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Remembered Today:

TOUR OF OPERATIONS


Greg Bloomfield
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In all the accounts of the air war I've read I've only seldom come across references to pilots being sent on rest to UK. Was there ever a generally accepted number of hours a flier had to complete, or a certain number of operations to fly, before he became 'tour expired' as they were in WW2 and sent to a training establishment or staff post ,or was it a case of bashing on until death, a serious injury or promotion took them off operations?

I realise that certain stages of the war would have made this difficult as casualties were at times very heavy and there would be a need to hold on to the more experienced lads. But surely a flier couldn't be expected to go on indefinately without some light at the end of the tunnel.

Greg

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It was not unusual for pilots to be transfered to home defence (which could be almost a dangerous as service on the WF given the number of crashes etc when trying to fly at night with inadequate navigation equipment and not very accurate altimeters) or training duties when they had spent some time at the front. However there doesn't appear to have been the concept of a tour with a regulated number of sorties as in WW2 (this was purely an Allied concept even then as neither the Germans nor the Japanese used the tour system).

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First a pilot had to survive! There were rotations, just as there were for the infantry, but I haven't seen evidence a rigid system; that came later when people had a chance to reflect.

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Thanks fellas.

I had suspected there wasn't a system as such because there never seems to be a reference to one anywhere. Those home leaves must have been an age in coming around.

Greg

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Some units, as opposed to individual pilots, appear to have been rotated. However the demand for aircraft and pilots for the WF seems to have continually outstripped supply so the pressure must have been to keep them out there as long as possible. The strain appears to have been greatest on the ground attack pilots as anecdotal evidence suggests that they flew more sorties on consecutive days. I'd be interested if anyone has any objective evidence to confirm or refute this.

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Certainly the RAF policy in 1918 seems to have been to send a pilot home after roughly six months service at the front. Those promoted to be flight commanders tended, however, to stay on. Squadron commanders also closely monitored the fitness of their pilots, as did the doctors attached to each wing. Those clearly exhibiting combat stress would be sent home labelled as suffering from Flying Sickness Debility. Less severe cases would be sent to the French coast for a rest.

Charles M

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From recent research I wrote the following

" Stress was cumulative. Commanding officers were expected to watch their men carefully. By 1918, if they (pilots) survived, six months combat was considered the norm, followed by three months home service. It has been calculated that 80 percent of groundings resulted from nerves and that half of all operational pilots developed serious nuerosis - insomnia, nightmares, nervouse twitches and gastric problems"

It does seem clear that by late 17, early 18, a policy had evolved.

A range of sources were used, but since the material was prepared for a talk, I stupidly did not reference them.

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Whilst stress must have played a significant part, gastric problems for Camel pilots also came from the continuous castor oil vapour coming off the rotary engine. Whilst this must have been a problem with all rotary engined aircraft it does seem that the pilots on Camels got a particularly high dosage. At least one pilot was on record as reccomending rum and blackcurrent juice as an effective prophelactic for the effects of the castor oil. Some pilots on some other types of aircraft may also have suffered from the effects of long term low level carbon monoxide poisoning from the positioning of the exhausts. (the vertical stack type as on the RE 8 for example sometimes causing fumes to blow backwards). One wonders how good MOs were at spotting (and treating) this sort of thing or did it all get lumped together as combat stress?

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I would imagine that the effects of flying at an altitude of over 10,000 feet without oxygen would have caused problems for pilots too, as would the extreme cold found at that height. But simply flying the aircraft was a source of extreme stress to some pilots. Cecil Lewis in his book Sagittarius Rising provides an interesting insight into this, describing a night flight in an SE5a:

"The night was overcast, starless, moonless, the very darkest kind of night, the nearest approach to flying in absolute obscurity. I rose over the dim river and climbed up to patrol height. On either side of the body, the extremities if the exhaust pipes glowed like coals...Within the cockpit the gleam of the little torch shone on the instruments. The revs were holding; but the oil pressure was slowly, ebbing away. Still, I could stick up until it fell to about five pounds, then I should have to come down. I wheeled up and down my beat for half an hour, trying to judge where the Huns might be from the anti-aircraft bursts; but as usual, saw nothing.

Then I caught my hand in the flex of the torch and pulled off the wire. The cockpit was plunged into darkness. I tried to get the wire back on the terminal, but couldn't manage it. The bus was new; it wouldn't fly hands off. I tried to hold the stick with my knees; but this didn't work either. Now what was to be done? What was my height? What was my speed? Were the engine revs steady? The oil pressure I knew, was dropping. It is not pleasant to fly a machine with no instruments on a pitch-black night. One grows super-sensitive to each vibration of the engine, there is a tendency to panic, to imagine the machine is diving, stalling, slipping one way or the other, and the earth looks a very long way below. This fear began to grwo on me; but I reassured myself. I knew the SE backwards. I'd flown it for hundreds of hours; but still, there were machines patrolling only five hundred feet above and below me. If I was diving or climbing. mightn't I easily run into them?

I began to peer more closely into the darkness. What was that? Was it the light of another manchine's exhaust? Turn! Turn quickly. That was a funny shudder as she went round. Now what was happening? The controls didn't seem to answer. The next second she dropped a wing and fell into a spin. I cut the engine, straightened the controls, pushed the stick forward and came out into a dive. This was altogether too tricky. Home, John."

Now Lewis was a veteran pilot. Can you imagine what a sprog with only a few hours under his belt would have felt like?

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Castor oil is a good point. The only RFC vet I ever met was on Camels, and he told me that he suffered from permanant "squits". "Fear", I foolishly asked. "No", he replied "bloody castor oil engine lubricant". But, as I remember from my harsh post WW2 upbringing - how did any of us survive? - castor oil , in the words of the Radio Doctor, "kept us regular". Not sure if the oil would have caused any permanent gastric problems. Any doctors in the house!

We often fail to realise how early "Shell Shock" or whatever you wish to call it (Combat Stress has always seemed a good term to me) was recognised and how seriously many medics and senior officers treated it and sought to deal with it. The response was not perfect - and indeed is still not now.

In evidence to the WO Committe of Enquiry into Shell Shock, Captain WHR Rivers - of Craiglockhart fame - listed no less than 18 factors which caused nervous breakdown in WWI flyers. They included low altitude flying, and "flying at high altitude for prolonged periods, cold, oxygen want, failure of respiritory mechanism, cardio vascular and nervous system leading to breakdown".

A recent survey - BMJ 25.11.2007 - into mental health consequences of overstretch in UK armed forces, funded by the MOD, has shown - in broad terms - that personnel deployed for 13 months or more in three years are likely to fulfill the criteria of PTSD. It also found a correlation between duration of deployment and alcohol problems. It added that PTSD was also associated with a mismatch between expectation and the duration of deployment and the realityof it! Now there's an interesting statement. In other words - if its worse than you expect it is likely to affect you!. How many men served for longer than 13 straight months during WW1 and how many felt a "mismatch" between the war they found and the war they expected - on the gound or in the air?

I have absolutely no doubt that combat fatigue was a huge factor amongst great war flyers - and that both Mannock and Von R were killed as a result of impaired judgement caused by the cumulative stress resulting frm their wartime environment and their actions. Evidence by their contemporaries provides a litany of evidence for this statement. They were not alone

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In evidence to the WO Committe of Enquiry into Shell Shock, Captain WHR Rivers - of Craiglockhart fame - listed no less than 18 factors which caused nervous breakdown in WWI flyers. They included low altitude flying, and "flying at high altitude for prolonged periods, cold, oxygen want, failure of respiritory mechanism, cardio vascular and nervous system leading to breakdown".

In other words both mental and physical stress. Evidence of crews of some of the later high altitude Zeppelins suggests that prolonged exposure to cold and oxygen deprevation could cause physical damage to the nervous system. So the consquent 'nervous breakdown' could be the result of quite different physiological changes and would respond to very different treatments (if treatment were possible). However given the state (or lack of) diagnostic techniques and equipment everything seems to be lumped together unde nervous breakdown ofr shell shock.

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Centurian

Yes that seems fair comment. Also of interest is Moran's theory about the "Well of courage" from which prolonged drafts produce a diminishing level of courage. One of the early books about Shell Shock published in 1916 - concluded that such a specific complaint did exist - the effect of a close explosion causing physical and mental damage. The author Arthur E Hurst listed this among a range of other causes including "Exhaustion and Emotion" for War Neurosis. In 1916 he recommended a range of treatments for all three causes. They included rest - hypnosis - persuasion/re-education - quiet and isolation - as well as a range of specific medications. Of Neurasthenia - another generally accepted term - at least early in the war - he wrote "Although it would require a very exceptional nervous system to pass unscathed through twelve months or more of war under modern condition, uncomplicated Neurasthenia due to prolonged physical strain, has been comparatively rare since the Battle of the Marne". He adds that there were many causes of it during the retreat from Mons. This seems to have been widely accepted and clearly the facts of "Combat Fatige" were recognised. What seems to have been a problem was sorting out specific treatments and a wide range was developed - ranging from the rest and recuperation to electric shock therapy , drug regimes and phsyco-analysis. I find Hurst's 12 months and the period in the latest survey interesting. I am no expert on this but there can be no doubt that levels of "War Neurosis" must have been very high y - much higher than recorded in any statistics - and when you add the sheer effects of flying it seems amazing that any flyer managed to escape unscathed. I suspect that wise commanding officers would recognise the symptoms and get those he felt in danger - and thus of danger to comrades - home as soon as the situation allowed.

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