Post-traumatic stress disorder – the untold story of survivors of Bomber Command
There is a disturbing legacy to the Lancaster Bomber campaign; one that not only affected the rest of the lives of those who served, but also impacted the lives of their families. This is now, of course, recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder.
We hope that Wireless Operator will serve to increase awareness of the legacy of PTSD, not only amongst those suffering right now, but also in those in whom it was unacknowledged and who struggled, unheard, for the rest of their lives.
Films and stories glamorise the harsh reality of serving as an airman in Bomber Command. The average age at death was 23. The odds of surviving a tour of duty of 30 sorties were the worst of all the armed forces. Only one in six would survive their first tour and only one in forty a second. On average, the rear gunner would only survive five missions.
Flying a mission
Flying was physically and mentally demanding. Fear was a constant companion. Conditions were cramped and uncomfortable, temperatures often dropping as low as -20°C. The corkscrew manoeuvre, a combination of rolls and dives to avoid enemy aircraft, was often repeated over and over for hours inducing weightlessness and terrible nausea. Generally flying at night, crew members were issued with amphetamines to keep them awake.
Each of the seven men who comprised a Lancaster crew depended on each other. The crew resisted any member being replaced believing it would bring bad luck and reduce their odds of survival. The young airmen were aware of the horrifying implications of what they were being asked to do. Bombing of German cities killed as many as 600,000 civilians. One moment they were fighting for their lives, involving unimaginable violence and witnessing horrendous events. The next moment they could be having a cup of tea with their mum, or at a local dance.
Lack of moral fibre
Fear and exhaustion were the most common causes of combat stress for bomber crews. Bomber Command did nearly everything it could to keep the pilots flying, establishing a draconian system of military discipline. They devised the term LMF, ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’. It was used as a form of intimidation. Men with LMF were effectively branded as cowards, and their treatment was designed to humiliate and stigmatise. Men were stripped of their rank, and even paraded in public in their badgeless uniforms. Most airmen preferred to risk the odds they faced in the air.
Nothing could have prepared them emotionally. Plagued by persistent feelings of fear, guilt, or shame many of the survivors would go to extreme lengths to avoid events which could trigger panic attacks, nightmares and flashbacks. What they had been asked to do, they couldn’t be proud of, it couldn’t be rationalised or legitimised or celebrated. They would often withdraw from friends, family and everyday activities, become guarded irritable and angry with outbursts of reckless behaviour and suicidal thoughts. These are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many survivors never talked about it even to the closest members of their family but it affected them all.
Unlike the other military services and despite suffering the highest of all casualty rates, members of bomber command were never awarded a campaign medal in recognition of their service. They were ghosted by successive governments not wanting to draw attention to the huge number of casualties inflicted on German civilians, a national embarrassment swept under the carpet by a society unsure of its moral culpability.
It was not until 28 June 2012, that the sacrifice of Bomber Command’s crews was finally recognised with the dedication of a national memorial in London’s Green Park. At the end of 2012 it was announced that veterans or their families could apply for a Bomber Command Clasp. However, many veterans and their families feel that not issuing a full campaign medal remains an insult.