‘Caught Short’ Aloft
Eating and excreting are mankind’s two most basic biological functions and yet the
vast majority of military historians when writing about the people who fought the battles and used the war machines seem to neglect or forget this very simple fact of life as most military books lack even the briefest inclusion of information on the subject. Granted it’s not a topic that needs to be covered in great detail but some little snippets of information would be helpful to gain a greater appreciation of what life was like during war. Leaving aside the obvious fact that soldiers and sailors can dispose their bodily waste anywhere on land or in the sea if necessary, what options did the bomber air crews and fighter pilots have? With the advances in aviation technology, the World War 2 fighter or bomber could stay in the air longer, and travel much greater distances than could the primitive air machines of World War 1. This, by necessity, required aircraft designers to incorporate some basic method of waste disposal for those who flew these new machines. Concentration on life and death tasks is well nigh impossible when the need to urinate dominates and the cold at 26,000 feet and minus 60 below intensifies a man’s pain for not relieving himself. The cold affecting the bladder at high altitude is murder.
The famous World War 2 British Lancaster bomber which is the most written about aircraft of the period yet it is extremely hard to find a book on the subject that even briefly gives information on any crew waste disposable facilities. Without going into too much detail, the following is an attempt to rectify this lack of information beginning with a typical Lancaster bomber on an operation over Germany. This aircraft is in essence, a metal container for more than 2,000 gallons of pure petrol, plus another 150 gallons of oil; miles of pipeline containing highly inflammable hydraulic oil for controls and flaps, gun turrets etc. In the bomb bay, there might be between 8 to 10 tons of lethal high explosive and or pyrotechnic stores, 14,000 rounds of ammunition in extended alloy tracks which guide the belted ammunition to the gunner’s turrets. There are oxygen lines, electrical wiring, intercommunication cables and a host of other fittings.
Inside this ‘flying bomb’ were 7 crew wearing layers of clothing designed to keep out the cold. These men took off night after night sometimes for a 6-7 hour stint in unpressurised aircraft to face enemy flak, night fighters, hostile weather conditions and accidents. Almost all Avro Lancaster Bombers were equipped with 3 Frazer-Nash [FN] hydraulically operated turrets using .303 calibre machineguns. The mid upper turret saw only limited use during the early months of the aircrafts introduction to operational service. The nose turret was rarely used and manned by the bomb aimer if required. The mid upper gunner spent the trip suspended on a canvas sling seat that could be disconnected when getting in or out of the turret. His lower body was in the draughty fuselage and his head in the plexiglass dome. It was a lonely position removed from the proximity of other crew but the worst position was that of the tail gunner which, during nightly ‘ops’ was – the coldest and loneliest place in the sky. Whilst other crew members enjoyed some comfort having others nearby in the forward section of the aircraft, the poor rear gunner was completely removed from his fellow crew members and any heating system. Squeezed into a cramped metal and perspex cupola, the rear gunner had so little leg space that some had to place their flying boots into the turret before climbing in themselves.
From take off to landing, at times for as long as 10 hours, the tail gunner was constantly rotating the turret, scanning the surrounding blackness, quarter by quarter, for the grey shadow that could instantly become an attacking enemy night fighter. The rear gunner stowed his parachute in the fuselage behind his turret. Any relaxation of vigilance could mean death for everyone on board. Even answering the call of nature or ‘being caught short’ could mean disaster for the crew. This was especially true for the rear gunner as his position was the prime target for attacking enemy night fighters. Even if he needed desperately to urinate or defacate, he couldn’t leave his post on an operation. The Lancaster, for some reason, was not equipped with a piss [or relief] tube only an ‘Elsan‘ chemical toilet a few feet forward from the rear gunner’s turret.
It was exposed, unreliable, uncomfortable and dangerous in rough weather or if the skipper had to take sudden evasive action. At 10,000 feet and above, anyone using the Elsan had to use a portable oxygen bottle for breathing as well. The crew would have to have had bottomless steel bladders to be able to maintain the constant vigilance necessary for each raid and not use the Elsan or some other container brought onboard by a crew member. The Elsan was hated by the aircrews because they had to use it and the ground crew because they had to empty it. Located by the main crew door at the rear of the Lancaster, the “exclusive Elsan toilet was something to use only in the case of an emergency” and was certainly not a place to relax and have a “read” One unknown airman describes his hatred of the Elsan.
‘While we were flying in rough air, this devils convenience often shared its contents with the floor of the aircraft, the walls, and ceiling and sometimes, a bit remained in the container itself. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what it was like trying to combat fear and airsickness while struggling to remove enough gear in cramped quarters and at the same time trying to use the bloody Elsan. If it wasn’t an invention of the devil, it certainly must have been one foisted on us by the enemy. When seated in frigid cold amid the cacophony of roaring engines and whistling air, away from what should have been one of life’s peaceful moments, the occupant had a chance to fully ponder the miserable condition of his life. This loathsome creation invariably overflowed on long trips and in turbulence was always prone to bathe the nether regions of the user. It was one of the true reminders to me that war is hell.’ Crew members preferred to make do with various containers such as beer bottles to urinate into during the flight.
With regards to the use of the Elsan toilet, there are 2 stories that are reputed to be true. One is about some members of the RAF conducting biological warfare by jettisoning used Elsan toilets with their normal bomb payload on German targets. The other is about one Lancaster crew who took one of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force on an operation. This was strictly against regulations but more than likely happened a few times. The WAAF passenger was ‘caught short’ and as the Lancaster was at 10,000 feet, the mobile oxygen bottle was necessary during her ablutions. Unfortunately for her, the oxygen bottle wasn’t working properly and she passed out from lack of oxygen. The crew only discovered her on their return leg over the English Channel. All efforts to revive her failed and as they couldn’t find a pulse, they thought she was dead. They were contemplating throwing her overboard when one of them finally found the elusive pulse. They revived her just before landing and were able to smuggle her back to her barracks. One very lucky lady indeed.
On the subject of luck and as they were dicing with death almost nightly, it was not surprising that 1,000s of air crew became superstitious and began to believe in good luck charms of one kind or another. It was not unusual to see crews ‘watering the wheel’ before taking off on a raid. This ritual involved pissing together on the bombers rear wheel for luck and possibly to eliminate the necessity having to urinate again during the flight. Bomber crew members sometimes preferred to urinate into bottles or defecate into cardboard boxes, which were then jettisoned from the aircraft.
Looking aft from approximately the crew door position, the Elsan toilet (can shaped object on floor) also acted as a step for the rear gunner to use. The gunner would then crawl over the Tail spar and into his turret. While the vertical flare/photo-flash chute is also visible on the right hand side
Another example is that of a Halifax ll bomber. ‘Arriving out at the aircraft, everyone relieved themselves, mostly on the rear wheel and some on one of the main wheels, partly for good luck. The Elsan chemical toilet was down in the tail and though we did some long trips, I don’t remember any of the crew using it. We could use the flare chute but some of the crew took an empty bottle with them in case of emergency. On one trip, we had trouble with the Exactas which hydraulically controlled the propeller pitch. It lost fluid so we had to pee in them to keep going. One of my buddies ‘Junior’ Braybrook claims the best of all, having to use the Elsan while on a raid over Berlin.’ Edward M. Cooke. Halifax ll pilot.
I do remember the medical officer telling us about gas, that it was formed in the gut which could be subject to being stretched by gas build up which would cause severe pain which could happen when descending from altitude. We were urged to get rid of any gas at all costs. It was also advised not to land with a full bladder as if one crashed, the bladder could burst. When nature calls, some situations can cause a lot of laughter back in the mess hall. A few months after D-Day one English pilot of a Dakota often had the job of flying VIP’s over France. On one occasion, some senior officers had a female ATS sergeant with them. The toilet arrangement for these flights consisted of an Elsan with a hessian screen rigged around it at the back of the aircraft. During the flight, the female sergeant with the party came forward to the flight deck and asked if she could use ‘their’ toilet instead. The pilot wondered where she thought they had room for such a facility but showed her the ‘tube’ outlet and told her if she could find a way to use it, she was welcome. Stan Hilder.
De Havilland Mosquito DH 98. ‘In the Mossie, the relief tube was a flexible hose connected to a pipe under the pilot’s seat on the right [navigator on the left]. The top was funnel shaped with about ½ to ¾ of an inch dia hose which could accommodate any young man with a good stream capacity. The hose was in turn connected to a container also under the pilots seat. There was naturally no place to defacate so one would either hang on or if the worst came to the worst, change ones clothing immediately after landing back at base.
‘One problem we had in the squadron for a while was being fed great quantities of Brussel Sprouts at meal times. They seemed to be supplied by the rail car load. This particular vegetable even at a little altitude could generate great quantities of internal gas. The Mossie had no cabin ventilation except for a small thing that could be opened on the pilot’s side in case the windscreen was iced or oiled over. In the confined space of a Mosquito cockpit, the effects could be quite unsettling to say the least.’ Robert Kirkpatrick. Pilot.
Modesty is one of the early causalities of war and when nature calls and requires exposing one’s private parts to do what must be done in front of other people is difficult under any circumstances. To all those who flew during WW2, this was just one more hazard amongst the many they had to contend with and for that reason alone, the subject should be mentioned more often.