The cap comforter was standard issue to all RAF Airmen (aka "Erks") during WW2. The one thing everyone had in common was they were overworked and uncomfortable. Either they were boiling or freezing, rarely in between, either in the air or on the ground. For the aircrews it ran the gamut all on one plane. Aside from a shared purpose/commitment they had one other thing in common, that oftentimes luck was the only constant factor in who returned and who didn't make it back.
The cap comforter is listed on the top left hand side, third item from the top. (Source: RAF Museum)
Much has been made of the RAF Fighter Command and their victory over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. And while Fighter Command rightly deserves that attention, comparatively little has been said of their compatriots in Bomber Command and their less visible exploits. Overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the strategic decisions made by Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris (with full approval by senior civilian leaders) the air crews have been unjustly tied to those decisions. Counterintuitively, crewing bombers during the war was one of the most deadly occupations, statistically being more dangerous than being an infantryman. The almost antiseptic nature of modern strategic bombing could not have been further from the reality of the WWII RAF and USAAF bomber crews.
The RAF Bomber Command experience was fundamentally different from that of our USAAF during the war, literally night and day. The bombers of the RAF flew at night, without fighter escort, for more than a year before we joined the war. In the early period of the bomber war there was almost no chance of completing 30 missions to earn a 6 months respite from combat. (The USAAF would come to find the same thing once we joined the war.) There was no discernible difference in survival rates between the "good crews" and the average crews. In addition, the 303 caliber machine guns many bombers were armed with for defense were in fact relatively ineffective against German fighters. It was so dark oftentimes it wasn't clear that enemy fighters had seen one’s bomber, and so crews were left with the conundrum of whether firing first would serve only to give themselves away with tracers. The crews also endured the mysterious and seemingly spontaneous vaporization in the dark of their friends' aircraft, victims of the Luftwaffe's secret weapon "Schräge Musik". Specially outfitted night fighters with vertically oriented 20 mm cannons that allowed the Luftwaffe to stealthily attack the unprotected bomb laden bays of the bombers. As a result luck featured prominently in the habits and rituals of RAF bomber crews. Aircraft interiors were at times festooned with good luck charms to the point of distraction. In the words of two veterans:
"Luck and a Lancaster were our daily bread in those far-off, momentous days. We loved the one and couldn't expect to live without a large slice of the other. We all carried a keepsake, a sign of our trust worn around the neck, or pocketed next to the heart. It could be the ubiquitous rabbit's foot or a rosar, letter, St Christopher, coin, photograph, playing card… Mine was probably odder than most: the wishbone of my favourite hen, Blackie, whose demise enriched the family table on Christmas Day 1942. This hallowed relic was garlanded by my mother with a sprig of dried lavender which she fixed by means of some black wool. I never left the ground without it. And there was no doubt that luck had proved a true and constant friend." - Lt. Harry Yates, DFC (Pilot officer, 30 missions over the ETO) (Luck and a Lancaster: Chance and Survival in World War II)
"Although Stoker made a joke of his crew's devotion to Yohodi and the horseshoe, I strongly suspected that, like everyone else, they would have felt uneasy had they forgotten their particular ritual -and to feel uneasy on ops. was a bad thing. Geoff and Doug paid similar homage to a grimy toy rabbit, which we called "Nunc Nunc." Its place was above the instrument panel, where it swung like a pendulum until the operation was over. Then Geoff and Doug would solemnly kiss its rear and put it safely away until our next flight. The ground crew, too, had their superstitions." - No Moon Tonight by Lt. D.E. Charlwood (Navigator of 30 missions over the ETO)
We do not celebrate war, we celebrate the spirit of the men that carried such heavy burdens and when the odds looked suicidal they found a way to “crack on” (as they might have said). In tribute to Lt. Harry Yates and his compatriots we immortalized Blackie's wishbone in zinc plated brass (feathers were ruffled but no chickens were harmed in the creation of the pin). They did what was asked of them, their duty and more. In this day and age we are reminded that luck is often overlooked as a factor in their chaotic lives as well as ours.
I have had a casual obsession with the British cap comforter for a number of years. Commonly known as the "Commando cap", I was first introduced to them through the documentaries I would decompress to after another late night at the office when I was in NYC. The cap comforter is an ingenious dual purpose piece of kit that can be worn as a cap or used as a short scarf. It is essentially a tube of wool knit into a rectangle that is sewn closed at both ends. When unfurled it is a scarf. But you can also tuck one end into itself and then fold the open end out onto itself to transform it into a double layer knit cap. The cap comforter became synonymous with the Commandos and 1 SAS during WW2 despite the fact that it was widely issued at the time, including to RAF airmen. After the release of our first cap comforter collaboration with Papa Nui last year we have teamed up with him again to create our tribute to the RAF version of the cap comforter.
We hope you enjoyed this post and our latest collaboration with Papa Nui. As the CO would declare to his crews in conclusion to the pre-mission briefing….”See you in the smoke!”