A book that
says it all
Morale, morality and much more
Of all the many books I have read by men who flew with the RAF and allied air forces during the war only one dares to delve into the questions of morale, stress and morality. Its title is The Eighth Passenger, and its author, Miles Tripp, flew with Bomber Command on more missions than most. His book is a classic first-hand account of the thoughts and emotions of those who survived what was the bloodiest battle ever fought in the skies.
Tripp's seven fellow airmen were typical of many RAF crews, thown together more by chance than judgment, diverse in their views and backgrounds, but forming a tight team prepared to go out night after night into the hell fire and fury that lay ahead.
Several years after the war, Miles Tripp had the urge to contact his former comrades-in-arms and record their recollections. It wasn't easy to locate them but succeed he did, and the document he presents to us is as honest an account of the lives of the boys of Bomber Command as we are likely to get. Boys they were, just starting in life, many straight out of school, others from their first jobs. Ordinary chaps from ordinary homes, yet forming the most extraordinary force every assembled, or ever likely to be.
What did they feel about the bombing of Dresden, the possibility of massive civilian casualties, the horror of seeing Lancasters blown up around them, the bitter cold, the constant flak, the navigational mistakes, the near disasters, and the constant fight against fear? Yes, the eighth passenger was fear, and it was not only the unrelenting fear of being killed, but of falling victim to the "twitch", of breaking down and realising you couldn't face another mission. In that event you would let your comrades down, be marked with the letters LMF (lack of moral fibre) and be cast into the wilderness.
None of Tripp's crew succumbed, but I met several former aircrew members towards the end of the war who had been shamed in such a way. Their brevets had been stripped from their uniforms and you could still see the outlines of their wings. The light had gone from their eyes, too, and they had the air of men in a daze, rather like the shell shocked soldiers of World War One. They had, in fact, suffered nervous breakdowns, but the authorities refused to admit or accept it.
Perhaps one day someone will write a book about these sad heroes because all who flew, if only for one tour of ops, were heroes. I quote Tripp: "Since all aircrew were volunteers, no one could be forced to fly, but the humiliation and ignominy which followed the confession of a stricken man were such that some men continued to fly long after their nerves were in shreds rather than go LMF."
I have noted elsewhere about rank and rancour within the Royal Air Force. It was an odd organisation that placed pilot NCOs above non-pilot officers when facing the dangers of operational flying, then reversed the procedure once on the ground. I never understood the wartime selection process anyway.
The mindlessness of those in high command became apparent at the end of the war when they began to demote non-commissioned aircrew, taking away their stripes and reducing them to AC Plonk level, which was as low as you can reach. Flight Sergeant Miles Tripp was one such, and he found himself posted to Cranwell and billeted with a batch of newly mustered young airmen who were just as bewildered as he was, and who naturally thought he was an LMFer.
Tripp says: "This coldly bureaucratic demotion of men who had served their country was a shabby chapter in the history of the RAF. The psychological effect of switching from flying in an offensive which was vital for victory, to being downgraded so that one could be ordered to do this and do that by a corporal who had never flown in his life was devastating".
One wonders whether commissioned officers were also subjected to this most humiliating experience. It left Tripp with this one burning thought: "I could not now ever recommend anyone to volunteer for dangerous duties in the service of Great Britain without warning him that once his usefulness was over he must expect to be treated as scrap material."
The Eighth Passenger was originally published in Britain by Heinnemann Ltd., and later released as a Corgi book. Miles Tripp also wrote Faith is a Windsock.
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