Amy Johnson was undoubtedly one of Britain’s pioneering aviators. Born in Kingston upon Hull in Northern England on July 1, 1903, she’s remembered both for her record-breaking efforts as well as her still-unresolved death on January 5, 1941.
The daughter of a wealthy businessman, Johnson started learning to fly in 1929 as a hobby. She was keen to make her mark in aviation and one way to do so was in the field of long-distance record-breaking flights, often solo. She became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, leaving Croydon Airport on May 5, 1930; she arrived in Darwin, Australia on May 24. For this pioneering effort, she earned herself the Harmon Trophy and was awarded the CBE on the King’s Birthday Honours list. For Johnson, however, this was only the beginning.
By 1938, so was her marriage. The Johnsons had competed for many of the same records. Between the stress of competition and Mollison’s increasing drinking problem, the couple parted company. After their divorce, Johnson reverted to her maiden name.
The 1930s saw the rise of Fascism in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. In Spain, the civil war between General Franco’s Fascists and the democratically elected Republican Government raged on from 1936 and 1939. It would take over a million Spanish lives and those of many foreigners, especially among those who came to Spain to fight with the Republic’s International Brigades. It was also the precursor to the Second World War. Mere months after the Spanish Civil War ended with a Fascist victory in April, the Second World War began.
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Along with co-pilot Jack Humphreys, her next record came in July 1931 when the duo became the first to fly from London to Moscow in a single day. Continuing their journey, the pair overflew Siberia and landed in Tokyo, setting a record for the flight from London to Tokyo in the process. In July 1932, she set another record for the fastest flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. In doing so, she took the record from Jim Mollison, a fellow pilot who, earlier that year, had become her husband.
With Mollison came another record. In 1934, the pair managed the fastest flight between Britain and India, then part of the British Empire. Johnson’s final record came in 1936. A rival had broken her record for the England-South Africa flight, but she promptly reclaimed it. Her record-breaking career, however, was now over.
Johnson, as a woman, was ineligible for combat missions. With other pilots rendered ineligible by gender or physical fitness she joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1940 as a ferry pilot. The ATA was a civilian organization whose pilots ferried aircraft from airfield to airfield, also delivering them direct from factories and maintenance facilities. Every ferry pilot joining the ATA freed another pilot for front-line service and also delivered the aircraft the front-line pilots flew into battle. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it was vital. Mollison also joined the ATA, but the two didn’t rekindle their former passion.
Less than a year after joining the ATA, Amy Johnson was killed during a mission. The way she died raised questions then and still does. On January 5, 1941, she was delivering an Airspeed Oxford training aircraft from Prestwick in Scotland to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire. How she ended up bailing out over the Thames Estuary, some 120 miles east of Kidlington, has always been open to debate.
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The weather was foul with dense fog and heavy snow, making it most likely that she got lost, ran out of fuel and bailed out. Other explanations continue to rear their ugly heads. It’s been suggested that she was on a covert mission or even that she was actually deserting with a stolen aircraft. Neither is as likely as a simple flying accident.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) are highly unlikely to have sent her to Europe via Scotland. South-East England had plenty of airfields for covert flight and no records of such a mission exist.
Another proposed cause comes via eyewitness Tom Mitchell. Mitchell had been aboard HMS Haslemere, a converted ferry used to position barrage balloons along the coast. According to Mitchell, his ship challenged her twice to give the correct identification code over the radio. Twice, Mitchell claimed, she gave the wrong code. The Haslemere’s guns opened fire. According to Mitchell:
“Sixteen rounds of shells were fired and the plane dived into the Thames Estuary. We all thought it was an enemy plane until the next day when we read the papers and discovered it was Amy. The officers told us never to tell anyone what happened."
This is both credible and not unusual. Bomber pilot Guy Gibson (leader of the ‘Dambusters’) and fighter ace Douglas Bader (famous for losing both legs in a pre-war flying accident before re-enlisting on the outbreak of war) are both believed to have been shot down by friendly fire. Neither incident was acknowledged as such for decades after the war.
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Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher, skipper of the Haslemere, died trying to rescue Johnson. Having seen her parachute, he jumped into the freezing waters but couldn’t reach her. Despite his efforts, Johnson’s body was never found; Fletcher died days later from hypothermia. In May 1941, Fletcher was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal for his courage. One crew member later suggested Johnson had been sucked into the Haslemere’s propellers, explaining why her body was never recovered. This was never confirmed.
Om January 14, 1941 a memorial service was held at the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Amy Johnson, pioneer aviator and record-breaker, was only 37. Because her body was never found, she is listed as ‘Amy V Johnson’ on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede rather than having a grave of her own.
Featured photo: Alchetron