Saturday 29 September 2018

Of Spitfires, Heroes, Heroines and Statistics

As part of the blog's '...and any other matters that take our fancy' remit, here's a discussion from this week's More or Less that caught my attention concerning survival rates among World War Two Spitfire pilots, and I thought I'd share (via a classic ITBB transcript):

Tim Harford: Loyal listener Andrew wrote to us to ask:
Andrew: It is often mentioned that the average lifespan of a Spitfire pilots was four weeks. Those pilots were heroes of course, but I've never quite understood how that figure for life expectancy was calculated. Can you explain? Is it correct?
The Battle of Britain took place around this time 78 years ago, in British airspace between the 10th July and the 31st October 1940. On the British side flew nearly 3,000 men, including nearly 600 from allies such as Poland, New Zealand, Canada and Czechoslovakia
Archive clip: In the first year of this war British pilots brought down 1,750 in raids on this country. These are the men that do it...
There were heavy losses on both sides, but was the life expectancy of pilots in the iconic Spitfire really just four weeks? Well, Lizzy McNeill is our tame historian and she's been looking into the stats. Hello Lizzy. Welcome to History Today.
Lizzy McNeill: Thanks. This stat comes up a lot. It seems that every major newspaper has included it in an article at one point or another. For example, the quote appeared in The Independent as: "The average life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot during the battle of Britain was an astonishing four weeks". Now this quote is talking specifically about Spitfire pilots who were in action during the 16 week period in 1940 known as the Battle of Britain.
Tim: But is it true?
Lizzy: Doesn't seem to be. I first went to the Ministry of Defence and spoke to a wing commander who just happened to be by the phone. He was a bit confused about the question, so I then went to the National Archives. I'd heard rumours that the RAF had completed a census during the War to get this figure, but Dr George Hay from the National Archives wasn't convinced by the rumour or the statistic and he told me that it wasn't one he could find properly verified or referenced by any official source. He also pointed out that it would be a bit of an odd exercise for the Air Ministry and certainly would not have helped morale if shared publicly.
Tim: Good point.
Lizzy: Yep. The RAF Archive also told me they had no record of this statistic, either from the War years or later.
Tim: So there is no official data to back up the claim. We can't leave it there though. You're a historian, Lizzy. Do some history on it. Do we know about the life expectancy of pilots?
Lizzy: Well, I actually think it's kind of a strange question. I mean, the battle only lasted 16 weeks, so it really feels more natural to talk about survival rates than life expectancy. Sp that's where I've started. 
Tim: And what did you find out?
Lizzy: Well, I found 781 Spitfire pilots who were awarded the Battle of Britain clasp, which was given to men who flew at least one sortie during the battle. Of those 781 pilots, 151 died during the Battle of Britain which, remember, only lasted 16 weeks.
Tim: So the majority actually survived the Battle of Britain. So the claim can't be true.
Lizzy: Yes. Even if you look only at the men who died, the average survival time was about 7 weeks. But, remember, these are only the 151 men who died.
Tim: So that tells us nothing, except to confirm that the figure of four weeks must be wrong. And, obviously, the people who died during a 16 week battle are on average only going to last few weeks. It would be mathematically impossible for them to live longer than 16 weeks.
Lizzy: Yes, but what we do know is that it was a very dangerous job. About nine pilots died each week out of a total force of 781 pilots. So the mortality risk was more than 1% every week - and perhaps more depending on how many of those 781 pilots were active at any time. Still, as a Spitfire pilot you were more likely to survive the Battle of Britain than die in it.
Tim: What about the entire war?
Lizzy: Well, fewer than half of these pilot survived the War. Almost 20% died during the Battle of Britain and a further 33% died later in the War.
Tim: So the life expectancy of four weeks is one of those statistics that isn't true but isn't challenged because everyone feels, well, it's the kind of thing that ought to be true. But I don't think the heroism of Spitfire pilots needs to be exaggerated with dodgy numbers. 
Lizzy: No.

Mary Ellis

Tim: I did have a question though, Lizzy. Just this week there was a memorial service for Mary Ellis, who flew Spitfires and many other planes during the War but managed to live to the remarkable age of 101. How many women flew in the Battle of Britain and what was their survival rate?
Lizzy: Ah, well, as we often say on More or Less, behind any statistic there is someone counting or measuring something, and in this case, remember, I was counting pilots who were awarded the Battle of Britain clasp and neither Mary nor any other women were given that clasp because Mary and her colleagues didn't fly in operational sorties. They were in the Air Transport Auxiliary
Archive clip: Bombers and fighters in the hands of the ATA, he Air Transport Auxiliary  - the men and women who take the planes from the factories and deliver them to operational stations. An essential service to the RAF, increasingly important as the volume of air production increases.
They had to learn to fly dozens of different kinds of planes and move them around to where they were needed.
Archive clip: ATA pilots must be able to handle every kind of plane, from fastest fighter to the slowest trainer, from the largest air sea rescue amphibian to the heaviest bomber, and every Halifax or Stirling or Lancaster that's delivered by the ATA is used ultimately to deliver bombs on the Axis. 
They were highly skilled but they did not fly in the Battle of Britain, and that's what the original question focused on.
Tim: And what were their survival rates?
Lizzy: None of the original eight ATA women died during the War. By the end of the War 164 women pilots had served with the ATA and 15 died. So a mortality rate of nearly 10%.

1 comment:

  1. If 781 pilots flew in the Battle of Britain and 151 died then that is 19.3%. Perhaps if that percentage is applied to 16 weeks, 16 x 19.3% = 3.1 weeks, that is where the original four weeks figure came from?
    Why didn't they stamp on Dan Snow's lie regarding female Battle of Britain pilots - there weren't any, don't fudge the issue! I would imagine that the original eight female ATA pilots were from wealthy families and already knew how to fly whereas most of the others were trained in service and any that crashed were counted as service losses. No doubt there were contemporaries of the original eight that never got to join the ATA as they died before the war.
    I expect that because of the BBC's obsession with 'minorities' that the general public believes that the ATA was 100% female, rather than the actual 13%. As no woman flew Hurricanes or Spitfires before the summer of 1941 it is hard to give them any credit at all for the Battle of Britain that ended October 1940.