Tail gunner

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Tail Gunner in Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, 1943.

A tail gunner or rear gunner is a crewman on a military aircraft who functions as a gunner defending against enemy fighter attacks from the rear, or "tail", of the plane. The tail gunner operates a flexible machine gun emplacement in the tail end of the aircraft with a unobstructed view toward the rear of the aircraft. While the term tail gunner is usually associated with a crewman inside a gun turret, tail guns may also be operated by remote control from another part of the aircraft.

General description

A Nash & Thomson FN-20 turret fitted to an Avro Lancaster, Imperial War Museum Duxford (2006)

The tail gun armament and arrangement varied between countries. During World War II, most United States Army Air Forces heavy bomber designs such as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Boeing B-29 Superfortress used a fixed gunner position with the guns themselves in a separate mounting covering an approximately 90-degree rear arc. Typical armament was two 0.50 inch M2 Browning machine guns.

In contrast, Royal Air Force heavy bombers such as the Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax used a powered turret capable of 180 degree rotation containing the tail gunner and four 0.303 inch Browning machine guns. A similar arrangement was used in the American B-24 Liberator heavy bomber (but with two 0.50 inch heavy machine guns.) Most British turrets were manufactured by two companies Nash & Thomson and Boulton & Paul Ltd and the same turret model was fitted to a number of different aircraft.

In most many German and Italian aircraft, and smaller ground attack aircraft and dive bomber, no tail gunner was used but a dorsal gun behind the cockpit or ventral gun along the belly of the aircraft replaced the tail gunner position covering the tail. This position was blocked by the fuselage but allowed better weight distribution.

The tail gunner's role as mainly as a lookout for attacking enemy fighters, particularly in British bombers operating at night. As these aircraft operated individually instead of being part of a bombing formation, the bombers' first reaction to an attacking night fighter was to engage in radical evasive maneuvers such as a corkscrew roll; firing guns in defense was of secondary importance. The British slang term for tail gunners was "Tail-end Charlies",[1][2] while in the Luftwaffe they were called Heckschwein ("tail-end pigs").

In the autumn of 1944, the British began deploying Lancasters fitted with the Automatic Gun-Laying Turret, which was fitted with a 3 GHz (9.1 cm) radar. The image from the radar's cathode ray tube was projected onto the turret's gunsight, allowing the gunner to fire on targets in complete darkness, with corrections for lead and bullet drop being automatically computed.

Last combat usage

The tail turret on the B-52-D at the Imperial War Museum Duxford (2006)

The tail gunner was most commonly used during World War 2 and last used in combat during the Vietnam War (on large bombers), but the position has become largely obsolete due to advancements in long-range air combat weapons such as air-to-air missiles as well as modern detection and countermeasures against such armaments.

On 18 December 1972, during Operation Linebacker II, USAF B-52 Stratofortresses of the Strategic Air Command conducted a major bombing campaign against North Vietnam. As the bombers approached the target, SAMs (Surface To Air Missiles) exploded around the Stratofortresses.[3] After completing its bombing run, callsign Brown III was warned of Vietnam People's Air Force (NVAF-North Vietnamese Air Force) MiGs. Brown III's tailgunner, SSGT Samuel O. Turner, shot down a MiG-21 interceptor, becoming the first tailgunner to shoot down an enemy aircraft since the Korean War.[3]

On 24 December 1972 during the same bombing campaign B-52 Stratofortress Diamond Lil was attacking railroad yards at Thái Nguyên when the tailgunner detected a MiG-21 8 miles (13 km) away climbing to intercept.[4] The aircraft took evasive action and dropped chaff and flares while the gunner fired around 800 rounds from 2,000 yards, causing the MiG-21 to fall, on fire.[5] That incident was the last tail gunner to shoot down an enemy aircraft with machine guns during war time.

The last combat usage of tail gunners by the United States was in 1991, during the Gulf War. During the war, a missile struck a B-52 by locking onto the tail gunner's radar. It is disputed whether or not it was friendly fire by an F-4 Phantom[6] or an enemy missile fired from a MiG-29.[7] On October 1, 1991, Master Sergeant Tom Lindsey became the last USAF tail gunner to serve on a B-52 sortie.[8]

List of aircraft with tail gun positions

This is a list of aircraft with tail gun positions.



He 177 A-5 tail gun position, with MG 151 cannon and bulged upper glazing for upright gunner's seating


British Second World War poster depicting the tail gunner of a Avro Lancaster bomber


United Kingdom


Tail gunner in B-24 Liberator


See also


  1. Johnson, Richard Riley (1995). Twenty Five Milk Runs (And a few others): To Hell's Angels and back. Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing. p. 96. ISBN 1-4120-2501-X. Retrieved 2009-10-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. In the USAAF the term was adopted as the last bomber in a unit formation, or the last unit formation in a larger bomber stream, both considered highly vulnerable.
  3. 3.0 3.1 McCarthy, p. 139
  4. McCarthy, p. 141
  5. Branum, Don (27 December 2010). "B-52 Tail-gunner Recalls MiG Downing (Vietnam)". Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs. Retrieved 1 September 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Tucker, Spencer. "U.S. Conflicts in the 21st Century: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, and the War".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Safaric, Jan. "Iraqi Air-Air Victories" (PDF).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Condor, Albert. "Air Force Gunners".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McCarthy, Donald J. Jr. MiG Killers; A Chronology of US Air Victories in Vietnam 1965–1973. 2009. ISBN 978-1-58007-136-9.

External links