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Women of WWII: Spitfires in the rhododendrons

Canadian women were not allowed to fight during the Second World War but they did just about everything else. Tens of thousands joined the women's divisions of the Armed Forces. Hundreds of thousands stepped into jobs in wartime industry. At home and abroad they were welders and pilots, nurses and clerks, the homemakers that kept families together, protecting the home front and the Canadian way of life. These are some of their stories.

Marion Orr and Violet Milstead may have the most glamorous jobs of any Canadian women in the war. They are pilots for the Air Transport Auxiliary, flying Hurricanes, Mosquitoes and Spitfires ("a real lady's aircraft!") between factories, storage depots and squadrons. As they recall for CBC at Six, one of the hardest jobs they had was finding a place to hide all the planes they delivered in preparation for D-Day. 
• The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was established in 1939 to transport mail and supplies for the British military, but soon expanded to include transporting warplanes.

• Women were not allowed in combat roles or as flying instructors for the RCAF, but were allowed in the ATA. The ATA had 1,300 men and 166 women -- five of whom were Canadian.

• The ATA transported 309,011 aircraft during the war. It was disbanded when the war ended.

• ATA pilots delivered six categories of planes, from single-engined trainers to seaplanes and four-engine aircraft. Pilots were issued a blue book containing cards with simplified instructions for operating different types of planes.

• The ATA became known as the "Legion of the Air." Its motto was Aetheris Avidi -- "Eager for the Air."

• Marion Orr obtained her pilot's license in January 1940 and joined the ATA in 1942. She achieved the rank of second officer and logged 700 hours of flight. Her favourite plane was the Spitfire. Orr opened her own flying school in 1949. She was killed in a car accident in Peterborough, Ont. in 1995.

• Violet Milstead joined the ATA in 1943, achieving the rank of first officer and logging 700 hours on 46 different aircraft. Her favourite was the twin-engined Mosquito. When she returned to Canada Milstead became Canada's first female bush pilot. In 1995 she was inducted into the Bush Pilot Hall of Fame.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC at Six
Broadcast Date: June 3, 1994
Guests: Vi Milstead, Marion Orr, Joyce Spring
Host: Bill Cameron
Duration: 6:13

Last updated: October 2, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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