Joy Lofthouse


Remembering Joy Lofthouse – and what she taught me about survival

Joy Lofthouse (Photo: SWNS)

The World War Two Spitfire pilot has died aged 94. For Caroline O'Donoghue, she was an important symbol of hope during a bleak summer

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

The first time I heard about Joy Lofthouse, the Spitfire pilot who spent World War Two flying supply planes for the army, my friends and I were having the worst summer of our lives. My friend John was in hospital, awaiting chemotherapy, and I was sleeping in his bed.

I slept in his bed because his girlfriend, Ella Risbridger – who wrote about the experience for The Pool in a series of lipstick and poetry columns – is my best friend. During those early, hot summer months of hand gel and white blood cells, I lived in her flat. The plan was to take up as much space in her life as possible and, in doing so, distract from the gaping, John-shaped hole in her home. It never completely worked, but it did a job and the ramshackle nature of our new relationship threw our understanding of the world temporarily out of whack. We cried about can openers and we laughed about toasted sandwiches. It was a giddy, terrible time and, at some point, we decided that we weren’t two sad girls in 2015 at all. No, no. We were two Spitfire pilots in World War Two.

I had heard about Joy Lofthouse at work. In May 2015, The Pool ran a piece about the then-92 year old Air Transport Auxiliary Veteran (or “ATA Girl”, as they were called during the war) flying a Spitfire plane, more than 70 years after her last flight. I wrote a follow-up a few months later, exploring Joy’s journey in ATA. “It really was the best job to have during the war because it was exciting,” said Joy. “We could help the war effort. In many ways, we were trailblazers for female pilots in the RAF.”

Something about Joy’s story connected with me and the life I was leading at the time. In some small way, I believed I was Joy Lofthouse. Not fighting the war, exactly, the way Ella was, but flying in armaments and food supplies and extra resources. I realised that the amazing thing about Joy’s life wasn’t that she was simply a woman who could fly a plane – the appeal of Joy Lofthouse is that she was someone who lived through one of the worst moments of modern history and still managed to excel. Joy wasn’t simply the embodiment of Blitz spirit. She didn’t shuffle her way, shrunken and grey-faced, to the end of the war. Joy Lofthouse flew.

“It’s the nearest thing to having wings of your own and flying,” she said affectionately, when she was reunited with her old wartime plane, 70 years after VE Day. I think about that moment a lot. I think of the friends Joy must have lost during those years of her life; of the hunger pangs of rationing; of building a bomb shelter in your garden or huddling in an underground tunnel while the city was destroyed above you. But Joy sees her plane again and she remembers having wings.

Joy Lofthouse, without ever knowing, became the patron saint of our survival. The legend of her travelled through our friend group

“Did you know they used to put Bisto on their legs, during the war?” I said to Ella one evening, one of the many evenings spent attempting to find conversational topics that could not, inevitably, be linked back to cancer.

“What – gravy granules?”

“When they couldn’t get nylons, they painted their legs with gravy.”

“Bisto legs” became our motto. We started saying it to each other in the morning, before I left for work and before she left for the hospital, shouting it across her flat as though we were summoning every woman who had ever made the best out of a bad situation to our sides. My friend Harry and I wrote a song about Joy, for Ella. We called it Attagirls and she still cries every time the hook line comes around: go down fucking and fighting / can’t you see man, I’m working? 

Joy Lofthouse, without ever knowing, became the patron saint of our survival. The legend of her travelled through our friend group and soon everyone was heavily relying on 1940s wartime terminology to refer to a 2015 problem. It’s an odd thing, a bunch twentysomethings talking about ration books and Spitfires, but it was just the level of pageantry we needed for a disease we were too young and too stupid to understand. Did Joy worry about Stalingrad? Did Joy know about the atomic bomb? Did Joy wake up every morning, once more surprised by the circumstances of the war and the people she lost in it, and crawl back under the covers? The evidence of her life seemed to suggest that, no – no, she did not.

Joy died yesterday. She was 94 years old. The story has made the papers and has landed on all of the major news sites. I was amazed by how many other people knew about her, this woman who flew supplies to army bases for a few short years in the 20th century, but perhaps it’s not so surprising. Perhaps, when people like Joy come along, it doesn’t take a genius or an incredibly rare cancer to know that you’ve got someone remarkable. Maybe Joy will always be one of those figures that people turn to when they need to strike back against their own pain and grab their life back with both hands. Maybe when things get bad – really, really bad – all it takes is some metal and a set of gritted teeth to feel like you’re flying.


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Joy Lofthouse (Photo: SWNS)
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