The WWII Pilot Who Built A Plane And Risked Death For Love
Lieutenant Ronald Spriggs and Wren Margaret Bailey were very much in love. Separated by war, Lt Spriggs came up with a plan to bring them together: He built a plane.
The biplane growls in the dawning sun, wings tipped silver, cruising low over the early morning calm of the Irish Sea. The pilot, wrapped warm in leathers, holds the plane steady at 100 knots. It’s a brisk January morning in 1945, and the world is at war.
He’s been in the air half an hour. On the horizon, the coast of Scotland rises up out of the waves. He aims his nose at Machrihanish, on the Kintyre peninsula, and spots a ship. He holds his breath: A plane flying solo over British waters at this hour might be taken as hostile, even with the light-green-and-olive livery of the Fleet Air Arm. He’d be court-martialled, or worse, shot on sight. An anxious minute draws out. Finally the boat dips over a wave and he sees it in detail: a fishing vessel. Close call.
At Machrihanish, the radio operator makes a coded announcement: “A bird is arriving to visit.” In the mail room, hall porter Margaret Bailey is relieved of duty by a friend and rushes to the rendezvous with a spring in her step.
Out on the runway, the biplane touches down without complaint. Lieutenant Ronald W. Spriggs climbs from the cockpit and finds his stomach filled with butterflies. Flying was the easy part, but he only has a short few hours with the woman he loves before it’s time to go, and he wants to savour every one.
Margaret Bailey was just 18 years old when she arrived in Machrihanish in June 1942. It was the middle of the night when she stepped off the transport, and the whole thing seemed like a mistake. This wasn't her first time away from home – when war was declared in 1939, she'd been sent to finish her studies in the relative safety of boarding school in Skipton, North Yorkshire – but there at least she'd known what to expect. This was just an old hotel on a remote peninsula.
She volunteered for the Women's Royal Naval Service as soon as she was eligible, and went to college in London for training. It was a bit of a lark at first: getting her kit, meeting the other girls, learning drills. But then the Germans began bombing London. She got word that her boyfriend, Dennis, who'd enlisted in the army, was in London mustering for embarkation “somewhere abroad". She arrived to see him board the truck taking his company to the ship. Suddenly the war became very personal.
After training, Margaret had been set for a role in the Signal Distribution Office in London. Once she realised SDOs had to work underground, and being somewhat claustrophobic, she applied for the first alternative: a position as a hall porter in Machrihanish. She had no idea where that was, let alone what a hall porter did.
She arrived in Glasgow, and stumbled on a parade: King George and Queen Elizabeth were in Scotland on an official visit, touring various facilities associated with the war effort. Due to their smart Navy uniforms, Maggie and her fellow Wrens were quickly ushered to the front by the crowd, and they received a wave from both king and queen.
She took it as a good omen, but the six-hour coach ride from Glasgow to Campbeltown in an ancient contraption with wooden benches and no cushions – and the subsequent transport to the base at Machrihanish in a covered lorry full of rowdy sailors – did much to dissuade her.
Maggie – as she was known to her fellow Wrens – and her best friend, Kay, were given a mug of cocoa, led to their quarters by torchlight, and left to settle as best they could.
Lying in her bunk, she thought about Things to Come, a film she’d seen before the war: an H.G. Wells story about a devastating world war and the subsequent battle for the skies between an evil dictator’s air force and a civilisation of engineers and pilots opposing him in their biplanes.
Much of what the film predicted – a second world war, aerial warfare, strategic bombing – had come true. Perhaps it had also subconsciously influenced the course of her life: Here she was, among the pilots and squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm, fighting to oppose a terrible dictator.
She wondered what would come of this, and if she’d made the right choice.
Machrihanish, designated HMS Landrail, was a land ship for the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, and when Maggie arrived in 1942 it was still being built. Squadrons from around the country flew in to Landrail to train to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier before being allowed to try it on the real thing. Pilots would spend days and nights flying training circuits until it was second nature.
Hall porters, it turned out, were receptionists in the officers' mess, and Maggie's tasks included allocating rooms to arriving squadrons and running the mail room. The hall porters were front of house, and Maggie wasn’t short of invitations to date. She hadn't heard from Dennis since he shipped out, and wasn't ready to move on just yet, but was happy for good company. Dating between officers and Wrens was forbidden, but it was a hopeless task to keep them apart, and she and her friends would arrange to meet officers during shore leave in nearby Campbeltown.
Before volunteering, Maggie had taken a secretarial course at the Yorkshire Ladies Council in Leeds, and was an adept organiser. That and her gregarious nature served her well as a hall porter; she was so well-liked on the base that she and three of her friends became the responsibility of Commander Beetham, the senior officer in charge at Landrail. He'd grown fond of the four and the girls took full advantage, enjoying many privileges, much to the fury of the Wrens officer.
Beetham’s main concern was morale. Machrihanish, though beautiful, was isolated, and he worried that boredom might set in among the 800 sailors, officers, and Wrens in his charge. As a result, Landrail was furnished with a cinema and a gym, and a lieutenant was assigned to developing leisure programmes.
After a relatively sheltered upbringing, Maggie revelled in the growing ship’s company. She wrote poetry, joined a drama group, and was made an honorary member of 805 and 811 Squadrons. Eventually she began dating again. Nothing lasted long though – pilots leaving Machrihanish were unlikely to return.
Ronald, or Ron as he was known to friends, joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1940, aged 21, as an engineer, before accepting an offer to train as a pilot. By the time he arrived at Machrihanish with 847 Squadron in 1944, he’d been commissioned as a sub-lieutenant.
847 Squadron flew Barracuda, a monoplane bomber. Much of their training at Landrail was for night-time "landing on", a significantly more hazardous manoeuvre than in daylight. Even without the risk of drowning, many pilots lost their lives during training.
Still, there were positives. A working-class boy from a northern factory town, Ron loved flying and the prestige that came with it. In just four years he’d gone from working with his father as an engineering apprentice at Leyland Motors to being a commissioned officer in the Fleet Air Arm. He’d studied at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, travelled to Canada, and trained in a dozen kinds of plane – opportunities he would never have had otherwise. No one wanted to be at war, but Ron was doing his best to make sure that if he came out of it, it was with a better life.
Ron had a girlfriend back home, and soon after arriving at Landrail he visited the mail room in the officers' mess to see if she’d sent a letter. Maggie, the hall porter on duty, informed him that the mail hadn’t arrived. Suddenly mail didn't seem so important. Maggie was warm, charming, and something of a flirt. Ron, tall and handsome in his officer's uniform, had a wicked wit. By the end of the conversation he’d forgotten all about the letter, but he wouldn't forget Maggie. When he invited her to tea in Campbeltown a few days later, Maggie accepted, as long as he brought along a friend for Kay.
Soon they were inseparable, spending shore leave sharing dinners and drinks and trips to the cinema, until a few weeks later, when 847 Squadron were cycled back to home base for a month. They wrote every day, and when Ron eventually returned to Landrail, they both admitted to missing each other very much, and romance began to blossom.
Nothing lasted long, though. With training over, 847 were due back in Lee-on-Solent. And Ron had another problem: He’d begun to black out above certain altitudes due to hypoxia. After years of precision flight training, he wouldn’t be able to fly bombing raids.
He was crushed, but all was not lost. The Admiralty discovered Ron’s engineering background and realised a pilot who could fix planes was a valuable asset. He was sent to the Royal Naval Engineering College at Manadon, Plymouth, for further training. His flying career was saved, but he was now on the south coast, some 600 miles from Maggie.
The pair wrote, sometimes more than once a day. Maggie, now 20, sent poems with her letters, the verse she'd been writing throughout the war now imbued with new purpose. Ron, now 25, filled his letters with proclamations of love and visions of their future together. He made trips to see her as often as his studies allowed.
In peacetime Ron would no doubt have proposed already, but he was reluctant to commit to an engagement during wartime, while everything was so uncertain. For the exact same reason, Maggie wanted to commit. She wanted some certainty, some hope, something good. Both were only children and used to getting their way, but Maggie's charm was tough to resist, and she soon changed his mind.
In summer 1944 they took shore leave to meet each other's parents. Still unable to travel together due to dating rules, they arranged to meet in Glasgow and he took her took to look at rings. He proposed on the platform at Glasgow Central Station. The other passengers cheered as he slipped on the ring and rose from his knee to kiss her. They were married on 30 October that year, her 21st birthday.
When Ron finished training in November 1944, he was promoted to lieutenant and posted to HMS Shrike in Maydown, Northern Ireland, as senior air engineer officer. He’d troubleshoot damaged aircraft by taking them for a spin, directing his engineers on the ground to the cause. It was a great post – the only issue was the Irish Sea now separating him and Maggie. They wrote daily, but the separation was leaving them lovesick. Determined not to go months without seeing her, Ron began to formulate a plan.
He was no stranger to flyboy antics. Once, while returning to Lee-on-Solent from Machrihanish in his Barracuda, he first buzzed the Blackpool Tower and then flew inland to his hometown of Leyland, Lancashire, and did a “heat-up” over his parents’ house – coming in low over the rooftops and opening the throttle – while his father was in the back garden: a stunt that earned him a “local boy makes good” mention in the town newspaper. His new idea was a little more risky, and he needed the right plane.
At Maydown, it wasn’t rare for a Swordfish to crash during training and be taken out of service, and soon Ron saw his chance: a wreck with relatively light fuselage damage and a working engine. He had his team recover the plane from the airdrome and they got to work. Struts were straightened, the prop replaced, and the fabric fuselage was patched and repaired. After a few weeks, the Swordfish looked good as new – cosmetically at least; with no guarantee that the repairs could withstand the stress of aerial manoeuvres and dive-bombing runs, it couldn’t re-enter service, and Ron had no plans to let it.
After a couple of test flights he was confident the plane could make the trip. All he had to do now was gain the sympathies of the radio operator at HMS Shrike. In early January 1945, with the men in his charge as conspirators, he put his plan into action.
At Landrail, Maggie convinced Commander Beetham to look the other way. She agreed a code with the radio announcer, and waited for her signal.
At dawn one morning, Ron instructed his crew to tell anyone who asked that he’d taken a plane up for testing, as he did several times a day. The radio operator sent word. Ron left Maydown on course for Scotland, superior officers and the Admiralty none the wiser.
The flight took just under an hour. With Ron's plane approaching Landrail, the operator made an announcement over the Tannoy: "A bird is arriving to visit.”
Kay arrived to relieve Maggie of her duty, and as Ron walked across the airdrome to find her, he could hardly stifle his grin: Their daring plan had worked. Reunited, they gave a chaste greeting and quickly retired to quiet quarters, free to fall into each other's arms.
As dusk approached, he kissed her goodbye and promised to return. Being caught in the air in daylight was dangerous; at night, deadly. Out on the airdrome, he readied his plane and set course for Maydown. There was a war to win, and they both had work to do.
Now, at least, they also had something to look forward to.
Ron kept his promise, and made many secret visits to Landrail during the final months of the war, in the trusty Swordfish he salvaged and rebuilt. With the help of friends and colleagues, he and Maggie had engineered a little hope in uncertain times.
Ronald and Margaret Spriggs were my grandparents.
Ron went on to become managing director of an engineering firm. Though he'd talk about flying and his love of planes, he didn't talk about the war. He'd lost a great many friends, and much of himself: His wit showed in flashes, but it was never the same. Maggie spent her life volunteering, and earned an OBE from the Queen for her service. In her late eighties, she began writing her memoirs, but stopped at the war. She found it too painful. This story, reconstructed from their anecdotes, letters, poems, and memoirs, is the only one they'd tell. Ron died in 2010, aged 91, and Maggie in 2015, also aged 91. They were married for 66 years.
"The Bird of My Heart"
Up above the deep blue sea
Tipped with silver by the moon
Flies the bird that bears my heart
Come back soon, Oh come back soon
As onward through the night you soar
I am left to wait and pray
Pray to God in Heaven above
Bring him back at break of day
Limping homeward from the flight
In the frosty morning air
I see the phantom ships come in
God has surely heard my prayer
Later lying in your arms
I forget in joy the pain
Then comes night on shadowed wings
And you are gone from me again
We have got a task, my darling
We have got the world to save
In the flight I’m there beside you
In your love for me, I’m brave
– Margaret Spriggs, 1945
Ronald W. Spriggs (1919–2010), Margaret Spriggs (1924–2015)