Log book secrets
For the best part of two years, while researching my last book, every morning I would open my desk drawer and lift out a shabby, dark blue hard-backed notebook. The corners are scuffed and damaged; the pages yellowed and slightly dirty, and smell of cigarettes smoked almost 80 years ago. Embossed onto the front cover of the notebook, and now barely visible, are the words “ROYAL AIR FORCE – OBSERVER’S AND AIR GUNNER’S FLYING LOG BOOK”.
This logbook is my most prized possession; it belonged to my great uncle, RAF wireless operator Sgt. Jack Clyde, who at the age of just 20, flew a full tour of operations with 10 Squadron, Bomber Command, between May 1943 and March 1944.
In sparse detail, the logbook tells the story of that tour, and of the men with whom Jack flew to hell and back, at the height of the strategic bombing campaign. Skipper Pennicott (known to his crew as Penny), gunners Freddie Singh and Bill Bradshaw, navigator Roy Tann, bomb aimer Ken Cox and flight engineer George Phillipson are mentioned throughout, the repetition of their names providing the reader with a sense of comfort and hope that “all will be well in the end”.
I knew Jack Clyde well, but he never spoke to anyone in the family about his wartime experiences. It was only decades after he passed away, when I finally inherited his papers, that I began to research his story and that of his crew, who called themselves “Penny’s Prangers”. Only then did I begin to gain an insight into what that quiet, shy, old man with the piercing blue eyes had endured, and the reasons for his silence.
What follows is adapted from the book which resulted from this research, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command, The Wireless Operator’s Story.
Initially, the log book entries are plain, matter of fact descriptions of raids on Wuppertal, Essen, Gelsenkirchen and other targets in the Ruhr Valley, which give no hint as to Jack’s state of mind. However, from the date of the raid on Hamburg on 24th July 1943, the crew’s ninth, the entries in his logbook hint at a change in Jack. His notes and descriptions of each raid suggested a growing confidence, almost an air of flippancy, and a cockiness totally at odds with what I knew of his personality.
“Intense searchlight activity, slight AA – Wizard Prang!”
(In the RAF slang of the time, a prang was an operation or sortie.)
The more I began to delve into the experiences of bomber crews throughout the war, and the more veterans I interviewed, the more I began to realise that there were three possible explanations for this apparent change in Jack’s language and behaviour.
Firstly, it is conceivable that Jack was becoming more self-assured as he settled into his role and became more familiar with the lot of the operational airman. He knew his own trade as a wireless operator inside out; he trusted Penny, Roy, George, Ken, Freddie and Bill to fulfil their duties too. Each member of the crew knew full well that the lives of his mates depended upon his ability to do his own particular job. The crew had come to know each other like brothers within a very short space of time, and they functioned as one.
Secondly, there is no doubt that some men experienced a feeling of elation, an adrenaline rush after the completion of a successful operation and a safe return to base; a few enjoyed the exhilaration of operational flying, despite (or perhaps because of) the extreme dangers.
The third, and most likely, scenario is that this was simply bluff and bluster, and an attempt to disguise what Jack and his crewmates were really feeling: a growing horror at the impact of their operations “on the ground” in Germany, coupled with the ache of fear and moments of pure terror, and the slow unravelling of the nerves which progressed exponentially with each raid. Of the 19 crews who had joined 10 Squadron at the same time as Jack and “Penny’s Prangers”, just two months earlier, 11 crews had already been lost. Psychological damage was suffered by so many of the young men of Bomber Command, to varying degrees. Today, we would recognise this as “combat stress” or “post-traumatic stress disorder.”
I interviewed many veterans in the course of my research. Halifax flight engineer Tom Davidson revealed that it had taken almost seventy years for him to be able to talk about his experiences; it was only after he had reached his early nineties that he felt able to open up about the things that he saw and the things he and his crew were expected to do.
Another elderly gentleman confided, with some emotion, how he still has flashbacks to being in a bomber amid heavy flak and seeing his dead tail gunner with half of his face shot away. It would be wrong to say that every young man who flew with Bomber Command developed psychological issues, as that quite simply isn’t the case; however, a great number struggled with crippling anxiety during their tours, and many had to live with the trauma for the rest of their lives.
Some still do.
Keeping a stiff upper lip
It is a distinct possibility that the entries in Jack’s logbook were an attempt to hide the fact that, like so many of his comrades, he was terrified for a huge part of the time.
One airman, Frank Hugo, recalled:
“The bravado and boasting in the de-briefing but, later in the dark, the tears being shed into one’s pillow… being very scared and frightened, but even more of showing it, and not being able to do the job properly.”
Such was the strain, that some men simply went mad in the midst of battle. Flying Officer Bob Lloyd, a Canadian pilot serving with 408 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, described the mental impact on his crew:
“My navigator lost his mind during our 26 November trip to Berlin. My mid-upper gunner got hit in the ankle with a 20mm shell on the same trip; he never flew again. My bomb aimer went absolutely wild over the target area on a later raid, to such a degree that we couldn’t let him wear an intercom; the navigator had to drop the bombs. Then I finally got hurt, smashing my left femur, and the bomb aimer had to fly out the rest of his tour with another crew; he ‘bought it’ the first night out. They were as frightened as hell, but their morale was good. They flew until they couldn’t fly anymore.”
Even by the end of the First World War, the psychological strain suffered by military aviators was clearly recognised. The Royal Flying Corps pilots’ days were famously described as “long spells of idleness punctuated by moments of intense fear”, a narrative which has been used to illustrate the lot of soldiers, sailors and airmen at war on numerous occasions since.
By 1918, psychologists were well aware of the cumulative effects of stress, identifying the three stages as inexperience, experience, then stress or burnout. However, in the inter-war years, several eminent doctors began to postulate the theory that some men had an underlying “weakness of character” and a predisposition to combat stress. This theory began to take hold, and from it developed the idea that psychological reaction to combat situations, and in particular aerial combat, was due not to illness caused by exposure to external situations, extreme fear, stress and trauma, but rather to a chap simply “not being up to it”, or to put it more bluntly, cowardice.
By 1939, official RAF policy was beginning to reflect these beliefs, and “character defects” were emphasised as being the underlying cause in cases of mental breakdown. A Canadian academic, Allan E. English, described in his book on combat stress in Canadian members of Bomber Command, The Cream of the Crop, how the response to such stresses and the development of psychological symptoms became the fault of the individual airman: “Unlike a physical disability, their psychological complaint was as a result of their own inability to control their fear.”
Lack of Moral Fibre
As early as January 1941, as many as 5% of all operational aircrewmen had developed psychological illnesses which were considered bad enough to merit admission to hospital; these were the recorded figures, so the actual number suffering was likely to be much higher. As the number of psychiatric casualties began to grow, at a time when there were already huge numbers of men being killed on operations, the Air Ministry published a document known as the “LMF Memorandum”, in September 1941. LMF was an acronym for “lack of moral fibre”, the label given to those airmen who had demonstrated signs of combat stress, or who, in extreme cases, had simply refused to fly.
The memorandum was specifically targeted at “the members of aircrews who forfeit the confidence of their commanding officers in their determination and reliability in the face of danger in the air, owing either to their conduct or their admission that they feel unable to face up to their duties”.
By 1942, one of Bomber Command’s chief medical officers, Squadron Leader Reid, was arguing that “aircrew lacking in moral fibre” should be removed because of their “bad influence” on other members of the crew. Concerns were expressed that if a single member of the crew began to show signs of “LMF”, it could unsettle and spread to the whole crew. Reid took the view that some men, “by virtue of their genes and upbringing”, were more likely to suffer mental breakdown, were unfit to be aircrew and “should be treated without sympathy”. Reid considered that officers were of stronger character than lower ranks, and better able to cope, which of course was complete nonsense.
Those who were labelled “LMF” were frequently treated incredibly harshly, and as cowards. Often those who could bear the strain no longer were publicly humiliated, and swiftly removed from their squadrons or transferred to menial ground duties such as working in the kitchens. However, there was very little consistency in the treatment of the men who developed signs of mental stress; there are extreme examples of men being court-martialled and imprisoned. Officers were required to resign their commissions; non-commissioned officers were demoted to the lower ranks. From 1944, those found to be “lacking in moral fibre” could be sent to work in the coal mines or drafted into the army.
However, it would be wrong to say that every man who developed psychological symptoms was treated in this way; the handling of an individual’s situation largely depended on the attitude of a squadron’s commanding officer and its medical officer. A fortunate few were dealt with sympathetically, being quietly moved to other duties or perhaps being transferred to an instructor’s role at one of the operational training units.
If signs of stress were spotted early, an airman, or sometimes an entire crew, would be sent off to the Aircrew Refresher Training Units at Sheffield or Eastchurch; these units were in fact disciplinary centres, where psychological issues were treated like offences. After a few weeks, the individual would either be returned to operational duties, if he had mended his ways, or be sent for groundcrew duties, or sometimes discharged altogether.
Jack’s best friend and next-door neighbour back home in the small County Durham mining town of Seaham Harbour, Jimmy Thornton, flew thirteen operations with 75 (New Zealand) Squadron. He was unable to complete his tour due to being “bad with his nerves”, following an incident when he was temporarily trapped in a burning aircraft. After a period of leave he was transferred to an instructor’s position, and recommissioned. Jimmy was one of the lucky ones.
There is no doubt that the adoption of the policy of “LMF”, and the treatment of those airmen who developed signs of psychological illness, marked one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the Royal Air Force, one which, quite simply, was covered up and not spoken about for decades. The threat of being labelled “LMF”, and therefore a coward, was almost as fearful as flying operations against the enemy, and the policy was used to intimidate and stigmatise airmen who showed indications of combat stress. Any airman who was considered to “lack moral fibre” had his personnel file marked with a “W”, to indicate that he was a “waverer” – in other words, a coward.
There was no consistency of approach; the risk of being labelled “LMF” didn’t apply just to those who refused or who were unable to fly. There were instances of men being categorised in this way who, in the very early stages of training, quickly realised that flying wasn’t for them, and who had a genuine fear of flying from day one. This was incredibly harsh when one bears in mind that every single one of these men was a volunteer. Unfortunately, no allowances were made whether you were an eighteen-year-old rear gunner six weeks into your training who was simply nervous of flying, or an experienced, battle-worn pilot with twenty-five operations showing signs of extreme combat stress.
Andy Andrews, a wireless operator on 10 Squadron in 1944, recounted to me how his crew’s bomb aimer had decided during training that he just wouldn’t be able to cope with operational sorties, and he “went off with LMF”. He was removed from the crew immediately, and they never saw him again.
Even those crews who returned early from raids with mechanical faults (particularly those that could not be replicated by groundcrews on return to base), or who had dropped their bombs too early on the periphery of the target area before heading for home, fell under suspicion. Jack and the Pennicott crew were aware of this; prior to the Hamburg raid, they had failed to complete two of their eight operations (20%) and were very much under pressure to perform. Although the reasons for their aborted missions were entirely genuine, the fear of being labelled “LMF” and being sent for retraining would have been at the forefront of their minds.
But why did the Royal Air Force top brass take such a hard line against psychiatric casualties? There is an argument that they had no choice. By late 1941, Bomber Command was already suffering from a shortage of manpower; it took many months to train a new crew and increasing numbers of crews were needed both for operational reasons and because of the extremely high number of combat deaths. Quite simply, men were being killed quicker than they could be replaced, and every single man was desperately needed. The brutal truth was, that for many Bomber Command crews, death came before many of them had any opportunity to manifest psychological problems.
Those that survived were simply instructed to “man up” and get on with the task. Jack knew that he had to keep a stiff upper lip, a veneer of steely courage and unflappability, and be seen to be doing so, at all costs. There was nothing in the way of support or counselling for these men; they were expected to just deal with it.
Fortunately for Jack and his crewmates, their skipper operated an “open door” policy and, perhaps unusually for the time, encouraged his men to talk through their anxieties with one another. Tail gunner Bill Bradshaw, who was just 2 months older than Jack, recalled that the crew always talked about how they were feeling.
“We used to have little meetings in my room quite often. People used to confide in Penny, as he was the skipper, but Penny needed someone to talk to as well, and he often used to confide in me. The other blokes used to talk to me too…We had a tradition of looking after each other you see. We didn’t need any psychiatrists. When things got really bad, as they often did, we talked to each other all the time. I think that was quite unusual.”
There was no let-up for the Pennicott crew; the very next night after the raid on Hamburg, 25 July 1943, they were informed they would by flying again, on another “maximum effort” operation. Sitting in the briefing hall with nineteen other crews, having barely slept, the boys fully expected to be returning to the port city.
By 22.45, Penny’s Prangers were airborne once again in Z-Zebra, on their tenth operation, this time heading to the very heart of the German defences, and the giant Krupps armaments factory in Essen. Of the 705 aircraft that took part in the raid, 628 attacked the target. Jack and the boys arrived over the target area at 0057 hours and bombed from a height of 18,000 feet in hazy visibility. The factory and its environs were already well alight, smoke visible from over 150 miles away. The Squadron Operations Book contains Penny’s report:
“Visibility over target was hazy but a concentrated area of fire could be seen with a pall of smoke up to 15,000 feet. A series of red explosions were seen before and after bombing. Flak was moderate and though searchlights were operating in large numbers they were not effective.”
Jack’s report of the Essen operation in his logbook is, once again, brief but uncharacteristically ebullient:
“ESSEN. Intense searchlights, moderate AA – Good Prang!”
As he boarded the train to Seaham Harbour the next day, at the commencement of some much-needed leave, his hands were still trembling. He began to whistle and thrust his hands deep into his coat pockets, just in case anyone noticed.
You can read more about Jack, Penny’s Prangers and Above Us The Stars here.
For an excellent discussion on “Lack of Moral Fibre”, you can listen to Dr Dan Ellin from the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln talking to James Holland and Al Murray on the “We Have Ways” podcast here.
 Cooper, Alan, Air Battle of the Ruhr, Airlife Publishing, Shrewsbury, 1992, p.136.
 Middlebrook, Martin, The Berlin Raids: RAF Bomber Command Winter 1943-44, Viking/Penguin, London, 1988, pp. 317-318.
 English, Allan D. The Cream of the Crop. Montreal: MQUP, 1996.
 National Archive, AIR 2/8591/S.7.C(1), “Memorandum on the Disposal of Members of Aircrews Who Forfeit the Confidence of their Commanding Officers”, 19.9.1941.
 National Archives AIR/27/144 10 Sqn ORB 25.7.1943.