of an airport in Great Britain!

While working there she met her future husband Don Ellis, a fellow pilot and they married in 1961, living in a house next to the Sandown runway. Now, Mary never needed to be away from her planes.

She managed Sandown for 20 years and founded the Isle of Wight Aero Club during that time too.

Mary with one of her beloved Spitfires

When Mary turned 100 (!) she was recognised for her contribution to aviation by RAF base at Brize Norton by a plaque celebrating her achievements.

Then in 2018 the Isle of Wight gave her their highest honour, the Freedom of the Isle of Wight.

Mary Ellis passed away this year on July 24th at the amazing age of 101, she was remembered by her family as being an amazing, warm and driven woman. Her story shows that courage and determination can get you so very far.

That was interesting, where can i find out more? Well there’s a magnificent biography on Mary: A Spitfire Girl: One of the World’s Greatest Female ATA Ferry Pilots Tells Her Story by Mary and Melody Foreman

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The 7 Fiercest Warrior Queens: Part 2

Well here is the second part of our look at some of history’s most BADASS WARRIOR WOMEN! We can’t tell you how much fun we’ve had reading about all these amazing and inspiring ladies.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading about them all!

Rani Lakshmi Bai

Manikarnika was born to a noble family in Jhansi, India in 1828. She grew up to lead a resistance against the British Raj that instilled a sense of hope and admiration that has lasted through to this day.

Her mother died when she was only 4 and her father worked in the court of the Peshwa of Bithoor, a Prime Minister type position. The Peshwa took a shine to her and she was encouraged to learn how to shoot, fence and ride horses along with the other boys in the court.

Damn right babe! Via Giphy

In 1842 Manikarnika was married to the King of Jhansi, who was a widower and 25 years her senior. Her name was changed to Lakshmi Bai and she was now royalty, ruling over Jhansi with her husband, though she didn’t act like other royal wives, continuing to shoot, fence and ride as well as any other pursuit that took her fancy.

At the time of British Imperial rule over India, the British only recognised Kingdoms with legitimate heirs. Manikarnika did bear a son, but he died a few months after his birth, they decided to adopt an heir and hope this kept their kingdom under their rule.

Portrait of Rani Lakshmi Bai. Via Wikipedia

The king passed away in 1853 and the British Empire took this as their shot and pushed to take over Jhansi as they saw no legitimate heir. They offered her an annual pension and told her to get the fuck out of dodge.

Manikarnika was not having this, and in 1857 to 1859 she rallied her armies and fought a bloody rebellion to keep the British out of her lands. She dressed as a man and made a fearsome sight on the battlefield, riding with a sword in each hand.

FUCK YES! Via Giphy

However eventually the British broke through her ranks at the fort of Gwalinor so Manikarnika had to flee with her adopted son. She strapped him to her back and fought her way through the battle on horseback with a sword in each hand, holding the reins in her mouth!

She got away to safety but was mortally wounded. She was said to have been found by a hermit, and she handed her son to him and asked that he burn her body so the British couldn’t defile it. 


Lozen and her brother Victorio were part of the Chihenne Chiricahua Apache tribe. Victorio was the chief and Lozen was his personal warrior and a prophet.

Her tribe was forced to relocate to the harsh San Carlos Reservation, it was known as Hell’s 40 Acres… probably not a nice place.

No shit… Via Giphy

The conditions were deplorable, so the tribe left the reservation in 1877 and they began raiding the lands that had once been there’s while avoiding military capture.

Victorio said of his sister

“Lozen is my right hand… Strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.’

Lozen was also kind at heart. She led women and children from her tribe to safety across the Rio Grande, encouraging the terrified group to cross the river by going in first. An account from that time from James Kaywaykla (one of the children) paints an amazing picture

“I saw a magnificent woman on a beautiful horse—Lozen, sister of Victorio. Lozen the woman warrior! High above her head she held her rifle. There was a glitter as her right foot lifted and struck the shoulder of her horse. He reared, then plunged into the torrent. She turned his head upstream, and he began swimming”

Her beloved brother was killed in 1881, during a battle she was not present at (she was safely accompanying a mother and new born back to her tribe) and Lozen immediately rode to the survivors’ aid.

Us too. What a woman!!! Via Giphy

Lozen and the survivors took a bloody revenge and teamed up with Geronimo as they fought against the American Military who were taking over their homes. She was eventually captured, and she died while a prisoner of war. Her body was released to her tribe, so she could be buried with honour.

Nakano Takeko

Nakano was an Onna-bugeisha, a female Samurai. That’s badass.

She was born in Edo, Japan in 1847, and was the daughter of an Aizu official. Her Dad was off on official business a lot, so Nakano was adopted by martial arts trainer Akaoa Daisuke and he trained her up trained up in various forms of martial arts and weapons combat. She was also educated to a very high standard and was just an all-round excellent pupil.

Photo of Nakano. Via Wikipedia

She ran a martial arts school with Akaoa for a while, which is just an amazing achievement in itself, but Nakano went to her father in Aizu in 1856. Our girl was destined to fight in the Boshin Civil War that raged on in Aizu from 1886 to 1889.

The Imperial Japanese Army of the Ogaki domain mounted a campaign to take over the lands there and a resistance in Aizu was forming. Nakano trained up 20 women in the art of combat and weaponry. She trained her own all female killer army!!!


They fought alongside the all-male Aizu Army, though they weren’t officially recognised. Nakano’s weapon of choice was a naginata, which is a long pole, with a curved blade at the end.

During a high point of one battle Nakano led a charge against the Imperial Japanese Army. She was fatally shot in the chest. She didn’t want the opposition defiling her remains or using her as a scapegoat so she persuaded one of her army to decapitate her and bury her head where her enemies wouldn’t find it.

Understatement here… Via Giphy

She was buried under a pine tree at the Hokai Temple (modern day Fukushima) and a monument to her was erected beside her grave. She’s still celebrated now! For the Aizu Autumn Festival women take part in the procession, wearing traditional hakama and headbands  to commemorate Nakano and her women army.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

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