In August 1942 a new stage production was doing the rounds in London’s theatres. Entitled Flare Path the civilians who went to see it were surprised by how many RAF officers and airmen were present in the audience. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise really after all the play was about a bomber crew taking the fight to Germany but one scene in the course of the play affected civilian and military audiences alike albeit for different reasons. The pilot of the bomber confides in his wife that he is “…lacking in moral fibre.” The wife, and indeed the audience, seem dumbfounded by this expression but the RAF men knew full well what it meant. The pilot, noticing the confused look on his wife’s face, then explains, “No guts!” For the civilian population it was the first time many of them had heard this strange remark but for the RAF men it was something that hung over all their heads.
It’s not entirely clear when the term came in to official use but “Lacking in Moral Fibre” or “LMF” was the euphemistic title placed on airmen accused of cowardice. Despite the post-war revulsion at their job which often involved killing thousands of civilians, the men of Bomber Command were painted as heroes during the course of the war. Night after night they risked everything by climbing in to their aircraft and setting off in to the dark to take the war to Germany. In this air of heroism those who didn’t seem to be as committed or cared more about their own survival than anything else risked becoming tainted with the term of LMF. To be found guilty of LMF by an official inquiry or even a court martial would see the airman stripped of rank and sent to the most menial of tasks such as washing dishes and cleaning barracks all the while receiving the scorn of active airmen.
The severity of such a stigma left a lasting impression on all new aircrew when they joined their squadrons. They found themselves facing intense scrutiny from the veteran crews who seemed to be hunting for those who didn’t have what it takes to do the job. Those who were, quite understandably, nervous of their first missions actually found the fear of being labelled as LMF more frightening than the German nightfighters and flak which in turn coaxed them in to completing their missions. This highlights the power the stigma of cowardice had in time of war but nevertheless there remained a small group who could not overcome their nerves.
Post-war research, a difficult process indeed as the RAF actively tried to cover up as many cases as possible, estimates that around 200 cases of disciplinary actions for LMF occurred each year in Bomber Command between 1940 and 1945. Considering that there were thousands of aircrew involved in operations this is a surprisingly small figure; not even 1%. Just what qualified as an example of LMF primarily revolved around a refusal to fly on operations. This is where things get vague. There were numerous cases throughout the war where crews offered some kind of protest to fly for various reasons. Sometimes there were mechanical reasons with regards to their aircraft not working properly. Other reasons for not flying were medical; a member of the aircrew not being sufficiently well enough to fly be it from injury or illness. The problem under these circumstances was that the commanding officer would have final say on whether this was sufficient reason for excluding them from the night’s operation or not. Many commanding officers hailed from the First World War where there were bona fida witch hunts for cowards and conscientious objectors and this mentality remained. As such refusals to fly for even the most reasonable of excuses were dismissed with threats of being labelled as LMF. Consequently there were indeed cases where valuable aircrew were lost because of an aircraft malfunction or because altitude had worsened a medical condition. There were fortunately less reckless commanding officers as well who risked their own careers for refusing to send a crew that was in less than ideal shape on operations.
Those who still refused to fly regardless of the consequences had their own reasons and preferred the stigma of cowardice over death or capture. Many of those “convicted” of being LMF were family men who couldn’t bear the thought of their wives raising their children alone in the days before the welfare state. These men were often faced with the question; if everyone who had families refused to fight this war what would happen to you and your family when Hitler crossed the Channel? Perhaps the least understood reason for refusing to fly, at least in the 1940s, were those suffering from shell-shock known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There was a misguided belief that once a new aircrew got through its first two or three operations then the nerves and apprehension would be quashed. This was never true and most crews simply learned to either live with their fears or hide them altogether.
For some however the psychological trauma of flying through the night having German nightfighters lurking almost unseen in the sky until they suddenly attacked or having flak shells exploding around them would prove too much. For these unfortunate souls each operation slowly broke down the mental defences one puts in place in order to survive such ordeals. With Freudian psychology still widely regarded in professional circles there was no real way to treat or even diagnose such conditions and men were expected to simply buck-up and carry on. This had the inevitable consequence of a mental breakdown which could manifest itself in many ways such as alcoholism, self-harm, sabotage of machinery or even suicide. Many of these poor men then found themselves of being described as Lacking in Moral Fibre.
It was one thing for individuals to be labelled as LMF but there were rare occasions where entire aircrews would find themselves punished for cowardice with one of the most dramatic examples occurring on the night of the 22nd/23rd of July 1941. Handley-Page Hampdens of No.144 squadron found themselves on a mission to attack Frankfurt. Flying through the night it was easy to lose sight of one’s compatriots and with navigation aids still primarily involving a stop watch, a map, a ruler and a pencil rarely did the bombers arrive over the target or return to base at the same time. In the early hours of the 23rd July the aircraft began returning to their base in Lincolnshire reporting a successful night’s work. One of the navigators seemed uneasy however and over the following days became quite withdrawn until finally he was sent to his commanding officer to find out what was wrong. It was then he confessed that his aircrew never reached Frankfurt or indeed never crossed the coast in to Europe. Instead they had flown up and down the North Sea and returned to base at around the time they were expected.
A court martial was called and the crew gave their testimonies. The pilot, realising that they risked being labelled as LMF, launched in to a frenzied attack on the navigator accusing him of incompetence. According to the pilot the navigator got them lost quite quickly and instead of returning to the UK with their bombs and the subsequent accusations of cowardice that they believed would follow the crew decided to cover up the whole thing. The officers holding the court martial found the men guilty and the pilot was sentenced to two years hard labour. To add insult to injury the court stated that had the pilot and his crew come clean the situation would have not progressed as far as a court martial as their records had been exemplary to that point. The court believed the pilot’s story but many of their comrades refused to accept it. Ironically, if it was true then their actions to cover up their mistake and not be labelled as cowards actually got them labelled as cowards. Either way this case dramatically highlights the power being branded LMF had on the crews of Bomber Command.
In the immediate post-war period Bomber Command saw its popularity with the British people smashed as video and picture footage of what they had done to Germany came back to the British people. The British people and indeed the world were appalled at the sheer scale of devastation that had been wrought on the civilian population which surpassed what German bombers had done to British cities many times over. In this period of hostility the RAF put an end to its policy of punishing men for Lacking in Moral Fibre and the term fell out of official use being replaced with the crime of insubordination which was a little more vague to a population that might start seeing those who refused to fly as moral heroes. A certain sense of irony falls over the matter at this point.
As the 20th century progressed the psychological effects of war began to be understood more clearly and methods of managing and treating such stresses have become more sophisticated although arguments rage even today if the British government is doing enough to support the psychological needs of its armed forces during and indeed after they have been in combat. While the RAF doesn’t legally prosecute its members for LMF anymore its stigma remains.
On the night of the 30th of April 1982 a pair of RAF Vulcan bombers took off from Ascension Island supported by a vast armada of tankers. Their goal was to bomb the runway at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands in what was probably the most dangerous bombing mission the RAF had undertaken since the Dambusters and certainly the longest mission in history. One Vulcan would carry out the mission while the second was a spare however the lead Vulcan developed a pressurisation problem and had to abort just a short while after take-off leaving the spare Vulcan to carry out the mission. The problem was later traced to the relatively simple fact that a seal on one of the windows had been damaged when it was closed and when this was discovered to be the problem the Vulcan’s pilot, Squadron Leader John Reeve, said afterwards that he was afraid that he and his crew would be labelled as Lacking in Moral Fibre for not going through with the mission.