Battle Noise School

How psychologists conditioned soldiers and civilians to the sounds of combat during World War II

Stuka dive-bombers during the Blitzkrieg. Bundesarchiv

In his new book, Electrified Sheep: Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments, author Alex Boese details how psychologists conditioned soldiers and civilians to the sounds of combat during World War II:

Thousands of men, women, and children suffered nervous breakdowns during the Battle of Britain in 1940, when German bombs rained down on British cities. To treat these existing cases, the military psychologists F.I. McLaughlin and W.M. Millar proposed the theory of “deconditioning.” They would expose patients, in a safe environment, to the sounds that terrified them—air-raid sirens, rifle fire, and exploding bombs. Many patients were so on edge that the mere squeaking of a door sent them into a state of screaming panic, but repeated exposure to the offending sounds, the doctors hoped, would soon desensitize their fear response.

Because they had no audio equipment, McLaughlin and Millar first used a small portable field siren and “an assortment of tin boxes and sticks” to simulate the sounds of war. These didn’t generate much of a reaction from the patients. But then they obtained recordings of actual warfare made by BBC technicians who had placed microphones throughout the country during the German bombing campaigns. These recordings proved far more effective. In darkened hospital wards, at midnight, the doctors played the recordings of wailing sirens and rattling gunfire. Patients ran screaming from their rooms, but the doctors persisted. The repetition finally paid off.

In the United States, doctors weren’t confronted by the problem of bomb-shocked civilians, as their European counterparts were. However, the American military did open a similar “Battle Noise School” in the South Pacific, led by Commander Uno Helgesson, to rehabilitate battle-broken soldiers. Helgesson placed the nervous men in trenches, dugouts, and foxholes. Then, as described in the Manual of Emergency Treatment for Acute War Neuroses, he subjected them to “mock strafing, land mine explosions and simulated dive bombing attacks.” Once deemed cured, the men were sent back out to fight. Statistics on the number of cures are unfortunately not available.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.