Throughout March, to help mark this week’s International Women’s Day, the Lottery-funded Kenley Revival team is focusing on the significant and essential roles women had during World War II.
The project will be hosting a few different activity days, school workshops, online articles and even a one-woman play about Amy Johnson.
The Kenley historians have also highlighted the amazing life of one of Britain’s foundation glider pilots who had a Kenley connection.
In a lifetime devoted to aviation, Ann Welch was a pioneer aviatrix who flew more than 100 types of aircraft, from gliders to Wellington bombers.
Born in 1917, her parents’ home in Bickley, Kent, was under an approach route to the burgeoning new aerodrome at Croydon. In her autobiography, Happy to Fly, she wrote “I did not know they were the first airliners, pioneering their way from Brussels, Antwerp and Paris to Croydon.”
During a holiday in Cornwall in 1930, she had her first flight in an Airspeed Ferry of Alan Cobham’s Circus which travelled around the country giving many people their first close-up taste of aviation. “I was a small, skinny and tousle-headed thirteen-year-old, the year was 1930, and I wanted to fly.”
Living within cycling distance of Biggin Hill, Croydon and Kenley, Welch would cycle to the airfields. She learnt to fly, going solo in September 1934 in a Tiger Moth at Barnstaple, Devon, while on holiday. On her return home, she joined the Brooklands Aero Club – now the site of the excellent aviation and motor museum – gaining her pilot’s licence in October that year. She funded her flying by selling artwork to Flight and Aeroplane magazines.
In 1937, Welch took up gliding at Dunstable aerodrome near Luton, home of the London Gliding Club, and became an instructor. In October 1938, she was a founding member of the Surrey Gliding Club at Buckland, between Dorking and Reigate. Aged 21, she was the club’s chief, and only, instructor.
That year, at the invitation of their German counterparts, she travelled with a group of other young British glider pilots to Berchtesgaden, in the Bavarian Alps, the site of Adolph Hitler’s summer residence. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, in one of the measures intended to keep Germany de-militarised, from 1919 the Germans were banned from having an airforce. Basic pilot training in Germany in the inter-war years was undertaken, therefore, in gliders, while the Nazis defied the feeble League of Nations and built up the formidable Luftwaffe.
On her visit with prospective RAF pilots, Welch encountered Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, who attempted to indoctrinate the group – unsuccessfully.
After war broke out, in November 1940, Welch joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). “The war was just beginning to get serious,” she wrote, “and I had to be involved; it had to be in flying. Nothing else could even be contemplated.”
The ATA was an organisation of civilian pilots who collected new aircraft from factories and delivered them to front-line RAF and RNAS airfields.
During the war, 1,245 men and women of the ATA from 25 countries ferried nearly 309,000 aircraft of 147 different types, without radios, with no instrument flying instruction and at the mercy of the British weather.
Often they flew aircraft they’d never seen, after quickly reading the single page about the aircraft in a notebook which fitted into the breast pocket of the ATA uniform. It could be exacting, dangerous work – 173 ATA pilots died.
During her time in the ATA, Welch flew many different types of aircraft including Tiger Moth trainers, Blenheim night fighters, Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, as well as Wellington bombers. Her work as an ATA pilot came to an end in 1944 with the birth of her first daughter.
After the war, in 1946, Welch restarted the Surrey Gliding Club at RAF Kenley, initially with five members – but no aircraft. Almost all the country’s gliders had been requisitioned by the RAF.
In 1947 the club relocated to nearby Redhill airfield – it wouldn’t return to Kenley until 1985 as the Surrey Hills Gliding Club, which still flies from the airfield today.
Welch worked hard to re-establish the British Gliding Association, resigning as its vice chairman in 1976. She managed the British team at the World Gliding Championships between 1948 and 1968. She presided over the formation of the British Hang-Gliding Association in 1974 and was president of the British Microlight Association. She was also a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and in 1997 was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation.
Awarded an MBE and OBE for services to gliding, Ann Welch was an amazing all-rounder. A mother of three girls, she was a pilot, an instructor, a flying competition organiser, national administrator, author, painter, skier and one of Kenley’s famous faces.
*International Women’s Day is this Thursday, March 8
*This is an edited account taken from the Kenley Revival website, which is documenting and publishing a range of accounts and records about the last surviving, intact World War II airfield
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