Air Gunners

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This page will attempt to provide some insight into the life of an air gunner. Thanks to David Birell at the excellent Lancaster Air Museum at Nanton, Alberta for permission to utilize the following description.

camron clare campbell at the tail guns

Cameron Clare Campbell, AG, RCAF, 433 Squadron in 1945. Photo supplied courtesy of Lloyd and Susan Campbell  

"The gun turret of a bomber during a night operation was the coldest, loneliest, place in the sky... the mid-upper gunner spent the trip suspended on a canvas sling seat, his lower body in the draughty fuselage and his head and shoulders in the plexiglass dome. The rear gunner was even more removed from his fellow crewmembers and any heating system. Suspended in space at the extreme end of the fuselage... "Tail-end Charlie" was subject to the most violent movements of the aircraft. Squeezed into the cramped metal and 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. Many rear gunners removed a section of the plexiglass to improve their view, so with temperatures at 20,000 feet reaching -40 degrees, frostbite was a regular occurrence. And 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 first in line for elimination. During World War II 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 crewmembers in his earphones. From take off to landing, at times for as long as ten 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 crewmembers in the forward section of the bomber and the relaxation of his vigilance for even a moment could mean death for them all."

"The primary role of the air gunner was not to shoot down enemy aircraft. Rather it was to perform the role of a lookout. After hours of staring into the blackness, his shouting into the intercom of, "Corkscrew port now!" (or "Corkscrew Starboard now") would have the pilot instantly begin a series of violent evasive maneuvers, throwing the heavy bomber around the sky. (JB Note: Martin Enser of the Christenson crew states that the crew rehearsed this maneouvre often, and that my Father, Walter Powell, used to shout it out "Corkscrew Starboard Now", during their practise runs.)

'Generally if an enemy fighter pilot knew he had been seen, no attempt would be made to follow the bomber through its gyrations. Rather he would seek out another aircraft, hopeful that it might have a less alert air gunner. Many air gunners completed their tour of operations without firing a single shot "in anger," but the stress they were constantly under was equal to those who, with guns ablaze in the night, became part of brief, terrifying, life and death battles in the night with enemy aircraft."

The following is from a Gunnery Course Manual used at No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School, Mossbank, Saskatchewan, donated by D.A. Eglison, Coquitlam, British Columbia and excerpted here with the kind permission of David Birell at the Lancaster Air Museum in Nanton, Alberta. The Lancaster Air Museum's purpose is to honour all those associated with Bomber Command during WWII and to commemorate the activities of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Click Here to visit the site.

Lancaster Air Museum

General Hints For Air Gunners

- Aim of enemy fighter is to destroy; aim of bomber air gunner is to get safely to target and back to base.
- Never fire until fired upon; If gun fire, search for fighter; take evasive action.
- Always watch your own tail.
- Conserve your ammo; if you’re fired upon from long range, instruct pilot to use evasive action.
- Never fly straight or dive when under attack; Never turn away from an attack, always towards.
- Use good team work with rest of crew.
- If on reconnaissance aircraft; your job is to return with information; not to seek combat with enemy aircraft.
- All aircraft approaching are considered to be enemy until identified otherwise.
- If your own guns fail or are damaged during an attack use your ingenuity to outwit the attacker.

Lancaster with engines running at Skipton-on_Swale 1944-1945

This great photo was supplied by David Plaskett, son of Mervyn Stanley Plaskett , 433 Squadron

just jane

Lancaster BVII NX611, known as ‘Just Jane.’

Photo courtesy of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Center

tail end charlies book cover from The pages below are from the preface of the book Tail-End Charlies by John Nicol & Tony Rennell. They describe a trip back in time for Bob Pierson, an RAF Tail-gunner, now 82 years of age. The authors take him to see the Lancaster BVII NX611, otherwise known as ‘Just Jane’, at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Center. A photo of "Just Jane" is shown above, and a photo of the Lancs flown by the Christenson crew is shown above that. Click here to order the excellent book, Tail-End Charlies.  

"In the NAAFI Hut, we drank hot sweet tea, just as the crews of the Second World War would have done before setting out, and then we shuffled outside and across to the hangar. Bob limped behind in the rear. The sight of Just Jane stopped us in awe. She was a mighty machine, a long, thin tube of a fuselage split by wings that from tip to tip were half the width of a football pitch. The cockpit towered twenty feet in the air. Each of the four engines was the size of a small car. In her wartime green-and-brown camouflage, she would fly us back in time. Pierson was now ahead of us, hurrying forward to study every facet of her, pointing out gunturrets at the front and in the middle, the bubble where the bomb aimer lay to direct the fusillade of high explosives and incendiaries on some benighted German city, the astrodome behind the cockpit from which you could look out and see the stars - or the bursting flak from anti-aircraft guns on the ground. Most of all, he wanted to be inside and back in his spot - the Tail-End Charlie's rear turret, the place where he had fought the war. He ignored his anxious son's pleas to slow down, not to get carried away.
The walking stick was tossed aside as he scrambled up the ladder just forward of the tail. Then he was inside and gone. A man in his eightieth year, he crawled on his hands and knees like a boy over the high wall of the bulkhead housing the tail spar. Then he slipped with unforgotten ease down into the narrow rear turret, his fingers quickly curling round the two twin triggers of the four .303 machine guns. The years rolled away. This was where he had sat night after night - not on the ground under the shelter of a hangar but at 20,000 feet in the air, roaring along at 200 mph, and swaying up and down and from side to side as the winds buffeted the Lancaster's tail. And not under the friendly gaze of family and friends, but sought out by guns and searchlights that would identify him as a hostile, as intruder, and try to destroy him.

We, a fraction of his age, picked our way gingerly through the narrow fuselage, passed the mid-upper gunner's station and the wireless operator's position, to sit in the pilot's seat, grip the control column, stare at the complex array of dials and handlles and buttons. And wonder how she must have shaken and rattled as she thundered down the runway to take off, weighed down with several tons of bombs and full tanks of fuel, the roar of her four Rolls Royce engines filling the cabin and the night. She seemed so small and fragile inside. For those who find the open spaces of a modern airliner confining and uncomfortable enough, here was real cause for claustrophobia. The ceiling was so low you stooped to move, the walls so narrow it was impossible not to bang your knee, snag your coat. And we were safely on the ground and stationary. The imagination took over, posing challenging personal questions. How would I have moved in this tight space when wearing thick layers of clothing to keep out the chill, a life jacket and a parachute? And at night, in pitch black, with the plane heaving and yawing in the wind and the turbulance, or diving to escape a German fighter? Or spinning out of control, on fire, smoke and flames pouring from a ruptured engine...? Could I have done it? Would I have had the guts?"

(JB Note: The rest of this book, Tail-end Charlies by John Nicol & Tony Rennell is equally insightful. Highly recommended.)

Please click on the images below to see a larger picture, additional images and narrative

Stan Bodaly DFC in mid-upper turret stan bodaly dfc in turret 60 years later walter henry powell and cameron clare campbell air gunners in front of the rear gun turret of a wellington, UK, 1944 cam campbell in rear gunner turret 1945

Stan Bodaly,

DFC in 1944 

Stan Bodaly, DFC, some 58 years later at Trenton Memorial Aviation Museum during the Restoration of a Halifax, August, 2000 Walter Henry Powell and Cameron Clare Campbell, air gunners in front of the rear gun turret of a Wellington, UK, 1944 Cameron Campbell in 1945 at Skipton-on-Swale; 64 years later, his son Lloyd sits in the same seat at Lancaster Air Museum, Nanton, Alberta

air gunner turret


The images at left are provided courtesy of Tom Quinn at

Click here to visit his site, which contains interesting history and statistics about the airgunners and their equipment in WW2.