Wartime Life in England in Pursuit of Victory
May 8, 2020 marks 75 years since war in Europe ended in World War II. On the same date in 1945, V-E day celebrations were raucous after six years of prolonged war.
Commemorating the end of the war in Europe means remembering the men who fought it and the reality of their wartime lives.
“We stand alone together” has come to define the ethos of the Greatest Generation’s WWII fight.
Today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, “we stand together alone” captures the ethos of a very different war, one that can only be won by staying apart.
The only analogy to the current pandemic in living memory is that of WWII. It was a protracted six-year battle. Life was upended. Death was omnipresent. But it was also replete with hope for a victorious conclusion.
Few servicemen had an experience more isolating than airmen. Missions lasting the better part of a day were spent in a tin can with only one’s crew. There was an inherent discomfort in the unpressurized, unheated fighters and bombers necessitating oxygen masks and protective equipment. For Allies, the air war fought from England was the last vestige of hope in the fight for the western world when all of Europe fell to Hitler.
On the eve of the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, let’s take a page from the past to look at ten little-known facts about wartime life in England for American airmen whose collective efforts led to Victory in Europe:
1. American troops invaded England in late 1942. It’s remembered as the “Friendly Invasion.”
In late 1942, droves of American airmen descended on East Anglia, the protruding thumb of England that looks out on the Normandy coast.
Over 350,000 Americans were based in East Anglia during the War organized under the auspices of the 8th Air Force. The pastoral countryside home to farms and storybook English villages transformed into an ostensible aircraft carrier during WWII. Over 50 air bases were hastily constructed for wartime operations.
Life in villages dotting the East Anglian countryside was quiet. The brashness and vigor of American airmen clashed with the more subdued English way of life. By war’s end, a fondness transcending time developed between the English and the Americans that came to be known as the “Friendly Invasion.”
Today, an American boasting a connection to the air war is greeted in East Anglia with open arms and profuse thanks for what our forefathers did in the War.
2. Flying from the United States to Europe took over twenty hours, including an overnight pitstop in Morocco or Greenland.
Hopping “across the pond” was a prolonged endeavor. Even in the advanced B-24 Liberator, the flight from the United States to England required multiple overnight stops for rest and refueling. All told, the flight time logged from the eastern seaboard of the United States to England was over 20 hours.
Because air traffic from the United States to Europe became so congested during the war, two different routes to England were established, named the Northern and Southern route.
The Northern route wove from Canada to Greenland or Iceland, giving crews a glimpse of the Northern Lights and icy fjords before touching down in England.
The Southern route sent crews over lush jungles in South America before hopping east to Africa, with a final stop in Morocco after navigating over the towering Atlas Mountains.
Crashes getting to combat in England were so common that airman James Mahoney recalled: “An Air Transport Command Navigator once ventured that you could navigate the land portions of both routes by merely following the carcasses of fallen planes.”
3. Bomber crews spent hundreds of hours in combat fighting the Nazis but many never stepped foot on the European continent.
Up until the invasion of Italy and D-Day shortly thereafter, American air bases were located in England as part of the 8th Air Force.
By war’s end, a bomber crew had to fly 35 missions to complete a tour of duty and earn their ticket home. Thirty-five missions amounted to 200+ hours in combat over Fortress Europe clashing with Germans. Completing a tour spanned many months, sometimes taking an entire year.
If an airman was lucky, he never stepped foot on the ground where his war was fought. For bombers of the 8th Air Force, nearly every mission began and ended in England. In most cases, only if a crew was shot down, and survived the crash, did they touch down on the European continent.
4. American airmen wore almost 70 pounds of gear on combat missions to protect against -50 degree temperatures and enemy flak.
Combat flying was hell. Heavy bombers were unpressurized and unheated. On day-long missions averaging six to eight hours, temperatures in a bomber regularly hit -50 degrees.
At altitude, bare skin would freeze to the aluminum fuselage and .50 cal machine guns. Oxygen masks iced up constantly. Thirty seconds without oxygen could knock a man unconscious; two minutes without oxygen could kill him.
To combat the cold, lack of oxygen, and enemy flak that sent shrapnel careening through bombers, airmen wore over 70 pounds of gear.
Heated flying suits, sheepskins, flying boots/gloves, Mae West life vests, parachute harness, and flak helmets/vests were just some of the gear an airman sported on every mission.
The bulk and weight of the gear made it difficult for an airman to maneuver through the cramped confines of a heavy bomber, but each piece of gear played a crucial role in keeping an airman alive.
5. On every mission, an airman carried a silk escape map of Europe — even though the fabric was in short supply during the war.
If an aircrew was shot down on a mission over Europe, they relied an escape kit, which was carried on every mission, to avoid capture and make it to friendly lines. A silk escape map was one piece of the escape kit.
Roughly three feet long by three feet wide, different geographic areas were printed on both sides of a silk escape map. As the war went on, the regions changed based on the areas where Allied bombing dominated. The maps showed roads, railways, and other landmarks to help an Allied airman evade the enemy.
However, why it was printed on a most coveted wartime fabric is perhaps the most interesting story.
Paper maps proved ineffective for airmen on the run because of the noise they produced when in use. Paper maps also proved vulnerable to water. Rain caused the ink to bleed or the map itself to disintegrate.
Silk was an effective alternative: durable, water-resistant, and easy to handle. Even though it was in short supply, silk was allocated for escape maps. Over 3.5 million silk and cloth maps were printed for Allied forces during the war.
6. Even in war, dogs remained man’s best friend.
English dogs found adopted homes at American airbases during WWII. Beloved by all the men on base, dogs became ostensible mascots of Army Air Force Bomb Groups of the 8th Air Force.
The furry friends brought comfort and joy to an otherwise somber livelihood marked by cold English days, long missions, and omnipresent death.
Roaming bombs and ammunition at American airbases in rural England, dogs adopted by bomb groups lived at the epicenter of war.
On occasion, dogs were tucked inside a heavy bomber and taken for a flight. On the famed low-level Ploesti raid, the dog “Eight Ball,” so named for the 44th Bomb Group who adopted him, flew on the deadly raid. Tail Gunner Steve Bugyie recalled: “When the guns began to fire, Eight Ball curled up under the pilot’s seat and stayed there for the rest of the mission.” Needless to say, dogs did not belong in combat.
While the sentiment that “bomb group dogs” belonged to every man who lived on base, they were typically cared for by a select few. When the war ended and American airmen were sent stateside, leaving behind their beloved pets proved torturous.
At war’s end, ground crewman John Weber consulted the British Kennel Club because he wanted to bring “El Champo,” a Cocker Spaniel adopted by the 44th Bomb Group, back to the United States. When that proved impossible, Weber paid a local farmer to care for “El Champo.” For several years after the war, Weber made a yearly trip from Oregon to England to visit his beloved “El Champo.”
7. STDs were a widespread issue on airbases that posed a threat to winning the war.
Demographically, American airmen were young and overwhelmingly single. According to recently analyzed NARA enlistment data, 77% of airmen in the 44th Bomb Group were single without children when they enlisted.
Sequestration on an all-male airbase, coupled with the life and death stress of combat, led sexual frustration to mount. Leave in London proved an easy release for the pent up sexual tension. From their airbases in East Anglia, American airmen flocked to Piccadilly Circus. Their presence brought rampant prostitution to the area.
With sex came widespread STDs. Referred to during the war as Venereal Disease (VD), an estimated one-third of VD cases amongst GIs were said to have originated in London.
VD posed a threat to winning the war, as afflicted airmen were grounded from flying combat missions for several days until their health improved.
Airbase leaders combatted VD with lectures, free-flowing condoms, and publicly displaying daily statistics about the number of VD cases on base. Yet, VD proved to be a protracted battle.
A 1944 Medical Report submitted by the 44th Bomb Group noted: “Repeated lectures on venereal diseases, far in excess of that required by Army regulations, have been given to all members of this command. Prophylaxis is available to men, as are condoms. Few use them. This is indicative of the carelessness of and disinterest of the men for their personal good and the good of the service.”
8. English country estates were requisitioned and turned into retreats called “Rest Homes” for war-weary airmen.
Run by the American Red Cross, Rest Homes were country estates where war-weary airmen midway through a combat tour to recharge and relax for a week.
The psychiatric strain of combat flying led to the creation of over 20 Rest Homes in England. Manor homes and country estates throughout England were handed over by their owners for use as Rest Homes.
The Rest Home program was viewed as preventative care to keep American airmen in good psychological health. An air crew was typically sent to a Rest Home halfway through a tour of 25 to 35 missions or after a particularly traumatic event.
The goal was to give American airmen a reprieve from the war for a week. Upon arrival, airmen were given civilian clothes. They slept in beds with lush linens. The breakfast menu included real eggs and bacon. Red Cross girls entertained airmen during the day with games and myriad activities on each estate. Rest Home dinners were a nightly lavish affair, including an open bar.
9. Run by the American Red Cross, “Clubmobiles” were bakeries on wheels offering rare treats at airbases — donuts, coffee, & interaction with women.
The American Red Cross ran a robust assortment of morale-boosting activities for American airmen in England, including the “Clubmobile.”
Described as a service club on wheels, a “Clubmobile” was a London Bus retrofitted as an ostensible food truck.
Upon arrival at an airbase, a “Clubmobile” parked near the heart of combat operations adjacent the runways. American Red Cross girls brewed coffee and fried donuts from the small kitchen inside the bus. A victrola played music while dozens of men waited in line. On an average day, 5,000 donuts were served from a single “Clubmobile.”
Donuts were a treat in short supply, a result of food rationing and the English opinion they were “ethnic food.” The “Clubmobile” brought a slice of home to “donut desolate” wartime England.
10. Dances brought live music, local women, and good cheer to the epicenter of the air war.
Dances organized by the American Red Cross gave airmen an opportunity to blow off steam from the intense stress of the air war.
Aero Clubs on American airbases regularly transformed into dance halls featuring live swing music, often courtesy of an airbase’s band formed from the roughly 3,000 personnel who called each base home.
The 44th Bomb Group band was started by Bombardier Paul Boensch, who studied music before the war. Maintenance men in the group built music stands, and instruments were hobbled together. Boensch recalled, “Our best break came when Major Linck learned that a band of German musicians was captured at St. Lo after D-Day. Twenty-four hours later, we had all their instruments, all in first class condition.”
In addition to the live music, women from local villages were trucked to airbases for evening dances. It was a formal affair as airmen donned their best Class A uniforms.
Typically held once a month, dances proved popular with airmen with a vast majority attending the evening affairs. The music, dancing, and female company gave airmen a few hours to forget about the war.