We Band of Brothers

 "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

Memoirs, letters, oral and official histories of the men of Bomber Command show that the most compelling and defining emotional ties of those flying heavy bombers for the RAF in WWII were the bonds between crewmen. These bonds transcended rank, race, class, nationality, age, education, and time. They were more important than squadron or group affiliation, and more enduring than many a wartime romance.  

It was one of the peculiarities of the RAF in WWII that crews were not created by the bureaucracy. No superior or personnel officer consciously or randomly selected the men of each trade that would fly under a particular captain. Men were not "assigned" to a crew at all. Instead, in one of the most curious examples of British improvisation or "muddling through" (depending on how one looked at it) the RAF allowed crews to form themselves. 

The  process was known as "crewing up" and it generally entailed putting an equal number of young men from each required trade in a large room at the same time and telling them to "sort themselves out." Crewing up initially occurred at an Operational Training Unit (OTU), i.e. when aircrew were first introduced to bombers (rather than training aircraft), and was then supplemented at the Heavy Conversion Unit by the two additional crew members (mid-upper gunner and flight engineer) not required on the smaller medium bombers used at the OTUs. The exact timing of the process varied over time and place and might occur at the start of OTU training or a fortnight into the course. Whenever it happened, participants describe it as curious and awkward and seemingly haphazard, yet for the vast majority of men involved it also proved remarkably effective. 

The informality of the process allowed, for example, friends or acquaintances to stay together, while likewise insuring that people were rarely teamed up with anyone completely incompatible.  Many accounts describe a kind of chain reaction with one crew member approaching someone who then says "yes, and I know a good such-and-such" who in turn suggests another missing tradesmen until the crew was complete. Other accounts suggest that friends would approach captains jointly saying he had to take both or neither. Although there seems to have been a degree of expectation that the pilots should take the initiative, many accounts indicate that any crewman could make the first approach. 

Patrick Bishop summed it up like this:

"The crewing-up technique recognized brilliantly the importance of human chemistry. Crew got together because, instinctively, they felt each other to be competent or lucky. But there was also an element of subliminal mutual attraction. Despite the almost invariable disparities in background and geography, crews tended to like each other." [Bomber Boys. Harper; 2007. 182-183.]

Once a crew was formed, they continued through training together and were assigned as a crew to an operational squadron. Throughout, the sergeants of a crew were housed together as a unit; the officers, if there were more than one, likewise roomed together in the officers' mess. Despite the rank divide that ran through many crews, most crews engaged in many off-duty activities together. While fighter pilots drank, caroused and celebrated as a squadron; bomber aircrew did so as a crew. Off station, they could and generally did go to the same pubs, night clubs and dance halls. They visited each other's homes, knew each others girlfriends, and shared confidences as readily as they shared their candy rations. 

This is not to say that all crew members always got along with each other or developed close friendships.  On the contrary, memoirs reveal that there was frequently tension or rivalry between one or more members of the crew. Sometimes the gunners hated each other, or, maybe, the bomb aimer got on everyone's nerves for some reason. Tiffs and spats occurred -- rather like inside a family. Yet like family ties, the crew bond transcended these clashes of personality and in some ways they made the crew stronger. Regardless of who and what the individual was, his connection to his crew strengthened and comforted him. A crew was more than then addition of its parts. 

Crews all had a unique blend of personalities that created a distinct crew identity and crew dynamics. This fact is reflected in the descriptions of how crews interacted with one another in the air. Some veterans complained angrily about films in which aircrew used first names with one another, insisting that "no one was ever addressed by his first name while we were in flight." Then again, the consummate bomber captain, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC etc. includes allegedly verbatim dialogue with his crew in his autobiographic book Bomber Pilot, which was published in January 1943. Writing at a time when thousands of aircrew were flying daily and ready to call him out on inaccuracies, he has his crew members address him as “captain” — or "Cheese." The term “skipper” for the pilot is also widely recorded. All this suggests there was a degree of flexibility based very much on personalities and crew dynamics. Some pilots insisted rigidly on all communications during operations strictly following the rules, e.g. addressing crew members by their position rather than names or nicknames. Some didn't.

Regardless of the exact character of a crew, for as long as the men flew together, these bonds often transcended family bonds and replaced other kinds of friendships as well. Some aircrew remember consciously avoiding getting friendly with other crews. Given the odds, getting friendly with other crews only increased the risk of facing the pain of loss and grief. At least with one's one crew, it was assumed, they would all share the same fate at the same time. 

Yet if for one reason or another an individual crewmen ended his tour ahead of the others, he might stay on to fly extra operations so his crew mates didn't have to fly with a stranger.  In other cases, men refused leave or commissions in order to remain with their crew. In numerous instances, crews tried to stay together even after their tour of operations expired. Many volunteered for a second tour, for the Pathfinders or another particularly difficult task -- as a crew. 

In rare instances, however, crews didn't jell properly. If this happened, it was usually observed by the squadron leader, who -- having gone through the process and been part of a crew himself -- generally could pick up on the signs of an unhappy crew. He could then dissolve the crew, thereby making the individual members became "odd bods" assigned to vacancies in other crews. More common was for problems to surface with only one member of a crew. For example, a rear gunner might not recover his nerves after a close encounter with an enemy fighter, causing the others to lose confidence in his ability to do his job. The solution was to report this to the squadron leader, who then removed the no longer functioning crewman and assign a replacement -- unless the crew had already identified an "odd bod" they wanted. In one instance at least, a crew fired their skipper. The pilot in this case had suffered a series of accidents and mishaps that undermined the crews confidence in his luck more than his ability. Again, they went to the squadron leader, who sided with the crew and said if they had lost confidence in a pilot, they shouldn't fly with him -- without, incidentally, in any way punishing the pilot or even suggesting that the pilot was not capable. It was simply a matter of "chemistry" and if it wasn't working, then changes had to be made. 

Crews were also, of course, disrupted by casualties. Night fighters, flack and crash landings did not always result in the loss of an entire crew. Sometimes only one or two members of a crew were seriously injured or killed.  The casualties then had to be replaced by "odd bods" from other crews that had been broken up due to accidents and casualties etc. Generally, while one new member could be absorbed into a crew and become an integral part of the whole, completely "patched together" crews were believed to have lower chances of survival. 

On the other hand, even crews that worked efficiently together and were loyal to one another were not necessarily "chummy." The key component was mutual trust and this sufficed to make a crew an efficient and self-sufficient unit. Yet the chemistry that brought crews together was always unique and each crew, like each individual, had its own character. There were crews, particularly those of senior officers -- station and squadron commanders -- who maintained a distanced, respectful relationship with their pilot. In others, the pilot might be a young sergeant, while the flight engineer a much older fatherly figure or the bomb aimer might be an extrovert and the dominant personality. It all depended on the crew's make-up and the personalities of those involved.

For many crews the chemistry was magic. In the memoirs and recordings of former Bomber Command aircrew, the strength of emotion felt for former comrades is powerful and moving. The lucky ones maintained contact with at least some of their crew mates until long after the war. Others lost touch, only to joyfully come together again at reunions. Nearly all retained a powerful sense of debt to crew members who had been lost. Men in their eighties recount seeing their comrades -- still in their teens -- joining them for a beer on Memorial Day. Allow me to quote from the diary of just one former Lancaster pilot:

From Battle of Britain Day on 15 September until Armistice Day, the sense of remembrance and regret seems especially sharpened. Ever with me are those members of my crew, who started training with me between November 1942 and April 1943 and who went on the first Operational flight with me to Dortmund on May 23rd, 1943...Their spirits have not totally absented themselves...My pint of beer has tasted especially good after the walk because I have, in spirit, shared it with them. I can accurately remember their faces and voices....Will they recognize this 'old soul' when he arrives?

In the next weeks, I will introduce all seven crew members of the Lancasater and describe their specific functions and qualifications.

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. 

Riding the icy, moonlit sky, 

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles


 

  

 

 

 

 

"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

For more information about all my aviation books visit: https://www.helenapschrader.com/aviation.html




 

 

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