Heroine’s disappearence a mystery 76 years on

Amy Johnson
Amy Johnson
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It has long been held as one of the great mysteries from the golden age of aviation.

It was 76 years ago this week one of Britain’s most celebrated heroines, a record breaker and headline maker, flew out of Blackpool never to be seen again.

The disappearance of Amy Johnson in January 1941 has been shrouded in secrecy for decades – rumours abounding that the celebrity aviator had been shot down by friendly fire, her death subject of a wartime cover up.

That, says historian Alec Gill, is highly unlikely.

He believes Amy’s bravado and sense of duty, combined with bad weather and bad luck led to a tragic accident.

The world famous aviator, the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, had been warned against flying on the morning she left Squires Gate.

A first officer in the Air Transport Auxiliary, Amy was ferrying an Airspeed Oxford from Prestwick near Glasgow to Kidlington in Oxfordshire.

She had stopped overnight in Blackpool and stayed with her sister Mollie who lived in Newton Drive and was married to a Blackpool town clerk.

“That winter was a particularly bad one,” said Alec, a former lecturer at the University of Hull - Johnson’s home town by birth.

“There was freezing fog – the conditions were very bad.

“Mollie said Amy should stay another night. The airfield told her not to fly.

“But there was something which made her do it.”

Amy had made her name by doing the bold and unpredictable.

Before she embarked on her 1930 solo journey, the furthest she had flown was from London to Hull.

She had plotted a direct route over inhospitable and occasionally unmapped terrain, flying for eight hours at a time in an open cockpit.

In comparison, a hop from Squires Gate to Kidlington was nothing.

“She was very much driven, I think, by her sense of duty.” said Alec.

“She was given all that advice and still she went ahead with the flight.

“Amy was very much one to stick to her task.

“Even when she’d got into trouble in the past she’d never parachuted out, she’d always made the crash landing.

“It’s part of who she was.”

Even her own superstitions couldn’t prevent Amy from taking off on January 5 1941, into familiar skies.

Alec said: “She was from Hull, a fishing town, from a fishing background.

“There’s a saying among trawlermen, ‘never on a Sunday’.

“Amy was superstitious, she would have been coming from that background, she’d have heard that being said.

“But something that day made her fly, she had her orders and she stuck to them.

“She knew Squires Gate, she knew Blackpool well, she’d have known what she was flying into.”

Alec believes a malfunctioning compass, along with tough weather conditions put the star aviator well off her planned course and speeding into danger.

He said: “She said the compass wasn’t working properly, we don’t know how bad the fault was.

“She will have been trying to fly above the clouds, not relying on maps or the ground to navigate.

“How far off course did Amy go?”

Alec believes he has the answer.

Far from being the victim of enemy or friendly fire, he believes Amy simply ran out of fuel, her aircraft ditching close to a convoy in the Thames Estuary.

Several crew members of the HMS Haslemere, an escort ship, reported seeing a parachutist enter the water and recall attempts to make an ill-fated rescue.

And, from the account of the family of one mariner, Alec believes a glittering life may have been ended by a tragic accident, within feet of rescue.

He said: “She was more than a hundred miles off course, the plane wasn’t shot down, it ran out of fuel.

“At the time there was a convoy working along the east coast.

“Crew on the Haslemere recall seeing a parachute.

“The captain on seeing it did what any naval man would do and went to the rescue – whether friend or foe that would be the case.

“But the waters in the estuary are shallow and it appears the ship grounded on a sandbank.

“Efforts were made to free her and at the same time rescue the person in the water.

“One crew member recalled the cries for help being those of a woman, it all makes sense.

“They tried to get a line to her but she was so frozen she didn’t have the energy.

“Another crew member was able to get down onto the side of the boat and reach out an arm.

“He must have been looking into her eyes.”

The evidence for such claims comes from two serviceman, one of whom as on the Hazelmere at the time.

Derek Roberts, a clerk in the RAF flight office on the Thames, claims “A parachutist had come down in the water.”

His friend, Cpl Bill Hall (RAF) was on board the HMS Haslemere.

Derek said: “He came in to report what had happened, and I took down what he said.”

“I typed the report and he approved it, and I put it to the flight commander.

“He came in with the crew that were landing and he was a bit shaken.

“He said that while he was on deck, a parachutist had come down in the water and had drifted near the Haslemere.

“She called out that she was Amy Johnson, that the water was bitterly cold, and could they get her out as soon as possible.

“They threw her a rope, but she couldn’t get hold of it.

“Then someone dashed up to the bridge and reversed the ship’s engines, as a result of which, she was drawn into the propellor.”

Alec, having been approached by the son of another Haslemere crew member, believes a last ditch effort may have been made to prevent such a tragedy.

He said: “A man came up to me after a talk and said he wanted to tell me about Amy Johnson.

“I have no reason to disbelieve him.

“He says once it was noticed that the engines had been thrown into reverse a crew member raced to the bridge, to tell them to stop.

“For whatever reason that plea went ignored.”

Alec Gill’s e-book, Amy Johnson: Hessle Road Tomboy - Born and Bred, Dread and Fled, is available at Amazon.co.uk