Air Gunner Stories

The following is excerpted with permission from “Sixty Years -The RCAF and CF Air Command 1924-1984” by Larry Milberry

Among the heroes of the bomber war were the air gunners. Even tail gunners with four .303 machine guns stood little chance of shooting down night fighters; the aircrews envied those units (particularly American ones) that made the .50 calibre gun standard equipment. Yet the gunners did not have to shoot down attackers to save their aircraft. Their first task was to spot enemy fighters and warn of their presence; after that they might direct their pilot during evasive action. Good gunners could, with a few bursts, force most night fighters to work at long range, spoiling their aim; after that, very skilled (or lucky) gunners managed to destroy enemy aircraft.

A few examples of gunnery work, drawn from both RAF and RCAF squadron experiences, demonstrate the work. On the night of May 25, 1943, Sgt J.M.M. Williams was tail gunner in a Halifax of No. 77 Squadron. They were at 17,000 feet and had just released their bombs over Dusseldorf when a Ju88 emerged from cloud 700 yards away. Williams alerted his pilot, who dived away just as the ’88 opened fire. The Hallie’s mid-upper gunner could not bring his guns to bear during the dive, but the tail gunner fired a short burst that forced the fighter to break away. The Halifax resumed its flight home. Again it was attacked from the rear, and once more timely evasive action and a burst by Williams prevented damage to the bomber.

At 0220 hours, proceeding west over Holland, the Halifax encountered searchlights and three Bf 109’s -one on either quarter and one climbing from astern. Williams advised his pilot. As one Messerschmitt banked to attack, Williams kept in touch with his captain. The bomber turned into the attack while the Canadian engaged the climbing 109 at point-blank range. His target trailed smoke, then burst into flames. The other two fighters broke away. Williams, who had been on only his second operational sortie, was awarded the DFM.

Sgt. R.N. Hurst, tail gunner in Halifax 0/10 (DT692) was another successful gunner. On the night of August 2, 1943, during the campaign against Hamburg, his aircraft was attacked by a Ju88. The fighter was engaged and broke away, but less than a minute later it made a second firing pass. Hurst opened fire at 400 yards and scored many strikes. The Junkers spiraled down in flames and disappeared into clouds. During these moments Hurst had been the sole protector of the bomber; the mid-upper gunner had been busy dumping “window” (tinfoil strips to decoy enemy radar). Although the Halifax suffered considerable damage, it made base safely. Hurst was awarded a DFM.

Wellington C/432 (JA541) encountered two Bf 110’s during a minelaying sortie on the night of October 7, 1943. The official report of the incident merits quotation: “The first enemy aircraft, which acted as a decoy, with four lights showing, carried in wings, nose, and tail, was first sighted by the rear gunner and bomb aimer, flying 1000 feet directly below and climbing steadily towards the Wellington. As the guns could not be brought to bear upon the enemy aircraft the rear gunner instructed the pilot to corkscrew to starboard. During the dive to starboard, which brought the enemy into range, the rear gunner opened fire with a very long burst at 25 yards range and observed many strikes on the starboard wing and fuselage. An explosion occurred in the wing of the enemy aircraft and it immediately caught fire. Decoy aircraft then dived away below and reflection of the fire could be seen in the clouds by the wireless operator who was in the astrodome. Immediately the second aircraft attacked from fine port quarter. Closing in from 100 to 50 yards, it fired with machine guns and cannon, hitting the bomber. The rear gunner returned fire with a long burst and instructed the pilot to turn and climb to port. Enemy aircraft then broke away on starboard quarter and was not seen again. Many of the rear gunner’s tracers were seen to strike the wings, engines, and fuselage of the enemy aircraft. Damage to the Wellington included starboard elevator, starboard flap, and numerous small holes in the fuselage and tail caused by exploding cannon shells. All members of the crew escaped injury. The rear gunner fired approximately 1,500 rounds with no stoppages. The first aircraft is claimed as destroyed, the second damaged.”

The incident was one of several actions which led to the award of a DFM to the rear gunner, Sgt J.H.L. Quesnel.