IN THE FIRING LINE
"The coldest, loneliest, most dangerous job of all."
--RICHARD HOLMES, MILITARY HISTORIAN
SITTING IN THE COPILOT'S SEAT OF A B-17 FLYING FORTRESS NICKNAMED La-Dee-Doo, twenty-year-old Jim O'Connor from Chicago had plenty of time to contemplate his fate. It was not so very long since he had been at a desk in high school sweating for his English Lit exams. He still carried in his pack a relic of those days--a book called A Treasury of Great Poems--and he would seek solace in the inspirational words he found there before setting out on every mission. It seemed a lifetime ago now, but just a couple of months earlier, back in the United States, he had flung off his uniform, with its newly acquired pilot's wings and second lieutenant's bars, and reveled in a day of exceptional loveliness in a lush Oklahoma valley. A warm sun shone in a cloudless sky. "It was a rare moment of peace and beauty in our uprooted, uncertain and somewhat chaotic young lives," he later recalled. He swam in a lake and then soaked his head under a spectacular waterfall. Now he was on his way to a baptism of fire over Germany.
As a member of the 388th Bomb Group based at Knettishall in eastern England, he was waiting to take up the "Tail-End Charlie" position, so often assigned to rookie crews like his, in a huge bomber formation. He knew that bringing up the rear of 700, 800, maybe 1,000 aircraft would leave him exposed to enemy fighters in search of an easy kill or to antiaircraft gunners on the ground who had finally got their range. The experience thatday would be imprinted on O'Connor's mind for the rest of his life. It had begun, as it always did, with a midnight awakening.
The duty sergeant, a big pleasant former gunner from North Carolina, quietly entered the barracks and shone a flashlight on a roster in his hand. He spoke softly as he aimed the flashlight beam into the face of each crew member scheduled to fly that day. "Lootenant, wake up. You all are flying today." He slowly worked his way the length of the hut, skipping a relieved crew here and there who were getting the day off. He finally arrived at our corner, and we were up, into our long underwear, woolen uniforms, flight suits, and A-2 leather jackets in a couple of minutes. After breakfast we loaded into GI trucks which raced through the darkness and disgorged us in front of the briefing room. Thirty-six crews--360 airmen plus a few intelligence, weather, and auxiliary officers--looked up at a stage containing a covered wall-size map of England and northern Europe. Our target that day was a deep-penetration one--a heavily defended factory at Schweinfurt producing most of the ball bearings for the entire German military. A groan went up when it was announced.
The briefing would end with the synchronizing of watches at around 3:00 A.M. Each crew member then had a particular duty to perform. As the copilot, mine was to pick up the crew's parachutes and escape kits from stores. Meanwhile, the Catholics in our ranks went off to a makeshift chapel on the flight line where the chaplain administered the sacraments and gave a farewell blessing. The Protestant and Jewish fliers had similar arrangements. After the tasks were all completed and the ship checked over, there was usually a wait of a half hour or more before takeoff time. The crew gathered around the stove in the ground-crew tent and either dozed off on the cots or had a last smoke. Everyone was alone with his own thoughts.1
At 4:00 A.M., as the first streaks of dawn began to appear in the eastern sky, a green flare shot up from the control tower giving the signal to start engines. A tremendous roar shattered the peace of the night as 134 powerful 1,200 horsepower engines sprang into life. Then a second flare shot skyward and the aircraft began the taxi out toward the runway. In La-Dee-Doo, O'Connor and his crew followed the other heavily laden shipswaddling up to takeoff position. After the magnetos were checked and tail wheel locked, the skipper offered a final comforting glance to his crew as the engineer rammed the throttles full forward. The skipper gave the final nod and the brakes were released.
We roared down the runway. The excitement of that moment of takeoff never diminished. It took some two hours for the entire force to form over England. We would fly in a big lazy climbing circle until the last ship, squadron, group, and wing were in position in the bomber stream. That day we were in the last wing (100-plus ships), the last group (36), the last squadron (12) and the last element (3), flying in so-called Purple Heart Corner, the most vulnerable position in the formation. Out of the hundreds of bombers hitting Schweinfurt, we would be the very last one over the target. We headed out over the North Sea toward the continent and climbed to altitude. The gunners practiced firing their guns. At 10,000 feet we went on oxygen and put on steel flak helmets. Every ten minutes or so we had an oxygen check, with each crew member reporting in to the copilot.
Over the target, the sky was black with flak, the worst we had ever seen. And being at the tail end of the bomber stream, the German gunners by then had the exact range. Bursts of flak were exploding right below and around our ship, bouncing it up and down and sending jagged pieces of shrapnel through the fuselage. Our usually unexcitable tail gunner got on the intercom and yelled out, "Lieutenant, de flak is right on us. Let's get de hell out of heah!" The flak was so devastating that immediately after bombs away, the group leader made an abrupt forty-five-degree right diving turn off the target to get out of the range of gunfire. Being the last ship on the outside of the formation, the speed and angle of turn was greatly exaggerated for us.
The plane was practically standing on its wing at a ninety-degree angle to the ground as the air speed rapidly increased. The skipper could not see anything from his seat, so I had to take over control and fly the plane myself on my own. By now there was both a gray undercast and a gray overcast, absolutely nothing visible by which I could gauge our flight attitude. Vertigo gripped me. I lost all balance and perspective. All I had to hang on to was the aircraft alongside--which meant that if she was heading for the ground then so were we. Eventually the group stabilized, and we rejoined the mainstream for the long haul home. The crew startedbreathing again and assessed the battle damage. The flak had taken out rudder and trim cables, and put more than twenty large holes in the side. The tail gunner and radio operator had near misses and the navigator was grazed by a piece of flak that tore his flight jacket and pierced his equipment bag.
Just before 1:00 P.M. we landed back at base. As the wheels touched down, we were about to let out a collective sigh of relief, when the ship began to vibrate and bounce. A tire had been shot out. The skipper yelled at me to unlock the tail wheel. He then gunned the engines, pulling the ship off the runway into the muddy infield, thus keeping the landing strip clear for the other incoming aircraft, many with battle damage or wounded on board. That day only thirty-two out of the thirty-six aircraft that had taken off for battle from our base returned. As the skipper cut the engines, we sat there for some moments completely whacked out until a truck came out to pick us up. At debriefing, we felt we had earned the shot of bourbon which was waiting for us.
O'Connor and his crew had survived their first experience as Tail-End Charlies and their first encounters on Purple Heart Corner, but four bombers from his group, along with forty of his comrades, had not. It had been every bit as bad as they feared, and they hoped to be spared a second experience. But a few weeks later they were rostered in the same position for a thousand-bomber raid on "the Big B," Berlin. "When the target was announced, a spontaneous groan erupted from the assembled bomber crews. I looked round the room and knew several crews would probably not make it back." He felt sure his would be one of them. Not only were they Tail-End Charlies again, they had also been assigned an older, patched-up B-17 for the trip, one that creaked and groaned as they rose into the morning sun. O'Connor felt like a medieval knight heading into battle, "knowing that the ultimate gamble was at hand, the throw of the dice that would determine life or death." That day death came very close. From his cockpit, O'Connor watched the Fortress next to his in the formation explode, its oxygen tanks hit by the same flak that had put a handful of harmless holes in his own aircraft. He and his men made it home. The other crew went on the list of 250 men missing that day. "How sweet it was to be alive!" O'Connor later wrote in his diary.
Life for others in the Tail-End Charlie position was not so sweet andmany could not escape disaster. On a deep-penetration haul to the Leuna oil refinery, a B-17 named Knockout was in the last group of the thousand-plane formation, with navigator Dean Whitaker, lying in the nose cone, straining his eyes to catch sight of the full might of the Eighth Air Force ahead as it went in for the kill. What he saw was a huge black cloud--the flak from hundreds of 88mm guns, so many he thought the Germans must have moved every gun they had to protect their valuable oil supplies. He could see B-17s spiraling out of that cloud, some on fire, others missing a wing or tail. "Knowing it would soon be our turn to run the gauntlet made my blood pressure rise." If that was happening to the vanguard, what chance did those in the rear have?
They slowed to one hundred and fifty miles an hour for the bomb run, and to Whitaker it felt as if they had come almost to a stop. "Flak was to the right, left, overhead, ahead, sometimes so close you could hear the dull thud of it exploding. I smelt burning metal and knew we had been hit. A shell exploding directly in front of us sent bits of steel through the nose." Bombs gone, and they wheeled away, out of the black cloud and into clear blue sky. The relief was momentary. "Bandits" came a cry over the intercom, and they were being chased by enemy fighters. "All hell broke loose. Our tail must have been shot off because the plane was going every way but straight." The rear gunner was dead. The aircraft began to nosedive, the stick and wheel useless in the pilot's hands. All that was left to do was lower the landing gear, a sign of surrender to the Germans, and jump.
More than half the crew of Knockout parachuted straight into enemy hands. Surrounded by German troops the moment they landed, evasion was never an option. A dozen other planes had been hit, too, on that mission and altogether fifty bedraggled American airmen held up their hands in surrender that day and went into captivity. They at least were safe. Four others from the crew of Knockout were not, the pilot Herb Newman among them. Winds had swept them in a different direction and they drifted down near a small village, whose police chief enlisted the help of other Nazi thugs to slaughter them on the spot.2
While "Tail-End Charlie" in the American Eighth Air Force referred to the last aircraft in a formation, it had a different meaning to the men of Bomber Command, where it was RAF speak for the rear gunners. And British Tail-End Charlies were considered just as vulnerable as their Americannamesakes. Isolated and alone in the rear of his aircraft, nineteen-year-old RAF Sergeant Bob Pierson could testify to that.
Unlike the Americans, who bombed in daylight hours, the British raids were launched at night, and so the red beacon shining in the darkening sky behind him was always his last sight of home. He sat with his back to the four engines of the Lancaster bomber, tucked into a space the size of a dustbin, and wondered, as he did every time, if he would ever see its glow again. Just ninety seconds earlier, as the Lancaster had turned on the taxiway and stood on full throttle, building up power before the pilot let off the brakes, Pierson, the rear gunner, had strained to see through the gloom of early evening. Yes, they were there--the adjutant, the ground crew, too, and lots of WAAFs, the RAF girls whose voices he would hope to hear from the control tower guiding them home to land in, what, eight and a half, nine hours' time. They were huddled round a small trailer, mugs of tea in one hand, all waving. Goodbye! Good luck! Charging down the runway, the Lancaster's rear wheel was first off the ground, and just before the front wheels lifted into flight the plane gave an involuntary "wag" of its tail. Pierson always felt it was as if the aircraft was waving goodbye to the well-wishers.
The bomber, with seven tons of explosives in its belly for a night-time raid on Germany, rose slowly, turned left, and climbed in circles to join the formation assembling in the sky over the Lincolnshire countryside. Pierson, gazing back from the coffinlike rear turret at the now-receding red light on a farm cottage at the end of the runway, reflected on how important it was to get a proper send-off, that people should be there to see them go. "It gave me a sense of hope and of support," he recalled sixty years later. If the padre was there, it was an extra blessing. "I took quite a lot of comfort from him before each op. You could talk to him about your feelings, about being scared. He would help you put aside the fear of dying."3
Once the war machine began to roll, that fear was unspoken, though it was a fellow traveler for all but the most devil-may-care airmen or the rawest recruits. Pierson remembered his very first operation over enemy territory, when he was overwhelmed by sheer excitement. "I felt just like a racing driver--not scared at all." Now experience had taught him what to expect and his mood was somber.
The strict preoperation routine helped to calm the nerves. He had written his last letters to his loved ones before the lorry--"the blood wagon," they called it, with typically ghoulish RAF humor--had come to pick up him and his crew from their hut to take them to their plane. The letterswould be found in his locker if he didn't come back, one for his parents in north London, the other for Joyce, the girl he wished was his wife. Thoughts of her went through his mind as he stood on the edge of the airfield, waiting for the jeep to come racing along the perimeter track with the order to board the bomber. This was anxious time to kill. Some of the seven-man crews went through elaborate good-luck rituals. There would be banter and even songs. One navigator always crooned his way through "As Time Goes By" from Casablanca, the gritty Humphrey Bogart film they had all seen and loved on its recent release.4 "A fight for love or glory, a case of do or die ..." seemed appropriate for what lay ahead. Others would line up to urinate ceremonially against one of the Lancaster's huge front wheels, for good fortune or simply to empty their bladders before the long confinement. But Pierson's crew was a less boisterous bunch. "We tended to retreat into our own corners," he recalled. "The others were usually quiet, just sitting and thinking, but I liked to talk, probably because I was going to be on my own for the whole of the flight ahead."
Once tucked up in his turret at the rear of the plane, he would not move for the entire trip. He would be alone, almost in his own private war. The others--pilot, flight engineer, navigator, radio operator, bombardier, and middle-turret gunner--could edge their way around the cramped, narrow fuselage, though movement was never that easy in bulky flying suit, Mae West life preserver, and parachute. If necessary, they could struggle the twenty yards to the disgusting Elsan lavatory near the back or stand up, head sticking into the astrodome bubble behind the pilot's seat, and stare at the night sky and the hundreds of other bombers in the stream around them. They could also see and hear each other, feel their presence. But the Tail-End Charlie did his job in isolation.
So, in those moments before takeoff, he sought company. "I would lean on the fence and natter to the farmer whose cottage was at the end of the runway, the one with the red light on the roof. He came out each evening with his daughter--a lovely girl, I remember--and we'd have a cigarette and talk about the weather, the harvest, normal things, normal life--anything but the war, anything but where I was going with my crew that night. In some ways that was the hardest part. One minute we were leading an ordinary life. Then we were off for eight hours of hell, risking our lives to drop bombs on Berlin or the Ruhr valley in the middle of the night, and knowing we might never come back. Every evening the farmer wished the crews good luck, and there must have been many times when he chatted tomen he never saw again. But he never asked what happened to them, never mentioned it." No one did.
The order to go interrupted Pierson's conversation. The others in the crew clambered up the ladder, dragging their parachutes and flight bags with them through the narrow hatch by the rear wheel, and turned right toward the front of the Lancaster. Squeezing themselves down the passageway and climbing over the aircraft's main spar, they made their way toward their positions. On the way hands reached out to check that the roof escape hatch was secured and that the "ready to destruct" switch was in the right position. Somebody always forgot to duck and cracked his head on the cylinder of nitrogen which would be used to douse the flames if fire broke out in the fuel tanks. The six of them crammed into a space no bigger than a small van--the pilot perched up in the cockpit with the flight engineer, while the navigator and the radio operator tucked into small corners below him and the bombardier lay flat on his stomach in front and the mid-upper gunner slid into his dome behind. They were cosy to the point of claustrophobia, but companionable.
Meanwhile rear gunner Pierson had gone left at the door--the only one to do so. He crouched down, then hauled himself along the narrowing fuselage, over the tail spar and the rear-wheel housing, before sliding down feetfirst into his seat and pulling the doors of his revolving turret closed behind him. He double-checked they were shut tight; if they were slightly ajar he would sit for hours in a body-numbing draft. But for now he was snug in his own Perspex-encased world, alone with just his four .303 Browning machine guns and his thoughts. Six feet tall, he cursed his height each time he settled in. "My head was just about touching the top of the turret and my shoulders were nearly at the edge. In front there was only enough room to get your hands round the triggers of the guns. Your legs were virtually locked in one position--you couldn't stretch them more than an inch or two without hitting the metal sides or the pedal that turned the turret." It was so tight that a gunner wearing a wristwatch could easily smash it against the side. One broke three before he switched the face to the inside of his wrist.
Pierson prepared himself for his job--to defend the plane and its crew from attack. He was the eyes in the back of their head. For the long hours ahead, from takeoff to landing back home, he would protect their tail. He could swivel his turret through a half circle and track slowly backward and forward, eyes constantly staring out into the night sky, above, below, to leftand to right, looking for the silhouettes of enemy fighters, hoping to spot them in time. Lives--not least his own--depended on it. His only contact with the rest of the crew was on the intercom, and then, if the captain was being strict that night, only for essential communications. Chatter, human contact for contact's sake, was not encouraged. The psychological pressure was immense, as the enemy knew. German bombers were specifically designed so that no one member of the crew was isolated in this way. It was considered bad for morale.5 But RAF tail gunners were expected to cope.
"For the rest of the crew there was the comfort of seeing other people, but in the back we never had that. The skipper might check in with everyone from time to time--'All right in the rear, Bob?'--but there were long periods of silence, and if the intercom packed up [broke down] you could be very lonely, on your own and traveling backward through enemy territory."
The loneliness of the long-distance rear gunner deterred many airmen. Miles Tripp tried flying in the back once and found it unnerving: "being dragged backward in a goldfish bowl," was how he described the sensation. And frustrating: "You sit in silence while the others speculate about what can be seen ahead, and when at last you see what they were discussing and can give your opinion, everyone else has lost interest."6 He decided to stick to being a bombardier with a seat in the nose of the aircraft and a view ahead. But a natural-born rear gunner like Peter Twinn loved it. "You were out on a limb but you were the king of your own castle."7 For another, Chan Chandler, there was a strange and awe-inspiring beauty in being alone, perched on the edge of eternity. He watched marvelous sunsets. "We set off at dusk, heading into the dark, and as we gained height so the horizon behind us extended, you could see a second sunset. This would slowly fade to just a purple line with blackness below and light above. It was indescribably beautiful and gave the most eerie sensation. It felt as if I was going clear over the edge of the world, like a lost soul flying out into space, never to return."8
A man's thoughts could easily wander and Bob Pierson remembered having to concentrate hard to stay awake, kept on his toes by the Benzedrine tablets he had swallowed--"wakey-wakey pills we called them." But, as his bomber reached the assembly point in the sky and linked up with hundreds of others before heading out across the North Sea, there was one last chance to dream of home. He and Joyce were engaged, but her father had refused to let them marry. There was a war on, he had told them,as if they needed reminding. Who knew what was going to happen to any of them? They had already lost Joyce's cousin, Billy, another airman, who had died in the wreck of a Wellington while training. And besides, the pair of them were only nineteen--"just kids, really," as Pierson himself acknowledged with a wry smile years later. "That's all I was, just a schoolkid." He carried a lock of her red hair as a lucky charm, tucked in the pocket of the blue serge battle dress underneath his flight suit. But they never talked about dying or mentioned it in their letters--except in that last one, of course, the one he hoped she would never have to read. When they parted she never said goodbye. It was bad luck; it might come horribly true. Instead it was a cheery, hope-filled "See you!"
It would be many years before he discovered the truth about how much Joyce worried about him. She tried to push the thoughts to the back of her mind, "but when I went to bed at night, I lay there in the dark thinking about him and what he was doing. Was he over Germany at that very moment? We were being bombed in London and he was bombing towns in Germany--it was all dreadful and I knew that he was thinking the same as me: Is there no other way to bring peace forward, than to be killing people?" 9
The cold in his face brought Pierson's mind back into focus. There was a chilling chink in the rear gunner's armor. The Perspex canopy tended to frost up or smear with dirt and oil, clouding his vision, so one sheet had been removed at eye level, on orders from on high, leaving the turret open to the air. Pierson's face was exposed to the slipstream--the temperature of which plummeted the higher they went. But it was better for him to freeze than lose sight of the enemy. Some men greased their cheeks with lanolin to ward off frostbite. "We would be flying at 250 miles an hour and the wind tore through the gap continuously. I was often in temperatures of minus thirty and minus forty degrees. My breath froze into an icicle in front of me. I waited until it was three or four inches long before breaking it off with my hands. They at least were warm, thanks to the four pairs of gloves I had on--a white silk pair underneath, then mittens and a pair of ordinary black gloves, and finally gauntlets. My trigger fingers were twice their normal thickness!"
His flying suit was electrically heated. A wonder of early-1940s technology, it plugged in to the aircraft like an electric blanket--but it was a mixed blessing, if a blessing at all. Chan Chandler complained that his was so hot at ground level it would burn his skin and so useless at twenty thousandfeet he wondered if it was working at all. Pierson never used his. "It had no thermostat and would never remain at a steady temperature. The danger was that it would get too hot and send you to sleep." And sleep could kill. Luftwaffe fighter pilots patrolling the skies, snapping at the heels and the flanks of the vast waves of bombers sent over Germany, looked for the turret which was still, where the guns were not moving, where the gunner was dozing or dreaming. Drawn to the weakness, they came in from behind, cannons blazing. A sleeping air gunner was a dead man. His crew, too, most likely.
The skipper's voice over the intercom told him they had passed the coast of mainland Europe. They were now over enemy territory, in the war zone. "Keep your eyes peeled, Bob." He strained for a glimpse of an enemy fighter. It could be a flash of light or the very opposite, a black shape darker than the night sky around it. "We were trained to spot different silhouettes, the shape and size of their wings. In the classroom they flashed slides in front of us for two seconds, and we were supposed to know instantly if it was friend or foe. But it was very different 18,000 feet up in the pitch black. You see something. You know instantly it isn't a Spitfire or a Hurricane. Your heart jumps. This is for real. But you can't just blaze away. You have to think clearly. If you fire, the tracer will give your position away to the enemy for sure. And, anyway, you might hit another Lancaster in the stream. Plenty of planes were knocked out by someone on their own side panicking. You know, too, that the odds of shooting down an enemy fighter are tiny. Our .303s were like peashooters against their cannons. So you wait. And it gets closer, until you can make out a head and shoulders in the cockpit. Is he going to keep coming? Is he going to start firing? Sometimes he suddenly peels away out of sight, and that's the worst moment of all. All you can do is sit tight and wait and pray he's really gone away, that he hasn't dived below you and is coming back underneath with his guns blazing away at you. The horror was waiting and not knowing, wondering if you were about to die.
"If an attack came, I would yell, 'Corkscrew, skipper,' and he would throw the Lanc into a steep dive. When a bomber corkscrews, the worst place to be is in the back. As the wings go down, the tail comes hurtling up. Facing backward, you go up, too, and then you plunge back down as the skipper pulls back on the stick and the plane climbs steeply in the opposite direction. The g-force clamps on your head like a ton of concrete. Your chin is pressed hard into your chest. And all the time you are still trying to fire at the enemy fighter on your tail."
Nearing the target--whichever German city with its factories, marshaling yards, and acres of homes had been picked personally by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the commander in chief of Bomber Command, for them to hit that night--the bombers were generally safer from enemy fighters. The Junkers and Messerschmitts would not follow them down into the flak, the antiaircraft fire coming up from the ground defenses. But then again, the bombers were now at their most vulnerable because they were flying straight and level with their bomb doors open and were easier for the ack-ack gunners to get a fix on--especially if they had caught a plane in their searchlights. Being "coned" was an experience that wrenched the guts with fear. "One moment you are in a complete blackout and the next you are caught by beams of intense light," Pierson recalled, "just as if someone has flipped a switch in a dark room. The thought that floods your mind is that you're the one--you have been picked out of all the other aircraft around you. And you know what happens next because you've looked out and seen it all before--seen other planes suddenly illuminated, then hit by shells from the ground. Balls of flame come from the engine, then from the fuselage, and you see it going down and down until it disappears into total blackness again."
The flak was what Bob Pierson feared most. Not the enemy fighters--he had fewer brushes with them. But below there were close on a million German men, women, and boys manning the Reich's ground defenses. All over Germany, fifty thousand big guns were pointing upward at aircraft crossing into its airspace.10 A direct hit would destroy a plane, but most damage was caused indirectly by shrapnel from the exploding shells hitting the aircraft's fuel and hydraulic lines, oil system, or engines. And its crew. Concentrated flak produced a curtain of high explosive into which Pierson, in his rear-facing position, was swept blind. "The rest of the crew could at least see it ahead as we flew into it, but all I could do was wait for it to explode around me. All of a sudden there would be red fire flashes and orange explosions on either side of me, lighting up the inside of the turret. It comes horribly close, and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself. Instinctively I tried to cover myself with my arms, but that was silly. So I would grip the guns, just the way you would desperately cling to the seat of a runaway car, hanging on, dreading whatever is going to happen next and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. Each time the plane was hit there was a huge, hollow bang. I can still hear that sound now. It's imprinted on my mind. Again, it was as if you were in that runaway car but now somebodywas throwing stones at you as well--and each stone was smashing against the windshield, making holes in the side and shaking it so violently you thought you could never survive. I once had three-quarters of my turret blown away by shell fire over Dortmund and I came back with my gloves peppered by shattered Perspex. I counted two hundred holes in the aircraft."
Over the target, with the bombardier calling his instructions to the pilot--"Steady, skipper, hold her straight"--and shells bursting all around, every second felt like a week. Sitting in his rear turret, Ron Smith used to will the bombardier "to drop the bloody bombs and let's get the hell out of it." He thought it but never said it, not wishing to betray his fear.11 This was a time to suppress the instinct to flee, to let the training take over, to do their job, to let the bombardier do his. They hung there for an eternity, or so it seemed, desperate to hear the cry of "Bombs gone!" and feel the Lancaster, thousands of pounds lighter in an instant, instinctively leap up and away. In the relief of that moment of release, as they swung round and headed westward, the job done, some thought about the poor devils below. Chan Chandler looked down on Cologne one night and saw with sadness and compassion "the whole town like one obscene boiling mass beneath us. Men, women, children, babies, cats, dogs, rats, mice; nothing would live down there. All would be incinerated, the ashes covered by the falling buildings."
Others would think of the devastation wrought on British cities by the Germans and rejoice in the fact that they were taking the war back to their sworn enemy. Some never allowed themselves any sentiments. Peter Twinn remembered sitting in the rear, looking back at a city they had just bombed and still seeing the fires burning an hour later, from 150 miles away. "But I never thought about the destruction. It didn't enter my head. I was miles above the earth and not part of what was going on below. You couldn't see anybody and you couldn't hear anything. The whole thing was impersonal. We had done what we were supposed to do. I know it sounds heartless and cruel, but I'm afraid that's how it was. We were not philosophers."
On the way home, there was no letup for the rear gunner. In fact the return trip could be more dangerous than the outward one because the enemy now knew where the bombers were. German fighter defenses were thinly spread, and every effort was made to fool them. Dummy runs were made by small groups of bombers to try to lure the fighters away from the real target. But that was academic after the target had been hit. The Luftwaffewould wait to ambush returning Allied bombers. Nonetheless, Chan Chandler found it hard not to relax a little when the target was well behind them. He would take off his oxygen mask, light a cigarette, and take a swig of coffee--cold by now--from his Thermos flask. But one hand stayed on his gun and he kept the turret turning. Too many of his comrades had "been killed thinking they were safe once they had crossed the enemy coast on the way home, only to find the fighters had chased them anything up to thirty miles out to sea." Some of the more daring Luftwaffe pilots even hung around in clouds over airfields in England to hit the planes at their most vulnerable--on the flight path in to land.
A wise rear gunner remained on the alert for attackers until that moment of relief when the wheel beneath him hit solid ground again. "The front wheels touched down first," Pierson recalled, "and I would just sit there holding on for dear life waiting for that terrific bump. Because I was tall, I banged my head on the Perspex every time we landed. But that bump meant I was safely home. The feeling was indescribable. We were supposed to stay at our posts until the skipper brought the plane to a halt but I was always straight out of my turret and waiting at the side door. I'd open it as we were taxiing off the main runway, just to get a bit of fresh air after all those hours in the sky. We'd been on oxygen the whole way and there was also the constant stink from the Elsan toilet. It was great to breathe properly again. I gulped it in. It meant we were alive. Very tired but safe."
For Chandler, the moment of relief and release was not until the pilot switched off the engines. He luxuriated in the quiet after "those four bloody Merlins shut up." He often felt too tired to leave his turret. 'I'll just sleep here. Oh no, there's bloody debriefing to get to, isn't there? Legs won't work--numb from all those hours without moving. Crawl across the spar and along to the door; stick my feet out backward. Jimmy, the wireless operator, guides them on to the ladder and helps me down. A flight van rolls up. We all fall into it and it takes us off to debriefing. One more for the logbook--how many more will we manage, I wonder?'
Pierson relished debriefing for its sense of coziness and companionship. "The padre and the girls were there to welcome us with rum and chocolate. We sat at a circular table and in the middle there was always a big bowl of raisins and currants for us to help ourselves from, and packets of cigarettes, Thames cigarettes, the cheapest you could buy in those days. And we would sit waiting until it was our turn to describe what we had seen to the intelligence people. Afterward, back in my hut, I would lie on my bed, drainedout, but thinking. "That was a job well done." Better still, none of us got hurt or injured. We didn't talk very much to each other. Everybody just got on with their own thing, writing a letter, reading a book, listening to music on the radio. Ann Shelton was my favorite singer. But at the back of our minds we all knew that tomorrow we were going to have to do it all over again." At the back of their minds, too, was that there might be one tomorrow too many.
It was a sentiment that U.S. tail gunners echoed. Staff Sergeant Eddie Picardo had little expectation of his life lasting very long. He had no illusions about how dangerous it would be fighting a war in the tail turret of a B-24 Liberator, and when he arrived in England for active service, he did not expect to see his homeland ever again. A third-generation Italian American, he had taken out as much life insurance as he could. His death would at least make his family back in Seattle $10,000 better off. But he also sought divine protection--he had his rosary and on the night before each mission, he recited his prayers five times, the way his grandmother had taught him as a child. Not that he thought even they could save him. "There is no way I will live through this experience," he told himself, "no way. I figured I might survive one or two missions, but then I would be history, blown into a thousand pieces in the skies over Germany." His life, he reckoned, with a conscious nod to Bogart in Casablanca, didn't amount to a hill of beans.12
Just like the British Tail-End Charlies, the American rear gunners were totally isolated in the back of the B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. That fact alone very nearly killed nineteen-year-old Charles Sibray. From his perch, he saw smoke and flames shooting from under the port wing and called the pilot on the intercom to tell him. The order to prepare to bail out was given, and Sibray took off his headphones and unhooked his oxygen line while he reached round for his parachute and clipped it on. He then reconnected himself to the aircraft. In those seconds, the captain had ordered everyone to jump, but Sibray had missed it. He sat at his guns, waiting for the order that, unknown to him, had already been given. He tried to get through to the flight deck on the intercom but there was no reply and he assumed they were all just too busy coping with the emergency. Then he looked out and saw that the smoke from the wing was diminishing and assumed they were getting the problem under control. He stayed at his post for thirty minutes as the Fortress flew on. Then he saw flak bursts closeby and radioed the pilot to maneuver away. When there was no response, and the plane continued on its steady course, he at last realized something was wrong. Sibray crawled out of his turret and back down the fuselage. There was no gunner in the waist position. He kept going. The radio room was empty. Finally, he reached the flight deck, to find it deserted. The Fortress was on automatic pilot and, not as badly damaged as had been thought, had kept going in a straight line. He had been alone in an unpiloted plane for the past 150 miles and so remote from the rest of the crew that he did not know it. Fortunately, since the bomber was on the return leg of the mission, those extra miles had brought him over Allied territory and when he at last bailed out he fell into friendly hands. The others had exited over Germany and spent the rest of the war as prisoners.13
But, isolated as it was in the back of a B-17, there was always the prospect of seeing the face of the enemy, which was something that almost never happened to British crews. The Eighth Air Force flew in daylight instead of under the cover of night, which was when their counterparts in the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command did their work. The American aircraft bristled with guns--from the nose, from the rear, and from the middle, known as the waist. The drawback was that the enemy could see them, too. Shoot-outs in the air, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations between gunners from the Bronx and fighter pilots from Berlin, were normal.
Casualties were fearful. Bob Andrews, a Southerner from Georgia, was just nineteen when he arrived in England, drawn to the fight by a piece of death-or-glory propaganda. "One night, I saw a movie where good ole John Wayne shot down three-fourths of the Japanese air force. I was thrilled and immediately recognized my calling."14 He went to gunnery school and after graduating was sent to kill Germans in Europe rather than Japanese in the Pacific. His first mission was a cakewalk--"No fighters, no flak, no nothing, but I still had a really great feeling to be in combat at last." He adopted the swagger of a veteran. Then, two days later, he really grew up. "It was an aging experience. There was tons of flak and many German fighters, one of which shot at us; I shot at him. To my total amazement he did not go down. As he barrel-rolled by, I had an almost uncontrollable urge to pee. I observed other planes, some with engines out or smoking, others out of formation. I wondered if everyone was experiencing the same subdued terror as me. On the way home I decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea to pray a little." On his first trip to Berlin, his plane was hit by flak and lost an engine. Then they were attacked by six Messerschmitts. "Their first pass shotour ball-turret gunner in the leg, their second hit him in the face. They also shot up the radio operator and the top-turret gunner. During all this melee, my guns jammed. One of the 109s apparently thought I was dead, because he came in real close, pumping cannon shells into us. I was sure I was about to die. I shouted to God for help and my guns immediately unjammed. The next time that fighter came in I fired on him point-blank. It came apart. We claimed and confirmed the destruction of three of them." The victory was hard-won: "The ball-turret gunner was on the floor with his hands over his face and what looked like an eye between his fingers."
It was no wonder that American rear gunners like Eddie Picardo let their hair down whenever they got the chance. He promised himself he would live life to the full while he could. He told any English girls he met--and there were lots--that he came from Hollywood. Movie stardom flashed before their innocent eyes. It certainly did the trick with one girl over a drink and a game of darts in a pub in London. "Boy, was she beautiful, a real tomato, with a great figure!" He was even ready to risk being late back to his base in Norfolk for her. He might be punished, "but what could they do to me anyway? There wasn't anything worse than being in the tail of a B-24 and flying over Germany!" He had always been a man to ride his luck. Called up to the air force for training, he had read in a magazine that the life of a tail gunner in combat lasted about seventeen seconds. "I said, 'Oh hell, I can beat that.' At nineteen I was so cocky I thought I could do anything, especially if I had the chance to kick the hell out of the enemy. I just wanted to be part of it all. I figured I didn't want to be a pilot because the training was so long and it would take a long time to get into action. I thought they could teach me how to shoot a machine gun in twenty minutes and then I'd be ready to go. I became a gunner because it was a way to get in quicker."
Now, flying at twenty-two thousand feet over Germany with a full bomb load in the belly of the B-24, Picardo wondered why he had been so eager. The realities of war hit home when, assigned to the 44th Bomb Group, he and his crew arrived at their new base just outside Norwich, "so wet behind their ears, they shone. An old hand came up to us and asked, 'Who's the tail gunner?' I told him I was, and he pointed toward a bullet-ridden plane on the runway. 'It got a direct hit in the tail today, and they're sucking out what's left of the tail gunner,' he said. It was a pretty stark initiation. But I told myself, that's not going to happen to me." He came very close. On more than one occasion he muttered, "Good night, sweetheart,"to himself as the flak exploded around him and "I found myself alive though I could just as easily be dead." Getting back to base was always a moment of huge relief--"like being granted a reprieve from a death sentence. You started to live for the future again. You could make plans. I was filled with hope that I would see my family and friends again in Seattle or watch the Indians, my baseball team. I'd tell myself, one day I'm going to be sitting watching the guys again, nothing can stop me. Of course the feeling only lasted a short time. It was never long before you had to return to face death."
It is generally agreed that rear gunners like Eddie Picardo and Bob Pierson had one of the worst jobs of all the Allied airmen who took the fight to Germany in the Second World War. They were literally in the firing line, sitting targets for enemy fighters. Bombardier Campbell Muirhead thought the rear turret the most dangerous position in a Lancaster. "An attack usually came from behind, and the rear gunner received the full cannon blast. Sometimes he was the only one who got it. The plane would corkscrew to get away but it would be too late for him."15 Military historian Richard Holmes maintained that the least survivable position was the rear turret and that Tail-End Charlies had "the coldest, loneliest, and most dangerous job of all. The extra demands made on the courage and endurance of rear gunners in the heavy bombers may well have been the most ever regularly required of fighting men. They were outgunned by the cannon-equipped German fighters, and even if they survived an attack that crippled the bomber, few managed to bail out, and aircraft were sometimes seen to crash with the gunners defiantly firing to the last."16 It certainly took a special kind of bravery to climb into that rear turret night after night, to defy common sense and instinct and put your life on the line when everything in you screamed out not to go.
But every job aboard a bomber had its risks, and the simple, shocking truth was that death came pretty indiscriminately in the bomber war. The position a man sat in was largely irrelevant--they all died in droves. To fly in a bomber--whether as pilot or gunner, navigator, engineer, radio operator, or bombardier--was the most dangerous job of the Second World War, as risky as being an infantry officer in the trenches of the First World War. The odds were against survival. As a trainee B-17 pilot, Jim O'Connor recalled sitting in a hall full of boisterous recruits as an elderly officer tried tobring home to them the seriousness of the battle they were about to join. "All you young kids are thinking about is having a smoke and a Coke!" the officer, a veteran of the defeated Polish air force, called out to them in a thick east European accent. "But just look around you. Look to your right and look to your left. Only one out of the three of you is coming back alive! War is hell! I know, because I have been there." O'Connor remembered how they laughed. "We nudged our friends to left and right, but the fact was that, by midsummer 1944, only one out of three of us had survived."
Between 1939 and 1945 the bombing war launched from Britain against Germany claimed the lives of just over 55,500 airmen from the RAF's Bomber Command, around half its entire force. Its casualty rate was higher than any other section of the British armed services. The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) had that same grim distinction among the U.S. forces. After its Eighth Air Force joined the battle in 1942, 26,000 of its officers and enlisted men died in combat. In all, more than 15,000 Allied bombers never returned, shot down by flak or by fighters or crashing as a result of mechanical failure or human error.17 The sacrifice was enormous. On one terrible night 670 Bomber Command aircrew died in a matter of hours on one single raid. This was more than the RAF casualties in the whole of the months-long Battle of Britain.18 If a bomber went down, the odds were that every one of its seven-man crew would die, unable to bail out in time. Even when there were survivors, in the vast majority of cases, fewer than half escaped with their lives.19 The attrition was frightening. In January 1944 the death rate averaged 5 percent per mission--1,700 RAF men lost their lives in that one month. For the bomber crews of the Second World War, with a fifty-fifty chance of survival, every day was a D-Day landing; every time they took off they were "going over the top." And with most needing thirty operations to complete a tour of duty, a man didn't need a math degree to work out that, if he was going to live through this war, he would have to be very lucky indeed.
The extent of the slaughter is barely recognized. In a private room at the RAF archive at Bentley Priory in north London are kept the official documents of all the men who died and the missions that claimed their lives.20 The filing cabinets line two walls of a room in sad, silent testimony. To stand there and try to grasp the individual lives--and deaths--recorded in front of your eyes is devastating. It takes one's breath away and gives pause for thought in the same way as does the Menin Gate monument at Ypres or the Vietnam War wall in Washington. But those are public cenotaphs;Bomber Command's dead have no such memorial. They are filed away, as if they had done nothing to be proud of.
There are many groups of Allied fighting men who are rightly hailed as heroes--the D-Day assault troops who forced their way onto the beaches of Normandy; the Spitfire and Hurricane pilots who won the Battle of Britain; the Desert Rats who turned the tide of war in North Africa; the GIs who held out at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Such distinction is rarely accorded to the men who fought perhaps the most crucial battle of all--the bomber battle.
This is particularly so in Britain. A gracious and grateful nod may be made in their direction for the deeds of Bomber Command earlier in the war. Indeed, few would disagree that, after Dunkirk and after Hitler turned his military adventurism away from conquering Britain and looked east to Moscow, British (and, later, American) bombing was the war in the west, and it carried on being so for three years and more. Night after night, on Churchill's direct instructions, bomber crews took the battle to Germany because only they could. They were his gesture of continuing defiance, their regular raids all that prevented Hitler from peacefully enjoying his conquest of the European mainland. Tens of thousands gave their lives letting the world know that Britain had not hunkered down behind its sea defenses, that one day the Nazis would be defeated.
While this was going on, popular opinion did not inquire too closely whether the targets chosen and hit were fair. "Fair" was not the measure. Bombing military and industrial sites was preferable, but squeamishness about hitting civilians diminished after the Heinkels and Dorniers of the Luftwaffe laid waste to large areas of London, Liverpool, Coventry, and Bristol. The scruples that had prompted one RAF leader early in the war to forbid the bombing of arms factories in Germany because they were private property belonged to a lost age. Total war meant just that, and the principal arguments about bombing centered on how accurate and effective it was rather than whether or not it was ethical. Thus, an Air Ministry directive in 1942 ordered Bomber Command to focus its activities on "the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular of the industrial workers." 21 It gave carte blanche to hit their homes as well as their places of work. A year later, after a summit meeting between Winston Churchill and the U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Casablanca, Bomber Commandand the American Eighth Air Force were jointly instructed to make their primary objective "the progressive destruction and dislocation of the morale of the German military, industrial, and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened."22
Harris, the head of Bomber Command since February 1942, took this order at face value. His target was German cities, and he never wavered from that thought. He continued with it throughout 1944 and into 1945. It has made a monster of him in the eyes of his many critics. They argue that area bombing, justifiable when survival was at stake, became terror bombing when victory was in sight. They claim that thousands of airmen's lives were sacrificed needlessly in pursuing a pointless vendetta against the German capital, Berlin, which did nothing to break the morale of the people or hasten the end of the war. They see the slaughter at Dresden in February 1945 as tantamount to a war crime.
We will come to these arguments in due course. For now, let us just say that Harris's men saw things--saw him--differently. With a few exceptions the men of Bomber Command we have spoken to or whose stories we have uncovered supported their commander in chief wholeheartedly. Bob Pierson is unshakable in his belief that Harris was a great leader who acted honorably. "I admire him. Giving the orders he did was a terrible responsibility, sending men like me to die. But in his mind it was the right thing to do." Arthur White, a navigator in Lancasters, made his first sortie to Germany in October 1944, long after the critics of Bomber Command say the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt and the continued bombing of German cities was unnecessary. He took no pleasure in what he was doing. "I was awestruck at the devastation we had helped to create," he said. But he felt justified then and he still does now. "Those who have tried to discredit Bomber Command should look at war as it really is. Despite Hague and Geneva Conventions, there are no rules of war. It's the aggressor who decides how you have to play, and Hitler opted for total war. Bomber Command didn't do anything the Luftwaffe hadn't done. We simply did it better."23
This is an accurate assessment, though acknowledgment of it has only ever been grudgingly given. Even before the war ended, the aerial bombardment of Germany was being treated as a guilty secret. Churchill distanced himself from it--and, shamefully, was the first to do so--though for years he had been happy to give Harris free rein. Six weeks after DresdenChurchill decided, as he put it in a minute to the chiefs of staff, that "the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities for the sake of increasing terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed ... . The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing."24 It was a betrayal, the more shocking for its insouciance, as if this had never been anything to do with him. Yet, as we will see, Dresden was Churchill's baby, however much he was now keen for someone else to adopt it. Nor was it conscience that prompted the prime minister. He was thinking of postwar realities--if the destruction went on, "we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land." Although the minute was withdrawn after protests from the chiefs of staff and redrafted in a less accusatory way, its tone of moral indignation had done its damage to Harris and the men under his command. The slur on their reputation has never gone away, partly because no one stopped to hear their side of the story. Now elderly men, they need to be heard before it is too late, before there are no more of them left to tell us what really happened, why they did what they did, how it felt to be living at that awful time of death and destruction. If we are to understand them and their times, we must make the mental leap back to 1944 and 1945, to understand what it was like to live through those anguished years. And the most important step of all is not to assume that an Allied victory was a mere formality or a certainty. Too many commentators on the activities of Bomber Command and the Eighth Air Force in the last fifteen months of the war have let their judgment be colored by what they know was ahead. That most eminent of classical historians, C.V. Wedgwood, once wrote: "History is lived forward but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only." But if history is to be fair to the forgotten men of Bomber Command and the American Eighth Air Force, we must try to recapture the moment--their moment. Only that way can we be truthful to those who lived it.
In 1944--where this story begins--the war had been going on for five years. Everyone wanted it to be over. But no one expected the end imminently, and the fighting men were understandably skeptical. In July that year, Campbell Muirhead recorded in his diary: "Forecasts that it could be over by Christmas. But I seem to remember such forecasts back in 1939!" He was right to be cautious. The Allied armies were on the European mainland but were stalled in Normandy and in Italy. V-1 bombs were raining on London and civilians had been evacuated from the capitalfor the first time since 1940. They did not know it, but ahead lay the serious setbacks of Arnhem and the Battle of the Bulge. Meanwhile, from their Lancasters and B-17s, bomber pilots and their crews gasped in amazement at German jet planes streaking across the skies at speeds they had never seen before. Jim O'Connor, copilot in a B-17, remembered coming under attack from two of them, "looking out of the cockpit and observing two blurs fly past with our tracer bullets trailing behind them. The gunners could not track them fast enough, even with their hydraulic turrets. They were Me-262 jet fighters--we called them 'rocket ships.' They made one pass at the formation, and then disappeared, their flying time in the air being limited. But the significance of the attack of these first jet fighters was like the rumble of a distant drum." This was a war that was far from over.
Bob Pierson had no sense of the end being close, whatever the historians might tell him now. "Our flying operations got longer as we penetrated farther and farther into Germany. On the ground we knew our armies were advancing. It had to come to an end sooner or later, but we had no idea when, and we were never overconfident about it. And I never had any doubt that we had to carry on doing what we were doing if we were to bring it to an end. What if we had stopped bombing and the war had then gone on for years and years? Then I suppose all those atrocities the Germans were carrying out and which were not uncovered until it was over, they would have continued as well. No, we were right to do what we did."
It was not until 25 March 1945 that Churchill stood with Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces, on the banks of the Rhine and declared: "My dear general, the German is whipped. We've got him. He is all through." As late as January of that year, General George Patton, a soldier of normally unbounded optimism, had written in his diary: "We can still lose this war. The Germans are colder and hungrier than we are but they fight better."25 That is why Harris kept his men at the task he had given them of bombing Germany to its knees. Military experts have put forward plausible arguments that Hitler had in effect lost the war in 1941, when the United States joined in, in 1942, when the tide turned in the desert, in 1943, when Paulus's army surrendered at the gates of Stalingrad, or in June 1944, when Rommel failed to stop the Allies clambering onto the beaches of Normandy. So much for twenty-twenty hindsight.
The men of Bomber Command and the Eighth Air Force, with only their twenty-twenty vision to save them from dying, had no such comfortinginsight, only the uncertainty of tomorrow. In a fight to the finish, at the tail end of the most brutal of wars, they did not have the luxury of seeing into the future. They dared not even try. For too many of them, there would be no future at all.
TAIL-END CHARLIES. Copyright © 2006 by John Nichol and Tony Rennell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.