The terrors of being a tail end Charlie
Tail end Charlie sounds like a fun character from a pantomime. In reality, the very opposite – one of the most dangerous assignments during WW2. Too frightening to contemplate.
This coming Sunday I am speaking at the Remembrance Day service at Christ Church, Newburgh – a small village just to the north of us, at the foot of Parbold hill with a population of about 1000. An important service.
Their war memorial is situated in the church grounds and it shows the names of those fallen in the two world wars, some ten men from the Great War – and then on the base, as a sad addition to the original monument, four names from WW2.
Of those four names, three men - Noel Green, Thomas Horrocks and Wilfred Wilkinson were with Bomber command. They were friends who shared a passion for motorbikes, and as friends they signed up for the RAF together. They were accepted for flying training and subsequently were selected for crew on the Avro Lancaster four-engined strategic bomber
Winifred, who was to be awarded the DFC, served as a flight engineer while his two friends became gunners, Thomas a mid upper gunner while Noel a tail end gunner, otherwise known as a tail end Charlie, named after the eponymous Charles Cooper the very first rear-end gunner on the Lancaster.
One of Jacqui’s uncles was a tail end Charlie, and until researching the subject I simply had no idea what a terrible position it was, literally. First of all, there was the cramped space in the small turret at the rear of the plane. So tight, in fact, that you had to put your flying boots into the turret before you hauled yourself in, and then you put them on.
And there you were for the entire duration of the mission, usually about ten hours, alone. No heating, of course, You had to rely on a heavy jacket and two layers of gloves along with your helmet, ear phones and oxygen mask. Being at the back of the plane you were subject to the violent movements of the aircraft with high G-forces, especially as you flew through heavy flak.
The main role of tail end Charlie was to lookout for enemy fighters and once fired upon you then employed your gun with about two minutes worth of ammunition. To this end you were positioned in a powered turret capable of 180-degree rotation.
And if your plane was hit, you would have real problems getting out. The turret doors were behind the gunner, requiring a180 degree rotation, assuming the hydraulics were working. Moreover, your parachute pack would be on your chest.
Very simply, to be a tail-end Charlie was a truly terrifying prospect. All of which meant inordinately high mortality among tail gunners—of the 55,573 Bomber Command crew killed in WW2, some 22,000 were tail gunners, or almost 40 per cent of the KIAs in a crew of which they comprised 14 per cent.
Or to put it another way. How many tours would a tail end Charlie, on average, undertake before being shot down – and probably killed?
I cannot comprehend the sheer terror of climbing into the rear turret before a mission, knowing that you would probably perish. And these are just ordinary blokes.
Noel was born and brought up in Newburgh. He married Georgina and worked at Laverys cake factory in nearby Burscough, best known for their slab cakes. Alongside his passion for motorbikes was his love of horses.
And yet here he was, on 25th May 1944, in the rear turret of a Lancaster bomber flying off from RAF Elsham Wolds in north Lincolnshire as part of a formation of 442 aircraft heading for railway marshalling yards in Aachen. His pilot, flight sergeant Derek Cobley from Peterborough was just 22 years old. (Imagine flying with EasyJet knowing your pilot was only 22!)
Noel would have seen in a flash the Messerschmitt flying towards his plane before it was hit by cannon fire. . Only the bodies of the two gunners were recoverable from their Lancaster’s wreckage, Noel and his Canadian colleague Joseph Labelle (23 years). Their graves are at the Rheinberg war cemetery.
Once again we witness the terrors of war, in Gaza, in the Ukraine, in so many other places such as in South Yemen; so many people caught up in this manifestation of evil. And yet we witness the sheer heroism of ordinary people, finding themselves in extraordinary situations. Like Noel Green who works at the cake factory in Burscough.
No doubt those tail end Charlies who survived the war must have been badly damaged in the era when PTSD was fully recognised for the terrible condition it is. Most men, like Jacqui’s uncle, never spoke about their wartime trauma. They just got on with life as best they could.
I’ve no idea what happened to Georgina. I guess she would have gone back to her parents in Benwell near Newcastle-on-Tyne
Not that you can say much more in a blog like this. War is hell, and we live in a universe where evil crouches near. So we thank God for those who endured such horrors, even giving their lives, for our freedoms which we so readily take for granted.
We owe it to them to treasure their memory, lest we forget.