Rear Gunner

Rear Gunner – Sentinel of the Skies ~ Tail End Charlie


The British poet, Philip A. Nicholson, wrote of the air gunner’s job:
Alone in his transparent shell,
A speck in space,
He sits, poised in his airy kingdom;
At his back the unknown,
Before him the unfolding map
Of his journey.
Guardian of 7 lives,
Taut with the concentration of survival,
He swings his turret through vigilant arcs,
Eyes straining for the Fighters,
Braced for the violence of surprise.
As we commence our Bombing Run, the FW190 maintains his position and range and I begin to wonder if, in fact, he has spotted us.  I can’t believe he hasn’t as we must stand out against all the glow of the Target ahead.  It flashes through my mind that when fired on German Pilots are discouraged and usually leave wide awake Crews to search for less vigilant Crews.  He starts to close the Range without committing himself to a curve of pursuit Attack – I alert the Skipper to prepare to Corkscrew Starboard and remembering my Instructor’s brief to be aggressive I decide to open Fire at 400 yards if he has not committed himself to a curve of pursuit.  The Skipper concurs and I let loose with 2 short sharp burst of about 3 secs each.  A stream of Tracer passes all around the Enemy Aircraft and a very startled Fighter Pilot immediately dives to Port. He levels out low on our Port-quarter again at about 800 yards Range – I keep a beady eye on him then seconds later his Starboard wing drops. He begins a Curve of Pursuit Attack to lay off the deflection for another Target, I spot his Prey low on our Port beam its another Halifax – closing to 200 yards the FW190 levelled off dead astern to give him a zero deflection shot – he looses off a deadly stream of Cannon Shells into an unsuspecting Prey. The Halifax rolls over plunging down to Earth and to her doom. The Me190 follows her down disappearing from my sight and I report the Kill and our Navigator Logs the time & position in his Log. The square search is resumed, our Bombing Run continues, left, left, steady, steady, when out of the blue the Master Bomber seems to be in trouble, in a clear undramatic voice he transmits “This is King Cole I am handing over to King Cole 2“; he is unable to continue and his Deputy takes over the task.  Seconds later our Bomb Aimer calls over the Intercom ‘Bombs Away’, we have been successful in delivering our Load.  We have completed half our task and we are on the way home.


In the Rear Gun Turret or ‘Glasshouse’, the ‘Tail-end Charlie’ had his Controls, which he could just reach, with little extra space.  He was cramped in there, he couldn’t stand up very well, otherwise, his head was coming up through the roof.   In most cases what they did, which is probably one reason why some survived was to cut all the Perspex out at the front so that they could see better.  To see clearly was to stay alive.  It was a bit draughty, but nevertheless – the little bit up the top was all right, but all in the front vision area got misted up at night.  So they cut the whole centre section out, then at their back was 2 sliding doors, you had to reach around behind you and slide them to get out.  If the doors jammed, well, bad luck but there was no room to spare.   It was just like sitting in a chair with the sides all around you and you could go forward, you could just about stand up with your head & shoulders up against the top and if you got cramp in your leg it was a bit painful.


They had Electrically Heated Suits, of course, deemed necessary but nevertheless if you’re Flying 18, 20, 25, 30,000ft it was still cold and if the electricity failed it was extremely cold. When they flew to Turin or Milan, they had to get pretty high to clear the Alps. Often an icicle hanging from the Oxygen Mask 9 or 10-ins long because the mask was tight around the face and it gummed up with moisture from breath and then it dripped from the bottom and forming an icicle.

Rear Turret Demo

Most of Pathfinder Force had their own private good luck charms to protect them against the special danger of their task, and Dave Cleary always flew on missions with a pair of his girl friend’s knickers in his pocket. It was his only comfort in the Rear Turret of the Halifax during the cold black hours before they reached the Target, staring at the darkness around and above him and, most of all, below him, where the fighters came from as the bombers lumbered in front of the moon.
The Rear Turret wasn’t a very comfortable place to be, in fact, it was the loneliest place in the world because everybody else was up at the front and you were remote on your own, nice & quiet and peaceful.  You had communication with the people around you through your Intercom but they couldn’t see you and you couldn’t see them.  It was an extremely lonely spot – but never mind, one of the few that learned to like it.

Gun Turret Training Procedures – Hudson and Defiant Aircraft Trainers


Night Fighter Attack
That was so close, one of those Shells, that it nicked me, cut the comms earpiece right out of my helmet, damn near strangled me and then it went right up in the Fuselage and exploded halfway up the Aircraft. That Rear Turret in the photograph, all those holes you see, were made by Cannon Shells from that Fighter.
‘The Rear gunner saw a single-Engine Fighter later identified as a 109 Foche-Wulf approximately 700 yards on the 5 port quarter up, he ordered Pilot to Corkscrew Port and immediately lost the Fighter.  ‘ I would scream up to the Pilot ’Corkscrew, port, go!’ – it means instead of flying ahead he goes Port, turns over and Dives to Port, gets into the bottom, turns, comes back up again like a Corkscrew. Then that gives the old Fighter a devil of a job trying to get us.  Finally, if you’re lucky, you lose him or you shoot him down before he shoots you.

Squeezed into the cramped metal & perspex cupola, the Rear Gunner had so little leg space that some had to place their flying boots into the Turret before climbing in themselves.  In many Gun Turrets, there often wasn’t enough room for both the Gunner and his Parachute.  Having sat immobile for up to 10 hours, the Gunner’s circulation would suffer terribly.  To extricate from the Turret and walk to the waiting Truck after landing was often a major task, let alone jumping out quickly if the Aircraft was in peril.  If it became necessary to abandon the Aircraft, the Gunner had to turn his Turret so that the doors or access opening faced into the Fuselage: climb out of the Turret: get his Parachute: put it on: make his way to an Escape Hatch: and get out.  In a violently manoeuvring Aircraft, or one spiralling down out of control, this often proved difficult, if not impossible – particularly if the Gunner was injured. Later, Seat-pack Parachutes were introduced. The Gunner sat on his parachute, which meant he didn’t have to find it and put it on in an Emergency.  However, he still had to make his way from his Turret to an Emergency Exit if he couldn’t simply rotate it 90° to either side and open the doors in order to fall out backwards.   But sometimes, the Turret had been damaged and jammed in such a position that its doors were blocked…


Rear Turret Parachute Procedures.

Prepare to abandon aircraft – Put on parachutes – Stand by – Order from Captain -‘Abracadabra Jump Jump’ – Tailgunner Jumping forced to abandon a bomber by jumping from his turret during what was noted as “a special exercise” while at No. 16 Operational Training Unit. His Wireless Operator also jumped but was killed.  A Ju-88 night-fighter suddenly appeared below and to one side of the rear turret during one of his Operations.  As his Pilot alternately banked left and right, the fighter would suddenly appear on one side and then reappear on the opposite side. He kept moving his Guns to where the Fighter was, only to have it disappear below the Bomber before he could fire.  He then decided to just hold the Guns steady, aim down and to Starboard and wait. When the Fighter suddenly appeared directly in his sites, His burst successfully struck the Ju-88.  “The Ju-88 Incident” and referred to “Hamburg” and the date 11th November 1944. His logbook notes, “Combat Ju-88,” that the Operation was, “Hot“.

Ted recorded in his Logbook ‘Combat Me210‘ on his Operation to Berlin on 23rd January 1944

Messerschmitt Me-210 overview

Lancaster Rear Turret Demo

Tail-End Charlie
The Rear Gun Turret of an RAF Bomber of the 2nd World War. The Turret was made of Perspex and metal, and could rotate through 180°. Once in the Turret at the beginning of a mission, the Gunner stayed there until the Aircraft returned to Base.  Likewise ‘Tail-end Charlie’ is not heard much these days. It referred to the Gunner that was in a Gun Turret at the rear of RAF Bomber Aircraft in WW2. He had the unenviable role of being holed up in the ‘Tail’ of the Bomber for up to 10 lonely hours fighting the intense cold, scanning the skies for Enemy Aircraft attacking from the rear. The Rear-Turret Gunners were in the most vulnerable position on the Plane. The life expectancy of a WW2 Rear-gunner varied but was never high, mostly about just 5 Sorties.

The 1st Commissioned Rear Gunner in the RAF was a Charles Cooper from Harrow. It is said that he was nick-named ‘Tail End Charlie’ by his Crew and the name was rapidly adopted for all rear-gunners. A number of books have been written by RAF rear gunners, including Tail Gunner by R C Rivaz, and Rear Gunner Pathfinders by Ron Smith.  The phrase was used in Cricket. Tail-end Charlie was the last of the 11 Batsmen to go in, and the likelihood was that he wouldn’t last long at the Wicket.  In Civilian life, the phrase was used to refer to the person at the end of something: a queue, the last to speak, the last to be told, the person who had to clear up the mess. Often they were likely to come off worse than anyone else.


Glenn Miller Composition – Tail End Charlie

Rear Gun Turret
The Tail Gunner fulfilled the 2nd role as a lookout for attacking Enemy Fighters, particularly in British Bombers operating at night.  As these Aircraft operated individually instead of being part of a Bombing Formation, the Bombers’ 1st reaction to an attacking Night Fighter was to engage in radical evasive Manoeuvre’s such as a corkscrew roll; firing Guns in defence was of secondary importance. The slang term for Tail Gunners was “Tail-end Charlies“, while in the Luftwaffe they were called Heckschwein (“tail-end pigs”).

Many Veterans will have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and when asked if they experienced this they would say how wartime missions left them “a bit flak happy” – raising hands and shaking them.  “You also had nightmares, but after 12 months you got yourself hardened to it. But you had to stick it out or else you were labelled a coward,” they had every reason to suffer nightmares.  Estimates for the life expectancy for a WW2 Rear Gunner vary but were never high, about just 5 Sorties.
Bombers & Gunners


Tail-end Charlie” was subject to the most violent movements of the Aircraft.  Many Rear Gunners removed a section of the clear ‘Acrylic’ to improve their view, so with temperatures at 20,000 feet reaching minus 40ºF, frostbite was a regular occurrence. Through the entire Operation, the Rear Gunner knew that the Luftwaffe Fighter Pilots preferred to Attack from the rear and under the belly of the Bomber, so he was often 1st in line for elimination. During WW2 – 20,000 Air Gunners were killed while serving with Bomber Command.

“During an Operation, the only sounds the Gunner would hear, aside from the constant deafening roar of the Engines, would be the hiss of the Oxygen and the occasional crackling, distorted voices of other Crew members in his earphones. From take-off to landing, at times for as long as 10 hours, the Air Gunner was constantly rotating the Turret, scanning the surrounding blackness, quarter by quarter, for the gray shadow that could instantly become an attacking Enemy Night Fighter. The Air Gunner’s closest friends were likely his Crew members in the forward section of the Bomber and the relaxation of his vigilance for even a moment could mean death for them all.”


Snaking‘ on takeoff or when taxiing may have been seen as ‘normal’ and ‘under control’ by the Pilot and other Crew upfront, but in the darkness of the Rear Turret, sitting almost over the tail wheel it was something quite different.  It sometimes felt as if the tail wheel was made of wood everything at the back end strained, banged, shook and rattled, and it was a tense ‘hold on to everything’ few moments, including the stomach. Ammunition jostled and rattled in the fuselage as the Turret swayed shook and vibrated it was the closest one could get to being airsick on the ground.  When the Tail of the Aeroplane lifted into the Air, one could then ‘relax………..??

Tail-gunner’s domain was a tiny Perspex-encased coffin in which his head touched the top and his shoulders brushed the sides. There was only enough room in front to get his hands around the triggers of the 4 Browning machine guns.  He sat there unable to move for as long as 10 hours at a time – and freezing half to death.  The Canopy tended to frost up or smear with dirt & oil, so one panel of Perspex at eye-level was removed, leaving his face exposed to the slipstream.  ‘In temperatures of -30°F, my breath froze into an icicle in front of me. I waited until it was 3 or 4 ins long before breaking it off.’


During the 1930‘s great strides were made in the development of powered gun turrets in the belief that they would be capable of defending Bombers from Fighter Attack. They were technologically advanced for the time, fully enclosed and providing the Air Gunner with more Firepower than ever before.  However, with the advent of War, it became obvious to Bomber Command that Formation Flying during the day, even with the latest Turrets, would not provide protection for the Bombers from a swift, heavily armed Fighter Aircraft. The British turned to Night Bombing but the Air Gunner’s role remained the same, that of the primary lookout & protector of the Aircraft and the lives of those aboard.

Almost all Lancasters were equipped with 3 Frazer-Nash (FN) hydraulically operated turrets, each with .303 calibre machine guns. The FN-5 Nose Turret had 2 guns, the FN-50 Mid-upper Turret had 2, and the FN20 Tail Turret had 4. The FN64 mid-under Turret saw only limited use in the Aircraft’s early months. The Nose Turret was rarely used and manned by the Bomb Aimer if required.

Another Gunners Tale
I D Hancocks10/11 April 1944: Rear gunner was Sergeant I D Hancocks (Taffy). Aircraft was ‘OOR Wullie‘ KN-W 77 Sqdn (LL126), target Tergnier. Special equipment (Aural Monica) not used.  Time was 0013, height 11,000 feet, heading 298 Magnetic; position 49.46 North 01.37 East.  Visibility was good above, but poor below, with a full moon. Three Fighter Flares were seen Astern, 5 mins before the attack.  First visual was by Pilot, at 500 yards, Port-bow down.  Enemy Aircraft carried a light in the nose. The Halifax took evasive action during the Attack, losing 1,000ft. Flight Engineer & Mid-upper Gunner kept watching while Rear Gunner (Hancocks) fired about 112 rounds.  The Pilot 1st saw the Enemy Aircraft on the Port-bow below at approximately 1,500ft flying on a reciprocal course, but before he could state the exact position the Halifax was subjected to heavy Flak, immediate combat manoeuvres being taken.  The Rear Gunner then saw Enemy Aircraft on the Port beam, range approximately 700ft, slightly below.  He instructed the Pilot to prepare to Corkscrew Port and as he gave these instructions the Enemy Aircraft turned into the attack from the Port Quarter, range 400 yards. As the Enemy Aircraft turned it opened fire, the Rear Gunner returning the fire immediately with a long burst.  The Enemy Aircraft was seen to blow up in mid-air at approximately 200 yards.  The Mid-Upper Gunner [Brooks] meanwhile was not able to bring his Guns to bear owing to the obstruction of the Tailplane, but he saw the Enemy Aircraft explode and fall in flames and burn on the ground.  The Bomb Aimer who was lying in the Nose confirms the destruction of the Enemy Aircraft which he saw on fire & burning on the ground.  At the time of the Attack there was no Searchlight activity but roughly 5 mins before the attack, 3 Fighter Flares were dropped dead Astern.

Flying firstly with 626 Squadron, and later 156 Pathfinder Squadron, Ron Smith flew 65 Operations and recorded them with the intensity brought on by the isolation of being cocooned in his lonely Gun Turret.  `Suddenly we were over the Big City… after long hours of searching the night sky from the Coast, to be suddenly propelled into the brilliant hell over Berlin produced a freezing of the mind…flak sliced up through the broken illuminated clouds, ascending gracefully to stream past the Turret. A Lancaster slid across at right angles with a single Fighter just behind it, as if attached by an invisible thread… the City far below was bubbling & boiling, splashes of the Fire opening out as the Blockbusters pierced this terrible cauldron brew.’

It is worth noting here that the sole survivor from the 4 Aircraft lost over Mailley-le-Camp, was the Rear Gunner of SR-Z Jack Worsford.  His personal experience must be considered one of the ‘Miracles’ of the War.  The Tail of his Lancaster was severed from the main Fuselage in mid-air. With his Parachute still in the main Fuselage, his rear Turret fell from 5,000ft. Fortunately for him, the twin Lancaster Tail assembly saved his life, spinning to earth like a sycamore seed and after hitting overhead cables and trees he survived to spend the rest of the War in captivity.

TailGunnerHalifax.jpgAll the while, he strained through the blackness of the night for a glimpse of an Enemy Fighter. Confusingly – fatally – it could be a flash of light or the very opposite, a black shape darker than the night sky around it. ‘You see something. Your heart jumps. But you can’t just blaze away. If you fire, the tracer will give your position away to the enemy for sure. Anyway, you might hit another Halifax. Plenty of planes were knocked out by someone on their own side panicking.  ‘So you wait. It gets closer until you can make out a head and shoulders in the cockpit. Is he going to keep coming?  Is he going to start firing?  ‘Sometimes he peels away out of sight, and that’s the worst moment of all.  All you can do is pray that he hasn’t dived below you and is coming back underneath with his guns blazing.  ‘The horror was waiting and not knowing, wondering if you were about to die.  ‘If an Attack came, the Skipper would throw the Hali’ into a Steep Dive. The Wings go down, the Tail comes hurtling up. You go up, too, and then you plunge back down as the Skipper pulls back on the stick and the Plane climbs steeply in the opposite direction.
Muzzle Flash.  Not significant in daylight, Muzzle Flash does become a problem at night and, while it is relatively easy to suppress on a ·303-inch Gun, it becomes progressively more difficult to control as calibre increased. The point being, of course, that if the Gunner is dazzled as soon as he opens Fire, he is neutralised – making Tracer bullets of questionable value.

‘The G-force clamps on your head like a Ton of concrete. Your chin is pressed hard into your chest. And all the time you are still trying to Fire at the Enemy Fighter on your Tail.’ Approaching the Bombing Target, things got even hairier. Forced to fly straight & level with their Bomb Doors open, they were like fish in a barrel for the Enemy Defences below.  Being ‘Coned’ in Searchlights was terrifying.  ‘One moment you’re in a complete blackout and the next you are caught by Beams of intense Light,’ — ‘One thought floods your mind – that you’re the one, that you’ve been picked out of all the other aircraft around you.  ‘You know what happens next because you’ve looked out and seen it all before – seen other Planes suddenly illuminated, then hit by Shells from the ground. Balls of flame come from the Engine, then from the Fuselage, and you see it going down and down until it disappears into total blackness again.’

Facing concentrated flak was like flying into a curtain of high explosive. ‘All of a sudden there would be Red Fire-flashes & Orange Explosions on either side of me, lighting up the inside of the Turret.  It comes horribly close and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself.’  A direct hit by a Shell would destroy a Plane in mid-air, but most damages were caused by Shrapnel slicing into the Aircraft’s Fuel & Hydraulic lines, Oil System or Engines and into its Aircrew.

Roberts Dunstan UK0489.JPGOne Legged Rear Gunner
Roberts Christian Dunstan DSO (5 November 1922 – 11th October 1989) was an Australian Soldier & Airman of WW2. He was noted on his return to Australia after the War as a one-legged Air Gunner who had served with RAF Bomber Command. Dunstan was born in Bendigo, Victoria on 5th November 1922. He joined the Australian Imperial Force aged 17 on 3rd June 1940.  After Training, he was sent to the 2/8th Field Company, a Field Engineer Unit, in North Africa as a reinforcement. In January 1941, near Tobruk, he was wounded in the knee and had his leg amputated. After resting in Egypt he was returned to Australia and medically discharged.  Not happy with his short service, Dunstan attempted to join the Royal Australian Air Force as an Air Gunner.  In 1942 he trained at Port Pirie and, promoted to Sergeant at the end of his Course, he embarked for Europe. Dunstan was assigned to No. 460 Squadron RAAF at RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire, England as a Lancaster Rear Gunner.  He flew his 1st Operation on 11th June 1943 to Düsseldorf.  In October he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and later was awarded the DSO for his efforts as a “Cool and skilful Air Gunner despite the handicap of one leg”.   During one raid on Kassel on 22/23rd October 1943, the Plane in which he was flying was hit by 2 incendiary Bombs dropped by another Lancaster, which was off-course. The damage caused by this accident cut off the Oxygen Supply to Dunstan and the Mid-upper Gunner, Flight Sergeant Hegarty.  As a result of the Oxygen starvation that both men suffered, neither saw the approach of an Enemy Night-Fighter, whose attack had badly damaged the Lancaster, one cannon shell passing through the Rear-gunner’s Turret.  The Aircraft managed to return home and make a crash-landing at Bisham, the Crew escaping unhurt.  Dunstan soon completed a full Tour of 30 operations and returned to Australia in August 1944.  He was discharged from the RAAF on 2nd October 1945.

Were Turrets Worthwhile?
Among the Wartime Military Community, there was a small lobby of largely Scientific, as distinct from Uniformed, Opinion that advocated the deletion of Gun Turrets. It contended that they were of doubtful value and that losing their weight & drag would yield an increase in performance that would result in a substantial reduction in Losses and a significant saving in Manpower (Armourers as well as Air Gunners). While the Maths could be made to look attractive, it never overcame the ingrained experience of WW1 – and never seriously questioned thereafter – which had demonstrated (to the satisfaction of the Airmen who had to do it) that Defensive Gun positions were simply essential, nor did it take account of the impact on morale if Crews, accustomed to having a Self-defence capability, however limited, in which they were obliged to put their Trust, were to be deprived of it.

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