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One of the girl mechanics who kept the Spitfires flying

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 04, 2012

  • In this photograph, taken just over 60 years ago, Mollie Crook is pictured with some of the girls around one of the tail units they were working on

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Mollie Crook, one of the original Exeter "Spitfire Girls" during the Second World War, has died aged 87.

During the war Exeter was a major centre for the repair of damaged Spitfire fighter planes.

Young women became skilled airframe mechanics in city centre garages, helping to get the desperately-needed fighters back to their squadrons.

Mrs Crook, from Stoke Hill, left her job as an usherette in the Odeon early in the war to join the repair team in a garage – previously occupied by the delivery vans of the Hovis bread firm – just a few yards further up Sidwell Street from the cinema.

The site is today occupied by university halls of residence.

Various Exeter garages were commandeered as Spitfire repair workshops.

Mrs Crook recalled some years ago: "I worked there myself for several years, at first repairing Spitfire tail units and then putting new wings together. I can still remember it as clearly as if it were only yesterday. They were a lovely crowd to work with."

Many Spitfires were damaged either by enemy action or flying mishaps, and Air Service Training took over most of the principal Exeter garages for use as repair workshops.

The mended components of the Spitfires were reassembled at RAF Station, Exeter, now Exeter Airport, from where ferry pilots flew them back to their squadrons elsewhere in the country.

The big Bedford Garage in the city centre was used until it was destroyed in the 1942 blitz. Pike's Garage in Alphington Street was used throughout the war, mostly staffed by teams of male mechanics.

Mrs Crook, Miss Gibbs before her marriage to husband Norman, recalled: "Once you reached the age of 18 in the war years you had to join the forces or to work on munitions.

"At 18 I was an usherette at the Odeon. My father, Bill, was away in the Royal Marines and my brother, Gordon, in the Royal Navy, so I chose munitions. It enabled me to stay at home and keep my mum and younger members of the family company in our then home at Coronation Road, Wonford Village.

"I had to report to Air Service Training in the former Devon General bus garage in Blackboy Road where I learned how to use various hand tools such as riveting guns. I think Air Service Training was part of plane builders Vickers Armstrong.

"From there I was sent to the former Hovis Garage in Sidwell Street where at first I worked on Spitfire tail units, and learned yet more skills from an experienced mechanic.

"My photograph, taken just over 60 years ago, shows some of us girls around one of the tail units on which we were working. Later, when they started making new wings in another part of the garage, I became an assembler.

"Our working day was from 8am to 7pm. We were told that we were doing a vital war job in helping to get damaged Spitfires back in the air and it was important to achieve high standards because pilots' lives depended on it.

"Inspectors used to come and check that everything was right. They had inspection mirrors like those used by dentists."

She added that as the allies pressed on through Europe after D-Day in 1944, fewer damaged aircraft were being sent to Exeter for repair and early in 1945 the city operation was closed down.

Air Service Training showed appreciation of the vital war job done by its Exeter teams when it organised a dance in their honour at Exeter Airport.

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