398th Bomb Group

Life In England’s Nissen Hut

Few Pleasant Memories Recalled

Ken Blakebrough
B-17 Co-pilot

The following is from the book An Old Copilot Remembers by Ken Blakebrough, a 457th B-17 co-pilot. In his essay, Ken reveals some of the ‘impersonal’ facets of 8th Air Force Nissen hut living during WW II in England.

To me, a Nissen hut during the winter of 1944-45 was a man-made cave. The interior was always gloomy, damp and cold. The windows were covered by thick blackout curtains, the overhead light bulbs, two to a hut, gave scant lighting.

The scarcity of coal for the potbelly stove was another reason for avoiding your hut. As a result, the time spent in the hut was mostly for sleeping. Off duty time was largely spent at the officers club where there was a huge fireplace which gave off some warmth, if you stood close enough.

A hut provided quarters for up to 12 men but my hut usually housed 10. There were no chairs, no table. Men in lower bunks could sit down, but men in upper bunks were disadvantaged.

In my hut no lingering ties of friendship seemed to develop. For example, the four officers of my crew shared my hut with four other officers from the time I arrived in December until they finished their tour in March. Within a matter of days, they received travel orders and we never heard from them again. No final good-byes, no exchange of addresses. Why was this so?

To begin with, the Nissen provided cramped and uncomfortable quarters, in atmosphere not conducive to social conversation. We tended to share limited personal information about ourselves. The infrequent talks seldom touched on serious matters such as the war or future plans. I didn’t know who was married, nor anyone’s home state with the exception of the bombardier nicknamed ‘Tex’, who I assumed was from Texas.

There was another factor, and it was probably the primary one, working against the creation of friendships, namely combat missions. We tried to deny it to ourselves but the missions concentrated and dominated our thoughts. You couldn’t help thinking that maybe tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or the next day after that, you might be wounded, face captivity or even death. A man was meditative about missions and survival. Maybe we tried not to know each other too well, so if a man from the hut was posted as missing, or killed, the loss would be less personal.

Your bunk bed was a repository for your mail and other items. One day I returned from a mission and found a good-looking box lying on the bed. It was an Air Medal, given for six missions. Additional increments of six missions brought flimsy sheets of paper to the bunk informing you that Oak Leaf Clusters were added to your Medal. This method of award delivery lessened the luster of the award. No ceremonial rites, no hand shakes.

The practice of rating an officer with an efficiency report continued even in combat zones. In view of what one of my reports contained, or more correctly what it didn’t contain, I was lucky that my report even reached me. The rating, completed by the squadron commander, stated “the only rating I can fairly give this officer is UNKNOWN”. By then I’d been in the squadron almost three months, I’d flown a lot of combat missions and been awarded an Air Medal and two Oak Leaf clusters. It was a strange feeling to be ‘unknown’.

If there was anything good to be said about living in a Nissen hut, it was the omission of a mainstay of military routine in the states, the inspections of quarters. We took advantage of this; we wasted no effort to make up bunks or to be neat. This disarray added further to the man-made cave atmosphere of the Nissen hut.

From "An Old Copilot Remembers" by Ken Blakebrough
Azorin Press, Mission Viejo, Ca., 2001

Printed in Flak News Volume 16, Number 4, Page(s) 8, October 2001

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