Song: Bomber’s Moon by Mike Harding
The term “bomber’s moon” was used during the Second World War to indicate a night with a bright full moon, which enabled bomber aircrews to find and strike their targets. Conversely, it also allowed anti-aircraft guns to target bombers, or helped fighter planes to find and shoot them down. Both the German Luftwaffe and the British RAF took advantage of bomber’s moons and civilians in cities like Coventry, or Cologne, learnt to fear those especially bright nights that would probably bring air raids.
Mike Harding was born in 1944, a few weeks after his father was killed returning from a bombing raid over Germany. When, many years later, Harding released his’ song, Bomber’s Moon, he said it was:
“Dedicated to the memory of my father, Flight Sergeant Louis Arthur ‘Curly’ Harding, a navigator in Lancaster Bombers, who died with his crew when his plane was shot down returning from a raid over Germany. It’s also dedicated to the memory of my good friend Jurgen Boch of Cologne, who was a small child in a bomb shelter in Germany on the night my father died, and to my mother who was a bride, a widow and a mother within the space of a year.”
The War in the Air
During the Second World War, RAF Bomber Command sustained 50% casualties on strategic bombing missions over Germany. Over fifty-five-thousand aircrew met their deaths in combat and some crews were faced with the statistical odds of zero for surviving a tour of duty. After a varying number of missions, most crewmen experienced feelings of intense anxiety and depression. Some felt guilt about the civilians who had died below, many others had nightmares about going on bombing raids and several would ‘freeze’ while in the air. Richard Pape, in his book Boldness Be My Friend, explained how crewmen, like him, could experience a very real fear that the next mission would be their last:
“I strolled back to the mess, coldly, practical, unconcerned. And then it happened. As I walked through the deserted crew room my eye caught the enormous map of Europe on the wall. A terrible feeling of panic gripped me. I stood motionless, staring at the map, my eyes hypnotised by the coloured tapes that indicate the bombing routes. My heart pounded violently; I leaned against the wall gasping and breathless.
To try and pull myself together I began to swear – my infallible cure for nerves. As I steadied blind panic gave way to stark horror. Five words beat into my brain with maddening repetition: ‘You will not come back. You will not come back.’ I knew then I was doomed.”
In the early 50s Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22, a novel about an US air force unit led by a Colonel who kept raising the number of missions his men must fly before returning home, in order that the Pentagon would speed his promotion. In it the hero Yossarian approaches the doctor about a fellow pilot and asks:
‘Is Orr crazy?’
‘He sure is,’ Doc Danecka said.
‘Can you ground him?’
‘I sure can. But first he has to ask me. That’s part of the rule.’
‘Then why doesn’t he ask you to?’
‘Because he’s crazy,’ Doc Danecka said. ‘He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after the close calls he’s had. Sure I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.’
‘That’s all he has to do to be grounded?’
‘That’s all. Let him ask me.’
‘And then you can ground him?’ Yossarian asked.
‘No. Then I can’t ground him.’
‘You mean there’s a catch?’
‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Danecka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’
There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.
Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.
‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Danecka agreed.”
A Lack of Moral Fibre
While Catch – 22 was fiction, Heller’s book was based on the underhand way the authorities dealt with men who had psychological problems, forcing them to continue combat duty. The reluctance of both the RAF and the American Army Air Force to deal humanely with this issue was not due to a lack of identification of these psychiatric disorders. In the combat situation facing them, both Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris and General Henry Arnold, commander of the American Army Air Force, expressed a concern that if aircrew suffering combat fatigue were allowed to leave combat operations, it would open up the floodgates and thousands of crewmen would request to be taken off flying duties.
Nicknamed ‘Bomber,’ Harris, who had been appointed Commander in Chief, Bomber Command, in February 1942, became extremely worried by the number of aircrew reporting ‘sick’ and asking to be taken off flying duties. He called such men ‘weaklings’ and ‘waverers’ and warned his commanders that such men should be dealt with harshly, because ‘the risk of contagion is very real.’
In 1988, Simon Berthon produced a documentary, Whispers in the Air, for Granada Television. Among former aircrew interviewed was a bomb aimer named Arthur Smith, who began to develop a growing fear of flying. His symptoms increased, until on one mission he found himself ‘frozen with fear’ and unable to carry out his duties. The aircraft returned to base with a ‘sick bomb aimer’ and he was immediately taken to hospital. When he was found to be physically fit, he was sent to a centre where a psychiatrist interviewed him. It was clearly spelt out to him that if he refused to fly, he would be dealt with harshly, along the lines recommended by Harris.
According to Jack Wallis, a former RAF Station Adjutant, this meant an immediate reduction in rank to Aircraftsman 2nd class, the lowest rank in the RAF. The ‘offender’ was then posted off station and his documents had ‘LMF’ (Lack of Moral Fibre) written in red ink, slanting across the right hand corner. Arthur Smith was informed that his family, girl friend, and his colleagues would be told that he was considered a coward. Smith was told that in 1914-18 he would have been charged with ‘desertion in the face of the enemy’ and shot. Rather than face the degradation, Smith chose to return to flying. The fears continued and a few missions later his aircraft crashed, some of the crew were killed but he survived, albeit with severe burns.
Another aircrew member interviewed was John Wainwright, a rear gunner. On his 72nd mission his aircraft crashed on landing, injuring him. After recovering in hospital he found he was unable to return to flying. Having completed 72 missions and been wounded in battle, he thought his removal from combat flying would be an easy process. He recalled, however, that the RAF doctors considered: ‘I was bonkers, completely bananas, because I didn’t want to go over Germany and drop bombs.’ Wainwright then went through an entire series of degradations because of his refusal to fly any more.
In 1944, the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, wrote a private memorandum to Harris to say that if the way the RAF treated its combat fatigued members were made public, with the writing of LMF on their service records, then it would be ‘indefensible in Parliament.’ Harris had already ordered that his methods of dealing with cases of ‘LMF’ be classified as ‘top secret.’ For a time the documents were marked ‘W’ for ‘waverer’ before the insidious practice eventually ceased.
In 1942, American heavy bombers entered the air war. They were ordered to undertake deep penetration daylight raids, which the RAF had given up a year before because of the high attrition rate. Within the next two years some 50,000 American aircrew were killed. The average number of missions before death was likely was computed to be only seven and a crew was expected to fly 25 missions on a single tour. By mid 1943, only one crew in three could expect to complete a tour.
In the autumn of 1943 rumours began to circulate about American bombers heading for neutral countries and in 1944 it was revealed that some were landing in Sweden and Switzerland. In Sweden most of the aircrews were interned in the village of Falcum and the American Consul in Goteborg, William Cochrane, who also helped located the site of the V1 and V2 experiments at Peenemünde, wrote a report about the aircrews who were flying to neutral countries. Some cases, where the aircraft was crippled, were genuine – but a lot were not. From his interviews with internees, Cochrane found that the option of landing in neutral countries, especially for crews feeling unable to continue flying combat missions, was being discussed at British bases.
A bizarre footnote to this story came from Major Urban Drew, a fighter ace whose squadron flew long range Mustangs to escort the heavy bombers on their missions. Drew recalled a briefing in 1944, where Mustang pilots were asked to note the markings of any bomber which peeled off formation to head for Switzerland or Sweden. If the bomber seemed to be without battle damage, fighter pilots were to do their best to persuade the defecting crew to return to base. If all else failed, said Major Drew, ‘it was understood’ that the fighter pilots were to shoot down the defecting aircraft. Drew maintained that this was a clear verbal order and that at squadron level it was not written down because, had it appeared in writing, it would have been ‘unacceptable.’
For God’s Sake No More Bomber’s Moons
Richard Pape, who wrote Boldness Be My Friend, had continued flying until his plane was shot down over Holland. He was badly burned, but evaded the Germans for several months. After capture, he was interrogated by the Gestapo and detained as a prisoner of war. In 1995, Dan Van der Vat, who wrote Richard Pape’s obituary in the Guardian, told how Pape had experienced difficulty settling back into civilian life:
“… like many an-other forced by war to peak too soon, Pape found it hard to settle down to civilian life after his wartime adventures, which won him the Military Medal. He continued to get into trouble of his own making, involving violence or alcohol.
… He said he wrote his first book to exorcise the ‘demons’ that plagued him after the war. It appeared in 1953. In that year he was fined for firing shots outside the home of his estranged first wife. Boldness was turning into an enemy.
… The second of his 12 books described … [how] … he was also charged with drunken driving. He told the court he had been upset by a radio dramatisation of Boldness and was acquitted. Two years later he was acquitted again on a similar charge. His second wife left him in 1961, accusing him of physical cruelty. A ‘heroic’ drinker, Pape was given to chasing his literary agent round the office with a swordstick.
Another drunken driving charge in Papua New Guinea in 1965 was dismissed after evidence that Pape had hallucinated at the scene, thinking he was trapped in a burning plane and that the police were the Gestapo. He offered to drink a bottle of whisky in court to prove he could handle drink.”
The war in the air proved a decisive battle ground during the Second World War, with aircrews finding themselves in a front-line role in a conflict where more civilians than combatants were killed. Many of these non-combatant causalities were caused by mass bombings from aircraft, which culminated with the fire-bombing of Dresden in Germany and with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
The justification given at the time was that these acts of city destruction and mass killing would hasten an end to the conflict. Many historians, however, now believe that our ‘Great Leaders’ were even then thinking of the next war, which would, they thought, probably be against our then ally Russia. And that the devastation of Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima was a warning to the Soviets about what to expect if they ‘misbehaved.’
Since the end of the Second World War Britain’s armed forces have continually been active in conflicts in various parts of the world. In his song, Where have all the Flowers Gone, the late Peter Seeger asked: “When will we ever learn?” – and these words from the last verse of Mike Harding’s Bombers’ Moon is something we should all act on:
Now it’s ’84 in Bomber County
Mrs White dusts the picture and she cries:
Chalky White in uniform
Looking as he did the day he died.
And for God’s sake no more bomber’s moons,
No more young men going out to die too soon,
Old men sending young men out to die,
Young men dying for a politician’s lies.
For God’s sake no more bomber’s moons,
No more young men going out to die too soon,
Old men sending young men out to kill.
If we don’t stop them then they never will.
This song was chosen by Aly Renwick, who served for 8 Years in the British Army in the 1960s, and is now a member of VFP.