Life And Death In Bomber Command
The bomber war was fought largely by young, civilian volunteers from Britain and the Commonwealth, commanded by men who joined up before the Second World War. The vast majority of aircrew were in their late teens or early twenties. Only 25% were officers. An increasing flow of Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders meant that one in four aircrew came from the Dominions.
Aircrew were first committed to a tour of thirty operational flights, not exceeding 200 actual flying hours, which could last for any period from four months to a year. Pathfinder crews flew forty-five. A six-month break - usually spent as instructors with training units - was followed by a second and final tour. Instructing had its dangers, too, as it involved flying with inexperienced recruits in old aircraft. More than 8,000 men were killed in training accidents or other non-operational flying during the Second World War.
Operational flying was perilous. Chances of survival varied during a tour, depending on factors such as inexperience, fatigue, type of aircraft flown and target. The most dangerous were the first and last five trips. During the whole war, 51% of aircrew were killed on operations, 12% were killed or wounded in non-operational accidents and 13% became prisoners of war or evaders. Only 24% survived the war unscathed.
The everyday lives of most aircrew, unlike other servicemen, were a unique mixture of danger and normality. At one moment the men were on a bombing raid, a few hours later they were safely at home in the pub.
Bomber operations were extremely stressful and frequently perilous, with a random chance of death or horrific injury. Flying was physically and mentally demanding and constant concentration was needed for many hours at a time. Airmen had to not only fight the enemy, but also a hostile environment in which they might encounter many kinds of adverse weather. Occupational hazards such as lack of oxygen, frostbite and lower pressures at high altitude meant they needed equipment to keep them warm and breathing. These problems were increased by operating at night.
On operations, most aircrew feared anti-aircraft fire - known as flak - although statistically, they were more likely to be shot down by fighters. Shrapnel from exploding flak could cause extensive damage not only to aircraft, but also to the crew. It could result in serious injuries, especially if it struck the head or upper body. The sight and sound of shells bursting nearby were unnerving to an aircrew and a near miss could cause the aircraft to jolt alarmingly.
Fatigue and fear were the most common causes of combat stress for bomber crews. Approximately 5,000-6,500 men suffered serious disorders and an unknown, possibly much larger, number experienced lesser symptoms. Simple treatments such as lots of food, rest and relaxation were successful in many cases and about a third of all casualties eventually returned to operations. However, a few were treated harshly and were labelled LMF - meaning 'Lack of Moral Fibre' - and quickly removed from their stations so as not to affect other aircrew.
Some aircrew sustained severe burns. They were the most serious injuries suffered and needed complicated and very long treatment and recovery periods. Victims benefitted from the pioneering techniques introduced by Archibald McIndoe, civilian consultant plastic surgeon to the RAF, at his hospital in East Grinstead. His RAF patients were known collectively as 'the Guinea Pig Club'. By 1945, 80% of the club’s 649 members were bomber aircrew.
For aircrew returning safely from an operation, relief at survival was the overriding emotion. Once home they could enjoy a hot meal and a sleep in a warm bed. For the next few days there might be no flying. RAF stations generally had good leisure facilities and there were frequent dances, mess parties and variety shows. Aircrew were given generous amounts of leave, with a seven-day pass every six weeks and shorter periods granted during prolonged bad weather or after difficult operations.
Not all aircrew made it home. If an aircraft flying over the sea was damaged or out of fuel, the crew would have to make an emergency landing on the water, known as ditching, which was always hazardous. If a good landing was made, the crew could escape into rubber dinghies. Men in the water did not stay alive for long. If survivors were spotted, or their radio distress signals were heard, rescue could come in the form of warship, fishing boat, seaplane or RAF Air Sea Rescue craft.
If an aircraft flying over land was critically damaged, aircrew would have to bail out. Parachutes were bulky and not completely reliable, escape hatches were small and had to be located in the dark, and the aircraft might be on fire and out of control. Men were sometimes injured or killed by striking parts of the aircraft after jumping. Only 25% of airmen safely exited Halifaxes and Stirlings, a mere 15% from Lancasters. Landings were often perilous. Survivors would try to evade capture as, if they were not killed by the SS, the Gestapo or angry civilians, they would become prisoners of war (POWs).
All aircrew were given some instruction in evasion techniques. Before each operation they were also issued with some local currency, a small hacksaw, a compass, a silk escape map and an escape aid box. The box contained enough concentrated food to last for 48 hours, or for seven days if they were flying over Germany. Those landing in occupied countries had more chance of evading capture. As the war progressed, lines of courageous helpers, who sheltered fugitive airmen, were built up by MI9 - the British escape service - to get the men to neutral Spain or Switzerland.
Airmen who became POWs first went to Dulag Luft transit camp near Frankfurt, where they were interrogated for information, and then to a permanent camp. The journey between camps often offered the best chance for an escape. Conditions for POWs were harsh. Food was always scarce and of poor quality, camps were cold in winter and often overcrowded. They were sustained by parcels of food, medicine and other comforts sent by the Red Cross. Almost 10,000 aircrew from Bomber Command became POWs.