The term “Lack of Moral Fibre” was introduced into RAF vocabulary in April 1940 and was ‘designed to stigmatize aircrew who refused to fly without a medical reason.’  While it is now most commonly associated with ‘shell-shocked’ bomber crews, in fact aircrew from all commands could be and were categorized as LMF in the course of the war. Humiliating as the concept was, the myths about the treatment of LMF were more terrifying than the facts.
The RAF entered the war confident that its volunteer aircrew, all viewed as the finest human material available, would not suffer from any crisis in morale. Yet already by January 1940, attrition rates of over 50% in Bomber Command, triggered a crisis in confidence among commanders and crews. At the same time, Coastal Command morale was undermined by unreliable engines and unarmed aircraft that proved extremely vulnerable to Luftwaffe attack.
On March 21, 1940 the Air Member for Personnel met with senior RAF commanders to develop a procedure for dealing with flying personnel who refused to ‘face operational risks.’ The concern of these senior officers was that the refusal to fly would become more widespread, debilitating the RAF. The RAF’s dilemma was that flying was ‘voluntary,’ hence the refusal to fly was not technically a breach of the military code.
The RAF needed an alternative means of punishing and deterring refusals to fly on the part of trained aircrew. Furthermore, because of the on-going crisis, the procedures for dealing with the problem were required immediately. There was no time for lengthy study into the causes or best practices for treatment. Over time the polices on LMF were modified significantly and increasingly discredited. Yet it is telling that at the height of the Battle of Britain, AVM Sir Keith Park strongly advocated the policy, emphasizing that aircrew deemed LMF should ‘be removed immediately from the precincts of the squadron or station.’[i]
Furthermore, while nowadays LMF is most commonly associated
with bomber crews, the statistics show a that only one third of LMF cases came
from Bomber Command. Surprisingly, fully a third came from Training Command, while
both Coastal and Fighter Commands also had their share of LMF cases. Fighter
Ace Air Commodore Al Deere describes in detail a case of a pilot from No 54
Squadron who avoided combat and was later ejected from the squadron for being “yellow.”[ii]
Fighter Ace Wing Commander Bob Doe records another incident towards the end of
the Battle of Battle of Britain in which a Squadron Leader conspicuously avoided
combat, but because the Squadron Leader was from a different squadron, no
action was taken.[iii]
Furthermore, while nowadays LMF is most commonly associated with bomber crews, the statistics show a that only one third of LMF cases came from Bomber Command. Surprisingly, fully a third came from Training Command, while both Coastal and Fighter Commands also had their share of LMF cases. Fighter Ace Air Commodore Al Deere describes in detail a case of a pilot from No 54 Squadron who avoided combat and was later ejected from the squadron for being “yellow.”[ii] Fighter Ace Wing Commander Bob Doe records another incident towards the end of the Battle of Battle of Britain in which a Squadron Leader conspicuously avoided combat, but because the Squadron Leader was from a different squadron, no action was taken.[iii]
For the men who continued flying operations, the fate of those ‘expeditiously’ posted away from a squadron for LMF was largely shrouded in mystery. Legends about LMF abound. During the war itself, it was widely believed that aircrew found LMF were humiliated, demoted, court-martialed, and dishonorably discharged. There were rumors of former aircrew being transferred to the infantry, sent to work in the mines, and forced to do demeaning tasks. Aircrew expected to have their records and discharge papers stamped “LMF” or “W” (for Waverer) with implications for their post-war employment opportunities.
Long before the war was over, however, the very concept of LMF was harshly criticized and increasingly discredited. In the post-war era, popular perceptions conflated LMF with “shell shock” in the First World War and with the more modern concept/diagnosis of Post Traumatic Shock Disorder/Syndrome PTSD/S. In literature — from Len Deighton’s Bomber to Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 — aircrew were increasingly depicted as victims of a cruel war machine making excessive and senseless demands upon the helpless airmen. Doubts about the overall efficacy of strategic bombing, horror stories depicting the effects of terror bombing on civilians, and general pacifism in the post-war era have all contributed to these cliches.
In reality, LMF was a more complex and nuanced issue. First, although there are documented instances of aircrew being humiliated in a parade during which flying and rank badges were stripped off, such public ceremonies were extremely rare. The vast majority of references to such public spectacles are second hand; that is, the witness heard about such procedures at a different station or squadron. Historical analysis of the records, on the other hand, show almost no evidence of widespread humiliation. Furthermore, over the course of the war, less than one percent of aircrew were posted LMF, and of these the vast majority were partially or completely rehabilitated. Only a tiny fraction were actually designated LMF or the equivalent. (The term used for describing aircrew deemed cowardly varied over time, including the terms “waverer” and “lack of confidence.”) Furthermore, the process for determining whether aircrew were LMF or not was far more humane than the myths of immediate and public humiliation suggest.
While the decision to remove a member of aircrew from a unit was an executive decision, applied when member of aircrew had “lost the confidence of his commanding officer,” the subsequent treatment was largely medical/psychiatric. Thus, while a Squadron Leader or Station Commander was authorized — and expected! — to remove any officer or airman who endangered the lives or undermined the morale of others by his attitude or behavior, a man found LMF at squadron level was not automatically treated as such by the RAF medical establishment.
On the contrary, RAF medical personnel were at pains to point out that LMF was not a medical diagnosis at all! It was a term invented by senior RAF commanders in order to deal with a phenomenon they observed — and feared. In consequence, once a man had been posted away from his active unit, he found himself inside the medical establishment that employed Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous (NYDN) centers to examine and to a lesser extent treat individuals who had “lost the confidence of their commanding officers.”
The medical and psychiatric officers at the NYDN centers (of which there were no less than 12) were at pains to understand the causes of any breakdown. They did not assume the men sent to them were inherently malingerers or cowards. On the contrary, as a result of their work they made a major contribution to understanding — and helping the RAF leadership to understand — the causes for a beak-down in morale. These included not only inadequate periods of rest, but irresponsible leadership, lack of confidence in aircraft, and issues of group cohesion and integration. As a result of their interviews with air crew that had been posted LMF, for example, the medical professionals were able to convince Bombing Command to reduce the number of missions per tour and to exempt aircrew on second tours from the LMF procedures altogether.
Meanwhile, more than 30% of the aircrew referred to NYDNs returned to full operational flying (35% in 1942 and 32% in 1943-1945), another 5-7% returned to limited flying duties, and between 55% and 60% were assigned to ground duties. Less than 2% were completely discharged.
In addition, there is considerable circumstantial evidence that at the unit level, pains were taken to avoid the stigma of “LMF.” No one understood the stresses of combat better than those who were subjected to them. It was the comrades and commanders, who were themselves flying operationally, who recognized both the symptoms and understood the consequences of flying stress. These men largely sympathized with those who were seen to have done their part. Certainly, men on a second tour of operations were treated substantially differently — at both operational units and at NYDNs — than men still in training or at the start of their first tour.
Fighter Ace Air Commodore Al Deere, DSO, OBE, DFC and Bar posed the dilemma as follows: “The question ‘when does a man lack the moral courage for battle?’ poses a tricky problem and one that has never been satisfactorily solved. There are so many intangibles; if he funks once, will he next time? How many men in similar circumstances would react in exactly the same way? And so on. There can be no definite yardstick, each case must be judged on its merits as each set of circumstances will differ.”[iv] (Photo below courtesy of Chris Goss)
While conditions varied over time, from station to station, and from commander to commander, on the whole RAF flying personnel did not seek to punish or humiliate a comrade who in the past had pulled his weight. Instead, informal means of dealing with cases of men who “got the twitch” — other than posting them LFM — were practiced. Precisely because such practices were “informal” they are almost impossible to quantify, yet the specific cases documented are almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg.
This is not to say that LMF policies did not have a powerful impact on RAF culture. The fact that so many aircrew knew about LMF and had heard rumors of humiliating practices for dealing with LMF demonstrates that the possibility of being designated LMF was an ominous reality to aircrews. Because of the draconian punishment expected based on the myths surrounding LMF, the threat of being designated LMF acted as a deterrent to willful or casual malingering. Tragically, the threat of humiliation may also have pushed some men to keep flying when they had already passed their breaking point, leading to errors, accidents, and loss of life.
Deere noted: “In my first tour [during the height of the Battle of Britain], despite the many narrow escapes I was always confident that I could come through alright. In contrast, throughout [a later tour], although it was far less hectic, there was always uppermost in my mind the thought that I would be killed….I don’t think I was any more frightened than previously, and it can only be that I had returned to operations too soon after so many nerve-racking experiences…. The result was a lack of confidence, not so much in my ability to meet the enemy on equal terms, but in myself (or my luck).”[v] He admitted that by the time he was relieved of his command and sent on a publicity tour to the United States he was, in fact, overdue for another rest.
During the Second World War, psychiatric professionals increasingly came to recognize that “courage was akin to a bank account. Each action reduced a man’s reserves and because rest periods never fully replenished all that was spent, eventually all would run into deficit. To punish or shame an individual who had exhausted his courage over an extended period of combat was increasingly regarded as unethical and detrimental to the general military culture.”[vi]
Yet we should not forget that behind the notion of LMF was the deeply embedded belief that courage was the ultimate manly virtue and that a man who lacked courage was inferior to the man who had it. RAF aircrew were all volunteers. They were viewed and treated as an elite. Membership in any elite is always dependent on the fulfilment of certain criteria. Since the age of the Iliad courage has been — and remains — the most fundamental characteristic expected of military elites around the world. And it probably always will be.
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 Edgar Jones, “LMF: The Use of Psychiatric Stigma in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War,” The Journal of Military history 70 (April 2006). 439
[i] Jones, 446.
[ii] Deere, Alan C. Nine Lives. Crecy Publishing. 1959. 111-119.
[iii] Doe, Bob. Fighter Pilot. CCB Aviation Books, 2004. 44.
[iv] Deere, 112-113.
[v] Deere, 232.
[vi] Jones, 456.