Rear gunners: a perilous and lonely war

Wellington Bomber's rear gunner's turret RAF museum, Cosford

Wellington Bomber’s rear gunner’s turret
RAF Museum, Cosford

This tiny turret, right at the tail end of a Wellington Bomber, is where my grandad spent much of the war.  Squeezed into this transparent dome, Ronald, a rear gunner in 115 Squadron,  spent many hours a night flying backwards in cramped, freezing and solitary conditions.  But he was one of the lucky ones:  he came home.  For the life expectancy of a rear gunner was desperately short; estimates vary but suggest that they could expect to be shot down, or killed, within two weeks, or up to five operations.  My grandad flew and survived 30 operations, which was classed as a whole tour.

The rear gunner’s -often known as tail-end Charlie’s – primary role was to be a lookout: to defend his aircraft from enemy fighter attack from the rear of the plane and to warn the pilot when to undertake evasive manoeuvres.  This meant flying in this confined, see-through turret, enveloped by the pitch-black sky and constantly revolving the turret to scan the eerie darkness for a shadow that could be an attacking night fighter.  Daydreaming was not an option as relaxing this constant vigilance – for even a moment – could result in death for everyone on board.

Grandad's log book entry, 29/04/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 29/04/42

Grandad's log book entry, 29/07/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 29/07/42

Staring at the rear gunners position on a Lancaster at IWM Duxford  [which has the same rear position as a Wellington], I struggle to comprehend how a grown man could enter and fit into this seemingly-uninhabitable small space, let alone spend up to eight hours a night, flying backwards in such cramped and surely claustrophobic conditions.

Rear Gunner's turret on a Lancaster, RAF Duxford

Rear Gunner’s turret on a Lancaster, RAF Duxford

Protruding right at the back of a huge and heavy plane, the turret’s position must have made the rear gunners feel so isolated, so far from the rest of the crew and so lonely.  I poignantly wonder what was worse; the isolation, the vulnerability, or maybe even the pressure from the sense of responsibility for the lives of everyone on board.  On their own at the end of the plane, a sheet of draughty perspex and metal between them and the surrounding darkness; they were completely exposed and bitterly cold in their transparent turret.   They would have known that their position often put them first in line for elimination by the enemy fighter planes, who tended to attack from the rear and under the belly of the bomber, so that they could attack without fear of being shot at.   According to Yorkshire Air Museum,  20,000 rear gunners lost their lives during WWII.

A recruitment video from WWII, left me with the sense that each role on board these planes was inter-dependent on each other.  They most likely had complete trust in each other and probably felt rather helpless or vulnerable when the operation was out of their hands.  Whether it was the pilots hearing gunfire from one of the gunners and not knowing exactly what was happening; or the front gunner handing over to the rear gunner, or vice versa, as the enemy plane veered by; or one of the gunners telling the pilot to take evasive action, their lives depended upon each other.  Imagine the susceptibility the gunners must have felt from their detached position as the plane dived to escape an enemy fighter; or was hit by enemy fire and spun out of control: smoke and flames pouring from its crippled engine.

Grandad's log book entry, 02/07/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 02/07/42

And yet, reading this entry from my grandad’s log, it just seems like another day at work.  How humbling that such a – surely terrifying – moment can be summed up in so few words.  As Mark, a friend and author of  Caribbean Volunteers at War, poignantly said: ‘Within those few words, lies an entire film.’

My grandfather died when I was at University and as most young people do, I paid scant interest in his wartime exploits.  I fondly remember him showing me some of his wartime memorabilia in his garden shed and I treasure my grandmother’s Wings that the wives were given.  But my dad says he rarely talked about his wartime experiences.

Ronald, my grandad

Ronald, my grandad

I do remember his effervescent personality and now as I stare at this turret at IWM Duxford, I wonder if his wartime experiences led to that zest for life, or perhaps he was always like that, which might help explain how he endured so many hours in such a lonely place.

And I remember my grandmother and her sister saying how us young people don’t know how lucky we are: how they didn’t see their husbands for up to a year, or more, during the war.  Whenever I have felt a bit low during my husband’s deployments, their words ring true in my mind; after all, what is a few months, compared to a year or longer?

 

Grandma's Wings

Grandma’s Wings

Scaring new neighbours away

Our Guest blogger Iona is worried her sons have chased her new neighbours away:

Neighbours come and neighbours go…. rather more frequently for the military family than a civilian one. We are in a rather small quarter, and with three growing boys – the eldest of whom is now taller than me, when even in the highest of heels [me not him, I should point out] – we are all rather on top of one another at half-terms and holidays.

New neighbours arrived this half term.  As they have moved from overseas they have had a long and slow move in, with the usual hiccups from the various departments that deal with military housing, compounded with their stuff arriving from overseas, and furniture being released from storage.

My sympathies are with them; I have been in that position twice and it is an emotional affair, especially arriving at a small quarter and realising nothing will fit. Most wives I know in this patch have burst into tears, at some point, within 24 hours of arriving. For me, it was when the removal man brought another box into my tiny kitchen and asked where he could put it.  I couldn’t answer him, because every space was full and so I sobbed ‘I don’t know’.  At this point he made me a cup of milky sweet tea and reassured me it would be alright, everyone did this!

Back to my new neighbours: they have been friendly and don’t seem to have been overwhelmed by the move; even when their heating didn’t work, they seemed to take it in their stride.  Apart from today…I arrived back to see them leaving to return to their hotel. They didn’t look happy at all, nor did they look me in the eye, or even acknowledge me… it must have gone badly today I thought.

It was then that I heard the bagpiping, emanating at top volume from my house. No 1 son had been practising whilst I had nipped to the shops. Could this explain their bad day? I wanted to run after them and say ‘sorry’ or something to that effect, but I was too late, they were driving off around the corner.

If it is any consolation to them,  my boys go to boarding school; they can take some comfort that the bagpipers only return on half-terms and holidays and most of the time can’t be bothered to practise. I can just imagine how novice bagpipers at full volume must have been the icing on the cake during the chaos of an overseas house move…but at least when you get your next quarter allocation, you know the house next door to me is occupied…. for now!

Can spinning compete with cycling?

Today I swapped my road bike for a spin bike.  I swapped the fresh air, sweeping fields and light-blue sky for four walls and a stuffy hall.  I swapped solitude and reflection, for company.   Spinning versus  cycling: is there any comparison?

 

The ultimate resistance training!

The ultimate resistance training!

At heart, I am a cyclist: I love cycling for miles through the countryside.  I relish the quiet country lanes, the beautiful sweeping views and the speed.  But when I don’t fancy braving the worst of the British weather,  spinning helps to maintain my cycling fitness. In recent years, I have dipped in and out of spinning; mostly opting for the stationary bike when it’s pouring with rain and today I primarily went for my friend Kamila, who has apparently missed my scintillating company over the summer cycling months! I am not sure that I offer much chat during the sweat-enducing class, but it’s still lovely to be missed!

I started cycling long distances on a mountain bike about 25 years ago.  Due to our nomadic lifestyle, I have been privileged to cycle on lots of different terrain: sand, cliffs and dirt tracks, to busy roads and quiet pot-holed country lanes.  My backdrops have varied from the rolling green hills and beautiful stone villages of Rutland and Nottinghamshire; through to the azure-blue sky and sea, and vegetation-barren mountains of Cyprus; the vineyards, lavender and sunflower fields of France, to the flatland and big skies of Cambridgeshire.

I experienced the ultimate in resistance-training when I hitched a trailer to my mountain bike, whilst the children were too small to go to school.  As I clocked-up the miles and slogged up hills, towing a sleeping (if I was lucky!) toddler, I discovered muscles I had never felt before!  And recently I transitioned to a road bike; experiencing the thrill of longer distances and faster speeds, as well as the not-so-thrilling embarrassment of the inevitable falls when trying out cleats for the first time!

Sunflowers of France

Sunflowers of France

And in those years I have hopped in and out of spinning classes, experiencing many different styles of spin; from the downright waste of time to the I can barely walk down the stairs the next day!  Too many classes have been spent regretting that I didn’t hop on my bike instead: usually where the instructor hasn’t compiled a playlist and just plays a CD of tracks mismatched to what we are doing on the bike and with no variety.   In contrast, I have fond memories of my spin instructor from Cyprus, who upgraded the routine in line with our improved fitness levels, used lots of funky tracks and also used a lot of visualisation “You are going up a hill, nearly there, keep pushing”.   Another instructor planned the whole routine to the Tabata discipline of high-intensity, interval training. Whether we were sprinting, working against resistance, hovering or doing arm work, it was a 20-second on, 10-second off pattern, for eight repetitions.  This was seriously hard work: by the end of each class you were dripping with sweat and felt it in your legs for days after!  But it was fun!

For me, a stationary bike in a stuffy studio can never truly compete with the freedom and fresh air of cycling in the countryside.  But with an enthusiastic instructor it can be fun and certainly helps to maintain your cycling fitness when the British weather excels itself!

Try a Tri?

Standing in a pen with four strapping men in Lycra might – in other circumstances – be the stuff dreams are made of, but when you are also dressed head-to-toe in Lycra and these are the people you are racing against, it’s pretty much the stuff bad dreams are made of.

Post-event!

Post-event!

Back on a sunny day in June, my good friend Mel asked me if I would like to take part in a triathlon with her; her to swim, me to cycle and Petra to run.  It seemed like a good idea at the time – especially as it was two months away…but before I knew it, the day dawned.  And I mean dawned – we had to be there at 0730, which meant my poor babysitter had to get up with the Larks too!

The five relay teams were up first, which is how I found myself in a small pen, in a school tennis court, with four strapping men, in Lycra.  One-by-one they disappeared into the rising dawn until I was the sole occupier of the pen; then suddenly like a scene out of Baywatch – minus the coiffed hair and liberally-applied make-up – Mel was streaking across the tennis court in her red swimsuit.  A few moments of fumbling ensued, as we tried not to lose precious time transferring the soaking chip timer from her ankle to mine.   The next part seemed to go in slow motion – and probably was in slow motion – as I had to recall the correct sequence of when to put my helmet on my head, when to remove my bike from the stands and where I could mount the bike.  Anything out of sequence and we incurred a time penalty.  Given that I am renowned for forgetting just about everything: school parents’ evenings, school photos, school socials… this was no small feat!

I had previously practised this 12-mile route with my husband barking orders at me and achieved a respectable 17.4 mph, but was worried that without my pseudo-sergeant major shouting at me, my time might slip.  I needn’t have worried:  as I  set off on a couple of busy roads, before reaching the quiet country lanes, my competitivity kicked in.  I knew that the boys had a couple of minutes lead on me and there wasn’t much chance of spotting them, let alone catching up with them, but what surprised me was my determination to equally not let anyone catch up with me.  Part of this, I should admit, was due to the drafting rules, where if someone overtakes you, you have to slip back a certain distance.  Seriously, I would have to temporarily fall back…is that really fair?

Confession time: I had not told my team members that I can’t remember how to mend a puncture and so had to scan the roads and lanes ahead of me for broken glass and visible thorns.  As I approached the end, I was so relieved that I had managed the whole route without a puncture, as well as not tumbling off my bike, remembering to smile [grimace] at each Marshall managing junctions and succeed in no-one overtaking me.   For the final part of the route, some comedian had chosen a hill and so I found myself panting as I entered the school grounds and only-just noticed a guy yelling at me to dismount my bike before the finish line.  Practically falling off my bike, so as not to incur a time penalty for the team, I then saw Petra yelling encouragement [determination to get started] from the pen and had to run with wobbly legs – pushing my bike and putting it back on the stands first, with my helmet – so that we could do another fumbling transfer of the chip timer.

Watching Petra run off into the distance, I could finally relax!  And sitting on the grass banks afterwards with a bloke who had completed the whole thing, he told me how the previous year he had been just like me and cycled as part of a team and did I think I would be like him and do the whole thing next year? Um no, I did not!  

The good news is that out of five teams we came fourth, which, as the only all-girl team, we are quite proud of!  Would I do it again?  Absolutely; as part of a team, as it was working with such an inspiring couple of girls that motivated me and made the triathlon fun!

Confession time (sent in by anonymous)

I love this confession sent in by an anonymous blogger!  Have you any funny, or embarrassing, or cringeworthy confessions you would like to share?  

Calpol confession….

I love the slot on the Simon Mayo Radio 2 show where people confess their extremely funny and sometimes cringe-worthy past sins. In homage to Simon Mayo’s confessions, here is mine.

Regimental life in the army is demanding on the soldiers, but also on the family. Whilst my husband was commanding his regiment in Germany, the battalion organised a wives exercise as a morale boost. For the uninitiated, this is where the wife becomes solider for the weekend and the husband takes on the children. When the training team approached me with the proposed date I enthusiastically gushed that although I would really love to come, I would sadly have to decline as I was taking No. 1 son back to boarding school that weekend.

A couple of weeks later, back came the news…. the weekend had been changed and what’s more, they had checked with the Commanding Officer and I was indeed free that weekend! The fixed grin, that I had learned to adopt, when I became the Commanding Officer’s wife, was fully deployed, as I gushed my appreciation at their thoughtfulness. 😀

I immediately set about recruiting some other wives to come along; after all, if I was doing it, then I was going to make sure others would suffer too! The day came, rumours had been abounding about the weekend: apparently we were going to be searched when we turned up, raided at night and all sorts of other delights. This was going to be grim! However, with the game-for-a-laugh friends I had recruited, I thought we would get through it alright; especially if I packed a morale boost for the long, cold night ahead of us.  Although chocolate normally works for me, I felt the occasion required something stronger and searching the house, I came upon a bottle of home-made sloe gin; perfect, although as the bottle was so huge, I would need something to decant it into. Time was short and the only thing I could find was a bottle of out-of-date Calpol, with some dregs in the bottom. Rather pleased with myself, I rinsed it out, and filled it with sloe gin, wrapped it up in a pair of socks and packed it in my bergen (army speak for back pack).

We turned up at the exercise with some trepidation and to a lot of rather amused soldiers who were unable to stifle their smirks. Off we set in the minibus, to a weekend in the wilderness. All my fears were unfounded and the weekend proved to be great fun. We embarked on off-road land-rover driving, we fired rifles in the laser range and we built our bivouacs – although there was the option of a tent – we decided to really go for it! My favourite part was the army survival expert, who had set up a stand of food he had collected in the wild: elderflower cordial, rabbit stew, and various types of insects he had prepared in interesting ways; such as caramelised crickets and meal worms sautéed in brandy etc. Nobody could stomach the thought of the cooked insects, so I thought I should lead from the front and tried meal worms and then cricket: apart from the legs, which were a bit weird, it was not as bad as I had thought! That evening, an amazing spread appeared, as if from nowhere, food and wine flowed in abundance. And my little bottle of sloe gin remained in my rucksack; largely forgotten…

Despite being full of food and wine, none of us got much sleep, as we had a snorer in the bivvy. So by the end of the next day, after mounting an infantry attack, complete with camouflaged helmets, rifles, and two magazines of blank rounds, we were all pretty tired. When I got home, I had a lovely bath and shunted the rucksack to one side. On Monday, my soldering experience was a happy memory, it was back to the routine of being a mum, and getting sons No. 2 and 3 ready for school.

Lovely Barbara, my domestic assistant, arrived for the morning and being so amazingly helpful, unpacked my rucksack and sorted everything out. The Calpol bottle was restored to the medicine cabinet, and forgotten.

Some months later, I was in London for the weekend, at a study day for the degree I am trying to do whilst juggling everything else. I had also met up with some university friends and we were having a great time, apart from the constant calls from my darling husband; who being a big tough soldier, has never really played much of a part in the day-to-day running of the children’s lives.

The ‘phone rang again. What drama now? Well, apparently this time, No. 3 was ill. I was a little sceptical, as No. 3 can sometimes magic up a sore waist (which is apparently totally different to a sore tummy) when mummy is going somewhere he doesn’t want her to go. I advised my normal practice would be to shove the electronic ear thermometer in, and try and persuade No. 3 that there was nothing actually wrong with him, unless the thermometer told me otherwise, in which case to give him a dose of Calpol.

The phone rang 10 minutes later. There was indeed a problem.  No temperature, but apparently the Calpol was off, as it had made No. 3 immediately vomit. Lots of ranting ensued about the quality of Calpol and how ridiculous this was.

The cogs started to whir in my brain.  I had never heard of Calpol going off before….. and suddenly the penny dropped. He had given No. 3 a spoonful of sloe gin rather than a spoonful of Calpol…. aaaaaaagh! I remained largely silent, not wanting to exacerbate the situation by suddenly confessing it was all my fault.  I made the odd sympathetic muttering, and suggested the Calpol should be disposed of, so that it didn’t get mixed up with the good medicines.

So my confession is now out there. I will beg forgiveness from No. 3, when he is a little older, and he will hopefully see the funny side. However, I will not beg forgiveness from darling husband, as really, by child number No. 3, he really has no excuse for not knowing what Calpol smells like!!

Anonymous

 

 

A new chapter: leaving the RAF

Next year I will be swapping military life for civilian life.  After fifteen years of a nomadic lifestyle; with one or both of us moving around the country, or world, every few years, we will be settling down in the same place; living together.  That sounds perfectly normal for many people, but when living apart has become your normality, it can also sound perfectly odd!   If I am honest, even though we chose this,  when we first got the news I mostly felt a sense of sadness and nostalgia for the lifestyle we will be leaving behind.  Fast forward several weeks and this news is mostly welcome now; but I am still not entering into it without trepidation:

How will we adjust?  A husband coming home every evening is not something I am all that familiar with: the closest we came to that was in Cyprus, but even then he would have the odd week or two elsewhere.  For the past year we have barely seen each other: living apart during the week and then four months complete separation.  We will have to be mindful of each others needs for space and different routines…

Will my husband be happy doing a normal 9 to 5 job; without all the excitement of the military?  How will he cope without his jollies –  sorry – I meant adventurous training!

And will our children remember their amazing experiences?

  •  Sitting in on a Red Arrows briefing, watching their annual practice from Cyprus’s clifftops and sitting on the wing of their plane, surrounded by the pilots.
  • Going to family days at RAF bases and clambering on board military helicopters and fast jet planes, or watching awe-inspiring displays by the Chinook helicopter.

    Awesome air display

    Awesome air display

  • Laughing with their friends at being momentarily knocked to the ground by a low-flying Eurofighter’s noise and downdraft during a flypast.
  • Living overseas and experiencing different schooling and cultural differences.
  • Watching father Christmas arrive on a helicopter or a khaki-coloured fire engine.
  • Watching the RAF sniffer dogs in action at family days: sniffing out the drugs that a willing child has had planted on them.
  • And the indescribable excitement of seeing daddy after weeks or months away.

Aside from all the amazing experiences and opportunities the military has given us, perhaps the thing we will miss most of all is the people and the amazing community spirit.

But now the children will have a dad at their birthday parties, a hopefully less-stressed mother who isn’t having to think about and do everything by herself, a dad there for bedtime; rather than a talking head on Facetime.  And a dad making it to parents’ evening and actually knowing who their teachers are, as well as being able to pick them up from school from time to time.

It’s exciting, yet daunting.  Swapping the exciting, living-on-edge, independent lifestyle for the safe, routine and dare I say it, sometimes mundane.  But at long last we can decide where he works and where to live.  Ultimately this decision was about the children and for the children; to give them a stable upbringing, like the one they have craved since we chose to live off base nearly five years ago.  It is a new chapter and we are certainly used to those.  If the past fifteen years have taught us anything, it is to embrace change, nothing is set in stone and to go with the flow.

A totally shallow thought to end with and one which I suspect will have a whole blog post of its own in the coming weeks: what will I do with all my evening dresses and high heels, they certainly don’t have a place in this new chapter!

The benefits of playing the non-native speaker card!

Have you ever had one of those moments where you say something in a foreign language and then realise, by the reaction to your words, that you have made a major blooper?

On a school French exchange several [okay, many!] years ago, I stayed in a lovely household with a mum and dad, two children and a grandma.  One evening, the mother asked me in French if I would prefer to eat dinner in the kitchen or the living room.  Delighted I finally had the chance to use an expression I had picked up in a guide book, which apparently meant I don’t mind, I very proudly stated: ‘Je m’en fous.’  I was rather taken aback to see the grandma’s chin hit the floor and the children collapse in a fit of giggles.  Assuming it was my accent, or some grammatical gaffe, I asked my French teacher the next day why it was such a shocker.  You can imagine my surprise to hear that I had said the French equivalent of ‘I don’t give a f**k.’

The moral of the story? Make sure you refer to a reputable guide book!