Continuing with our celebration of Women’s History Month, today we bring you a quite amazing story in many respects; certainly an untold story for us here at the Center. It concerns Margot Duhalde, a Chilean-born woman of Basque descent who saw active service in both the British Royal Air Force and the French Air Force.

Margot Duhalde (c. 1944). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Margot Duhalde Sotomayor was born in Chile in 1920. Her paternal family originally came from Luhuso (Louhossoa), Lapurdi, in Iparralde or the Northern Basque Country. In her own words (all citations from the wonderful article by Palmira Oyanguren cited below): “When my grandfather died, I would have been nine years old. He was an imposing Basque who used to sport some tremendous mustaches and who loved to recount his stories in song.” Growing up in a farming family in Río Bueno in southern Chile, her destiny appeared to be that of a rural life. However, she became fascinated at an early age with the planes that would fly over the family ranch to take the mail to the far corners of Chile.  When the family relocated to Santiago de Chile so that their children could receive the best education possible, she implored her parents to be able to take flying lessons; and, at age sixteen, she began to learn to fly at the Club Aéreo de Chile. As she recalled, “It was tough finding someone who was willing to teach a young half-farm girl to fly.” But she succeeded in her dream and by the late 1930s was a qualified pilot.

When World War II broke out in 1939, she went to the French Consulate in Santiago to volunteer, on the basis of her paternal family connections with France, for the Free French Forces led by Charles De Gaulle, who was based in London. She was not yet twenty-one and therefore not of legal age, so to get around this she had to invent a story for her parents (who would undoubtedly have refused any permission for her to take part in the war). She told them she would be going to Canada as an instructor, which they accepted. She subsequently sailed from the port of Valparaíso for Liverpool, in the company of thirteen other volunteers, including two young Basques with whom she made great friends, Juan Cotano and “some Ibarra”: “Because I was quite useless and knew nothing about any kind of domestic chores, they ironed my clothes, did my laundry … they affectionately nicknamed me ‘blockhead’.”

On arriving in the UK, she was immediately arrested on suspicion of being a spy and spent five days in a London jail. When she was finally released she ran into yet more obstacles when it came time to presenting herself at the headquarters of the Free French Forces: “The truth is that the French … didn’t know what to do with me. They’d mixed up my name with that of Marcel, in other words, they thought I was a man.” She waited three long months without hearing any word and then a post was assigned her helping out with domestic chores at a recovery center for injured pilots. While there, she unexpectedly received a letter from a French second lieutenant who had lived in southern Chile and had seen interviews with her in the press there. He told her to forget about the French ever allowing her to fly and try her luck elsewhere. This led to her decision to apply to the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), an organization that helped ferry aircraft to different destinations. Despite having practically no English, she was accepted for the ATA, initially working as a mechanic while she learned English. Soon after, however, she began a tough training schedule learning to fly both single and twin-engine aircraft, and both British and American machines. This eventually led to her flying over a hundred different types of planes (including both fighter planes and bombers) throughout the war for the ATA from bases in England to combat zones in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. She eventually rose in rank to become a first officer in the Women’s Section of the ATA.

Margot Duhalde in retirement.

At the end of the war, she was finally accepted into the French Air Force, in which she now flew warplanes officially, becoming France’s first woman combat pilot.  She also completed a public relations tour of Latin America for the French Air Force, demonstrating French aircraft in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Having eventually served her time and achieved her goal of becoming a combat pilot, she then returned to Chile in 1947, where she remained for the rest of her life and worked as a commercial pilot, instructor, and even air traffic controller, retiring at age eighty-one.

She married three times, and had one son. In the 2003 interview cited here she states: “Nowadays I live in an apartment accompanied by my dog Maite, who is as old as me, and by my young cat. Whenever I can, I get in gear and go to the land of my ancestors, Luhuso; or to Baiona, where I still have family with whom I maintain excellent relations.”

In 1946 Duhalde was made a Knight of France’s Legion of Honor and in 2007 she was made a Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honor; in 2009 she was awarded the Veteran’s Badge from the British Ambassador in Santiago for her work with the ATA during World War II; and she has also been honored officially by the Chilean Air Force, which bestowed the rank of colonel on her.

Further Reading

Palmira Oyanguren M., “Margot Duhalde: Confesiones de una aviadora,”  Eusko News & Media (2003).