The Heated Altitude Suit
Lancaster Gunners preparing for a Raid on Berlin in December 1943. Published in The Illustrated London News, 18th December 1943, it was drawn by Captain Bryan de Grineau, a War Artist who had fought in the WW1 and was 60 years of age at the time of making the drawing. It is a wonderful image, full of life, and despite its seemingly careless dash immensely detailed. We learnt a very great deal from it. Who knew that the Gunners would be ‘plugged’ in, to Test their Suits for Short-Circuiting before Flying. The scene is a Nissen Hut where the Gunners are undergoing their last preparations before the Take-off. Some are already fully dressed up, wearing their Parachute Harnesses & Flying Helmets, and carrying their Parachute Packs. Others are being ‘Valeted’ into their extraordinary clothing. The Text tells us that Pilots, Navigators & Wireless Operators can keep sufficiently warm in their Ordinary Kit, but in the Gun Turrets, the cold is unendurable.
The Tail Gunner was very exposed to the Freezing conditions. In the Flight Overalls, there were Heating Coils which Airmen could connect via Cables & Connectors. The need for this is easy to understand when the temperature could drop to below -40°C. The ability to move around on board was limited because the level of Vigilance must be on top during the entire Mission. The longest missions, such as Königsberg, could be nearly 12hrs long. This said a Raid on Stettin (Now in Poland) took about 9hrs.
So, in the ‘Dressing-room’ the Gunners are being assisted to don their Electrically-Heated Altitude Suits, normally slim young men, for the most part, who, when their sartorial preparation is completed, recall somewhat the famous pre-War Michelin ‘Man’ Bibendum.
We had Electrically Heated Suits, of course, at the last but nevertheless, if you’re flying 18 – 30,000 feet it was still cold (-40°F)and if the electricity failed it was very cold. When we flew to Turin or Milan, you had to get pretty high to clear the Alps. I’ve seen an icicle hanging from my Oxygen Mask 9-10ins long because the Mask is tight around and it gummed up with moisture from my breath and then it dripped from the bottom and formed an icicle.
The Electrically-Heated Suits had Buoyancy Aids, although it makes sense as soon as you realise how difficult it would be for the Gunners to swim if the Aircraft Ditched. There is also a note saying that a Yellow Dye can be released into the Water from a Fluorescent Pad, the Fluorescence being a key detail because it meant the Pad would be easy to see in Darkness. Although the odds that Heavy Bomber Aircrew faced were shockingly bad, it cannot be denied that a great deal of thought went into preparing their Kit for Emergency Situations.