They would also have lived with the knowledge that their position often put them first in line for elimination by enemy fighter planes, who tended to attack from the rear and under the belly of the bomber without fear of being shot at.
According to Yorkshire Air Museum, 20,000 Rear Gunners lost their lives during WWII.
Norman Storey, whose wartime experiences appear in the previous posting; described his life and routine as an Air Gunner during the winter of 1943/1944:
‘I awoke one morning in a freezing cold Nissen hut. After dressing, I walked across the snow-bound ground to the ablutions or wash rooms for a cold-water shave and wash, before climbing on my bike to the Sergeants Mess for breakfast. Afterwards, with the rest of the crew, we’d go to the Flight Commander’s Office for confirmation that we were all fit for Operations if required. On the odd occasion I was sick, it was my responsibility to find a spare Gunner to go in my place.
We then sat in the crew room until 11am when the NAAFI wagon turned up for tea and a wad (bun). If the order came through that we were on Ops, I’d need to go to the Armoury to pick up a set of four .303 Browning machine guns, and take them to the aircraft. With the help of an Armourer, I’d then set the guns to concentrate at 400 yards, with a maximum of 600 yards. Finally, with everything in position, I’d head back to the Mess for lunch and the allotted time for Briefing. After this came the aircrew meal of egg and bacon before heading to the locker to put on flying kit. Once all checks were done, we’d prepare to taxi for take-off tucked inside the aircraft.
On returning back to dispersal, it was my job to remove the guns from the turret and return them to the Armoury. Then it was into the crew room for hot tea and rum before De-briefing, and on to the Mess for another egg and bacon meal. My cycle was always on standby for the ride back to the cold Nissen hut to sleep, then next day it would start all over again.
This was a typical day in the life of a Bomber Command Air Gunner.
As a Rear Gunner, I had three enemies: the three ‘F’s – Flak, Fighters and Frostbite.
On the return flight from Leipzig in December 1943, it was the third one that got me. The condensation in my oxygen tube froze. I was being starved of oxygen, causing me to feel drunk. I was thrashing about in the turret, even in that confined space! After a while, the turret light came on, but quite how that happened I’m not sure. The Mid-Upper Gunner reported it to the Pilot and having an idea what was wrong, he sent the Wireless Operator to the back of the plane using a portable oxygen bottle, with a replacement helmet and oxygen mask. Removing the old one from my head, quickly he replaced it with the one he had brought. But my ears had already suffered frostbite. On return to Base, I was taken to Sick Quarters where my ears were treated and bandaged. I remained there for three days, and when released, was allowed to wear a silk stocking courtesy of the Wireless Operator’s wife. I wore this at all times for the rest of the winter, much to the frustration of the Warrant Officer who was unable to put me on a Charge of being improperly dressed, because it was for medical reasons! As time went by, the problem became less and less painful, although on a very cold day, for the rest of my life, I suffered pain down the back of each ear: a constant reminder of Leipzig.’
THE AIR GUNNER’S ROLE
The Air Gunner sits alone in his turret
Anxiously scanning the unfriendly skies,
Looking for approaching enemy fighters
As on an operation his bomber flies.
Confined in the dismal, cramped quarters
In a circle, his turret continually rotates.
Tensions mount as they near their target
Alert and on guard for any peril he waits.
For hours he must maintain constant vigil
On a Mitchell bomber, he’s the only defence,
The crew’s survival depends on his alertness,
During an Op there’s no break in suspense.
An Air Gunner’s life is barren of glamour,
Recognition or medals are not in store;
Overlooked when they hand out the glory,
No fame for performing his dangerous chore.
To a bomber’s crew the Air Gunner is vital,
A thankless and dangerous task is his role
To protect his bomber from enemy fighters
Ensuring its safe return to base is his goal.
When a bomber is on an operational sortie
And comes under an enemy fighter attack,
The crew will rely on their trusted Air Gunner
To provide the protection needed to get back.
From his crew-mates he will gain recognition,
Acknowledgement that on him they depend;
They know that when their bomber is in peril
A capable Air Gunner will their aircraft defend.
20 October 1944