I was born in Cornwall, a distant relative of the historian, A. L. Rowse. However, because of my father’s work, I lived in the Georgian City of Bath from the age of two. To some extent my love of books was fostered by a competent English teacher at my old secondary school. It was housed in a Georgian edifice called Weymouth House, a building that was a piece of history. I never understood why they pulled it down to build a Marks and Spencer store.
On the mortgage-paying work front, I spent forty years working as an air traffic controller in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. The last twenty-three years were spent at the College of ATC at Bournemouth Airport. I now concentrate on my writing.
When the men are dead the women must fight.
The year is 1940 and much of England is now German occupied territory. The Royal Air Force has lost most of its airfields, over half its aircraft, and too many aircrew. The RAF needs all the help it can get.
That’s where Annabel Riley comes in. This female American pilot offers her services to the beleaguered British and becomes the captain of a bomber aircraft. One by one, she sees the men in her crew killed, only to be replaced by more women. In time Eddie Pascoe, the navigator aboard a Wellington bomber becomes the sole male member of her crew.
Can Annabel turn her comrades into a potent fighting force, or will they all go down in flames?
An interview with Annabel Riley – pilot extraordinaire in WW2
Why did you, an American girl, get caught up in the war in Europe?
Well, I suppose it was my father’s fault, really. He didn’t give a toss when the Germans invaded England in 1940, but he did pay attention when they threated to invade Ireland. His ancestry is Irish, you see. I should explain that my father sells newspapers. Not on the street corners. He owns the publishing companies, and he’s a very wealthy man with a lot of political influence. I mean, right to the top. When the RAF ran short of aircrew for their fighting machines, he pulled a few strings to allow me to get involved and help the beleaguered Brits defend Mother Ireland. The Brits had to help their neighbours across the Irish Sea in order to stop the Germans surrounding their own small patch with a pincer movement.
So, why did I get involved? – “Why not?” as my father would say. After all, Jackie Cochran organised twenty-five American female pilots to join the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Actually, I think the real reason was that he was looking at his newspaper sales figures. ‘Ronald Riley’s daughter fights for Ireland’ was a heartstring-tugging story aimed at the Irish American vote. So my father spoke to Roosevelt. Roosevelt spoke to Churchill, and I ended up as the pilot of a Wellington Bomber.
What was it like flying with the Brits?
The men were a strange bunch in many ways. Much of the time they acted like schoolkids. Called each other by schoolkid names. My first co-pilot was called ‘Desperate’ Dan Dawkins because he looked like a character in a kids’ comic. I suppose I should have cottoned on to the fact that they would find a silly name for me. ‘Smiley’ Riley was what they came up with. I ask you! Smiley Riley? I suppose they thought they had good reason for it. The crew member I got on best with was Eddie ‘Pencils’ Pascoe. He was my navigator. When the other men in my crew were killed, they were replaced by women. Eventually, Eddie was the only man left aboard my aircraft. He coped with that better than you might imagine. Until we got shot down.
What was your female crew like?
They were perfectly normal English girls. One was an ex-nun who mustered as a tail-gunner. She hated men, you see, and she just loved shooting at them. There was a Jewish girl who bartered bacon and pork sausages for soft toilet paper. So, what’s wrong with that? Then there was a Chinese Cockney girl. She had a preference for women if you see what I mean. And then there was Eddie Pascoe’s girlfriend, a radio operator. She went from zero knowledge about sex to a master’s degree in three easy lessons. Yes, they were all perfectly normal English girls.
Was there anything about the Brits that got on your nerves?
Yes, their weird sense of humour. They called it subtle humour, but I called it warped thinking. Eddie and his girlfriend were forever talking about how England runs on tea, and then bursting into howls of laughter. I ask you, what’s so funny about that? Maybe it was a private joke and I wasn’t meant to know what the hell they were laughing about. I’ll drag it out of them one day. Make them explain what’s so funny about England running on tea.
Was there a brighter side to being over here in the European war?
Yes. I came out of it having met the love of my life. We’re still together and always will be. But I’m not going to tell you about that in this interview. You can read the book and find out for yourself.
One last question – could you ever envisage the day that a woman becomes president of the United States?
A woman as President? Why not? Eleanor Roosevelt has done a marvellous job as the power behind the throne. She would have made a damn good president. But let’s be honest about it: a female President won’t happen, any more than we’ll ever have a black president. I guess we’re not yet ready for such radical moves. Maybe fifty years from now… who knows?
In the UK it should – in theory – be possible to have a female Prime Minister. One day they’ll have a female head of state – a queen – so they’re going to be faced with a woman at the top anyway. But, after the opposition I saw towards female pilots over there, I figure it’ll be even less likely to happen in practice. There are too many men at the top who think a women’s place is at the kitchen sink. Maybe they’ll also need another fifty years to get used to the idea of women taking on top jobs.
(ED – Thank you Miss Riley and I do hope you didn’t take anything unexpected back to the states with you. I’ve heard a lot about these aviators! They lived life as if every day would be their last – and we all owe them, and you, a debt of gratitude.)