Intrepid Woman: Betty Lussier's Secret War, 1942-1945 by Betty Lussier

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Intrepid Woman: Betty Lussier's Secret War, 1942-1945 by Betty Lussier

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A read-worthy insight into the work of the forgotten wartime service of the Air Transport Auxiliary – with a sidestep into the birth of the American counter-espionage operation thrown in for desert. Told with finesse and a total absence of melodrama.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
ISBN: 978-1591144496

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Betty Lussier was born in Alberta, Canada. At the height of the depression her father bought a Maryland farm at a bank foreclosure sale, they crossed the border to the States and settled down to the hard life of raising dairy cattle and the crops needed to feed them.

With no boys in the family, the Lussier girls, Betty and her sisters, grew strong, hardy and adventurous. They were used to being up before the sun and working long days. They were driving the milk churns out for collection before they reached their teens, and not long after they were taking advantage of a friend of the family to learn to fly.

They were also intelligent. Staying close to home so that they could still help out on the farm, they followed high school by college. Then war broke out in Europe.

Whatever the U.S. government thought about the situation the Lussier girls were in no doubt. They wanted to help brave little old Great Britain, struggling on her own against the might of the Nazis. A sentimental view perhaps, but it was one sincerely held enough to have Betty do whatever it took to get across the Atlantic and into an aeroplane.

With more than a little scheming and wrangling and a great deal of persistence – not to mention blatant exploitation of the all important contacts (her father was a decorated WWI pilot) – she eventually worked her way into the ATA. The Air Transport Auxiliary is one of the forgotten services of the war. It wasn't set up until well into the conflict and it was promptly disbanded afterwards, but for the duration it was crucial to the allied success.

WWII was the first major conflict fought in the air. We weren't exactly ready for it. In 1940 at the start of the Battle for Britain, we had 871 single engine fighters, of which only 644 were serviceable. Losses were heavy, 450 of them were to be quickly lost. But Brits don't lie down that easily. The war effort kicked in and plane production soared (pardon the pun).

Some 17,000 planes were delivered to help from Canada and the U.S. but most of the requirement was made up locally. During the war some 125,000 planes were manufactured. All these planes had to get from factories to squadron bases. With typically British lateral thinking a couple of ex-RAF pilots, themselves no longer deemed fully fit for service, came up with the notion that not only was it inefficient to have trained and fit fighter/bomber pilots basically shunting planes about the country, when they could be out fighting and bombing, but at the same time there were large numbers of qualified pilots who by reason of age or disability (or gender!) were not deemed fit for the front line. They could be put to useful war work ferrying pilots and delivering planes. The Air Transport Auxiliary was born.

During the war they made an estimated 340,000 deliveries. 153 of their number died in the attempt. Their crews were drawn from some 28 different nations, and minor issues such as missing a leg or a hand or an eye or being female were not seen as a bar to service.

Betty was one of those pilots.

Her memoir of the training and the fun and frolics and danger of wartime Britain is told without drama. It is a fitting testament to the men and women who served in this forgotten outfit, it is also an entertaining social witness to the time and place through the eyes of an American. Betty was all-out American, whatever her claiming British citizen by dint of being born in Canada in order to get her job. She had the blunt approach that goes with being U.S. bred, that both endeared her to her billeteers and her instructors, and ensured she got her own way more often than not.

When she couldn't weadle what she wanted, she had the gumption (as it was probably called in those days) to simply go do it anyway.

The one thing she couldn't change however, was the order that females were to be kept back behind the lines when the ATA got the all-clear to move forward into Europe to support the advancing land forces in the final months of the war. Incensed at being 'made to stay home' Betty promptly quite the ATA.

This was no fit of pique however. She'd engineered (with help) a role that would get her behind enemy lines. She signed up with the X-2 the fledgling U.S. counter-espionage agency and, as one of the privileged few privy to the Ultra files (the intel from the decrypted German Enigma messages) she worked her way from St Albans, via Algeria, Sicily and Italy all the way to Paris and thence to the liberation of the Île d'Oléron on the Atlantic coast of France.

Betty Lussier's Secret War as the subtitle has it, may have all the elements of a vivid action-movie but it is told in the most down to earth fashion that it's actually very easy to equate either the gentle grey-haired author of the cover photo or the sweet farm girl in her flying gear of the earlier pictures with any of the events concerned. Rather than leaving you with a feeling of astonishment that she did any of this, Lussier contrives to convince you that there really wasn't anything special about it. She just did what needed to be done, as did many more like her.

If that makes the book seem bland, it is anything but. It is important however for readers to realise that they shouldn't approach it looking for adventure and excitement. What is to be found in the 200 pages that the Naval Institute Press have brought to us is much more interesting than that. It gives details of the daily work-load. It contrasts the British attitudes with the American ones. It provides a wonderful social commentary on the licensing hours and the availability of eggs and chocolate. It doesn't shy away from the fact that your very first air raid isn't just scary it's rather thrilling, when seen from a train carriage, until you realise that plate glass windows probably don't provide the best shrapnel defence.

In all it is a very readable testimony to previously unappreciated aspects of service during the Second World War. It shows the young people involved to be as lively and playful as any of their age, but also to be dedicated professionals with sound views of the kind of world they wanted to live in. I suspect those guys and girls grew up very quickly between 1942 and 1945 and we owe them a debt of honour. The least we can do is learn about and remember the work they actually did.

Fascinating stuff.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for a completely different woman's war but an equally valuable social history, take a look at Axis Sally, by Richard Lucas.

Buy Intrepid Woman: Betty Lussier's Secret War, 1942-1945 by Betty Lussier at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Intrepid Woman: Betty Lussier's Secret War, 1942-1945 by Betty Lussier at

Buy Intrepid Woman: Betty Lussier's Secret War, 1942-1945 by Betty Lussier at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Intrepid Woman: Betty Lussier's Secret War, 1942-1945 by Betty Lussier at


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