A tribute to the life and times of Diana Barnato Walker MBE, herself a lifelong Bentley driver and enthusiast, who died on 28 April 2008 aged 90, By Ron McAllister.
There was plenty of news about, but none of it could be called good news. True, the signal had gone round the Fleet, ‘Winston is back’ and now he was Prime Minister and that, indeed, was good news, but that was all of it; and it was now old news.
Somehow, we had scraped 338,000 British and French troops off the beaches around Dunkirk at a terrible cost in precious aircraft and Destroyers and other ships and now we were still desperately, desperately short of pilots, especially front line pilots to replenish the daily losses at the fighter airfields covering the South Coast and Home Counties that comprised 11, 12 and 13 Group.
And so it was against this backdrop and a common culture of ‘make do and mend’ that in late 1941 the diminutive, 23 year old Diana Barnato once again found herself adjusting her special seat cushion she used to reach the controls of the umpteenth Supermarine Spitfire she was delivering from her base at No 15 Ferry Pool at Hamble in Hampshire to an airfield ‘somewhere in England’.
Diana Barnato had volunteered and trained as a civilian ferry pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary ATA, known as the ‘ atagirls’. Not everyone approved of women flying military aircraft, not least some at the War Office and Air Ministry itself, where many regarded these young women as no more than society ‘flappers’, but the imperative ‘needs must’ prevailed and by the end of hostilities, some 108 women had joined more than 500 male pilots, nicknamed ‘Ancient Tattered Airmen’ in delivering most types of aircraft to squadrons across Britain1.
Diana Barnato flew everything except heavy bombers, including single engined Spitfires, her favourite aircraft, Hurricanes, Defiant, Mustang, Avenger, Wildcat, Vengeance, Firefly, Barracuda and Tempest and twins such as Oxford, Anson, Wellington, Warwick, Mosquito, Hudson and Mitchell.
ATA pilots were frequently required to fly without armoured plates, instruments, combat weaponry or even radios and were constantly vulnerable to the odd marauding Messerschmitt looking for an easy kill and to poor weather conditions2. Barnato was attacked twice by German aircraft, but survived each of these encounters uninjured. Diana Barnato recalls one incident when she was lost in weather and considered bailing out of her Spitfire, but decided against it on the grounds that parachuting to the ground would have reveal her knickers to anyone who happened to be on the ground below. In the end, she managed to break through the cloud at tree-top height and in driving rain, succeeded in making a perfect landing on a grass strip.
There was nothing of the modern day cynical, politicised ‘sisterhood’ about these young women. They were there and they were needed and, as with so many others then, all thoughts of sacrifice and danger were kept for those private, lonely, moments, usually before sleep.
Diana Barnato was born in 1918, granddaughter to the co-founder of De Beers and daughter to the fabulously wealthy Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato, probably the most famous of all the Bentley Boys, Chairman of Bentley Motors, wicket keeper for Surrey County Cricket and heavyweight boxer. After the split up of her parents when she was four, Diana was brought up in London with her sister Victoria, by their American mother, who maintained an amicable relationship with their father, with whom they frequently stayed.
At the age of 18, Barnato learned to fly a Tiger Moth at the Brooklands Flying Club. At £3 per hour she went solo after six hours, but had to stop after 10 hours due to lack of cash.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Barnato volunteered for the Red Cross and served as a nurse in France, before being evacuated with the BEF. Upon her return to England, she used her Tiger Moth flying experience to gain acceptance to the ATA training programme.
For her 21st birthday, her father, Woolf Barnato whisked her off for dinner at the Ritz in Paris and next morning, presented her with a brand new Talbot-Darracq. Unfortunately, Diana Barnato was unfamiliar with the car’s pre-selector gearbox and quickly burned out the clutch climbing Montmartre. The Talbot was soon repaired and replaced with a dove grey 4.25 litre Bentley, which was to be a familiar sight for many years to come around the streets and lanes near her Surrey home.
In 1942, three weeks after meeting fighter ace Sqd Ldr Humphery Gilbert, they became engaged, but he was killed a few days later in a flying accident. Two years later in 1944, Barnato married another pilot, Wing Commander Derek Walker and was docked three months pay when they each flew a Spitfire to Brussels for a ‘jolly’. Soon after war’s end, Derek Walker was also killed in a flying accident.
Barnato Walker later enjoyed a 30 year relationship with an American born Hurricane pilot, Whitney Straight. They had a son, Barney, born in 1947, although Straight remained married to his wife until his death in 1979.
After the war Diana Barnato Walker continued to fly, encouraging young women to follow careers in aviation through the Women’s Junior Air Corp. She also became Commodore of the ATA Association. In later life she took up sheep farming and was master of the local Hunt.
In 1963, at the age of 45, she briefly held the world air speed record for women when she piloted a two seat R.A.F. Lightning fighter at 1,262 mph over the North Sea and so joined the ‘Ten-Ton (1,000mph) Club’3. She was appointed MBE for her services to aviation in 1965. She published her memoir Spreading My Wings in 1994. She last took the controls of a rare, twin seat Spitfire trainer when she was 88…’impolite not to’, she said.
Throughout their relationship, Diana Barnato Walker never asked Whitney Straight to leave his wife.
‘I was perfectly content,’ she explained ‘I had my own identity’.
Her son, Barney Walker, said that Diana Barnato Walker died in a hospital near her sheep farm in Surrey, and that the cause was pneumonia.
1 Nearly one in six of the ATA women pilots were killed in the war, a ratio of losses that historians consider worse than that suffered by fighter pilots.
2 There is no such thing as ‘without instruments’, there is always a second set. Barometric pressure, fed through a pipe to the instrument relative to a known datum within a diaphragm inside it, giving altitude, and a forward pressure into a tube, usually sticking into the airflow on the side of the aircraft and measures ‘forward looking’ pressure, or forward speed. There is also the magnetic compass. So the pilot should always be able to know their airspeed, their altitude and heading.
Blind flying instruments were fitted on the aircraft production line, yet it was an extraordinary, but a conscious and deliberate decision that ATA pilots were not trained to fly on these blind instruments. Much of the time, ATA pilots were expected to continue flying in weather conditions that would have grounded most other types of operations.
Air to air firing of guns and cannon does require fairly extensive training, and instructors were in very short supply in the early part of the war.
3 This record was broken in 1964 by an American woman, Jacqueline Cochran Odlum, herself a former ATA pilot, in an F-104G Starfighter, at 1,429 mph.