The Crew - Air Gunners

   For most of WWII, the Western Allies had no long-range fighters capable of providing protection to bombers taking the offensive against Nazi Germany. The only defense bombers had if found by enemy fighters came from their own guns. While on the whole self-defense of bombers proved inadequate, it would be wrong to dismiss air gunners as worthless.

 

 Lancaster Tail Gunner, Imperial War Museum

The defensive armaments of the RAF's bombers were without doubt inadequate. For all but the last six months of the war, bombers, even the four-engine "heavies" (the Sterling, Halifax and Lancaster), were armed only with eight relatively light .303 machine guns. (Two forward, two midships, and four in the tail.) In contrast, U.S. bombers had the .50 caliber heavy guns, although they did not have dramatically more success shooting down the Luftwaffe's fighters.  

The outfitting of the bombers with .303 machine guns was not due to ignorance of the dangers to which the bombers were subjected much less to indifference to their fate. The Air Staff had identified the need for heavier armaments "as soon as possible" early in the war, and the C-in-C of Bomber Command Air Marshal Harris went outside channels to try to speed up the process. In the end, however, technical difficulties delayed the deployment of turrets with more powerful guns until the closing days of the war. It was not until early 1945 that some of the Lancasters received the heavy guns.

The lack of effective defensive armament and the ensuing incapability of bombers to defend themselves effectively without fighter escorts was the decisive factor in the RAF switching from daylight to nighttime bombing as their primary tactic. But the change in tactic did not eliminate the need for defenses. The Germans responded to the nighttime threat -- as Britain had -- by creating night fighter squadrons using aircraft equipped with increasingly sophisticated onboard radar systems as the war progressed. 

The night fighter tactics of the Luftwaffe varied over time, yet throughout the war fighters, not flak, remained the greatest threat to RAF bombers. At no time did the bombers have the upper hand when engaging fighters. Yet this is not to say that the gunners, under-armed as they were, were useless or superfluous. As the recruiting poster cited earlier noted, the gunners were the "eyes" of a bomber, and while return fire may not have saved many bombers, quick evasive action by the pilot, who had been alerted to approaching enemy fighters by his gunners, very often did. 

All of the RAF's heavy bombers carried two dedicated gunners, one in the tail (rear gunner) and one on the back of the fuselage (mid-upper gunner.). The two forward firing guns were, in contrast, manned as needed by another crew member. Despite the resulting high demand for gunners (two per aircraft as opposed to only one of every other trade), there was never a shortage of volunteers. The most obvious reason for this was that the requirements in terms of education and/or intellectual skills were substantially lower than for all the other aircrew trades. In a nation where four out five youth left school at fourteen, lower entry requirements made the application less intimidating. For those lacking the "book learning" required to successfully compete as navigators, flight engineers, wireless operators and bomb aimers, signing on as air gunners was the only way to get an aircrew brevet, and many who washed out in training for another trade ended up as an air gunner. 

But it would be wrong to see the air gunners as the "losers" of the crew. Many young men opted immediately for the trade of air gunner. Some did it because training was the shortest (only about 14 weeks) and so the fastest way to get on a squadron and into the war. If that sounds odd to us now, during the war it was far from uncommon. The other reason many young men opted for the trade of air gunner was because they wanted to take a direct and active part in the war, something that manning a gun did in a way that manning a sextant, a wireless set, or even flying didn't quite do.  

It is also important to remember that unlike in the USAAF, rank was not tied to trade, which meant that air gunners, no less than pilots, navigators etc., could receive the king's commission. Most air gunners worked their way up through the ranks, and although I have not seen evidence of air gunners with the rank of squadron leader or above, gunners with the rank of pilot officer, flying officer or even flight lieutenant were far from rare. Last but not least, crews knew that an alert and effective gunner could be the difference between life and death and valued and respected their gunners commensurately.

Finally, even if the cards were stacked against them, that does not mean that air gunners on bombers never came out on top. Allow me to tell the story of one exceptionally successful gunner. 

On 15 March 1944, 617 Squadron was sent to bomb a factory in Metz, but the operation was scrubbed when the aircraft were roughly 30 minutes from the target due to cloud cover. On the return flight, one of the returning Lancasters fitted with airborne radar picked up a contact that appeared to be a four-engine aircraft close behind them. Logically, the pilot thought it was another Lancaster. (Not only was 617 airborne but hundreds of other aircraft which had been sent against nearby targets and all were returning in a 'stream' about this time.)

Fortunately, the rear gunner thought something was wrong about the silhouette -- and the fact that it was gaining on them. When it reached 900 yards, he realized it was not another Lancaster but two enemy twin-engine fighters flying wingtip to wingtip. Moments later the wireless operator, who in accordance with standing orders for night fighter attacks had gone into the astrodome to provide another set of eyes, noticed a third fighter, a Me109, flying 500 yards off their port wingtip -- with its navigation lights on!  

The RAF crew concluded that the Me109 was guiding the two Me110s behind as it made no attempt to attack. The Me110s on the other hand separated and attacked one at a time. Each time, the Lancaster "corkscrewed" violently while the tail gunner held his fire until the attacking fighter was within three hundred yards. The first attacker was set on fire during its second pass. The second attacker was shot in the belly by both the rear and mid-upper guns causing it to spin out of control and crash at high speed -- the fire of the scattered pieces were clearly visible from the air. 

But the Me 109 was still "on station" and evidently luring other night fighters to this target. Sure enough, another Me110 arrived and started to overtake from astern. Meanwhile, the Lancaster pilot had spotted some cloud ahead and below them and started to dive for it.  As the fighter closed, however, the rear gunner gave his pilot the order to reduce power, a maneuver they had practiced many times in England during "fighter affiliation" exercises. The sudden reduction in the Lancaster's speed completely upset the Luftwaffe pilot's aim and his burst of fire passed harmlessly under the Lancaster, while the tail gunner, who had stage-manged the maneuver immediately opened fire on the fighter. At once the cockpit perspex shattered and shortly afterward the port fuel tanks burst into flame. It then spun out of control, the pilot obviously dead. 

But the ordeal was not over. The Me109 abruptly turned off its navigation lights. The Lancaster crew knew at once he was planning to make his own attack. He did, but not very vigorously. Having watched three of his comrades get shot down, he was reluctant to press in too closely and escaped unharmed! 

Altogether, the Lancaster was under attack for nearly 30 minutes and had downed three Me110 in exchange for only minor damage to the bomber and a comparatively slight wound to the tail gunner's left hand -- which he hadn't noticed until the fight was over! [Source: Tom Bennett, 617 Squadron: The Dambusters at War (Sapere Books, 2020)]

 Not surprisingly, the gunner was awarded a DFC for his actions.

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. 

Riding the icy, moonlit sky, 

they took the war to Hitler. 

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent. 

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

It is intended as a tribute to them all.  

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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles


 

  

 

 

 

 

"Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

For more information about all my aviation books visit: https://www.helenapschrader.com/aviation.html




 

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