"Flak Flarms": Red Cross Rest Homes and the war of emotions
Situated in large English country houses and hotels, rest homes were set up by the Eighth Air Force and jointly run by the Red Cross to provide an antidote to the mental stresses of air combat.
Airmen could spend a week at a rest home, usually halfway through their tour of duty, or after a particularly traumatic mission. Often this recommendation was made by the base’s flight surgeon, although aircrew could also ask to be sent to a home.
When the first rest home opened in January 1943, Air Force psychiatrists commended the positive effect that the homes were having on the mental health of the airmen who stayed at them.
According to psychiatrist Captain David Wright, the Red Cross had been so successful in emotionally fortifying fliers against the mental strain of air warfare because it had "established the character of the homes as homes", which gave the airmen "a renewed sense of belonging to a world they knew before".
>Airmen depart Moulsford Manor on a bicycle ride
In July 1942, before the Eighth Air Force had even flown a combat mission, arrangements were made to set up rest homes for fliers. At this point, Air Force planners knew that the physical toll of flying long-range daylight bombing missions deep into Europe would require respite facilities. However, they were less prepared for the emotional effects that this type of fighting would have on the crews who undertook it. The first months of America’s air war would mark a dramatic shift in thinking, away from linking neurological breakdowns to cowardice, but instead, as an emotional reaction to the extreme physical and mental stresses of combat.
"Operational fatigue", later re-termed "anxiety reaction", was the most common neuroses suffered by aircrew. The crews had their own term for the condition: “Flak Happy”. Anxiety manifested itself in physical symptoms, such as stomach complaints and tremors, and caused tempers to flare, disrupting relations between crew members. Anxiety not only threatened individual fliers' chances of survival, but also those of their crewmates.
On the ground, anticipation, boredom, and homesickness took their toll on the emotional wellbeing of the men. A survey of Eighth Air Force fliers showed that anxiety increased as aircrew neared their final missions. While self-confidence improved by flying missions, experiencing the realities of air combat reinforced fliers’ sense of mortality. This fear was underpinned by the dire life expectancy of aircrew, which in 1943, was depressingly short. At this time only 25 per cent of crews were completing the 25 missions required to go home.
For the Eighth Air Force, rest homes were an opportunity to create homes away from home, where exhausted crews could be sent for one to two weeks leave. To make these homes as un-military as possible, in early 1943 the American Red Cross (ARC) was given responsibility for the program. The ARC had already established a presence in Britain, having set up service clubs in towns, cities, and on bases, across the country.
Each rest home was overseen by an ARC Director, who was responsible for organising meals, recreational activities, and the management of ARC and civilian employees. Each home had anywhere between two to five ARC staff members, sometimes referred to as hostesses, who looked after the guests and encouraged them to take part in recreational and social activities. A British manageress oversaw the household staff, which included cooks, cleaners, drivers, and gardeners, most of whom were kept on from when the house was run as a private residence. Categorised as US Army Air Force stations, rest homes also maintained an Eighth Air Force presence, including a station commander and a small contingent of enlisted men. While the homes were not medical establishments, a flight surgeon would be rotated every week to meet the health needs of the house's occupants. Brought in from Eighth air bases, these doctors had clinical knowledge of the emotional and physical effects of air combat.
The first rest home was opened at Stanbridge Earls, Hampshire in January 1943, with accommodation for 25 officers. Stanbridge Earls, like most of the rest homes, was a large country mansion that had been requisitioned by the Air Ministry for the USAAF. In all, seventeen homes opened between January 1943 and late 1944.
Concentrated in the South and Midlands of England, rest homes were typically located in rural areas to minimise distractions and potential emotional triggers, such as the sound of bombing or aircraft flying overhead. Like on-base recreational and mess facilities, officers and enlisted men were initially assigned to different rest homes, although towards the end of the war, mixed facilities did allow whole crews to be posted together. In 1944, Ninth Air Force airmen made use of rest home facilities, although less so after D-Day and the Ninth’s move to the continent. Uptake of rest home stays increased as the war went on, with the benefits of rest homes being spread by word of mouth. Attendance was higher after particularly hazardous missions, after a string of successive missions, or in bad weather.
This letter from Charles "Buz" Frank provides an excellent description of what life was like at a rest home. Buz Frank was from Asheville, NC, and was one of four men from Asheville serving on the same crew in the 453rd BG. They were thought to be the crew with the most members from the same hometown. In a letter sent to his parents in January 1945, Buz describes his experience of visiting Coombe House Rest Home in Dorset on a seven-day pass.
“It was on the order of a castle but more like a large mansion. I can’t describe it as it was really beautiful.”
The informality of the rest homes is a recurring theme in accounts of 8th Air Force personnel, particularly the novelty of being able to wake up at any time of day. Guests were given civilian clothing and were only expected to wear their uniforms at dinner. Once up and breakfasted, guests were presented with a long list of activities to choose from. Horseback riding, golfing, tennis, archery, rabbit hunting, badminton, ping pong, pool or cycling were all on offer. For the less adventurous, a library and record player were available. As guest Buz Frank describes, Red Cross staff were always on hand to “keep you doing things and to make things pleasant...All of the girls are American and have personality along with good looks.” At dinner, the men were served fresh eggs, steak, and ice cream by maids, while a butler was on hand to polish their shoes each night.
Buz Frank and his crew enjoyed their stay so much that they decided that they’d return to Coombe House if they got another leave. Tragically, this wasn’t to be. Just a month after sending this letter, Buz’s B-24 was forced to ditch in the North Sea. Of the four Asheville natives, Buz was the only one to survive the 50-degree waters.
The ARC staff were pivotal to the success of the rest homes. As psychiatrist, David Wright assessed, “the natural impersonal friendliness of Red Cross girls who set the atmosphere is a huge factor in making these houses “home”. As well as requiring a college degree, candidates were also expected to have excellent social skills. Once approved, recruits undertook a six-week training course in Washington. As well as lessons on discussion techniques, the training involved classes on crafts, music, dancing, and activity planning. At the end of the course, recruits were assessed on their competency in small talk.
Red Cross staff were expected to perform a variety of roles – in some scenarios, this was maternal, at other times feminine, and more often than not, the women were expected simply to be friends to the men. All of this while, to quote an Eighth Air Force report, "without besmirching their reputations or ladylike attributes". ARC staff were taught not to be overly sympathetic to the men in their care. As Ann Newdeck explained, “we show no obvious solicitude for anyone’s morale. We turn down an invitation to play bridge if we want to dance with someone else”.
< Lt M V Judas from Elgin, Illinois reads a magazine and shares a joke with American Red Cross hostess, Mrs Pam Hanna, whilst relaxing in the sunshine in the grounds of Stanbridge Earls.
Red Cross rest homes and the staff who ran them remedied every aspect of morale. Food, sleep, and physical comfort were important in repairing exhausted muscles, but it was the social work of the women that aided the men’s minds. By cajoling men into playing a round of cards or joining a bicycle outing, the hostesses helped to coax the minds of these young men from the horrors of the skies back to normality. Without military schedules or dress codes, men were given independence to make their own decisions. It was noted that aircrew would naturally choose to join in with group activities and take their place as an individual in the community.
While it’s difficult to assess the impact these homes had on the fighting efficiency of the Eighth Air Force, assessments by USAAF psychiatrists concluded that the homes were resoundingly successful in reversing anxiety fatigue and preventing breakdowns. The success of the rest homes represents a landmark moment in the consideration of mental and emotional health in wartime and the positive influence of holistic methods of care in returning airmen to fighting efficiency.