The Tail End Charlie

A view from one of the loneliest, most dangerous jobs in war

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In war, there is rarely a good position to be in. In the Second World War, much of the fighting took place in the skies above Europe. Both sides carried out concentrated bombing raids on civilian and military targets alike, and thousands of men on either side flew into missions, with many never to return home. Out of the crewmen on these bombers, one position was perhaps the most dangerous; and definitely the loneliest.

The rear gunner was tasked with defending any attacks from enemy fighters from the blindside. Also known as the Tail End Charlie, it was a position which wasn’t for the faint hearted. Regardless of the type of bomber, it would be cramped and uncomfortable. The tail end charlies would be seen as an important position to take out for enemy fighters, adding to the danger of being sat at the very back of the plane.

The dangers went beyond fighters. Artillery fire from below was a threat to knockout the bombers defences, but the elements would also be a risk. The high altitude paths which bombers followed would subject the gunners to harsh temperatures. Some bombers had measures in place to keep the rear gunners warm, such as electric heated flying suits. However, a risk with these would be that the rear gunner would drift off to sleep. For many Tail End Charlie’s, being cold was better than missing an oncoming enemy plane.

The loneliness of the rear gunner position can be seen through using the most famous heavy bomber of the war as an example. Take a Lancaster bomber for example. The pilot, bomb aimer, navigator, engineer and wireless operator all sat up top in the aircraft. The middle gunner would be further down the plane but still within a reasonable distance of those ahead of him, and way down the back would be the Tail End Charlie.

As well as physical exhaustion, the rear gunner would also be drained mentally. Their need to sit, permanently switched on would have been incredibly taxing. Even more so to watch other aircraft in the squadron get shot out of the sky and knowing that his plane would be next to go down, regardless of how many rounds of ammunition he fired off. It may be entirely possible that many of the Tail End Charlie’s felt a sense of helplessness, lacking the control that pilots had over their aircraft.

The Second World War pushed many people to the brink. It placed soldiers, sailors and airmen in perilous positions; far beyond what any human should be put through. For those men sitting at the back of the thousands of bombers which flew across the skies of Europe, they were the loneliest line of defence. Having to sit, staring into the emptiness of the sky knowing that one lapse in concentration could endanger the lives of himself and his crew mates is something which is hard to comprehend.

Their job was horrendous, as was the case for most of the bomber crews in the Second World War. hundreds of thousands of men on both sides were killed, wounded or captured during the bombing missions on the war.

Warfare has moved on, to the point that heavy bombers manned by half a dozen men are no longer required. Most bombing missions in the 21st century are carried out by unmanned drones, but the sheer volume of manpower used in the bomber squadrons of the Second World War is an example of how humanity fought its wars only decades ago.

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I am a journalist with an honours degree from Coventry University. Passionate writing about politics, culture, sport, society and more

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