The mystery of Amy Johnson.
As a pioneer aviator, Amy Johnson from Yorkshire had broken several flying records by the time the Second World War started in 1939. But once the war had begun, the Royal Air Force had no use for female pilots. So the only opportunity for her to use her flying skills to help the war effort was to join the ATA – the Air Transport Auxiliary.
This organisation, as the name suggests, used female pilots to ferry aircraft from one place to another. On 4th January 1941, she took off from Scotland in an aircraft and flew south to deliver it to an airfield in Oxford. The weather was bad so she managed to land in Blackpool (in the North of England) and spent the night there.
The following day there was freezing fog but Amy decided that she would be fine as she intended to fly above the weather. As far as we know, she was never seen again.
As she was setting off, a convoy of small ships including HMS Haslemere was leaving Portsmouth in the south. As often happened on that route, they were attacked by both the Luftwaffe and German shipping. But there was a lull and later in the day, the crew of the Haslemere saw a plane overhead.
As they watched, they saw a figure suspended by a parachute emerge from the clouds. They then saw the plane circle the parachutist – some said three times – then watched the as the plane crashed into the sea just as the person with the parachute had also landed in the freezing waters. They reported that the plane began to break up immediately.
Did Amy Johnson have a passenger?
Just when the Haslemere was about to go to the rescue of the parachutist, the ship ran aground on a sandbar. By running the engines slow astern they were able to free the ship and by this time saw that there were two people in the water. They could see that both were wearing some sort of headgear – probably flying helmets.
The person who was nearest to the ship was very close by indeed – close enough for the crew to throw out ropes but the figure made no move to grasp them. Indeed, it didn’t move at all. Then they heard the person cry faintly ‘hurry, please, hurry’. At first they thought it was a young boy but then realised it was a woman.
One man started to prepare to jump overboard to rescue the woman but was stopped by the captain, William Fletcher. The thirty four year old captain was a strong swimmer and dived into the freezing sea himself to rescue the girl. But the people aboard the ship were surprised to see that Fletcher swam past the woman and head towards the other person. They couldn’t see if it was a man or a woman but saw that the person was alive and waving his or her arms.
One sailor aboard the ship was keeping a close eye on the woman but he heard no further noise from her and when the ship rose on the swelling sea, she disappeared below the hull and he lost sight of her. It was likely that she had perished in the freezing waters.
Meanwhile, Fletcher had reached the other survivor and seemed to be holding the person upright. But it was obvious to those on board that the captain was in trouble. Strong swimmer though he was, he was unlikely to survive in such cold water.
A lifeboat from the ship had already been launched. Crewed by seven men pulling at the oars, the small boat made slow progress in the stormy seas. It was only with extreme difficulty that they managed to get the exhausted and frozen captain aboard. During this time the men saw that the other person in the sea was lifeless – some reported that he or she was floating face down in the water.
When they got back to the ship they found that Fletcher was unconscious and he died several hours later due to exposure. He had been in the water for about twenty minutes.
Another ship in the convoy had now appeared on the scene. They found one wing of the aircraft and a short distance away were two items of luggage – one was marked with Amy Johnson’s initials and the other with her full name. One contained her logbook detailing the flight so there was little doubt about the identity of the woman who had been lost below the ship.
Further items from Amy’s plane were found in the next few days confirming that it was her aircraft that had ditched into the ocean. Then the media speculation began. People had heard about the second person who Fletcher had died trying to rescue. It was assumed that he had realised that Amy was dead so had swum on to rescue the second person. But Fletcher’s was the only body that had been found.
Pauline Gower, who was in charge of the women’s division of the ATA, was adamant that Amy would have had no passenger and it was strictly against the rules. She explained that Amy was not the sort of person to break the rules ‘except for some life or death appeal’.
Yet it was adamantly agreed by the crew of the Haslemere that there had been an additional person who parachuted from the plane. Furthermore, they insisted that after the first parachutist had left the plane, it circled three times. Who was flying it?
Why was she there?
Amy’s destination had been Oxford. Yet her plane crashed into the dangerous Thames Estuary a hundred miles to the south. She should have reached Oxford at about one in the afternoon but when her plane crashed into the sea, it was over two hours later.
Furthermore, it was in a known dangerous area. The Haslemere had been attacked just an hour before Amy’s plane was ditched. Wouldn’t she have known this?
Did Amy Johnson have a radio in her plane?
Today, it’s difficult to find out whether the plane was equipped with a radio. Many of the planes flown by the ATA female pilots were not fitted with radios. Some people believed that Amy was simply lost. They thought that she had overshot Oxford (which she had) and yet if so, wouldn’t she have radioed for help had the facility been available?
However, another story came to light in the 1999 when a former British soldier claimed that he had shot down Amy’s plane believing it to be an enemy aircraft. He had asked her via radio for that’s day’s code colour but she ‘twice gave the wrong answer’. Assuming that it was a German plane, she was shot down.
Was Amy Johnson on a secret mission?
Those who believed that she had another person in her plane suspect that she had landed somewhere en route and picked up her passenger. This, was Pauline Gower explained, was against the rules. Others pointed out that it was most unlikely that such an experienced flier could have lost her way and ended up in the Thames Estuary area accidentally.
They say that this points to her being on a secret mission which involved taking her passenger across the English Channel to France.
Her ex-husband and many people who had known Amy said that it was inconceivable that she had simply become lost, despite the bad weather. The ‘official’ explanation was that her plane had run out of fuel, hence the crash into the sea. People who knew her thought that was implausible.
The reason for her journey remains a government secret
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