Thursday, September 7, 2006

Finished a while ago: "Gunner" by Donald Nijboer

Finished a while ago: Gunner: an illustrated history of World War II aircraft turrets and gun positions, by Donald Nijboer, photos by Dan Patterson, 2001, 1550463322.

I always thought B-17s and B-24s were like sturdy porcupines that would scare away or shoot down any enemy air opposition. Nope. 'Flying Fortress' was a misnomer. A quote on the fate of gunners: "Failure of their leaders to see the limits of the self-defending bomber and to develop the long-range fighter sooner sealed their fate."

The theory of the self-defending bomber was the rage in the '30s. Fast bombers flying at high speed with a defensive armament were thought to be immune to fighter attack. British bombing raids in 1939 tested the self-defending bomber theory during daylight raids and the losses - 12 of 22 Wellington bombers lost in one Dec, '39 raid - forced a switch to night bombing in April, 1940.

The hand-aimed guns of the first bombers were inadequate. The powerful slipstream and speedy fighters ruined the gunners' accuracy. Different powered turrets were adopted over the next couple of years and the number of machine guns increased. Some British fighters were stuck with smaller .30 caliber guns unlike the honking .50 caliber guns the U.S. AAF used.

Even powered turrets proved inadequate. Only fighter escort could effectively defend the fighters from German planes. The Pacific campaign was different though. The spread-out island fighting meant there were few large bomber formations and fewer flak defenses. The experienced and well-trained Japanese pilots died out early in the war leaving the Japanese without a strong fighter force.

Gunner covers several different aircraft and divides them into four, two, and single engine sections. Each section includes a history of the aircraft and its pluses and minuses. Quotes and stories from gunners and photo and cross section illustrations of gun positions are included.

Here are a couple good stories:

"We were flying in the tail-end-Charlie position of the formation when the next thing I noticed was an Me 109 level at about 7, 8 o'clock and in a position where I couldn't reach him with my guns. He lowered his gear and flaps and flew along with us. He sat there while the ball turret gunner and I instructed the pilot to move the plane so we could get a clear shot, but the German pilot knew the blind spot of the B-17 very well. I watched as he took off his oxygen mask and smoked a cigarette. After about two or three minutes, he pulled up his gear and dropped below like a rock. He apparently had run out of ammunition. That was the closest I ever got to seeing the face of the enemy."

"To be honest with you, I though the front turret was a bit of a bummer. You couldn't swing the turret because it would throw the airplane trim off. The pilot would say, 'Leave the goddamn turret alone.' [W]hen you moved the turret, the slipstream would come howling through. The bombardier and navigator would scream like a son of a bitch because the wind coming through was as low as sixty degrees below zero."

"As effective as this system [B-29's gun system] was, the fact remained that many B-29s were shot down by Japanese fighters. Throughout the Second World War, the fighter always had the advantage over the bomber, no matter how sophisticated the defensive armament was. With the introduction of jet fighters at the conclusion of the war, the days of the multi-turret armed bomber came to an end."

Luke and Han's gunnery heroics were definitely science fiction.

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