Thursday, 2 January 2014

Women Pilots - Inspirational Women of World War One

My grateful thanks to Marianne Fevrier who works extremely hard putting posts on various English and French Facebook WW1 Commemorative Pages for bringing to my attention the fact that I had not yet mentioned Women Pilots on this weblog, although they have been featured in several of the exhibitions.


A lot of people seem to be surprised when we mention bombing raids and women pilots during the First World War, however there were indeed both.

Balloons had been used in combat since the French Revolution.  Artillery batteries had become used to firing in the air during the Franco-Prussian War. Italy used planes for bombing raids for the first time in Libya from 1910 – 1911 and in The Balkans 1912 – 1913.

Air travel was taking off during the years before the First World War – there were flying clubs in towns all over Britain and experiments were made with local passenger flights.

Charles Rolls of Rolls Royce fame, achieved a non-stop double flight crossing the English Channel and back on 2nd June 1910. 

The first woman to fly across the  English Channel was an American - Harriet Quimby - who made the flight in 59 minutes, taking off from Dover on 16th April 1912 – but little was known about her amazing accomplishment.  Harriet was killed in a flying accident on 1st July 1912.

Helene DUTRIEU  (1877 – 1961) BELGIAN was a truly Inspirational Woman – she is described as having been a cycling world champion, stunt cyclist, stung motorcyclist, racing car driver, stunt driver, pioneer aviator, wartime ambulance driver and director of a military hospital.

Helene was born in Tournai in Belgium on 10th July 1877.  Her Father was an Army officer.  Helene left school at 14 to go out to work. She became a track cyclist and in 1895 won the women’s world record for distance cycled in an hour. 

In 1908 Helene was invited to pilot a Santos-Dumont monoplane.  She crashed on take off, wrecking the plane.   On 19th April 1910, she was the first woman pilot to fly with a passenger.  The same year, she flew from Ostend to Bruges in Belgium.

During the War, Helene drove ambulances and later became the director of a military hospital at Val-de-Grace. She was sent to the USA in 1915 by the French Red Cross for propaganda purposed.  In 1956 she created the Helene Dutrieu-Mortier Cup with a prize for the French or Belgian woman pilot who made the longest non-stop flight each year.   She died in Paris on 26th June 1961.

Notable American women pilots include Katherine Wright (sister of the Wright Brothers) who flew in 1909, Baronesse Bessica Raiche – 1910, Blanche Stuart Scott, Matilde Moissant, Katherine and Marjorie Stinson and Ruth Law who took part in fund-raising activities.

Tiny Broadwick was the first woman to parachute from a plane in 1915.

Amelia Earhart interrupted her university studies to nurse in a military hospital in America during WW1.

MARIE MARVINGT (1875 – 1963) FRENCH – is described as an athlete, mountaineer, aviator and journalist.

Marie was born in Aurillac, Cantal.  The family moved to Metz which, it should be noted was German at that time, where they lived from 1880 – 1889.   After her Mother’s death, Marie at the age of fourteen. took charge of the family and they moved to Nancy.

Encouraged by her Father, Marie became an accomplished athlete, winning medals in swimming, fencing, shooting, ski jumping, speed skating, sledging and bobsleighing.  She also excelled at water polo, horse riding, athletics, boxing, martial arts, fencing, tennis, golf, hockey, football, mountaineering and circus skills.   In 1890, at the age of fifteen, Marie canoed from Nancy to Koblenz in Germany – more than 400 kilometers (250 miles).

In 1901 Marie made her first balloon flight as a passenger and in 1907 she piloted a balloon herself, going solo in September 1909.   She piloted a balloon across the English Channel on 26th October 1909.   That same year, Marie flew in a plane as a passenger and then studied fixed-wing aviation with Hubert Latham.   She was the second woman to be licensed to fly a monoplane.

During the First World War, Marie disguised herself as a man, something that she had to do because woman were not taken seriously when they tried to sign up.  Helped by a French Infantry Lieutenant, she served at the Front as a Soldier, 2nd Class in the French 42nd Battalion of Foot Soldiers.   She was discovered and sent home.

Marie was the first woman to fly missions as a bomber pilot.  She was also a qualified nurse and worked tirelessly to try to establish a global air ambulance service.  In 1915, Marie became the first woman in the world to fly combat missions when she took part in a bombing raid on a German military base in Metz, for which she received the Croix de Guerre.

Marie’s efforts would appear to have begun to bear fruit for in 1915, during the retreat of the French Army from Serbia a group of wounded men were saved from capture by being flown out on combat aircraft

For the remainder of the war, Marie served as a Red Cross nurse.

Between the Wars Marie travelled extensively lecturing about the concept of ‘aeromedical evacuation’.

On her 80th birthday, Marie was flown over Nancy in an American jet fighter. She began to study the piloting of helicopters but never earned her licence.  At the age of 86 she cycled from Nancy to Paris.

Marie died at the age of 88 at Laxou in North-Eastern France.

Notable Russian women pilots of World War One included Princess Eugenie M. SHAKOVSKAYA who was the first Russian woman to become a military artillery and reconnaissance pilot, Lyubov A. GOLANCHIKOVA, an actress who flew during the Russian Civil War and flew sorties for the Reds and was also a test pilot, Helen P. SAMSONOVA, a reconnaissance pilot, Princess Sophie A. DOLGORUKAYA, a pilot and observer with the 26th Corps Air Squadron until the October Revolution when she was demobilised and Nadeshda DEGTEREVA, who flew reconnaissance missions on the Galician Front (The Eastern Front) - Poland, Russia, Hungary and was the first woman pilot to be wounded in combat while on a reconnaissance mission over the Austrian Front.

ELFRIEDE RIOTTE (1879 - 1960) GERMAN was the first woman Zeppelin airship pilot.   Elfriede was born in Alsace on 12th April 1879, daughter of a senior civil servant.  Alsace was part of the German Empire at that time.

In April 1914, Elfriede took her tests on the Parseval-Luftschiff P VI.  In July of that year she gained her pilot’s licence.  Elfriede was not allowed to fly airships during the First World War so she concentrated on lecturing about flying.

Elfriede moved to Berlin after the War, built a guesthouse on the Island of Ruegen in the Baltic Sea an gave lectures about aviation.


A report circulated by Associated Press during WW1 states:  “That the Germans are using women as military aviators is indicated in a report that in a machine recently brought down by the Americans, the pilot, who was killed, was a woman.   The Captain of the Company of the One Hundred and Sixty-seventh Infantry reported that the pilot of a German aircraft brought down near Sergy on 28th August by Lieutenant Millar Thompson of the American Air Force was a woman.  The discovery of the sex of the aviator was made, the Captain says, when his men buried the enemy pilot and her observer.”

 Sources:  Cross and Cockade,