The Sandiacre Screw Company (5)

Young Keith Doncaster, whom we have met already four times, was a mid-upper gunner, who sat in a perspex dome half way along the bomber’s fuselage. He protected the aircraft from attacks originating from above the horizon, mostly diving attacks from the rear. His turret was rather like an upturned goldfish bowl and could become extremely hot on occasion. That occasion was quite rare, and cold, particularly at altitude and at night, was a far more frequent problem:

An ex-Lancaster gunner, Russell Margerison, listed the clothes he wore for each mission:

“Women’s silk stockings, woollen knee-caps, woollen long johns with sleeves and a high neck, a shirt, trousers, ordinary socks and over those, long woollen ones. Then a thick pullover, a battle-dress top, a heated suit, an outer suit of kapok, electrically heated slippers, fur-lined boots, silk gloves, heated long gloves, and leather gauntlets. And anti-freeze ointment on any exposed flesh.”

If the perspex was shot away, temperatures might drop to 60° below.

Margerison said that the gunners hardly ever fired their guns. If anybody spotted an enemy aircraft, they would shout: “Corkscrew port !!” or “Corkscrew starboard !!” and the supremely agile thirty ton bomber would embark on its famous twisting and turning manoeuvre which no German fighter could possibly keep up with, especially in darkness:

Keith would have been familiar with this life. Ruled by superstition, clothes were always put on in a set sequence and mascots such as lucky dolls or toys were always taken along. And there were “chop girls”, young ladies whose boyfriends kept getting killed and whom nobody would date any more, no matter how pretty they were. And then there was the constant hunt for fuel for the metal stove in the middle of an icy Nissen hut:

The crew were the most important people in Keith’s life. Outside these seven men, you were a fool to make other close friendships when life expectancy was six weeks with just four weeks for a rear gunner. Only your family counted for more than your crew:

Before D-Day, 65% of crew members were killed before they completed their “tour” of thirty missions. Each mission carried a 4% chance of being shot down. Overall, the casualty rate was around 45%, and eventually 55,573 men would be killed. The death rate in the US Eighth Air Force was considerably lower. This was because they wore their parachutes during missions. Those silken life savers were not stored away from the owner. And the Eighth Air Force flew in daylight when it was easier, theoretically, to get out of the plane:






Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, military, Nottingham, The High School

17 responses to “The Sandiacre Screw Company (5)

  1. When I think of the lives of these men and the overwhelming terror in which the lived — given their losses, how could they not — how can anyone leave a comment?

    • The RAF kept the effects of fear to a minimum, by having “LMF” or “Lacks moral fibre”. Most men would have delivered newspapers around Hell rather than have that on their record. The other, probably much more important, motivating force was the desire not to let the rest of your crew down. That was the worst thing you could do, and men would tolerate any level of fear not to do it.
      The Eighth Air Force allowed anybody who wanted to stop flying bomber missions to do so. Funnily enough, the rate of men leaving was pretty much the same as Bomber Command.

  2. It is a wonder that they could move with all that clothing. I terrible toll

    • Yes, it was, and only the U-boat crews lost a higher ratio of members as far as I know. The clothing seems incredible to me, quite frankly, but that was the list I found on an RAF Forum years ago. I’ve always had the idea that you finished up like a deep sea diver, with that level of manoeuvrability!

  3. A four-week life expectancy as a rear gunner! It’s a miracle that anyone survived such odds. What a self-destructive species we continue to be.

    • We certainly do, with the Russian army leading the way. Last night I watched the news and they made the point that even if the Russians do eventually win the war, all they will have gained is a pile of rubble that they themselves created. Nobody seems to understand this, They are all intoxicated by the heady scent of victory.

  4. I wonder what goes through the mind of a young man when he crawls into the tiny space where is the rear gunner sits!

    • To be honest, I think it would be not to let his mates down, because rear gunner was an extremely important job, spotting fighters behind them who were always trying to get into their favourite position, which was below and behind the bomber. And perhaps even more than that, not to fall asleep, although at the usual 40 degrees below, that was often quite a difficult feat to acomplish!

  5. Chop girls, calling them that is so cruel. It is not their fault their are young men were getting killed. That grief and on top of this to be labeled so. It has always been and will be a man’s world. Thank you for sharing.

    • My pleasure, Lakshmi. I don’t think the men were cruel. It was rather that the death rates were so high, and the men were all desperately superstitious. Anything that might affect their chances of going home to see their family, they would want to do.
      I once read that a member of a bomber crew refused to take off because he had forgotten his lucky teddy bear and the commander of the squadron drove off in his car to fetch it for him.
      The other side of the situation was that if an RAF man really loved a girl, he would be more likely to marry her than if it were peacetime. The reason for this was that, if he got killed, she would get a pension for the rest of her life. In that way, some good, however small, would come from his death.

  6. There are endless stories of superstitions and how crews avoided tempting fate. Each one may seem bizarre to us today but I bet in the same position, we’d be exactly that precise in our routines, or taking that soft toy on board a machine built for mass destruction. Very interesting post John.

    • Thank you very much! The reason for superstition was that so many men were being killed but nobody could find a specific reason why. Had it been something simple that they were all doing wrong, then that might be remedied, but the reasons for all those deaths were not in the slightest bit obvious. That is the moment when superstition comes into its own. Superstition can always explain away anything, and provide what seems at the time to be a good reason, or at least one better than , “When your number is up, it’s up.”
      My Dad was sleeping one morning at around four o’clock when one of the clearance squads arrived in the nissen hut. These were the men who took away all the belongings, including bedding, from the men who had been killed on the previous night’s raid. They were like high speed vultures, and clearly very practiced. My Dad said it was really scary to see these men, and to suddenly realise what they were doing. And it tended to make you think “You’re next !”

  7. Than you for sharing!!.. it takes a great deal of courage to get aboard a plane knowing the odds were not very good of seeing home and loved ones….. unfortunately that is the sign of conflict….your books of the RAF remind me of a book I read a few times in the past called The Dam Busters… 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May your troubles be less
    Your blessings be more
    And nothing but happiness
    Come through your door
    (Irish Saying)

  8. Well, thank you, that is high praise indeed! I believe that the book was written by an Australian called Paul Brickhill.
    So few men gave up combat flying in bombers in the RAF because they felt that they couldn’t let the rest of their crew down. They would take death rather than do anything to harm their mates who, for the duration of the war, were their new family.

  9. Jeff

    I think the price of life was different then, and in my view it changed with the Vietnam war – to win with a great loss of life is one thing, but to lose with a great loss of life is another. I think it emanated from America and has permeated the west, possibly aided by a decrease in death through accidents at work as heavy industry declined. Basically death has become more unusual and at the same time more shocking.

    Have you watched the TV series of Catch-22 (Channel 4)? One of the best of recent years and whilst extremely funny it also covers the same ground as your post – the crew, the fatality rates and completing the tour of duty.

  10. No, I haven’t seen Catch-22. I didn’t like the original film, and so I wasn’t attracted to a TV series. Perhaps I should have been!
    I think your ideas about the way death has become more unusual are extremely interesting. I have read, I think in Max Hastings, that when it was obvious that the war was pretty well over and won, troops in both Europe and the Pacific were very reluctant to attack the enemy on foot, but would always radio for air support. In the Pacific Theatre I have also read that the US Navy set up a “highway” of ships under the B-29s’ flight paths between Japan and Iwo Jima, so that they could rescue any crews that ditched. The result was a lot of B-29s landing in the ocean because that was thought to be safer than flying over enemy territory. Whether that was true, I really could not say, but you can certainly see where it was coming from.

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