Amy Johnson: my part in her downfall by Gunner Mitchell

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The Independent Online
SHE WAS the feminist icon of her time, the first woman to fly solo to Australia. But the fatal crash that claimed Amy Johnson's life has always been shrouded in mystery.

Now it seems that her death was a cruel combination of bad luck, a bad memory and a keen gunner at an anti-aircraft battery on the river Thames.

Yesterday, an old soldier, Tom Mitchell of Crowborough in Kent, claimed that it was he who shot the heroine down when she twice failed to give the correct identification code during a routine flight on 5 January 1941.

Eleven years earlier, Johnson had stunned the world, breaking gender stereotypes and taboos of the time, by flying solo from England to Australia as part of a challenge.

Nearly 60 years on, Mr Mitchell, aged 83, admits to asense of guilt for killing a cultural icon. After recent family deaths he felt that he had to set the record straight.

He said: "The reason Amy was shot down was because she gave the wrong colour of the day [a signal to identify aircraft, known by all British forces] over the radio."

Mr Mitchell was one of more than 20 soldiers based at Iwade in the Thames Estuary, who were ordered to shoot down the unidentified aircraft on 5 January 1941. Unknown to Mr Mitchell and his colleagues, the pilot was the legendary Amy Johnson, serving as an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot.

Mr Mitchell explained how the aircraft was sighted and contacted by radio. A request was made for the signal. She gave the wrong one twice.

"Sixteen rounds of shells were fired into the sky and the plane dived into the Thames Estuary. We all thought it was an enemy plane until the next day when we read the papers and discovered it was Amy Johnson.

"It was a shock to find out the pilot was Amy, but if she only had given us the right colour of the day she would have been all right. If no one answered the radios or gave the wrong colour we had to assume it was Germans.

"The next day when we read in the papers it was Amy, the officers told us never to tell anyone what happened."

Previous theories as to the cause of the crash had centred on mechanical problems with the aircraft or that she just ran out of fuel. At one point the Ministry of Defence was forced to issue denials after the crew on a naval destroyer also admitted it had fired at the aircraft.

Amy Johnson had been shunted to the Air Transport Auxiliary after joining up during the war as a pilot. As well as the Australian endurance flight she also flew to Japan, via Moscow, and back, and in 1932 she flew to Cape Town and back solo.