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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meet The Clubmobile and the badass women who risked life and limb to travel to the front line…and deliver coffee and doughnuts to homesick troops. It might sound daft, but this scheme was crucial in boosting morale and keeping soldiers going during WW2.
Taking part in any active duty during a war is tough, but when you’re hundreds of miles from home in a totally different country hounded by the constant threat of death, it’s gonna make you miss home comforts. Which is why during WW2, The American Red Cross came up with, erm… a truly innovative way to give their boys overseas a taste of back home (and by innovative, we of course mean batshit)
America joined the war effort in December of 1941. And pretty soon, The good old US of A was getting reports back that their overseas troops were miserable. Unsurprising, considering war is an utter horror!
So the American Red Cross decided to try and bring US home comforts to Europe. They set up clubs and lounges in a blitz torn London and at some surrounding army barracks, where there were dances, coffee, food and good times all round. But what about the boys about to be shipped off to France? After all, they were feeling the fear most of all!
The Army asked The Red Cross to step in again and help. New York banker Harvey. D Gibson, happened to be the American Red Cross Commissioner to Great Britain and he had an idea! What if they could give the American’s the same home comforts, but on wheels! Thus, the Clubmobile was born.
A hot cup of coffee would be easy enough to serve up. But what about classic American food? Now obviously, they couldn’t serve up hamburgers from a tiny wagon on wheels that was parked next to a battlefield. So they came up with a close second, something that would surely bring a tear of joy to every traumatised soldier – doughnuts.
A prototype Clubmobile was quickly pulled together, from an adapted Ford truck with a 10 horsepower engine that was dubbed the ‘St Louis’. Inside the truck was a little kitchen complete with doughnut maker and a hob to boil up water for coffee.
Next they had to staff it. So a call was sent out across America for Clubmobile Girls. You had to be between the ages of 25 to 35 (so, hardly a girl then) and have some college education or work experience. You also needed to be ‘healthy, physically hardy, sociable and attractive.’
They were inundated with applications from women who wanted to help with the war effort and have an adventure overseas. These girls were quickly recruited and trained up on how to use the doughnut machine and make coffee by the bucketload…I guess they hoped that dodging bullets would hopefully just come naturally.
A trainee Clubmobile girl Rosemary Norwalk wrote to her family in 1943 that
“The biggest surprise to me has been the girls – almost without exception they‘re a cut above, and for some reason I hadn‘t expected that. There‘s not a dull one in the bunch.”
The initial pilot Clubmobile was a roaring success! So the Red Cross adapted a handful of London Green Line Buses to become Clubmobiles. These ones even had a small lounge, complete with a victrola, records, and paperback books!
The ‘girls’ also fought to get more useful items added to their clubmobiles, asking for gum, cigarettes, candy and (of course!) first aid kits for the soldiers. These women were looking out for their boys.
But these women were about to need A LOT more than first aid kits, because the Allied Army was cooking up something big: The Normandy Invasion of 1944. And, of course, for such a big fight, they wanted the Clubmobiles along to follow the army and keep troops morale up.
These brave women didn’t hesitate to say yes. But they couldn’t take the buses overseas. So the super hardy armoured Clubmobile was born. Made from converted 2 and a half ton GMC trucks. They had the kitchen and the lounge room (that doubled as bunks if the women couldn’t get to the base) and they even adapted one as a mobile cinema.
The Clubmobile girls would be driving these trucks and were trained on how to maintain them throughout their time overseas. Suddenly these women were learning new skills and being given responsibilities some of them never dreamed they could have.
100 Clubmobiles were made, and then after the Normandy Invasion, 10 groups of Clubmobile girls and 8 Clubmobiles were initially sent over to follow the Army through their retaking of allied territory.
These women were in the thick of war and experienced the hardships and horrific injuries the soldiers faced every day. They took their role as relief from the fighting seriously.
Most of the women were single, with a few exceptions. Eleanor Stevenson, worked as a Clubmobile girl so she could follow her new husband, soldier William Edward Stevenson, through enemy territory and keep involved in the war effort.
It was hard work operating the Clubmobiles, shifts started at all hours and women did regular shifts from 8pm to 7am. The conditions were hellish and they were expected to stay open through all weather. Not all of the women could do it.
Mary McLeod from Oregon lasted 6 months on the Clubmobiles before ill health had her request to be sent back to a land club, she was in her early 30’s during her stint as a Clubmobile girl. She wrote home in 1944 that working took a:
“―terrific toll… you have to be the Amazon type and on the young side, and I am neither.”
Mary Metcalfe Texford was in the first group of women to land on Utah beach after the invasion and she wrote about her experiences following the Army. The devastation they saw and even on one occasion having to stay up all night because the threat of Nazi’s launching an attack was a very real possibility. They witnessed horrors too, with Mary recalling she saw a:
“boy get blown up by a mine while eating his doughnut and coffee.”
But Mary had to continue serving and got on with her work.
And it wasn’t just the boys they served who lost their lives. Clubmobile girl, Elizabeth Richardson lost her life in 1945, whilst transferring to join the troops in Germany, when her Red Cross plane crashed.
The Clubmobiles and the women who ran them, stayed with the Allied Army Forces through until the end of WWII on the 2nd of September 1945. A small number of Clubmobiles stayed behind in occupied Germany and some in London to keep the American troops who stayed behind in doughnuts and coffee.
In fact, the Clubmobile was such a success that a variation was used during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
That was interesting, where can I find out more? Well some of the Club Girls have memoirs! Mary Metcalfe Rexfords’ Battlestars & Doughnuts and Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys by historian James H Madison on the experiences of Rosemary Norwalk are both a look back at life as Clubmobile Girls.
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 role of women in World War II was huge. From the Bletchley Park Codebreakers to the brave nurses that took to the battlefield to save lives by the thousand. Yet it’s only now that we’re discovering many of these stories.
That includes the lives of the 4 women we’ll be looking at today. Women who overcame thanks to their bravery, smarts and a unending determination. Seriously, these women’s stories, it’s inspirational badassery on steroids, that will have you shouting ‘why isn’t this a movie!?!’
So, Lets get started!!
*warning: This does get pretty intense and bleak in place…because.. well, it’s war.
1. Faye Schulman: The girl who would not be silenced
When Faye Schulman was 22 her entire family were murdered in a liquidation of a polish ghetto.
Faye alone was spared; thanks to her skills as a photographer, Which the Nazis made Faye use, by forcing her to develop pictures of their atrocities – including the murder of her family.
Determined to make sure people would know what happened to her family, Faye secretly kept a copy of the pictures.
Then she resolved to escape and do everything she could to fight the Nazi regime.
Faye miraculously managed to escape and she joined a band of partisan fighters, made up of escaped prisoners of war.
But, the group weren’t exactly convinced they wanted Faye around. Partly because she was the sole woman and partly because Faye had no military experience and was afraid of blood and guns.
Not exactly the ideal rebel fighter.
But Faye refused to give in. She worked her arse off, learning to shoot and training in combat.
Then when she realized that the nobody in the group had medical training, she overcame her fear of blood to self train as a nurse!
Throughout her time with the partisans Faye saved countless civilian and military lives, thanks to her new medical skills. She also took part in dozens of missions and raids, to slow down the Nazi’s progress and rescue Jewish people.
However Fayes greatest accomplishment was her pictures.
Over 2 years, Faye took hundreds of pictures. She developed pictures under blankets, even burying her camera and film in the woods, to keep it out of enemy hands.
She was determined that people see the the atrocities being carried out and the resistance fighting back. As Faye put it:
‘I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.’
After the war Fayes pictures helped the world understand the atrocities of the Nazi regime and the unsung work of the resistance.
She continued working as a photographer and speaking out about her war experiences.
2. Noor Inyat Khan: The Spy Princess
In 1943, Noor Inyat Khan became the first female secret radio operator sent to Nazi occupied France. It was an incredible achievement, which was somewhat lessened by two things:
The average survival rate for the job was 6 weeks
Gentle, emotional and a children’s author, Noor was the last person you’d expect to take on such a deadly role…and survive.
Noor had a lot of things going for her that made her the perfect spy! She was:
Able to quickly work and adapt
BUT...she was also:
Very sensitive and emotional
Clumsy and scatterbrained
Really visible for the enemy; a literal Indian princess…she kinda stuck out from the crowd
Not to mention that as a firm pacifist Noor refused to tell a lie or use any form of violence…both pretty vital skills for a spy!
So it’s not exactly surprising that British Intelligence weren’t desperate to get Noor in the field. But then the Nazis occupied France and everything changed for Noor.
Having spent her childhood in the France she was determined to do everything she could to protect its people.
So she did a complete 360; trained even harder, built up her skills and soon proved herself to be one of the most whip smart and focused people on the books of British Intelligence.
When Noor was dropped into Paris in 1943 she was ready; which was good…because within days of her arrival in Paris every other radio operator was captured by the Nazis.
Noor was now completely alone on enemy soil. But Noor stuck it out, knuckled down and to everyone’s surprise she fucking nailed it!
She ran an entire radio network solo, intercepted messages and passed along vital intel – all whilst constantly on the run from the Nazis.
When the British offered to evacuate Noor, she refused. Twice. Despite all the danger, she just wouldn’t leave her post unmanned.
The sweet gentle Princess that nobody thought would last a week, had proved herself to be a badass with bravery and smarts beyond comparison.
5 months after Noor started her work, her cover was blown after she was sold out. And so Noor found herself imprisoned by the Nazis.
But in typical Noor fashion, she refused to let that stop her doing her work.
Within hours of her capture, she snuck out her cell and was soon leaping across rooftops to freedom.
Sadly the escape bid didn’t work. She was caught and dragged back to her cell where she underwent intense interrogation. When she refused to say anything, the interrogation became merciless beating.
Still Noor said nothing.
So, she was kept shackled and barely fed in solitary confinement. Her only contact, the soldiers who provided her with daily beatings.
This was Noors life for 10 months. Eventually Noor and three other agents were transferred to Dachau where they were to be executed.
Whilst the other agents were quickly dispatched, Noor was kept alive for one more day of torture, a last attempt at getting information.
Again she refused to give up any information. And so on the 13th September 1944, Noor was executed.
The last words of the woman that defied so many and saved even more:
3. Suzanne Spaak: mother of the resistance
Suzanne was one of those women who was just born to be a mum. A proud mother of 2, she lived for her children; filling their Paris home with laughter and love.
And then World War 2 hit…
Suddenly the world wasn’t so bright. Her home had been invaded and all around Suzanne, families were being torn apart by the new Nazi regime.
Suzanne found it harder and harder not to do anything. So in 1942 this housewife and mother joined the French Resistance.
The other members of the resistance weren’t overly thrilled at their new addition of a housewife and mother with no military experience. Sure she would be at best a failure and at worst another body for them to clean up.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Suzanne was fearless. She refused to back down from any assignment and when operations went tits up it was Suzanne coming up with intelligence solutions to save thr day.
And Suzanne didn’t stop at proving the resistance wrong.
Determined to get as many Jewish people to safety as possible, she risked everything to get ration cards and fake IDs for Jewish families.
Then using skills she picked up as a Mum, she firmly reminded Paris’s religious elite and hospitals, that actually they were morally bound to protect and house those in need…so could they please get their shit together, do their damn job and start housing Jewish refugees! (basically ‘do your homework’ on a whole new level)
Suzanne still wasn’t done though.
She helped lead an operation to save more than 60 Jewish children who had been marked for deportation.
Hiding several in her own home, Suzanne risked her own families lives. Not only that, but she convinced others to do the same until all 60 children were saved.
In 1943 Suzanne got wind that her arrest was imminent. She stayed calm (again, mum skills!) and passed along names for all the Jewish children and families she was yet to save, so that her work could continue.
Suzanne was arrested and in 1944 she was executed.
But her legacy lived on and thanks to her, countless Jewish children and families got out of Paris alive.
4. Nancy Wake: The fearless mouse
Nancy was a constant thorn in Hitler’s side. A glamorous gun toting spy with buckets of smarts and sass, she was soon no1 on the Gestapos most wanted list.
Born in poverty in New Zealand, Nancy showed her steely determination from a young age.
She doggedly worked to make something of herself, training as a journalist and eventually marrying a French man and moving to Paris. There Nancy was forced to watch in horror as her new found home was taken by the Nazis.
Nancy immediately moved into action.
You see in her work as a journalist she’d witnessed Hitler’s rise first hand. Once on a trip to Vienna Nancy had seen Hitlers’ brown shirts mercilessly beat men and women in the street.
Nancy knew one thing – she sure as fuck wasn’t letting that shit happen – not in her home!
So Nancy risked it all and joined the French Resistance. Working as a courier and also rescuing RAF pilots, sheltering them and then at night getting them across the boarder and the fuck out of dodge.
Soon Nancy had the nickname ‘the white mouse’, for her ability to run rings around the Gestapo. Sadly for Nancy they soon caught up with her.
The game of cat and mouse was over and the Gestapo were all set to capture Nancy… but then Nancy got word of the imminent arrest.
So she kissed her husband goodbye and went on the run.
Nancy never saw her husband again.
The Nazis raided their home, tortured her husband and after he refused to give her up, they executed him.
This only served to make Nancy pissed off and even more determined. She later said:
‘In my opinion, the only good German was a dead German, and the deader, the better. I killed a lot of Germans, and I am only sorry I didn’t kill more.’
Nancy traveled to Britain where she became a Special Operations Executive. She was trained in guerrilla warfare and dropped back in France.
Here she lead thousands of Resistance fighters in successful battles to reclaim occupied towns. She raided supply lines, cut train lines and once cycled over 300 miles in 70 hours to replace lost wireless codes!
Basically Nancy did everything she could to piss of the Nazis and stop their progress; she even claimed to have killed an SS with her bare hands!By the end of the war Nancy was the most decorated allied woman. Dripping in medals from multiple countries!
But being Nancy she shrugged it off, sold the medals and lived comfortably off the cash for the rest of her live; saying:
‘There’s no point in keeping them… I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway’
This was really interesting! Where can I find out more?Well lets break it down for each of the ladies:
Faye Schulman:Faye has continued to talk about her experiences during WW2 and you can find an amazing video of Faye doing just that, HERE!
Noor Inyat Khan:There a few really great books on Noor, one of these is Spy Princess by Shrabani Basu, I think it does a really good job of showing Noor as a full person.
Suzanne Spaak: Urgh, there are no really good further reading sources for this one! However, in October 2017 a book on Suzanne is coming out, Suzanne’s Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris by Anne Nelson. So fingers crossed guys!
Nancy Wake: You are really spoilt for choice here! Russell Braddons, Nancy Wake, is an easy popcorn read on her (in fact several people in the Amazon comments initially thought it was a novel…) theres also a Docu-Drama on Nancy (the whole thing may currently be on YouTube…just saying)