High Quality Men of Courage –
Crews of Bomber Command

by Squadron Leader, Dr David Stafford-Clark

"Bombing operations were like nothing else in the world. The aircrew flew in darkness relieved only by the dim orange glow of a lamp over the navigator's table and the faintly green luminosity of the pilot's instruments.

Three or four miles high, through bitter cold over hundreds of miles of sea and hostile land, with the thundering roar of engines shutting out all other sounds except when the crackling metallic voice of one member of the crew echoed in the others' earphones.

Aware of Danger

"For each man there was a constant awareness of danger; danger from the enemy, from sudden blinding convergence of searchlights, accompanied by heavy, accurate and torrential flak, from packs of night fighters seeking to find and penetrate the bomber stream.

Of danger from collision, from ice in the cloud, from becoming lost or isolated, from a chance hit in the petrol tank leading to loss of fuel, and a forced descent into the sea on the way back, if nothing worse, or worse still the plane being set on fire.

There was no single moment of security from take–off to touchdown, but often the sight of other aircraft hit by flak and exploding in the air, or plummeting down blazing to strike the ground, an incandescent wreck.

The chances of any particular individual surviving his thirty trips alive, unwounded and without being taken prisoner or having been forced down over enemy territory were generally accepted by the aircrew themselves as being one in five.

Everyone looked forward to the completion of his tour. So strong was the team spirit that it was not uncommon for a man to volunteer for as many as ten extra trips so that he and his crew could finish together, if he had joined them with more to his credit than they had done.

There was, however, a definite nervous toll on the man. His first three or four sorties were so full of novelty and amazement, that unless he was fundamentally unsuited to operational flying he would not suffer from actual fear to a great extent. But by the time he had completed five to eight sorties he discovered the magnitude of the task he had undertaken.

The extreme novelty of the operations had gone, succeeded by a growing recognition of the cost. By the 12th or 15th sortie he had the full realisation of the danger and the unpleasantness of the job and the long stretch of sorties before him. As his tour continued, morale rose until by the twenty fifth trip the cumulative stress and fatigue began to tell, and morale fell during the last sorties.

Their attitude to losses and death of friends was particularly striking. It was one of supreme realism, of matter of fact acceptance of what everyone knew perfectly well was inevitable.

They did not plunge into outspoken expression of their feelings, nor did they display any compromise with conventional reticence about the fact of violent death. They said: "Too bad… sorry about old so–and–so… rotten luck." Their regret was deep and sincere, but not much displayed, nor long endured.

They were apt and able to talk of dead and missing friends, before mentioning their fate, just as they talked of anyone else or themselves. It took the loss of particular friends or leaders, flight commanders or squadron commanders to produce a marked reaction among a squadron. Then they might feel collectively distressed, have a few drinks, go on to a party and feel better.

But they made no effort to escape the reality of the situation, nor was there any of the drinking to forget, referred to in accounts of flying in the first war. They were young; they were resilient; they lived until they died. They were never completely unconcerned about their fate, and some were quite matter of fact about the possibility that they might not "Last" until the end of the war.

A mushroom growth of superstition was noted, and personal mascots, ranging from hares' feet to a girl's stockings were taken very seriously. One Captain of a 460 squadron aircraft forbade his crew to take out a very lovely red headed W.A.A.F. who had lost two men, one fiancee, one husband, in quick succession. He said, there was no point in tempting fate.


A different attitude was observed between non–commissioned flying crews and that of their officers. They more frankly expected privileged treatment and special consideration, and except in the air, were more inclined to resist discipline than officers.

A small but definite proportion of aircrew sergeants differed completely from the rest of their colleagues. Their motive for joining was simply glamour and promotion, their attitude to flying and its risks unconsidered. Most of the minority were air gunners or flight engineers. Their mental attitude was often surprisingly adolescent and immature; off duty they pictured themselves as cinematograph heroes rather than as the men they were.

The cumulative stress of continued operational flying often produced in some men a reversal of their usual habits. The noisy exuberant extroverted type of fellow became silent, morose, and solitary. The naturally shy, or secretive individual, assumed a false jocularity, often accompanied by an unwonted alcoholic indulgence.

At any stage of the preliminaries to an operation – the operational meal, the main briefing, driving out to or standing by the aircraft – an order for alteration, cancellation, or delay might come through.

"No one who saw the mask of age which mantled the faces of these young men after a period of continued standing by, punctuated by inevitably false alarms, is likely to forget it. Their pallor, the hollows in their cheeks, and beneath their eyes, and the utter fatigue with which they lolled listlessly in chairs about their mess, were eloquent of the exhaustion and frustration which they felt. In ten hours they seemed to have aged as many years.

Perhaps because the public was assumed "to want their heroes simplified" propaganda about the RAF tended to misunderstand and underrate the quality or the courage of aircrews.

The core of this quality, now more widely recognised, its most terrible and unforgettable characteristic was the subordination of the instinct of self–preservation. In an endeavour to fulfil a very high standard of war service; a determination to see the job through, despite the greater love for wife or child, or for life itself".

Author's note: "there were 110,000 aircrew who flew on operations in Bomber Command and 51% (55,564) were killed, many of them with no known graves. The US 8th Air Force lost 26,000 killed"


My thanks to Mrs Patricia Stafford – Clark, widow of Dr David Stafford – Clark, for her kind permission and encouragement to include the article "Morale and Flying Experience", published in 1949 in the "Journal of Mental Sciences".

Squadron Leader Dr. David Stafford – Clark passed away on 9 September 1999. His untimely death could have been hastened by his voluntary exposure to various types of gas inhalation, in his unceasing efforts to help lessen the harmful effects of these weapons of war.

Those with whom he had come in contact sadly miss him. He will be remembered as the man who had the term LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre) banned from the Air Force records as a disgraceful brand.

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