Miss Rosemary Rees, 1919 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
'...[a] formidable lady who played a key role in British aviation history'.
Most winters, pioneering World War II pilot Rosemary (née Rees), Lady du Cros (1901-1994) would go skiing.
While this aspect of her long and colourful life is far less known about than her illustrious wartime career, when she played a vital role as second in command of Britain’s first pool of female pilots, it was a passion that she continued to indulge long after her retirement to Parkham, near Bideford, in around 1950.
Her tiny beige and navy blue Lillywhites skiing jacket and trousers held within our collections, complete with leggings, goggles and the Harrods box in which they were delivered in 1956, provide a tantalising sense of this elegant yet formidable lady who played a key role in British aviation history.
Rosemary (née Rees), Lady du Cros’ googles © MBND.
Born in Knightsbridge in 1901, Rosemary’s was a gilded existence from the start. The daughter of Member of Parliament Sir John Rees, she described her childhood as one ‘punctuated by general elections’. But while her brother was ‘properly educated’ at Eton, Rosemary didn’t go to school (and didn’t want to) because: ‘they didn’t think in those days that girls needed anything much’.
After her father’s death in 1922, Rosemary took up dancing and acrobatics and after attending ballet school, joined a ‘very low-class touring review.’
having interrupted her ‘undistinguished theatrical career’ to travel to Ceylon and China with her brother, in 1933 she became acquainted with Gordon Selfridge (whose father founded the iconic Oxford Street department store) who urged her to learn to fly:
‘And I thought: “what on earth for? Whoever wants to fly?”
The rest, as they say, is history. Rosemary became hooked and after only six hours flying time gained her full pilot’s license. This was ‘the golden age of the private flyer’ and in an era during which there were almost no regulations, the skies of Europe were her playground. In the little Miles Hawk aeroplane her mother had bought her she flew: ‘all over Europe… Poland and the Balkans. I didn’t go far…
The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA’s), 1939-1945. Miss Rosemary Rees (Second from right) © IWM.
'...Everyone wanted a nice war job'.
But when Hitler’s armies marched into Poland, recalls her friend Mary Ellis in her book, Spitfire Girl: ‘the jolly days when one could hire an aircraft from a green field in Sussex and fly to Budapest for a picnic disappeared’.
‘Everyone wanted a ‘nice war job’ says Rosemary: ‘and by the grace of God, I got one of the very nicest’.
Comprised of civilian pilots ineligible to fight due to age, health and gender, the Air Transport Auxiliary Corp’s (ATA’s) role was to ferry RAF and Royal Navy aircraft between factories, maintenance units and front-line squadrons in order to relieve the pressure on those required for combat.
With 600 hours of flying time under her belt, Rosemary was selected to become one of the ‘first 8’ to form the ATA’s Women’s Section under the command of writer and former circus pilot Pauline Gower.
On New Year’s Day 1940, the ‘first 8’ were issued with suits, helmets, goggles and – importantly for Rosemary who always hated the cold – snug ‘furry flying boots’. Extremely novel for the time, the ‘ATA-girls’ attracted a great deal of press attention and even came to the notice of the infamous Lord Haw Haw who, says Rosemary, labelled them: ‘depraved, unnatural women’. Typically for the time, they were paid 20 per cent less than their male colleagues.
At the beginning, she continues, the attitude among air vice-marshals was that women are ‘not conditioned or built to fly fast, dangerous fighting aeroplanes’ and to her disgust, they were only permitted to fly ‘perfectly horrible’ single-engine Tiger Moth training aircraft. ‘It never occurred to them for one moment that we’d be flying four-engined bombers’.
Rosemary (née Rees), Lady du Cros’ skiing jacket © MBND.
'...it was very extraordinary that none of us ever got shot down'.
Based at Hamble near Southampton, the ‘ATA-girls’ delivered aircraft all over Britain. With its’ services in such high demand, the ATA – which had started out with just 40 male and eight female pilots – soon expanded, and over the course of its short history it employed 1,250 pilots from 25 countries, 168 of them women.
By degrees – and ‘fighting every step’ of the way – members of the Women’s Section were permitted to fly ‘actual good fighting’ aircraft, and in 1942 12 of them, including Rosemary, began flying four-engined bombers such as Lancasters. While RAF pilots generally concentrated on one kind of aircraft, their ATA counterparts had to be ‘jacks of all trades’ and during her six years of service, Rosemary flew 91 different types.
In 1941 she was promoted to second in command of what was now a major pool, and while her Commanding Officer was on leave, Rosemary’s many responsibilities included visiting injured pilots and sorting out arrangements for those who had been killed.
Flying for the ATA was a dangerous job. Fifteen per cent of its aircrew were killed, among them 15 women. On one occasion, Rosemary attended the scene of a crash in which a young woman had been killed after flying into a hill in foggy conditions, and took charge of the wedding ring and watch pulled from the wreckage. ‘However’, she remarks: ‘there weren’t too many deaths at Hamble. I think on the whole we were rather lucky or clever or good’. The south coast was, however, a prime bombing target and the ATA pilots were completely untrained in any form of combat. ‘Any trainee fighter pilot could have made rings around us…I think it was very extraordinary that none of us ever got shot down’. In a most unusual move for the time, in 1943 the women were awarded equal pay.
The Air Transport Auxiliary, Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Miss Rosemary Rees (far right) © IWM.
After the war, Rosemary ran an air-taxi service before marrying Sir Philip Harvey du Cros and moving to Parkham, where she became heavily involved in local politics, eventually becoming chairman of the Bideford area Conservative Association.
By all accounts she didn’t have an awful lot to do with other villagers and is remembered as keeping to herself. Local chartered surveyor Robert Hicks remembers that she lived pretty much ‘in state’, although she definitely was ‘something different’.
Rosemary (née Rees), Lady du Cros’ googles are displayed in the museum’s North Devon in the 20th Century gallery. Her skiing outfit is available to view on request.
Written by Sophie Jay
Editor Adam Murray