Constance Leathart - Britain's Forgotten Aviatrix of WWII

by Christina Leigh Burns

Constance Leathart (Photo: Northumberland Archives)

Constance Leathart (Photo: Northumberland Archives)

In 1925 a would-be pilot booked a flying lesson. The application to join Newcastle Aero Club at Cramlington Airfield was signed "CR Leathart". Only after she was accepted did anyone realize the first initial stood for Constance.

Leathart went on to become a very experienced pilot and flew fighters and bombers during WW2. In peacetime she flew alongside an elite band of socialite aviators and liked whisky, cigars and woodbines between flights.

As an only daughter, she perhaps had something to prove. Family friend Dora Ions recalled how later in life she confided that her father had wanted a son: "She dressed more like a man. She told me herself that she did that for her father. She tried to please him."

(Photos: BBC.com)

(Photos: BBC.com)

Leathart was one of the first women to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) whose job was to ferry planes from factory to aerodromes across the UK to keep the RAF flying. Any fit-for-duty male pilots were sent into combat which relegated delivery duties to WWI veterans. However, when they couldn't keep up with demand, the powers that-be were compelled to allow women to serve in the ATA. At first the women were given rather mundane flying tasks, but it wasn't long before they were let loose on fighters and bombers.

Constance with her lifelong friend Walter Runciman and her rescued donkeys. (Photo: Dora Ions)

Constance with her lifelong friend Walter Runciman and her rescued donkeys. (Photo: Dora Ions)

At the end of the War, Leathart continued to serve the victims left in its wake. As a UN special representative, she helped distribute food and medical supplies to the people on the Greek island of Icaria. A number of letters survive in which she pleads with her superiors for more assistance, especially for the children of the island. Constance shunned recognition, but she was given an Award of Merit by the prestigious International Union of Child Welfare.

Constance Leathart lived out her days in obscurity, on a Northumberland farm, caring for rescue animals. In her will Constance requested to be buried in an unmarked grave. Her friends respected her wishes, but they couldn't bring themselves to let her vanish completely. Beside her grave they placed a stone carved with her initials - "CRL".