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.
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.
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.
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.
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?