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 discharge their bodily waste anywhere, on land or in the sea if necessary, what options did the bomber aircrew and fighter pilots have? With the advances in aviation technology, the Second World War fighter or bomber could stay in the air longer, and travel much greater distances, than could the primitive air machines of the First World War. 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 are well-nigh impossible when the need to piss dominates and the minus 60º F cold at 26,000 feet intensifies a man’s pain for not relieving himself. The cold affecting the bladder at high altitude is murder.
Take for example the famous Second World War British Lancaster bomber, which is one of 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 disposal 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 seven crew members wearing layers of clothing designed to keep out the cold. These men took off night after night, sometimes for a six to seven hour stint, in unpressurized aircraft to face enemy flak, night fighters, hostile weather conditions and accidents. Almost all Avro Lancaster bombers were equipped with three Frazer-Nash (FN) hydraulically operated turrets using .303 calibre machine guns. The mid-upper turret saw only limited use during the early months of the aircraft’s 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, 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, better known as “Arse End Charlie,” 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 takeoff to landing, at times for as long as ten 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 as his position was the prime target for attacking enemy night fighters. Even if he needed desperately to piss or shit, it was impossible for him to leave his post on an operation.
The Lancaster, for some reason, was not equipped with a relief tube like many other aircraft, 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, due to the lack of pressurization. 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 on board by a crew member. The Elsan was hated by the aircrew because they had to use it, and the ground crew because they had to empty it.
A cutaway drawing of an Avro Lancaster showing the location of the Elsan toilet.
One unknown airman describes his hatred of the Elsan:
“While we were flying in rough air, this devil's 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 had to make do with various containers such as beer bottles to piss into during the flight.
The exposed Elsan toilet in a Lancaster's rear fuselage. Being at the aft end of the long fuselage, sitting unsecured on this device, in heavy turbulence, would pretty well guarantee injury or a nasty covering of effluent... or both.
An aircrew sergeant demonstrates the “facilities.” Reviled by all aircrew on bombers which employed them, the Elsan toilet was certainly not the place for a relaxed commode-read.
With regards to the use of the Elsan toilet, there are two 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 ladies on an operation. This was strictly against regulations of course but more than likely happened a few times.
On Tuesday, 13 March 1945, the Avro Lancasters of 153 Squadron were some of the aircraft detailed to participate in an attack on two Benzol plants in Germany – one at Herne, the other on the Ruhr at Gelsenkirchen. For the predominantly Canadian crew of Flying Officer Robert “Bob” Purves, in Lancaster NG500, their number would be increased by one, for their captain’s girlfriend, Leading Aircraftwoman (LACW) Iris Price would be joining them on the raid.
Many years later, Iris recalled the events of that night: “We took off for Germany via France and Belgium. There were a lot of searchlights and some flak on the way in. At this stage I was feeling sick. We arrived over the target and the bombs were dropped and we turned for home. Mission accomplished, I calmed down a bit. Then it happened. I desperately needed to relieve myself.”
Iris, using her portable oxygen bottle did what had to be done into a bag which was disposed of down the flare chute. However, in the process of partly undressing, and then struggling to get fully clothed again, Iris lost her oxygen supply. Starved of oxygen, hypoxia set in and Iris collapsed onto the floor of the Lancaster.
Fortunately, her predicament was noticed by the crew and Iris was brought to. Feeling decidedly “sick and cold,” Iris enjoyed little about the journey home. After the aircraft landed at 23:10 one of Iris’ friends, Doris, recalls seeing Iris “helped off the plane, semi-conscious.” Although not confirmed, there was a rumour that 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 and thinking she was dead, the crew contemplated throwing her overboard when, fortunately, one them finally found the elusive pulse.
As the bomber crews were dicing with death almost nightly, it was not surprising that thousands 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 bomber’s rear wheel for luck and hopefully, of course, to eliminate the necessity of having to piss again during the flight.
Another example is that of a Halifax II 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 II pilot
[Boldly go – Recently, Chris Hadfield, Vintage Wings of Canada pilot and International Space Station astronaut related to us a story of a similar tradition – before climbing the launch tower to board the Soyuz capsule that will take them into space, cosmonauts take a pit stop at the right rear tire of the bus which will drive them to the launch site and relieve themselves. The tradition dates back to Yuri Gagarin's first space flight. Gagarin did it out of necessity, but it has been a tradition since. Female cosmonauts are exempted from the tradition for obvious reasons, but they have been known to carry vials of their own urine to empty on the tire. Here, Chris tells us how they deal with human waste in space, where zero gravity and no sewage treatment plant closer than 400 kilometers make things challenging. – Pretty humorous
The Handley Page Halifax was one of the four-engined heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. A contemporary of the famous Avro Lancaster, the Halifax remained in service until the end of the war, performing a variety of duties in addition to bombing. The Halifax was also operated by squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, Free French Air Force, and Polish Forces. – Wikipedia
American bomber crews suffered the same problems as their British cousins with similar methods of disposal.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. “A sometimes humorous and usually urgent problem encountered was the elimination of liquid waste. On combat missions, we were often frightened and urine accumulated in large amounts during long missions. The outlet provided was a funnel and tube located in the bomb bay, which opened to the external air stream. This facility was used mostly by the pilots, flight engineer and radioman because of the easy accessibility to them. Other crew members had some access problems, especially when encumbered by oxygen hookups. Some carried sizable cardboard food containers for such use.”
“No matter how scared I was, my retention capacity had been sufficient during early missions to get me back to the grass around the parking revetments at Nuthamstead without urination. On one long mission, however, my capacity for retention was exceeded and I filled and overfilled the relief tube. The mess left on the bottom of the fuselage was the subject of considerable discussion during subsequent flights. Another necessary caution on urination was to warn the ball turret gunner if the relief tube was to be used. The stream of urine from this tube impacted onto his turret while flowing in the air stream. At high altitudes, it froze as a yellow cloud on his turret. The instruction was to warn him about your intention so that he could turn his view screen away from the relief tube. When not warned, his guns were useless since he had no visibility until the yellow cloud melted at lower altitudes. Often, forgetful urinators were cursed roundly by the ball turret gunners.”
– Bill Frankhouser, navigator
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber aircraft developed in the 1930s for the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC). The B-17 was primarily employed by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial and military targets. – Wikipedia
B-17. “Returning from a mission over Germany, my crew had the trots and took it in turn to crap in a cardboard box which was quickly jettisoned. As the box fell, it hit the windscreen of a trailing B-17 in the formation and lodged frozen solid, blocking the pilot's view. Upon returning to base in England, the pilot had to land his aircraft by sticking his head out of the cockpit side window.”
Bill Markum, pilot, B-17 “The extreme cold of this northern European winter, the coldest in over a century, was especially treacherous at altitudes of twenty to thirty thousand feet. I cannot remember which mission, but I was almost done in by the cold in a manner that could only be described as an ‘absurdity.’ ”
“One problem of long missions was the need to empty our bladders at least once. Most of the Fortresses had a ‘piss tube’ in the nose section, which was convenient for the navigator and bombardier. This consisted of a slender hose with a funnel shaped end which was fitted to an aperture in the floor. As urine was run through the tube it turned to ice and dropped like topaz coloured hail to the ground, I liked to imagine every time I urinated over Germany, my acidulous projectile would plink on some Nazi burgher’s Aryan nose. On one mission we flew in a substitute Fortress – maybe it was the Heilbronn mission and our aircraft had no relief tube in the nose section. I had to hook up to a small walk around oxygen bottle to take me back to the catwalk through to the bomb bay. The engineer opened the bomb bay doors for me to pee out of and I had to remove my gloves to unzip my fly. So quickly did my fingers turn icy numb that I was unable to grip the zipper tab to perform this banal operation. The cold surge of air coming up through the open bomb bay caused me to sway dangerously on the cat walk and now it was even more futile attempting to unzip my fly. I don’t know how long I stood there looking down on some German forest 25,000 feet below. It must have been long enough to cause the radio operator to wonder about my safety. I was beginning to pass out from lack of oxygen; the walk around oxygen bottle must have been close to empty from the start. T/Sgt Pepper immediately recognized what was happening, grabbed another oxygen bottle and attached it to my mask just in time to prevent me from becoming a human bomb falling onto some undesignated German target. The providential radio operator helped me with the rest of the operation and I returned to my navigational duties in the nose.” –
Leon Schwartz, navigator.
B-17 Ball turret. “To overcome the problem of relieving myself, I had found an old oxygen mask hose which was about an inch and a half in diameter and had run it up and through one of the slots that discharged the spent machine gun bullet casings. On my first attempt, I wasn’t very successful. It worked fine except I had the turret in the wrong position and was sprayed by my own urine. After that, I quickly learned to put the turret in the correct position when I need to pee.” –
Lester Schrent, gunner
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress
was such a tremendous improvement over anything previous, especially creature comforts with its pressurized, air-conditioned and heated crew compartments. The B-17’s and the B-24’s over Europe even during summer flew in temperatures that were pure misery to the gunners.
B-29. “For the long flight, we were provided with sandwiches and coffee, and Benzedrine tablets to keep us awake. In the forward end of the aircraft, there was a cylindrical canister with a funnel and a rubber tube into which we could urinate. In the radar compartment aft, there was a chemical toilet which we were reluctant to use because the poor radar operator would almost die from the odours. On the return flight we all were suffering from dysentery, sometimes mild sometimes severe and, as a result, the forward urine canister was full and overflowing. So was the chemical toilet in the radar compartment. There was a plug-sealed tube from the flight deck floor through which smoke and signal flares could be dropped. Since we were at an altitude where we were depressurized, I left my pilot's seat, got onto my knees over the hole in the deck, removed the plug, and attempted to make use of this ad hoc urinal.”
“Unfortunately, air rising in the tube blew everything back in my face. As the plane buffeted along, I was soaked, as was the surrounding area.”
“The whole crew was trying to hold back the ‘runs’ or ‘trots’ so we decided to open the bomb bay doors and to take it in turns to do what needed to be done in a more or less ‘bombs away’ fashion. Again air turbulence in the bomb bay was not kind to us and we ended up coating every nook and cranny of the bomb bay. What did make it into the slipstream streaked the underside of the aircraft and we would pay the price. The odour was forever with that plane and in the 120 degrees in the shade in India where our base was located, it was intolerable. The following day after our arrival back at base, we spent most of the day in the hot sun trying to clean up our airplane. So much for the glamour of combat flying.”
– Charles L. Long, pilot
Murray Peden, a Canadian who flew in Short Stirlings with 214 Squadron and who had come to the conclusion that dying of a burst bladder was much easier and less humiliating than trying to use a urinal tube, relates the following story:
Warrant Officer Mackett (the captain) had been returning from a successful arms drop to the French Marquis when some powerful catalytic agent in his alimentary canal had begun its devil’s work, bringing him rapidly to the point where he could postpone a walk to the Elsan only at his peril. Fortunately, the French coast was fast approaching. He hung on with growing desperation until that all-important boundary line flashed below him, then turned the aircraft over to the bomb-aimer and made his way with mincing steps to the rear.
The Short Stirling was the first four-engined British heavy bomber of the Second World War. The Stirling was designed and built by Short Brothers to an Air Ministry specification from 1936, and entered service in 1941. The Stirling had a relatively brief operational career as a bomber, being relegated to second line duties from 1943 onwards when other four-engined RAF bombers, specifically the Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster, took over its role. The Stirling was limited only by the size of its wing which was determined by the width of the hangar doors at the time the specification was written. Pilots like Murray Peden were convinced that, if this aircraft has a larger wing, it would have been one of the most outstanding bomber aircraft of the war. – Wikipedia/Ed
He had just let down his flying suit, battledress trousers and long johns, when a prolonged burst of machine-gun fire from the mid-upper turret froze all his internal piping solid. Clutching the half-mast clothing inventory to his posterior, he raced for the cockpit like some strangely stunted and alien creature, almost jerking his navigator’s head off as he flashed past and ran full-tilt against his taut intercom cord. Hurling himself into his cold metal seat, with yards of clothing trailing behind him, he seized the controls and put the Stirling through all sorts of wonderful evolutions until a moment came when he dared pause to plug in his own intercom.
“What the hell’s the matter, Tag?”
He shouted urgently, addressing himself to his mid-upper gunner. “What’re you shooting at?”
“Aw, it’s okay, skipper,”
Tag replied with carefully affected calm – he had been treacherously briefed and timed by the rear gunner, who had seen Mackett perched on the Elsan – “Don’t get your shirt in a knot. I was feeling sleepy and just fired a burst to keep myself awake.”
At this point, the reader might like a change of aircraft, so we change from bombers to fighters. How did the fighter pilot cope with the call of nature?
Apart from taking some form of container to piss into, the pilot would use the aircraft’s relief tube in the cockpit. Its location varied with the aircraft but this method of relief was fine if the pilot only needed to urinate as a fighter was not usually in the air that long. However, the situation changed when fighters using long range drop fuel tanks began escorting bombers on long distance operations, then the problem of defecation was solved by simply changing ones clothes and flight suit at the earliest possible opportunity. Just as the rear gunner of a Lancaster bomber had to do in the same situation.
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 half or three quarters of an inch diameter hose which could accommodate any young man with a good stream capacity. The hose was in turn connected to a container also under the pilot's seat. There was naturally no place to defecate so one would either hang on or if the worst came to the worst, change one's clothing immediately after landing back at base.”
– Robert Kirkpatrick, pilot
The de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito was a British multi-role combat aircraft, with a two-man crew, that served during the Second World War and the postwar era. The Mosquito was one of the few operational, front line aircraft to be constructed almost entirely of wood and, as such, was nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder.” It was also known affectionately as the “Mossie” to its crews. Originally conceived as an unarmed fast bomber, the Mosquito was adapted to many other roles during the air war, including: low to medium altitude daytime tactical bomber, high-altitude night bomber, pathfinder, day or night fighter, fighter-bomber, intruder, maritime strike aircraft, and fast photo-reconnaissance aircraft. – Wikipedia
P-47 Thunderbolt. “We were coming out of Germany and I had to relieve myself. I unbuttoned my flight suit and pants and reached under the seat for the relief tube. Just then someone called in enemy aircraft at 9 o’clock and coming in fast. I immediately broke hard left into them. We all went round and round but had to break away as we were low on fuel. In the excitement of the moment, I had forgotten about relieving myself. I joined the others and flew home. When I parked the aircraft, the crew chief, as usual, jumped up on the wing to help me out of the harness and inquire about the status of the plane. He got next to the cockpit then suddenly stepped back. I wondered why he wasn’t taking the harness straps off and putting them behind the seat as he usually did. I looked down to hit the quick release on my parachute and saw the problem. I had a hell of a time trying to explain what happened. That damn crew chief went round with a smile on his face for a week.”
– LeRoy Glover, pilot
The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest, heaviest, and most expensive fighter aircraft in history to be powered by a single piston engine. It was heavily armed with eight .50-caliber machine guns, four per wing. When fully loaded, the P-47 weighed up to eight tons, and in the fighter-bomber ground attack roles could carry five inch rockets or a significant bomb load of 2,500 pounds; over half the weight the B-17 bomber could carry on long-range missions (although the B-17 had a far greater range.) The P-47, based on the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine, was to be very effective as a short-to-medium range escort fighter in high-altitude air-to-air combat and, when unleashed as a fighter-bomber, proved especially adept at ground attack in both the World War II European and Pacific theatres. – Wikipedia
North American P-51 Mustang. “A day in mid-winter 1944–45 with a bright and clear sky over Europe at 28,000 feet. Below us lie solid snow white stratform clouds. Three hours has brought my fighter squadron escorting heavy bombers on a mission, deep into enemy German territory. The air temperature outside of the canopied cockpit of the Mustang fighter is at least -40 degrees Fahrenheit at this altitude. Body comfort in the cockpit depends on having at least two layers of clothes under the flying suit and heavy boots with leather gloves under the gauntlets.
My bladder has been sending urgent messages for the last half-hour to evacuate the remnants of last night’s over indulgence in English beer. Responding reluctantly to the ‘Maximum Tolerance Pressure’ I prepare. I sweep the sky visually, move the other members of the flight into a loose formation and trim the plane for straight and level flight.
The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang was an American long-range, single-seat fighter and fighter-bomber used during World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts. The Mustang was conceived, designed and built by North American Aviation (NAA) in response to a specification issued directly to NAA by the British Purchasing Commission. – Wikipedia
The second part of the drill is to loosen the restricting crash straps and impatiently locate the funnel shaped relief tube clipped under the bucket seat, then hopefully place it between my thighs. Finally, I probe through two zippers and long underwear for the organ of my discontent. The offending organ’s head retracts in terror and revulsion when it feels the cold glove. Precious moments are lost warming the rejected hand and enticing the reluctant digit to pour forth its voluminous donation into the receptive relief tube.
Oh no! The exterior exhaust end of the relief tube is iced up. There I sit, half finished, holding a container of steaming urine in my hand. My dilemma is abruptly terminated by an urgent radio call from my wing man: ‘Red Leader, Bandits’ seven o’clock high, coming in on your tail. Break left!’
Disregarding everything, I grab the throttle and control stick and snap into a defensive Lufberry turn. The unconfined liquid splashed onto the windshield and canopy, freezing instantly. Tearing the gloves off my hands with my teeth, I frantically scratched at the yellow coating of ice restricting my visibility. At the same time, I kept my aircraft trembling on the edge of a high speed stall. My unrestricted visibility returned after the longest and busiest five minutes of my life, to reveal an empty sky. The lonely flight back to base, plus landing, proved uneventful.
My crew chief waited faithfully as I taxied back to the revetment area. After I parked and opened the canopy, this imperturbable mechanic stood on the wing and leaned into the cockpit to help me unbuckle all the straps. He sniffed the air like a bird dog and casually remarked: ‘It smells like you wus awful scared cap’n.’ ”
– Larry Dissette, pilot
Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair. “The Corsair had a relief tube attached to the control stick. The problem was that at any altitude say above sea level, the discharge was frozen. You would just get started to a point you could no longer stop and it would fill up and run over.” –
Owen Dkyema, pilot
The Chance Vought F4U Corsair was a carrier-capable fighter aircraft that saw service primarily in the Second World War and the Korean War. Demand for the aircraft soon overwhelmed Vought's manufacturing capability, resulting in production by Goodyear and Brewster: Goodyear-built Corsairs were designated FG and Brewster-built aircraft F3A. The Vintage Wings of Canada Robert Hampton Gray Corsair is a Goodyear-built FG-1D model. From the first prototype delivery to the U.S. Navy in 1940 to final delivery in 1953 to the French, 12,571 F4U Corsairs were manufactured by Vought, in 16 separate models, in the longest production run of any piston-engined fighter in U.S. history (1942–1953.) – Wikipedia
The story of human waste disposal in Second World War aircraft is not complete without mentioning one of the other basic human functions associated with s--t at least. It’s something women are always complaining bitterly about when done in company or at home (never on a first date) or in public by men who, in some cases, take great pride in being able to reduce a room full of adults to tears. The medical term is flatulence, but farting is the accepted worldwide term.
de Havilland Mosquito. “One problem we had in the squadron for awhile was being fed great quantities of Brussels sprouts at mealtimes. They seemed to be supplied by the railroad carload. 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
Halifax. “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 buildup 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.”
– Edward M. Cooke, pilot
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, Stan Hilder, flying a Dakota, often had the job of flying VIPs 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.
Obviously, modesty is one of the early casualties of military life and when nature calls, and requires exposing one’s private parts to do what must be done in front of other people, that is trying under any circumstances. To all those who flew during the Second World War, 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.
[C]Ken Wright 2012.
This story was previously published on the website of the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta.
We received several vignettes from other aviators after this article was first published. One of them, as told to us by Lieutenant Colonel (Ret'd) John Dicker, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, is especially, well... humourous. Thanks to John we learn that some times it's best not to own up to things.
THE STORY OF BETTY’S THERMOS
Being a “living-in” bachelor at CJATC Rivers in the mid-sixties, and a qualified Army Aviator as well, you could always expect to be called first when there was an “unexpected” requirement for a pilot. This is exactly what happened on Monday 11 Jan 65.
I got the call early Monday morning. One of our Rivers-based Vertols had gone unserviceable at Moose Jaw (MJ) and needed a spare part. I was asked if I would fly it over in an L-19 that day. It would be a day flight out and a night one back. Naturally I agreed to fly the mission (it would beat sitting in the Mess that evening in front of the fireplace having a nice drink after dinner!).
I had the bright idea that perhaps someone else might like to come along for the hours (and to keep me awake!) so I called my good friend Butch Colwell who was living in Married Quarters at the time. He was available and glad to accompany me.
It was a bitterly cold day across the Prairies (not at all strange for this part of the world, in January). Butch and I met at the Army Aviation Tactical Training School (AATTS) where I signed-out good old 702, one of my favorite L-19As in the AATTS fleet. The Ground Crew had “winterized” it by taping the rear windows shut, on the inside, with Gun Tape (Duct Tape wasn’t in vogue in those days, I don’t think). Butch, being the enterprising fellow that he was, came equipped with a dandy big thermos of coffee that his wife Betty had made for us.
Good old “702” was a Cessna Bird Dog, a much-loved observation and army liaison aircraft, seen here in Canadian Army markings. After unification in 1967, the Canadian Army ceased to operated flying assets such as the L-19, Boeing Vertol Helicopters. The Canadian Army utilized this Aircraft as an observation platform to guide the shells of the artillery's guns and self-propelled Howitzers. The Aircraft was not known to be fast but, at three feet off the ground, you felt like you were supersonic. Many of these aircraft became tow-planes for the Royal Canadian Air Cadet glider program after they were retired from the Regular Forces.
Off we went shortly after lunch into the bitter westerly wind (naturally), stopping for fuel at Regina and then on to MJ where we touched-down some three hours and forty minutes after leaving Rivers. After delivering the spare part to the Vertol crew (a bunch of RCASC chaps if I recall) and supper in the Mess, we took-off for the night flight, non-stop, back to Rivers (YI).
About half-way back, Butch’s bladder started to cause him some grief to the point where he didn’t think that he could hang-on until we got home. Panic Stations! What to do? Butch, again being the enterprising fellow that he was (!), started thinking of options, of which there were very few I might add. IDEA! He would use the thermos that Betty had so kindly provided. It was now empty of coffee and just waiting to be refilled with you know what.
The deed having been done, much to Butch’s relief, a command decision was made to dispose of the contents of the thermos then, instead of waiting until we landed lest the undesirable liquid have some adverse effect on the inside of Betty’s thermos.
It was decided to dump the contents of the thermos overboard. Butch removed the tape from the left rear window and, with considerable difficulty because of the airflow, did the deed.
After motoring along under the stars for three hours or so, we finally touched-down at good old YI, taxied the aircraft to the hangar, signed-in, said good-night to the Ground Crew who were waiting for us, and went home to bed. All-in-all, it had been a very satisfying day’s work.
First thing the following morning I decided to head-over to the AATTS Pilots’ Lounge for a coffee and see how the Vertol crew had made-out. What a shock when I entered the hangar and saw 702 in the middle of the hangar floor, completely cordoned-off and the Ground Crew walking around it, obviously confused and trying to figure-out something. Curiosity getting the better of me, I went over to the RCEME NCO I/C and asked him what was going on. Apparently, the aircraft had “leaked” some strange-looking yellow fluid onto the hangar floor overnight, all along the left side of the aircraft from the left rear window back to the horizontal stabilizer. The Ground Crew were stumped as they had never seen anything like before.
Now, I may not be the brightest person in the world; BUT, I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them “THE REAL STORY” of the yellow streak, how the you-know-what had frozen onto the side of the aircraft in flight and later melted-off during the night in the warm hangar. To this day, the saga of Betty’s thermos and its foreign content remains a mystery, to the best of my knowledge, in the annals of RCEME Maintenance files. So be it!
That’s my little story, and I’m sticking to it!
LCol (Ret’d) John Dicker, RC SIGS
Canadian Joint Air Training Centre (CJATC), Rivers Camp, Manitoba