After a decade of writing, the final component of my novel When We Fall was provided by a pioneer of women in aviation.
When We Fall took a long time to write. Twelve years, in fact. And, spookily, from having the idea to write a novel about wartime women pilots, to the publication of When We Fall it was twelve years to the actual day.
I can date this process with accuracy because my urge to start writing fiction arrived out of the blue when I read an obituary for a wartime woman pilot (Diana Barnato Walker) in The Guardian on 8th May 2008. I had the sudden thought that if I was ever going to write a novel, something I had often fantasised that I might do, this would be my subject. This was, also rather spookily, on the anniversary of VE Day although I didn’t realise it then. When I set off on my writing journey I knew shockingly little about the second world war but I soon became entranced by what I started to find out about the female pilots of Air Transport Auxiliary who lived exciting and glamourous but often tragic lives in the dangerous skies above wartime Britain.
The writing of this novel wouldn’t take too long, I imagined. A couple of months, maybe. Six at the most. But of course, it wasn’t until twelve years later on the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May 2020 that When We Fall, my novel about wartime women pilots and Polish resistance fighters, was published.
The reasons for the over-long gestation of this novel are mainly to do with my inexperience as a writer. Initially, I got sucked into research so exhaustive that my book was almost suffocated by it. Then I was pulled up a blind genre alley that I didn’t escape for the first five years. But, eventually after ten years of writing at least five completely different versions of a novel about wartime women pilots (as well as writing my Victorian thriller The Conviction of Cora Burns), I had finally a WW2 story ready to publish.
But I sensed that there was still room for improvement. In the penultimate draft, the narrative was told from the point of view of two female protagonists at the sharp end of the war. But the heart of the story had shifted from the daily lives of ATA women pilots where it had begun, to a female partisan in the Polish resistance. Ewa, my fictional Polish protagonist was so effortlessly charismatic that she had begun to overshadow her very English counterpart in the ATA.
I knew that for the final draft of the book now titled When We Fall, I needed to re-think my female pilot to make her more interesting and conflicted, and yes, a little less English. And so, I went back to my early research into the women of Air Transport Auxiliary. There I found Monique Agazarian and instantly, I knew how to re-write the character who became Vee Katchatourian.
Despite the similarities in their backgrounds, Monique, or Aggie, as she was known to all her friends, is certainly not Vee. Yet the contradictions I saw in Aggie’s background, with an Armenian father and a French mother but an upbringing in home counties suburbia, provided the idea for Vee’s backstory. She is something of an outsider in ATA who needs to prove herself from day one. And Vee’s father, like Aggie’s, narrowly escaped the ethnic-cleansing of Armenia in the early 20th century. This parallel of Armenian genocide with the massacres of Poles at Katyn, which forms the heart of my novel’s plot, clinched my decision to choose an Anglo-Armenian heroine.
Like the real Aggie, fictional Vee is part of the late intake of ATA women pilots who arrived without a pilot’s licence and learnt to fly from scratch. When ATA was initially set up by the Air Ministry as a civilian aviation organisation to assist with the war effort, the inclusion of women pilots was something of an afterthought. ATA was designed to ferry warplanes from factories to airfields to maintenance units using (male) pilots who were too old or medically unfit to serve in the RAF. But intense lobbying by some formidable women aviators, especially Pauline Gower who headed the women’s section of ATA throughout the war, ensured that eight female pilots were able to join ATA at the start of 1940. This ‘first eight’ were highly experienced pilots, all with at least 600 hours flying in their log books – a bar high enough to ensure that they were either busy commercial pilots, or rich enough to own their own plane.
As months and years of war went by, ATA proved its worth by freeing up the RAF pilots for military activity. The women pilots proved their worth too and increasing numbers were recruited. Conditions of service between male and female pilots were equalised; the early requirement for lady pilots to wear skirts at all times (even inside flying suits) was scrapped, and in a very early example of employment equality, male and female pilots enjoyed the same (pretty generous) rates of pay.
Soon, the supply of qualified civilian pilots was exhausted but the workload of ATA continued to expand. In 1943, it was decided to set up an ab initio training programme for new pilots and recruit women with a good physique and an aptitude for flight. In the recruitment medical, ‘Aggie’ Agazarian, desperate to be part of the intake, persuaded the friendly RAF doctor to add half an inch to her height so that she would reach the required minimum of 5’6”!
Aggie and her siblings had been obsessed with aeroplanes from an early age, perhaps because their mother had purchased a written-off Sopwith Pup for £5 in an auction and installed the old bi-plane in the family’s Carshalton garden as play-thing for the six children. Three of Aggie’s brothers went on to fly for the RAF. Noel was one of the most celebrated Battle of Britain aces who sadly died in aerial combat in 1941. Another brother, Jack, was parachuted into occupied France as an undercover SOE agent and again tragically, was murdered by the Gestapo less than two months before the end of the war.
Despite the grief of these losses, Aggie had a wonderful war flying many different types of military aircraft around Britain. And like my fictional character Vee, she was completely smitten by the fastest and most graceful of them all, the Spitfire. In personality though, Aggie had little in common with Vee. While Vee is serious and single-minded, Aggie had a delightfully sunny disposition and a positive can-do attitude. An author friend of mine, Isabelle Grey, who as a young journalist interviewed Aggie in the 1980s, confirms that everyone who met the cheerful, friendly pilot warmed to her.
At the very end of the war, it was Aggie who was chosen to fly a Spitfire the length of Piccadilly to celebrate VJ day. For many of ATA’s female pilots, that day spelt the end of their professional lives in the air. But not for Aggie who was one of the handful of wartime women pilots who enjoyed a successful life-long career in aviation. Pilots’ jobs in conventional airlines weren’t open to women in the 1950s but Aggie got round this by setting up her own charter airline; Island Air Services. In the 1970’s she pioneered the use of aircraft simulators, a method which is now the bedrock of all pilot training. Aggie invested in the creation her own simulator which was originally situated, rather surreally, in Room 129 of the Grosvenor Hotel in London and later moved to Booker Airfield near High Wycombe.
Which leads me to another of the many spooky coincidences and connections I came across during the writing of When We Fall. Early in my research journey into wartime women pilots, I took a taster flying lesson in order to get experience of the perspective from a small aircraft. This flight was from Booker. At the time, I had no idea that the place had any connection to Aggie or to wartime aviation but, bizarrely, once airborne I realised with hairs rising on the back of my neck, that I was flying towards a Spitfire. It was just a coincidence of course, that the restored Spitfire kept at Booker was going out for a spin at the same time as my trainer plane. But at the time, it seemed as if fate was telling me to keep going with my WW2 writing adventure. And given the part she was to play in bringing that twelve-year adventure to a successful conclusion, it would be nice to think that it wasn’t just fate egging me on that day, but Aggie!
Photographs reproduced with thanks to Maidenhead Heritage Centre