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Airmen Who Lost the Confidence of Their Officers During WWII

A Guest Post by Helena P. Schrader

In April 1940 some Royal Air Force bomber crews stopped volunteering for operations in the face of casualty rates exceeding 50%. As volunteers, they were not subject to the usual military measures for refusal to obey orders, but they represented a dangerous morale problem. In response, the RAF introduced new procedures to enable commanding officers to expeditiously remove aircrew from operational units for failure to perform. Airmen who had “lost the confidence of their commanding officers” could henceforth be dismissed from their squadrons for “lack of moral fibre.”

For the men who continued flying, the fate of those ‘expeditiously’ posted away for LMF was shrouded in mystery. Legends about LMF soon blossomed and abounded. 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.

Those legends continued into the post-war era. In literature — from Len Deighton’s Bomber to Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 — aircrew were depicted as victims of a cruel war machine making excessive and senseless demands upon them. 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 contributed to these cliches. Meanwhile, LMF became conflated with the concept of “shell shock” and, more recently, with Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome PTSS — although roughly one third of all LMF cases came from training units and involved individuals who had never faced combat at all!

In reality, LMF was a more complex and nuanced issue. Analysis of the historical records show that 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. Roughly one third of the aircrew temporarily posted LMF returned to full operational flying, another 5-7% returned to limited flying duties, and between 55% and 60% were assigned to ground duties. Less than 2% were completely discharged.

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, the subsequent treatment was in the hands of the RAF medical establishment. The RAF psychiatrists did not assume the men sent to them were inherently malingerers or cowards. On the contrary, they sought to understand the factors behind each individual beak-down in morale.

Over time, the psychiatric professionals 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.”[i]

No one understood the stresses of combat better than those who were subjected to them. 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.”[ii] (Photo below courtesy of Chris Goss)

Thus, while the men flying operations were those most critical and unforgiving of men who sought to avoid combat altogether, they sympathized with those who had done their part but could not continue. The comrades and commanders of such men went to considerable effort and employed great creativity to avoid subjecting men who had reached their limit to the stigma of LMF. Tragically, the threat of humiliation may have pushed some men to keep flying when they had already reached their breaking point.

Yet we should not forget that behind the notion of LMF was the deeply embedded belief that courage was the ultimate manly virtue. RAF aircrew were viewed and treated as an elite. Membership in any elite is dependent on the fulfilment of certain criteria and since the age of the Iliad courage has been — and remains — the most fundamental characteristic expected of military elites around the world.

[i] Deere, Alan C. Nine Lives. Crecy Publishing. 1959. 112-113.

[ii] Jones, Edgar. “LMF: The Use of Psychiatric Stigma in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War,” The Journal of Military history 70 (April 2006). 456.

Helena P. Schrader’s novel Moral Fibre follows a pilot formerly designated LMF as he returns to operations. It won a “Highly Recommended” Five Star Review from the Historical Fiction Company and went on to win the Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and be a finalist for the Book Excellence Awards. It is available in paperback or ebook format.

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