Hidden historical heroines (#10: Amy Johnson)

 

Amy Johnson CBE, (1 July 1903 – 5 January 1941) was a pioneering aviatrix who broke several world records in the field of aviation.

 

Although Amy was to repeatedly assure people she was no tomboy – rather, she liked the girlier things in life – she preferred to be known by her friends as “Johnny”. She was born in Yorkshire, the daughter of a local fish merchant and was lucky enough to be of the first generation of British women with access to further education. Amy graduated with a degree in Economics from the University of Sheffield before moving to London to work as a shorthand typist for a solicitor.

 

In late 1928, Amy was introduced to an exciting new hobby – flying. She threw herself into it, gaining her pilot and ground engineering licenses in 1929; she was the first British woman ever to be granted the latter.

 

Amy became preoccupied with the idea of breaking the record for fastest solo flight from England to Australia and began lobbying patrons for financial support. Her indulgent father provided some of the funds for a second-hand de Havilland Gipsy Moth – which she named “Jason”, after the trademark of the Johnson family fish business – and painted it bottle green with silver lettering.

 

She left Croydon, south of London, on 5 May 1929 and headed for Darwin, Australia. She could fly for around 13 hours before needing to land somewhere and refuel. For the first few ‘hops’ of the journey she was almost two full days ahead of the record holder, but unfortunately crash landed on the 13th May. In torrential rain, fading light and low on petrol, Amy Johnson landed very heavily on a field and ended up in a ditch. Luckily for her it was in the then-British colony of Burma. Even luckier, she was right next to a school of engineering. The locals rushed to make Jason airworthy again and Amy resumed her flight.

 

Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve and Amy soon realised she could never beat the full England to Australia record. She landed in Darwin on May 24th but at least gained the distinction of being the first woman to fly the route solo. She had flown over 11,000 miles and was feted by the Australian people, as well as being honoured with a CBE by the King. Flying over to Brisbane to continue the celebrations, Amy overshot the runway at the aerodrome and rendered poor Jason out of service once more. As a result, she needed to be ferried by another pilot onwards to Sydney whilst repairs on Jason were undertaken. The man who had the honour was the famed Scottish pilot, Jim Mollison. By the end of their eight hour flight, he had proposed to her; they were married in 1932.

 

Now Amy had gotten a taste for record-breaking there was no stopping her. In July 1931, she and a co-pilot (Jack Humphreys) became the first pilots to make the journey from London to Moscow in a single day; they flew 1,760 miles in an astonishing 21 hours. Whilst on a roll, they continued across Siberia and onwards to Tokyo, setting a record for the England – Japan journey to boot. The following summer Amy broke the solo pilot record from London to Cape Town; the ousted previous record holder was her brand new husband, Jim Mollison. She then undertook some co-piloted flights with said husband, whose ego must have been more than a little bruised. In 1933 they ran out of fuel and crash-landed in Connecticut, in the United States. After they recovered from their not insubstantial injuries, the couple threw themselves whole-heartedly into the celebrations the Americans were throwing for them, even being lauded with a ticker tape parade down Wall Street.

 

In 1934 they made one last record attempt as a pair, that of the fastest time from Britain to India, but they were forced to retire after they ran into engine trouble. In 1936, Amy made her own last record-breaking flight. This time, the record she broke was her own – on her Britain to Cape Town record time. In 1938 she divorced Jim Mollison and reverted almost immediately to her maiden name.

 

The stirrings of war across the continent had obviously put paid to her flights in the late 1930s. When war did come, Amy immediately joined the newly formed ATA – Air Transport Auxillary – and quickly rose to First Officer. The ATA was a civilian organisation that ferried new, repaired and damaged military aircraft between factories, assembly plants, transatlantic delivery points, scrap yards, and active service squadrons and airfields. It also flew service personnel on urgent duty from one place to another and performed air ambulance work.
 

On 5 January 1941, Amy was instructed to fly an Airspeed Oxford from Blackpool to RAF Kidlington near Oxford, The weather turned severe enough that Amy apparently got turned around and headed miles off course, towards London. The official story is that confused and out of fuel, she bailed out as her aircraft crashed into the Thames Estuary. The crew of the nearby HMS Haslemere spotted her parachute coming down then saw her alive in the water, calling out her name and for help, but she didn’t respond to a rope being thrown out to her. The captain of the Haslemere jumped into the water in a last-ditch attempt to save her. Amy’s body was never recovered and the heroic captain was subsequently to die of hypothermia. Amy was the first – although sadly, not the last – member of the ATA to be killed during the war.

 

You may have twigged the use of the phrase “the official story is..” in the previous paragraph. As with many ‘celebrity deaths’ there is a bit of conspiracy over what truly happened to Amy.

 

Supposedly the crew of the Haslemere saw a second passenger in the water that night, although Amy’s mission did not include the ferrying of a person. Rumours swelled that Amy had been part of the Secret Service and had been in the process of smuggling a spy out of England and onto the continent. Others weren’t so kind and claimed that Amy must have had a “German lover” who she was attempting to take to freedom. Other rumours stated that Amy did not drown and therefore should have been easy enough to rescue from the water, were it not for the bungling of the Haslemere crew, who did not turn off their engines, causing poor Amy to be dragged into their propeller and cut to pieces.

 

In 1999 one Tom Mitchell ‘admitted’ that back in 1941 he had shot the heroine down. Apparently Amy failed to give the correct identification code (the “colour of the day”), so those on the ground could only deduce that she was an enemy. Amy was asked for the code twice and – bewilderingly – gave two different colours, both incorrect. Mr. Mitchell admitted that:

 

“Sixteen rounds of shells were fired and the plane dived into the Thames Estuary. We all thought it was an enemy plane until the next day when we read the papers and discovered it was Amy. The officers told us never to tell anyone what happened.”

 

Maybe one day soon the Freedom of Information Act will make more about Amy’s death known and we will be able to at least put the ‘smuggling a German lover out of the country’ rumours to bed!

 

Following her first record breaking flight, the children of Sydney had raised a sum of money, with which Amy had bought a gold cup. At a rally for young people in Hull City Hall upon her return to Britain, Amy had proposed that a special trophy be awarded to recognise any act of outstanding bravery by a Hull child, by way of this small golden cup. This award is still offered annually.

 

But the most enduring legacy Amy Johnson has left us is not the award in Hull, or the advances in aviation and feminism which her short career represented. Her original Gipsy Moth, Jason, is lovingly preserved and on display to this day in London’s Science Museum.

 

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2 thoughts on “Hidden historical heroines (#10: Amy Johnson)

    • Thanks for your comment, Alice. I have to admit, I’ve only just learned about poor Amy myself, as she was featured in one of the episodes of the Sky Atlantic documentary, “The British”.

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