Montrose’s Spitfire Girls - calendar created to raise cash for Montrose Air Station

Neil Werninck photographing Spitfire Girl Tammi Watt
Neil Werninck photographing Spitfire Girl Tammi Watt

It may be 12 years since Calendar Girls hit the big screen, and now some young women from Montrose are taking you back even further to Montrose Air Station in its hey day with a special calendar.

With the 80th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire coming up next year, a calendar has been produced by local photographer Neil Werninck to mark the occasion and put Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre on the map.

The calendar not only marks the 80th anniversary of the Spitfire, it also commemorates the women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary, who flew the planes, including famous female pilot Amy Johnston who was one of the ATA women to fly to Montrose, as well as bringing a little touch of 1940s glamour to the town.

A number of girls and women from the Montrose area donned on WAAF uniforms, red lippy and rocked a big, bouncy 1940s updos, posing next to the museum’s replica Red Litchie Spitfire, while Neil, of Van Werninck Studio, photographed them.

And now Neil and the models, who have become Montrose’s Spitfire Girls, are gearing up for a special launch event of the calendar in May.

Montrose’s association with the Spitfire was through the men who flew them, many after training at No.8 Flying Training School, RAF Montrose. Between 1936 and 1942 around 1,500 men qualified as pilots at Montrose, including some of the most famous Spitfire ‘aces’.

Several Spitfire Squadrons had detachments at Montrose during World War Two.

Neil says: “Early last year, I had thought of producing a charity calendar as a fund-raiser for the heritage centre.

“The Spitfire Girls theme occurred by chance; I had quite liked the idea of using the ‘Red Lichtie’ Spitfire replica for the calendar and originally considered it for 2015.

“However, an article I had been reading mentioned the first flight of the Spitfire was in March 1936; and so making the calendar celebrate the 80th Anniversary year of that first flight seemed a better idea.

“A while later I had watched a TV programme that told the story of the Air Transport Auxiliary women pilots during World War Two, a number of whom had flown Spitfires, and suddenly I realised that here was the perfect calendar mix - commemorating these courageous women pilots as well as the Spitfire anniversary seemed the perfect theme.”

It started with one girl, Charlotte, who Neil had been photographing for her 18th birthday.

“I asked Charlotte if she would be a willing model for the project and a while later photographed her in WAAF uniform in the studio and later with the Spitfire at the Heritage Centre.

“Next problem was the hairstyle; I put a request for help with 1940s hair and make-up on Facebook and very quickly had a response from Dawn Wallace at the Barber’s Shop, I am most grateful to Dawn and her staff for their help. The idea ‘took off’ from here with many girls interested in getting a touch of that 1940s glamour that there are 13 in the calendar.

“After further research on the ATA ladies we modified the uniform and I had my first calendar girl, Charlotte has pride of place on the calendar’s front cover. The calendar features another twelve ‘girls’, all of them local or with a local connection,” says Neil.

Montrose Air Station curator Dan Paton explains Spitfire Girls is the name often given to women of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).

He says: “Women were not allowed to be involved in combat so they could not fly with the RAF but women who had flying licences could join the ATA. The job of this organisation was to deliver aircraft from the factories to the air stations.

“ATA pilots did fly Spitfires but in practice women of the ATA flew a great variety of aircraft from Tiger Moths to Lancaster bombers and often had experience of flying far more types than many RAF pilots.

“They were not expected to fight the enemy but it was still dangerous, flying to many different destinations in all weathers.

“Amy Johnston, the famous woman record breaking pilot of the 1930s, delivered twin engine Oxfords to Montrose where they were used for training future bomber pilots. She lost her life when an Oxford she was flying crashed in the Thames estuary.

“Spitfire Girls were not allowed to forget they were women. Early on in the life of the ATA the uniform was a skirt, not the most practical garment for flying a Spitfire.

“One ATA pilot recalled getting lost in a Spitfire in bad weather and being faced with a dilemma. Should she bale out or try to find out where she was? She decided that parachuting in a skirt would not be decent, so she stuck with the plane and landed safely.

“One girl, asked by her Mother ‘Is it dangerous?’ replied ‘only after you land’.

“Spitfire Girls could expect a very warm welcome for the men of the RAF.

“We hope our Spitfire Girls calendar will get a warm welcome from everybody.

“The 13 local ladies posing around the Red Lichtie Spitfire certainly bring back a touch of 1940’s glamour. That lipstick! Those hairdos!”

The Spitfire Girls calendar will be launched at press event at the air station on Friday, May 29 with many of the girls featured on the pages attending. Dress shop Jezabelle, in Murray Street, is sponsoring the girls that day by providing them long evening dresses for the launch photoshoot.

All profits from the calendar will go to the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre and Neil is currently looking for sponsors to help with printing costs and anyone interested should get in touch with him at the Van Werninck Studio on 01674 673282.

Neil and Dan are also looking for the families of ATA pilots who have a Montrose connection to get in touch by calling Neil or the air station on 01674 678222 or to attend the launch in May.