"He said we have to go around again and I said we can’t, we can’t. We have to land even if it’s on the grass on the verge."
In a wartime situation, I don’t care whether it’s the air force, the army or the navy, there is so much calamity that sooner or later, an individual is going to start being afraid. How this happens to different individuals, I can’t speak. I can speak how it happened in my case. As a result of this, and I’ll go into a little bit of detail, I formed the opinion that fear has two components. It has a mental component and it has a physical component. Certainly, in my experience, you can learn to control the mental component, not easily, but you can control the mental component sufficiently that you can still be a functioning individual in a wartime situation. But you can’t control, at least certainly can’t control completely, the physical component. So that physical things will happen to you such as trembling, such as weak legs, such as vomiting and possibly hand shaking.
I did a total of 57, what I understand is now called sorties, we called them ops [operations]. Not all were bomb carrying ops because I count the first trip where I navigated the bomber overseas: aircraft were being lost in attempting to cross the Atlantic; crews were being lost, so that it’s quite logical to count that trip as a first operation.
When it was that I had my experience of total fear, I had completed six operations rather uneventfully, and was preparing that night to leave with my crew on the seventh operation. For some reason, the feeling that yes, this was really truly dangerous work, it had not occurred to me before. This was really and truly dangerous work; and you could be killed, but you could be torn to pieces, you could be burnt to a crisp. The end of your life could happen and it could happen in the most dreadful manner, just overwhelmed me. I began to shake and, of course, I was preparing my maps and my charts and my astrograph [instrument for astronomical mapping], and my star work, getting it all together, getting ready to climb aboard the crew bus out to the hard standing [paved area for parked aircraft] to get on the aircraft. This feeling of fear overwhelmed me to the extent that, as I mentioned previously, I couldn’t speak properly. I was stammering, my hands were shaking, my legs could hardly bear my own weight, never mind the weight of all the equipment which I had to take with me to the aircraft. Various members of several crews were climbing aboard the bus. I managed to stagger out to the bus. I was climbing the steps into the bus and I thought, everybody was looking at me and knew how terrified I was.
Somehow, I managed to cover up the fear that I was feeling. I sat down quietly in the midst of all my equipment; and when we got to the aircraft, I got off the bus. I climbed on the aircraft and I began to assemble my equipment correctly at my navigator’s desk. The pilot ran up the motors and checked the magnetos [electrical generators], and moved away from the hard standing to the runway; and we took off. It was the quietest, most serene trip that I had ever taken. And this reassured me that the fear that I was feeling had built up inside me and that there was no reason behind it. I came back from that trip, my seventh trip, and never again felt that extreme fear. I did frequently throw up, as I have mentioned, as one of the indications of an inner fear, a physical fear. But at no time was I ever consumed by the mental fear.