America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force

America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force

Khalid Elhassan - October 17, 2018

“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

-The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, by Randall Jarrell

During the interwar years, a belief grew among many aviation advocates and leaders that fleets of bombers would prove the decisive weapon of the next war. Air power would prove paramount, they reasoned, as it broke an enemy people’s will by destroying their country’s vital centers. Armies, so the argument went, would become superfluous, because bomber airplanes would overfly them, and attack their centers of government, military, and industry, with impunity. It was eventually distilled into the principle, derived from the theories of Italian general Giulio Douhet, that “The bomber will always get through”.

Buying into Douhet’s theories that bombers were unstoppable, American – and to a lesser extent British – aviation leaders bought into the idea of ensuring they would be unstoppable by transforming them into “aerial battleships”. The exemplar of that “aerial battleship” concept would be the Boeing B-17 heavy bomber, designed to fight its way deep into enemy territory, strike strategic targets, then make its way back to base by dint of its defensive armaments. Bristling with machine guns manned by trained aerial machine gunners, the B-17 was described by a reporter as a “Flying Fortress” when it was first unveiled, and Boeing quickly adopted and trademarked the nickname.

America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force
A B-17 waist gunner. Flickr

American Bomber Doctrine Relied on Aerial Gunners

Early in WWII, Britain’s Royal Air Force tried out the notion that “the bomber will always get through” with a daylight strategic bombing campaign against Germany. However, RAF bombers, unescorted because British fighters lacked the range to penetrate deep into Germany, sustained such heavy losses that they had to abandon daylight bombing altogether, and switch to nighttime raids instead. When the US joined the war, the British urged America’s airmen to join them in nighttime bombing, and warned them that going up against the Luftwaffe during the daytime would prove too costly.

However, American bomber training, doctrine, and bomb aiming equipment, were all based on clear target visibility. So it came down to either American daylight bombing, or no American bombing at all. US Army Air Corps (later Air Forces) were optimistic that their bombers would succeed where the British had failed. They had faith that their airplanes, more robust and more heavily armed than RAF bombers, would successfully fend of German fighters, especially when flying in tight formations to offer mutual protection.

Fighter attacks against WWII bombers usually lasted no more than a few terrifying seconds. During that time, the bombers’ machine gunners had to figure out in split seconds the attacking airplane’s speed, range, path of attack, and their own machine gun bullets’ ballistics and trajectory. After working all out that out in their minds, the gunners had to line align their weapons and sights, and open up on the attackers. Throughout, they often prayed that their machine guns’ mechanisms or bullet belts had not iced up, and that they would not experience a weapons jam at the worst possible time.

America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force
B-17 crew positions. WW2 Investigations

“Spray and pray” – hosing the sky in the general direction of the attackers with machinegun bullets in the hope of hitting something – was not advisable. Aside from the small likelihood of actually hitting the enemy fighters closing in on them with bad intentions, there was the not so small likelihood of accidentally hitting and shooting down other bombers in their tightly packed formations.

As things turned out, the notion that the bombers would “always get through” – at least at acceptable loss rates – proved woefully wrong. The bombers’ manned machine guns proved inadequate to protect the bombers from determined air attacks by well trained enemy fighters. However, it took some hard knocks, and heavy losses, before that lesson was driven home and accepted by American aerial commanders.

America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force
A trainee at a US Army Air Forces aerial gunnery school in Florida. Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine

Aerial Machine Gunners

Bomber gunnery was quite complex, and hitting an enemy airplane from a bomber was far more difficult than doing so from a fighter, whose pilot simply aims the plane and fires straight ahead. By contrast, bombers’ aerial gunners often fired to the side, requiring them to factor in numerous variable, including the bomber’s speed, which ends up slewing the bullets sideways, relative speed of the approaching fighter to the bomber, and basic ballistics.

During the interwar years, American bomber crews were taught aerial gunnery in a generalized way at US Army Air Corps schools. However, after WWII and the lessons of the early years filtered in, the need for well trained aerial gunners became apparent, so the first specialized aerial gunnery school was opened in Las Vegas in mid 1941. Another school opened in Texas a few months later, and after America joined the war, five more were opened – another in Texas, two in Florida, and two in Arizona.

It was a six week training course, that began with firing with pellet guns at indoors target galleries, such as those at county fairs and amusement parks. It then progressed to skeet shooting outdoors with shotguns, and finally, to machine gun ranges where trainees fired .30 and .50 caliber weapons. There was also class work on aircraft recognition, range estimation, Morse code, and the theory of ballistics. Operating at full capacity, the aerial gunnery schools could pump out up to 3500 aerial gunners per week, and by war’s end, they had graduated nearly 300,000 trained crewmen.

America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force
Ball turret gunner. Pintrest

Once training was complete, aerial gunners were sent out to operational bomber units as crewmen, serving as waist gunners, tail gunners, or most physically demanding, as ball turret gunners. The spherical manned ball turrets, deployed mainly on the bottoms of B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, were very small in order to reduce drag, and were typically manned by the smallest crew member. Even so, it was still a tight and cramped fit. The ball turret gunner had to assume a fetal position with his shoulders and head against the rear wall, the small of his back and buttocks on the turret’s bottom, his legs held up by straps, with a pair of .50 caliber machine guns stuck between them. Other than during takeoffs and landing, the turret gunner had to remain inside the turret for missions that could last up to ten hours or more.

While the ball turret was the most uncomfortable station for aerial gunners, the most dangerous one was that of tail gunners. Often known as “tail end Charlies”, they operated machine guns placed in the bombers’ rear, and were tasked with acting as lookouts and primary defense for attacks from that direction. Unfortunately for tail gunners, attacking from the rear was one of the German fighters’ favorite tactics. While other attack angles ran the risk of facing most or all of a bomber’s machine guns, a careful attack from the rear placed the Luftwaffe pilots in an advantageous one-on-one matchup with the rear gunner.

America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force
A B-24 tail gunner. James E. Berryhill

Heavy Losses Led to the Abandonment of Unescorted Bomber Raids Deep Into the Third Reich

The most famous aerial gunner was probably Clark Gable – MGM’s biggest earner when WWII began. Following his wife’s death in an air crash while returning from a war bonds tour, a devastated Gable decided to enlist. Despite MGM’s reluctance to let its most lucrative star go, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942, with the hope of becoming an aerial gunner. He was sent instead to Officer Candidate School, which he completed in October 1942. On personal orders from the Air Forces’ chief, general Hap Arnold, Gable was sent to the Eighth Air Force in England, and tasked with making a combat recruitment film for aerial gunners, titled Combat America.

To obtain the combat footage needed for his recruitment film, Gable flew five combat missions in 1943 as a B-17 waist gunner, including a bombing raid into Germany. His presence in the missions was for propaganda and PR purposes, but the dangers he ran were all too real: during one mission, his B-17 lost an engine, had its stabilizer damaged after it was hit by antiaircraft fire, and was attacked by fighters. Over Germany, his B-17 had two crewmen wounded and another killed after being struck by flak, and shrapnel went through Gable’s boot and almost took off his head.

However, Clark Gable’s exhortations notwithstanding, the idea of sending bombers deep into Germany, and expecting them to protect themselves, turned out to be a bad one. While American heavy bombers such as the B-17s were exceptionally rugged, and heavily armed, they were inadequate for raiding deep into enemy territory on their own. That lesson was driven home with a vengeance in 1943, when unescorted raids resulted in heavy and unsustainable losses to German fighters.

Among the catastrophic raids was that against a ball bearing factory in Schweinfurt, which resulted in the loss of 36 out of 230 B-17s that took part, and heavy damage to dozens more. Even worse was a raid against the Ploesti oilfield complex in Romania: out of 177 B-24s that took off, 162 reached the target, and out of those, 53 were shot down, with the loss of 660 crewmen. Of the 109 that made it back to base, 58 were so badly damaged as to be beyond repair.

America’s Aerial Gunners in World War II Were Believed to Be an Unstoppable Force
B-17 waist gunner Clark Gable. American Air Museum

Such loss rates were unsustainable, and American bombers were thus forced to pull back and limit themselves to targets closer to Britain and within fighter protection range. Fortunately, US fighter range steadily grew, and with the introduction of drop tanks, American P-38 and P-47 fighters began escorting B-17s and B-24 to targets deeper within the Third Reich. The arrival of improved versions of the P-51 Mustang, equipped with drop tanks that gave them the range to escort bombers virtually anywhere in Europe, was a game changer that finally removed all restrictions. From then on, steadily intensifying daylight raids by American helped reduce the Nazis’ empire to rubble.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Air & Space Magazine – How to Become a Ball Turret Gunner

Hastings, Max – Bomber Command (1980)

Huffington Post, November 11th, 2015 – My Dad Was a Ball Turret Gunner in WWII

Miller, Donald L. Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (2007)

War History Online – Joem Chiminiello Shared the Horrors of Living in the Dangerous Ball Turret

Wikipedia – Ball Turret

Wikipedia – Tail Gunner