Bringing Up the Rear – a Tail Gunner’s Story
Given the tail gunners’ job during World War Two was not only dangerous but statistically challenging (survival rate was around 30 per cent), a living tail gunner is a rare individual. Baz Bardoe recently tracked down one such individual, World War Two veteran Gerald McPherson, who kindly shared his remarkable story.
Being in a war is always dangerous, but a tail gunner’s job was, for most of the war, statistically challenging to say the least. Aside from the ever present threat of being blasted into oblivion by the Luftwaffe, the tail gunner’s lot was tough. The front of the turret was open to the air to improve visibility, which meant freezing conditions at altitude. Tail gunners wore a special heated suit to take some of the edge off, but there is no doubt that conditions down the back were intimidating. Then of course there was the fact that the aircraft’s tail would ‘wag’ a little, testing the stomach of most, and in the event of an emergency it was about the worst place to be.
But apart from manning the rear guns, an often overlooked role was to provide the crew with a lookout to warn of the proximity of other aircraft. In the confusion of a bombing mission with flak bursting everywhere and aircraft weaving to avoid impacts, there was a very real risk of collision. The tail gunner had to keep his eyes peeled!
“One of my great great grandfathers was Major Henry Colden Antill’, Gerald explains, “an aide-de-camp to Governor Lachlan Macquarie – the first Governor of New South Wales. He had previously served in the English Army in India”. Two of his father’s brothers served in World War One, with only one surviving.
“During World War Two, my father joined the Army (1941) and was a Sergeant in the recruiting office in Horsham, Victoria. He was transferred to the Essendon Depot in 1945 and retired from the Army in 1954 at the age of 65. I enlisted in the R.A.A.F. in January 1943 following several months in the Air Training Corps. One of my three elder brothers was a telegraphist in the Post Office at Horsham and he taught morse code to the members of the A.T.C. in that town.”
“I joined the R.A.A.F. mainly because my other two elder brothers were already in the R.A.A.F”, Gerald explains. Cyril had a noteworthy career, eventually attaining the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and, on occasion, was an acting Squadron Leader. He flew Wirraways and Vultee Vengeance dive bombers, and has the distinction of leading the only raid from Australia by single engine bombers against a Japanese land target. He also dropped supplies to an airman who had made a forced landing on the beach of an island north of Australia. That airman was later to become Prime Minister of Australia – Sir John Gorton!
The other older brother (Harry) joined the R.A.A.F. in April 1941 and was discharged in 1946 with the rank of Flying Officer. His career included surviving a mid-air collision between two Wellingtons, and completing twenty missions as a rear gunner in Halifax bombers. He finished the war as an air traffic controller in Darwin.
It’s easy to see why Gerald wanted to be involved with the Air Force, but with the British Commonwealth embroiled in global war, time was of the essence. The Empire needed air crew in big numbers, and quickly. To achieve this goal the Empire Air Training Scheme was devised. “In my view the Empire Air Training Scheme was a complete success”, states Gerald. “Airmen were trained in numerous countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, Canada, U.K. etc. Some of these airmen subsequently saw operational service in the U.K., Middle East, Far East and the Pacific Islands”.
The pressure of supplying aircrew for global war meant that the scheme eschewed the niceties and placed prospective air crew in whatever job was deemed most suitable. In many cases this meant prospective air crew didn’t wind up in the role they wanted, or thought they might be most suitable for. Gerald explains,
“After completion of my Initial Training Course at Somers, Victoria, I was interviewed by (world class cyclist and post-war politician) Hubert Opperman and he assessed on the results of my time at Somers, I would be most suitable as a Wireless Air Gunner. Naturally I was disappointed at the time that I wasn’t selected for a pilot’s course or a navigation course. However, after I survived the war I was most grateful for his decision!!”
Gerald’s role would be further refined as the process unfolded. “I was posted to Ballarat to commence my wireless course”, he recounted. “Whilst I had no difficulty reading and sending morse code I had problems understanding the intricacies of the remainder of the course, e.g. the operations of wireless sets, etc. As a result I applied to become a straight air gunner, which was approved. I was then transferred to Sale to complete my air gunnery course. On completion of that course in September 1943 I was posted to the Embarkation Depot at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. On 17 November, 1943 I embarked at Port Melbourne bound for the U.K. via U.S.A”.
After arrival in the U.K., Gerald was posted to an Operation Training Unit at Silverstone. It was there that crews were formed to train for subsequent operational duties. “I had made friends with another gunner from Griffith in New South Wales,” Gerald explains. “We decided that we would like to be in the same crew and we agreed that if that was possible he would be the mid upper gunner and I would be the rear gunner. I had no real concerns volunteering to be the rear gunner. All airmen on this course assembled in a hangar and pilots went around selecting their crews. A New Zealand pilot approached us and we agreed to be his gunners. The pilot finished up with an English bomb aimer, an English wireless operator and an Australian navigator. Unfortunately about a month later we lost our wireless operator, who was killed flying on an exercise with another crew. Our replacement wireless operator was an Australian. A couple of months later when we commenced flying four engine Stirling aircraft, our crew was increased to seven with the addition of a Scottish flight engineer”.
A bomber crew needed to work together as a tight team, so it was no wonder that, “living and training together we virtually became a family unit and relied on each other to perform their allotted duties to the best of their ability”.
Once the crew had been established there was the anticipation of operations. It is hard to imagine what that must have been like. Missions over Germany had often been staged at a high price. As a rear gunner, Gerald must have had to deal with a level of anxiety that is hard for most people to understand.
“As I had read letters from my brother Harry describing his various operations over Germany, I was well aware of the dangers which confronted me when I commenced operations”, states Gerald. “Naturally I was scared when our crew was listed on the battle order. However, once we took off my duty to concentrate on the whereabouts of all other aircraft in the air seemed to overcome those concerns”. Many veterans have said this – focusing on the realities of the job took their mind away from thoughts of just how very dangerous it might prove to be.
“I found it more stressful on the six night operations I completed”, said Gerald, “because it was more difficult locating and keeping my eye on other planes in the bomber stream. Allied planes were continually weaving and changing course to avoid flak and enemy planes. Another problem was that your own planes could be a few hundred feet above your plane when releasing their bombs. Of the thirty-one daylight operations I completed, the majority were on targets located in the Ruhr (area of Nazi Germany) and which were heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns. You would not only see the shells bursting nearby, but you would also see the smoke left in the sky from all the previous exploding shells. On one occasion I recall that we approached Cologne on a clear day and when we left the numerous flak bursts had formed into a cloud”.
Flying at an altitude where temperatures could fall as low as minus 40 degrees, conditions were especially rough for the tail gunner, who had an open space in front of him to increase visibility around the guns. “Under my flying gear I wore an electric heated suit which helped keep me reasonably warm when the temperature at about 20,000 feet on most occasions was in the vicinity of minus 40 degrees,” Gerald says. “The rear turret was covered on both sides by Perspex but there was nothing but fresh air in the front of the turret where the guns were located. This allowed for better vision, but on the other hand, allowed the cold air to infiltrate the turret”.
Gerald’s squadron was part of 3 Group and as from about October 1944, all Squadrons in the Group were used predominantly for daylight raids. “The planes in that group were progressively fitted with G.H., which to the best of my knowledge was based on beams and radar and permitted the navigator to locate and bomb the particular target,” Gerald says. “This process was supposed to be as accurate as visual bombing and could therefore be used on specific targets (as distinct from Area Bombing) when covered by cloud. These specific targets were mainly in the Ruhr and consisted of railway marshalling yards, oil plants, etc. In daylight it was quite easy to distinguish what were allied planes, but at night you had to rely on your aircraft recognition skills”.
As expected, Gerald had plenty of close shaves. “On one of our daylight missions to Gelsenkirchen we suffered severe damage from anti-aircraft fire. On return to base we learnt that flak had pierced a couple of empty fuel tanks and the ground staff counted more than 40 holes in the aircraft. They also discovered an anti-aircraft incendiary shell had burned itself out in the spar separating two of the fuel tanks in the starboard wing. On our way home the mid-upper gunner told me to turn my turret to starboard and have a look at the tail plane. To my shock I saw a circular hole about 6 inches in diameter about four feet from the rear turret. We concluded that a shell had pierced the fabric on the tail and continued on its way prior to exploding above the aircraft. Had that shell hit anything solid in the plane we would have been history”.
On another daylight operation over the Ruhr, Gerald’s plane was hit by flak and the aircraft went into a steep dive. “From my position in the rear turret I enquired over the intercom as to what was happening. I received no reply from the pilot and assumed that we had suffered casualties. As we continued in the dive I was about to remove my helmet and reach for my parachute when the pilot responded that he was fighting to control the plane. At the same time as we were hit by flak the plane ran into the slipstream of another Lancaster. These two incidents combined to send the plane into a dive. The pilot eventually regained control and we returned to base”
All missions were stressful but one in particular stands out in Gerald’s mind. “On the eleventh of April, 1945 we were briefed for a night raid on Kiel, a large German naval base,” Gerald explains. “Whilst over the target and just after we had dropped our bombs, we were caught in searchlights and coned by several of them for about 15 minutes. In an endeavour to escape the lights, which turned night into day, the pilot threw the plane around like a fighter plane. The engineer subsequently told me that at one stage the plane was upside down and that it was a remarkable feat by the pilot to get the plane back onto an even keel. After the pilot successfully flew us out of the searchlights, we set sail for the U.K. We were briefed to descend to 7,000 feet when we crossed the coast of Denmark and to continue to fly back over the North Sea at that height. As we reached the Danish coast the pilot was obviously tired and stressed and decided to descend to 7,000 feet quickly rather than gradually”.
In the rear turret, Gerald was aware that the aircraft was descending rapidly, when all of a sudden the tail of
the plane started skidding. “I instinctively looked down and saw that we were skidding over the body of another Lancaster about six to eight feet below! It was about midnight, but we were so close that I could see the two gunners in their respective turrets. Apparently, during the descent, the engineer spotted the other Lancaster directly in our path and his immediate reaction was to hit the pilot across the chest. The pilot automatically pulled the stick (control column) back and began to climb, and the sudden change of direction made me look down. To this day I don’t know if the crew in the other Lancaster saw us – if they didn’t they must have been blind or asleep! One of the noteworthy aspects of this mission was the sinking of the German pocket battle ship ‘The Admiral Scheer’.
“This was our final mission (the crew’s 39th, but my 37th because I missed two whilst in hospital with tonsillitis) but one which we shouldn’t have been required to complete. On our return from Kiel, we learned that the tour of operations for bomber crews had been reduced from 40 to 35 some hours before briefing commenced for that raid. We were later given to understand that this was brought to the attention of our new Commanding Officer, (who had replaced a most popular Canadian, Wing Commander Giles) and his only comment was to the effect ‘they are already on the Battle Order – leave them there.’
After the war, and continuing into the present day, there is debate about the efficacy and strategic value and intent of the bombing campaign. Gerald has little doubt about these issues. He points out that the daylight raids targeted vital German military infrastructure, and cites post war comments by Albert Speer confirming that it took a huge toll on Germany’s war fighting capability. When the war ended Gerald’s crew were on leave.
“Following my discharge I returned to my former employment with the Bank of Australasia (subsequently the ANZ Bank). I remained in that bank until I retired in November 1984 at the age of 60”.
Some 70 years later the men of Bomber Command have finally been awarded a campaign honour, bringing them into line with Fighter Command. Gerald says he never felt any desire to re join the Air Force and was perfectly happy in his role as a Bank Officer.
His brother Cyril wrote in his memoirs:
“During March, Gerald received word that he had been commissioned and was now a Pilot Officer. He thus became the third member of the family to hold commissioned rank. Gerald’s log book ends with the Kiel raid, and he never flew again in the Air Force.”
“When I applied for my old job with the Bank of Australasia”, says Gerald, “the Personnel Manager told me ‘You won’t get as much salary in the Bank as an Officer in the Air Force’. To which I replied: ‘I know, but it will be much safer.’ However, shortly after resuming work, I turned 21, and received a substantial increase in pay.”
That’s right – Gerald’s incredible story of heroism all happened before he had even celebrated his twenty first birthday!