Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Burning Passion: Venereal Disease in No. 6 Group RCAF

Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1985-35-8
Venereal disease was a serious problem for Second World War armed forces, which could just as soon render personnel ineffective as other sickness or calamity on the battlefield. When the Americans were sent to Britain, high incidences of gonorrhea and syphilis occurred.  The problem was particularly troublesome for the command staff of No. 6 “Canadian” Group during their aircrew's long stay in England.

No. 6 Group War Diary Sketch.
William Carter in Anglo-Canadian Wartime Relations, 1939-1945: RAF Bomber Command and No. 6 [Canadian] Group (Garland: 1991), noted that there were operational consequences to affections of English women. As Carter suggests, such liaison could have a “dark side to it.” (Carter, p. 96)  One unforeseen effect of the Canadian bases being established in Yorkshire was the rising prices charged by prostitutes.  Carter notes that the amount of time spent with each customer was decreased, presumably due to increased demand, and that the cleanliness of brothels declined.  Royal Canadian Air Force medical staff determined, however, as had medical officers in the First World War, that the predominate form of contraction was not from working girls, but from one-night-stands or "casual pick-ups". (H MacDougall, "Sexually transmitted diseases in Canada, 1800-1992." Genitourin Med. 1994 February; 70(1): 60. 
The Canadians seem to have been particularly effected by venereal disease from such encounters. In 1942 and 1943, the rate of the Canadian group was six to seven times higher than bomber groups generally. Bomber Command as a whole had a high rate of VD, and in August 1943, No. 6 Group doubled the average rates.The Canadian's aircrew rates were generally four times higher than ground crew, suggesting either that a culture of promiscuity had arisen among aircrew, or that the stresses of flying bombers at night over hostile territory lead to lusty forms of escapism.
Perspectives varied on the best way to combat VD. In December 1942, the British government passed Defence Regulation 33B which required those named by two sexual contacts to undergo examination and treatment. Apparently the Canadians pushed to have women examined if only one airman identified her, but they had to acquiesce to the British regulations. Problems getting enough identification on women who were often only passing relations soon arose.

Air Marshal Harris’ “characteristically ruthless” response in January 1943 was to treat all VD cases as malingerers, removing any flights recorded on their tour. (Carter, p. 97) Carter is sympathetic to Harris’ response, noting that “some personnel undoubtedly deliberately contracted VD in order to escape from operations temporarily.” (p. 97)
The RAF’s Director-General of Medical Services did not agree with Harris’ treatment. He argued in January 1943 that VD was caused by boredom and “removal of home influences, leading to drink and its consequences.” (Cited in Carter, p.98) Others were concerned that airmen would conceal their disease and further its transmission.
Explanations for the higher rate of VD within Canadians were also varied. Some noted that it was natural considering the higher rate of the disease in Canada. Higher wages also allowed Canadians to purchase hard liquor, some accusing them of spiking the English women’s drinks. Others chalked it up to the foreign charm, or exoticism of the colonials.
Aircrew of No. 433 (Porcupine) Squadron, RCAF [graphic material] : en route to their Handley Page Halifax B.III aircraft before taking off to raid Hagen, Germany. 
Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence collection / Library and Archives Canada / e005176198
In October 1943, Air Vice-Marshal Clifford “Black Mike” McEwen apparently took a progressive attitude to the disease. As a Canadian base commander, he instituted a prevention programme, emphasizing education and the provision of more acceptable recreation options such as films, sports, and libraries. He wanted compulsory parades for all those leaving their station where men would be expected to carry condoms and and ointment (Carter, p. 101-102)
Unfortunately, No. 6 Groups rates never really lowered. In 1945, the RCAF’s VD rate reached its highest yearly incidence level yet at 7.6% of all personnel.  This being said, the sexually transmitted disease rate of Canadian servicemen in general had decreased from 2.2% in the Great War to only 92 per thousand in the Second. (H. MacDougall, "Sexually transmitted diseases in Canada, 1800-1992." Genitourin Med. 1994 February; 70(1): 60.) No. 6 Group clearly did little to bring the average down!

1 comment:

  1. I wonder whether the more socially conservative religious background of the Canadians as compared with the English -would cause them be be less forward in contacting medical authorities and at the same time be more tempted to short term affairs since they were thousands of miles from where they grew up.