Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, October 29, 2021

An Inconvenient War - The RAF Strategic Bombing Offensive

 The Battle of Britain was a glamorous defensive battle fought by a "few" against seemingly overwhelming odds and it has -- rightly -- captured the hearts and imaginations of generations. Yet, it was a short, three-month interlude in a six-year-long war of bitter attrition. Churchill was correct when he said the fate of civilization hung in the balance during the Battle of Britain. Yet while the Battle of Britain prevented Nazi victory, it did not assure Allied victory. British success in the Battle of Britain was only the first necessary precondition for a continued Allied struggle against Nazi tyranny in Europe. From the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in June 1940 until the Normandy invasions in June 1944, Britain's only means for striking at Germany's military and industrial capacity was through a bomber offensive.

Strategic bombing, as bombing offensives are more commonly called, is not popular with anyone anymore -- if it ever was. Strategic bombing isn't pretty. It isn't glamorous. It isn't heroic. Bombing offensives are cruel. They kill the innocent as well as the guilty. They destroy priceless and irreplaceable historical and cultural monuments. In a post-war world where the urgency of victory had dissipated, the ugly face of strategic bombing was not something anyone wanted to remember anymore, and so it was largely relegated to the realm of "necessary evils" best swept under the carpet.

That natural tendency not to dwell on the unpleasant was compounded by the results of the Strategic Bombing Survey. This survey, commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of War to  assess the damage done by the Allied strategic bombing, was carried out by a panel of civilian experts that produced a report 208 volumes long with over 200 supporting documents. Released in October 1945, it pointed to startling failures that shattered wartime faith in the efficacy of bombing. For example, the Strategic Bombing Survey found that German aircraft production more than doubled from 15,596 aircraft of all types in 1942 (before the start of strategic bombing) to 39,807 aircraft in 1944. Likewise, tank production peaked in 1944, despite the bombing offensive, and -- particularly disappointing to the USAAF -- there was no evidence that the repeated and costly attacks on the German ball bearing industry had any impact on the war at all. The Strategic Bombing Survey, furthermore, assessed the results of the entire Allied air offensive, the U.S. as well as the British bombing, and was particularly dismissive of night bombing, the RAF's contribution, because of it's limited accuracy. 

Such results were quickly seized upon by opponents of strategic bombing and are the most familiar facts known about the survey to this day. The influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith concluded that strategic bombing had been virtually worthless and called it a strategic blunder. He suggested that it had stimulated the German economy and stiffened German resolve to fight rather than the reverse.  Such an assessment poured oil on the flames of moral outrage over the civilian and cultural casualties of bombing. Strategic bombing was increasingly viewed as mindless terror. 

If one accepts this conclusion, then the losses sustained by the Allied Air Forces were unconscionable. The RAF alone lost roughly 55,000 men, or almost exactly 100 times the losses in the Battle of Britain. (Although to keep things in perspective, one should remember that the British lost 125,000 men at the Battle of the Somme alone.) While hardly anyone blames the pawns of this war, the aircrew, they were nevertheless increasingly portrayed as victims rather than heroes, as the dunces of the diabolical and heartless political and military leadership. 

Yet the conclusions of the Strategic Bombing Survey were much broader and more complex than the simple facts noted above suggest. The Survey, undertaken so shortly after the war, had grave issues with verifying data and there is strong reason to believe, for example, that many Nazi "production figures" were fantastical book-keeping exercises fabricated to cover-up reality from the Nazi leadership. Furthermore, beside the noted failures, the survey recorded significant success. For example, the Allied bombing offensive was extremely effective in closing down Germany's synthetic oil and petroleum production, contributing materially to the collapse of the Wehrmacht's mobility. More dramatically -- if late in the war -- submarine production was completely disrupted. Altogether, the Survey concludes that strategic bombing contributed materially to Allied victory and shortened the land offensive. 

Impossible to calculate, yet critical to any conclusions about the efficacy of Allied strategic bombing in WWII, is an answer to the following question: What would German industrial and military capacity have been without the Allied strategic bombing campaign? Would a successful invasion of the Continent and Germany have been possible without strategic bombing in the previous four years? 

We know that the bulk of German fighters were deployed to the defensive of the Reich because of the bombing offensive. What if, instead, they had been on the fronts providing the air cover so urgently needed by the Wehrmacht? Or, put another way, what if the Allies had not had air superiority over the beaches of Normandy? What if the 2 million men manning anti-aircraft batteries in the Reich had been available to fight on the Eastern Front? What if the 8,8 flak guns had been deployed as tank killers instead of clustered around Germany's industrial cities to bring down bombers?

Moreover, in addition to it impact on economic and military capacity, strategic bombing was intended to both damage enemy and bolster domestic morale.  The impact on German morale has been particularly controversial. Clearly, the Germans did not rise up in rebellion, but such an expectation is naive. However, there is evidence to suggest that the population of industrial centers was significantly less loyal to the regime than the rest of the German population. This was in part due to a tradition of Socialism in the urban centers, but also do to the effects of bombing. Leaving aside the political component, German (including contemporary Nazi) sources stress that the continuous disruptions to water, electricity, transportation, and sleep undermined worker morale and efficiency -- but in a way that is difficult to quantify. 

On the other hand, after the loss of roughly 52,000 British lives in the German bombing offensive against Britain, the British public expected retribution. That may not sound very noble or altruistic, but it was a political reality that could not be ignored. As a result, the RAF's bombing offensive was popular throughout the war and aircrew stood in high regard with the British public. 

Last but not least, for four long years the bombing offensive against Germany was Britain's sole means of taking the war to the enemy. By doing so, Britain demonstrated her determination to defeat Hitler. The bombing offensive was also critical in fending off strident Soviet demands for a premature "second front." 

Ultimately, regardless of the utility of their actions in retrospect, the young men who volunteered to fly in this extremely hazardous and costly campaign deserve recognition and regard. Roughly 8,000 aircrew from Bomber Command lost their lives in training, before embarking on a single operational sortie.  Although survival rates steadily increased in the course of the war, with losses per operation falling from 4.1% in 1942 to less than 1% in 1945, nevertheless, on average the chances of surviving a tour of 30 operations averaged just 29%. The men who took those risks again and again in an attempt -- however vain -- to weaken Nazi Germany should be remembered with respect.


Lack of Moral Fibre and my work-in-progress, Lancaster Skipper, are dedicated to depicting and honoring the contributions of RAF Bomber Command aircrew to the war. You can find out more about Lack of Moral Fibre at: https://crossseaspress.com/lack-of-moral-fibre.


Friday, October 22, 2021

Lack of Moral Fibre -- A Reassessment

 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.’ [1] 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 a lengthy investigation of the causes or research into best practices for treatment. So LMF procedures were introduced.

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]

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 Syndrome PTSS. 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 noted: “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 fulfillment 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.


Lack of Moral Fibre examines this problem in a fictional case study.  In late November 1943, Flight Engineer Christopher “Kit” Moran, DFM, refuses to fly to Berlin on what should have been the seventh “op” of his second tour of duty. His superiors declare him “lacking in moral fibre” and he is sent to a mysterious NYDN center. Here, psychiatrist Wing Commander Dr. Grace must determine if he has had a mental breakdown requiring psychiatric treatment — or if he deserves humiliation and disciplinary action for cowardice. 

 Lack of Moral Fibre is one of three tales bundled together in Grounded Eagles. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles



[1] 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.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Press on Rewardless: A Closer Look at RAF Groundcrew in WWII

 It has become commonplace to note that  in the Battle of Britain "the Few"were supported by "the Many." As a rule of thumb, it took nine men on the ground to support one man in the air and this was not just true in Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, it was true throughout the war in Bomber Command as well. That figure includes cooks, stewards and batmen, medical personnel, the clerks looking after supplies and records, the intelligence and control room staff, armorers and communications specialists and more. All personnel on an RAF station contributed in some way to victory by doing their jobs. Yet, just behind the pilots in importance were  -- in my opinion -- the ground crews that maintained the aircraft under extremely difficult circumstances. The "erks" in RAF jargon.

It was no accident that the RAF was able to rely upon superb ground support throughout the Second World War. From its inception as a separate service, the RAF had broken with the army and navy and consciously set out to establish an entirely new institution with an ethos all its own.  The founder of the RAF talked of creating and encouraging an "air spirit." [Quoted in Patrick Bishop. Fighter Boys. HarperCollins, 2003, 28] Yet while that might have been interpreted as a focus on flying alone, Trenchard recognized from first hand experience the need for qualified ground crew. At the same time that he established the Royal Air Force College a Cranwell to train officers and research centers for aircraft development, he established an apprentice program to attract technically minded young men to serve on the ground in his fledgling service.  

Apprentices received their education, room and board free, but committed to twelve years of service. They were sent to a training institute at Halton Park in Hertfordshire where they lived under RAF discipline. From the day the training program opened it was popular. The applicants came from the lower middle and upper working classes and it was seen as a huge opportunity to enter the glamorous world of aviation. Getting in was not easy. Not only were there thousands of applicants for the limited number of spaces (five thousand for the 300 spaces in 1921), but applicants also had to pass an entry exam including English, mathematics and science. Although youths as young as 15 were accepted into the program, few youth who had left school at 14 could pass the exam and it was generally the children of families affluent enough to keep their boys in school to 16 who filled the ranks. 

Training lasted three years and in some ways the graduates of Halton were as well educated as the graduates of Cranwell. This inevitably led to a blurring of the distinctions between the ranks, reducing the sense of divide between officers and other ranks, something Trenchard appears to have consciously sought. Bishop writes: "Trenchard was as proud of Halton as he was of Cranwell. He was aware that by engineering a new class of educated other ranks, the first in British military history, he was doing something radical, almost revolutionary." [Bishop, 34]

Furthermore, the RAF actively encouraged ambition by offering cadet scholarships to Cranwell for the three best apprentices each year. Another training scheme allowed flying training for outstanding ground crew, who thereby gained sergeant's stripes regardless of what trade they fulfilled on the ground and when the war started, roughly one quarter of the RAF's pilots were regular sergeant pilots trained through this scheme. In 1944, Trenchard told parliament that the apprentice program had contributed significantly to social mobility and meritocracy within the RAF.

Under the circumstances and given the fact that many pilots came up from the ranks themselves, it is hardly surprising that the relations between pilots and ground crews were on the whole excellent. Furthermore, in the Battle of Britain, and indeed throughout the war, individual crews looked after individual aircraft and so specific pilots. The ground crews identified strongly with their unit – and ‘their’ pilots. 

In the Battle of Britain, the bombing of the airfields started in mid-August, the ground crews were themselves under attack, suffering casualties and working under deplorable conditions – often without hot food, dry beds, adequate sleep and no leave. The ground crews never failed their squadrons. Aircraft were turned around – rearmed, re-fuelled, and thoroughly checked – in just minutes. 

Indeed, throughout the war, RAF ground crews served "their" aircraft and aircrews with dedication. They worked  long hours, often through the night or in rain or snow, to ensure aircraft were not only serviceable but as safe to fly as possible. 

 A Rose in November: A WWII Love Story for the Not-so-Young  features a ground crew chief.
Not all lovers are young. Rhys Jenkins is “Chiefy” of a Spitfire squadron in late 1940, a full-time job in itself, but he is also a widower with two teenage children in need of his attention. Hattie FitzSimmons has devoted her life to the Salvation Army ever since WWI ended her hopes for a husband and family of her own. They are no longer young when they find each other, but they both feel things are ‘right’ — until Rhys discovers that Hattie has been hiding something from him.

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A Rose in November is one of three tales bundled in Grounded Eagles. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles