Amy Johnson by Sir John Longstaff. Oil on canvas, 1930 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG 4201
This Blog appears back to front. It begins with my general research about Amy Johnson for Willy Mitchell's book, Gipsy Moth Aviatrix. It concludes with my family connection with her visit to Blackpool 24 hours before her tragic death 80 years ago on 5th January 1941.
Having previously helped author Willy Mitchell to edit his novel Cold Courage, I was pleased to research the background to Willy's fifth book of historical fiction, Gipsy Moth Aviatrix - which features the real life character of Amy Johnson.
Born in Hull in 1903, Amy was a pioneering pilot who set many long distance flight records in the 1930s. During the Second World War she joined the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which transported Royal Air Force aircraft around the country. However, as Willy Mitchell says on the cover of his book,
"Just as Amy becomes a celebrity in the evolution of flight, a shining light for women's rights and an international heroine, tragedy strikes.”
The final chapters open with the author's account of Amy Johnson's flight to Blackpool on 4 January 1941:
“There was heavy cloud cover as she headed into Blackpool. With icy rain coming down, she steered the Airspeed down the coast, ducked under the clouds, spotted the familiar landmark of Blackpool Tower, and turned inland towards Stanley Park and the north edge of the golf course and then on to Newton Drive and her sister's house. She steered the Airspeed lower and flew overhead - low enough to rattle the windows, she thought.
She giggled to herself as she pictured her brother-in-law feeling the house shake and thinking the world was coming to an end. Amy circled and came in for another flyby, and sure enough, her sister Molly and her husband, Trevor were in the backyard. Molly was waving and Trevor was scratching his head. The sight made Amy laugh even harder to herself. She saluted on her final flyover and touched down at the Squires Gate airfield ten minutes later...
She decided to stay over for the night. She headed for her sister's home on Newton Drive. Amy had a long-standing connection to the town. Back in 1931, she had flown in the Blackpool Air Pageant, along with several Schneider Cup aces, including Winifred Brown, winner of the 1930 King's Cup. She returned later that year for a lecture on her solo flight to Australia and then again on her way back from her honeymoon in Scotland... Molly had moved to Blackpool seven years ago when her husband, Trevor Jones, secured a job as the town clerk.
Amy loved Molly, but she was lukewarm about her husband. There was nothing wrong with him; he was just not Amy's cup of tea. She thought he carried the world on his shoulders and was not the optimistic type of personality she was drawn to. Nevertheless, it would be nice to have dinner with them.”
Amy Johnson published by The Lawrence Wright Music Co, after Vaughan & Freeman halftone reproduction, published 1930. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG D46663
At this stage, I discovered that my uncle, Walter Lees Andrew and my mother, Elizabeth Preston Andrew had worked for Trevor Jones at Blackpool Town Hall. In fact, my uncle lived near to Newton Drive in Marton and worked for the Council until he retired in the mid 1960's. My mother left Blackpool in 1938 to work at Chiswick Town Hall. She lived in London during the Blitz before joining the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941.
On the morning of 5 January 1941, Amy was keen to leave Blackpool for her flight to RAF Kidlington, in Oxfordshire. The official records show that she never reached this destination as her plane crashed into the Thames Estuary near Herne Bay. It was a very poignant and tragic end, as Willy Mitchell dramatises in the book.
We believe that Amy Johnson fell into the sea in the vicinity of Balloon Vessel HMS Haslemere, captained by Lieutanant Commander Walter E Fletcher, which was escorting Convoy CE21 from St Helens Road, Isle of Wight, to Southend. Whilst en route the crew of the Haslemere saw a plane crash and its pilot parachute into the sea. The crew came very close to rescuing the person but failed to secure them to the ship. I think in frustration, the Captain dived into the icy and turbulent waters.
Attempts by Hazelmere and Motor Launch 113 to reach Amy Johnson and Walter Fletcher recovered only the unconscious body of the Lieutenant Commander. He was taken to hospital but died a few days later in the Royal Naval Hospital in Gillingham. He was awarded the Albert Medal in May 1941.He is buried in the Gillingham Woodlands Cemetery, Kent.
The body of Amy Johnson was never found; a Memorial Service was held in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London on 14 January 1941. As a member of the Air Transport Auxiliary with no known grave, Amy V Johnson is commemorated on the Air Force Memorial at Runnymede. She was aged 37 years.
Amy Johnson's name on the Runnymede Memorial. Image courtesy of www.findagrave.com, memorial page for Amy Johnson.
To mark the 80th anniversary of her death and promote his newly published book, author Willy Mitchell is willing to donate copies of his book Gipsy Moth Aviatrix to three organisations interested in Amy Johnson and women in aviation between 1920 and 1940. If you are interested, please email Andrew Hemmings on [email protected]