Daily life at a Bomber Command airfield could not exactly be described as ‘calming’.
I learned what the target was about midday, and for the whole afternoon I wandered around with a feeling of having half a pound of cold lead in the pit of my stomach. – Bill Brill, 467 Sqn skipper and later CO – C07-036-142
In an effort to explain their feelings about what they were to do, some airmen turned to thoughts of sport – as Hank Nelson wrote in his excellent book Chased by the Sun, for many airmen “sport was one place where their capacity to perform at their best under stress had been tested”. Nelson quotes Arthur Doubleday comparing the lead up to an operation to waiting to go into bat in cricket: “You know, the fast bowler looked a lot faster from the fence, but when you get in there it’s not too bad” (C07-036-142).
But as tours dragged on, as airmen witnessed more and more empty places at the Mess tables, it would have been only natural to begin to feel the cumulative tension of one operation after another. On his eleventh operation, Bill Brill was ‘getting a little accustomed to being scared’ (C07-036-159). And there is no doubt that airmen knew very well exactly how low their chances of surviving a tour were. Gil Pate wrote to his mother in November 1943 (A01-409-001): “It seems an age since I last saw you all + I guess I’ll need a lot of luck to do so again, the way things happen.”
So why did they go on?
Much has been made of the ‘stigma’ of being branded ‘LMF’ (Lacking Moral Fibre), a fate seemingly worse than death. And certainly there were instances of aircrew who had gone beyond their breaking point being publicly stripped of their ranks and their aircrew brevets, and given humiliating menial duties for the rest of the war. The loose stitching and unfaded spots left on their uniforms were a cruel reminder of what they once were. Certainly the threat of being branded LMF was a big motivator for some aircrew to carry on. But despite how much it was feared by the aircrew, a very low number of verdicts of LMF were ever officially handed down – Leo McKinstry quotes about 1200 in all, or less than 1% of all airmen in Bomber Command (C07-048-225). There were also instances of compassionate squadron Commanding Officers recognising an airman at his limit and quietly moving him off flying duties, without the humiliation of accusations of cowardice. One veteran I know told me of the case of a mid-upper gunner who had been so traumatised by discovering the mutilated remains of his rear gunner comrade after an attack by nightfighters that he was clearly not in a state to continue flying. He was given a month’s compassionate leave on return to base, and on his return from leave was transferred to the Parachute Section of the same Squadron where he worked for the rest of the war (C03-021-051).
One of the most significant motivators, in my view, was the bonds shared by the crews themselves. Dennis Over – a 227 Sqn rear gunner, writing on the Lancaster Archive Forum in December 2010 – says “our greatest fears may well have been not wanting to let our crew down”. When I visited Dennis in June 2010 he said that he could not remember feeling fear while actually on an operation. That, he said, came later. He had instead, he told me, “a sense of complete concentration on my duties, for the benefit of my entire crew”. No matter what the enemy could throw at them, no matter the hazards of weather or mechanical failure, their crew came first. That bond carries on today with many veteran aircrew still very close to surviving members of their crews. It’s one of the unique aspects of the Bomber Command experience and goes a long way to explaining why, in the face of dreadful odds, they pressed on regardless.
© 2012 Adam Purcell