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'Tail-End Charlie'

Wallace McIntosh from Aberdeen survived 55 World War II missions as a Lancaster Rear gunner in Bomber Command's 207 Squadron. A War Hero who became the RAF's most decorated air gunner died at the age of 87 in 2007. 

Wallace McIntosh born during a blizzard in a barn near Tarves was a few days old when he was given by his young unmarried servant mother to her parents to bring up. He had not heard of Christmas until he was 7 and never celebrated his birthday until his late teens, but he could steal, kill and skin a sheep before he was 12 and snare anything that could be cooked in a pot. He was determined to escape the constant struggle to survive. He was raised by his grandparents alongside their 7 children, moving from farm to farm in Perthshire and Aberdeenshire in search of seasonal work.

According to his 2003 biography, Gunning for the Enemy, he joined the RAF at the height of the war to escape from the grinding poverty of life as a farm labourer.  He attended 14 schools, finally leaving at the age of 13.  He worked as an agricultural labourer, but helped to support the family by poaching sheep, salmon and pheasants.  He later became a Gamekeeper.  On the outbreak of the 2nd World War, aged 19 he rode his bicycle the 30 miles (50 km) to Dundee, aiming to join the RAF, but was rejected on account of his poor education. At the urging of a local priest, the RAF relented and he was recruited as an aircraftsman and given duty as a Service PolicemanOn 1 occasion he tried to engage a low-flying German bomber with his rifle. After being accepted to train as an air gunner in March 1943 McIntosh joined No 207 Squadron at Langar, near Nottingham, as the mid-upper gunner in a crew of 7.

Although Bomber Command did not record details of "kills" by air gunners, Wallace, who shot down 8 enemy aircraft with 1 probable, is widely believed to be its top sharpshooter. 

Flying Officer McIntosh is believed to hold the record for downing the most enemy planes from a Bomber, with 8 confirmed kills and one "probable".  Mr McIntosh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross twice - the RAF's highest honour for bravery - for bombing raids between 1943 and 1944.  Flying Officer McIntosh is believed to hold the record for downing the most enemy planes from a bomber, with 8 confirmed kills and one "probable".   In 1 mission he shot down 3 German fighter aircraft as his Lancaster Bomber carried out a raid on enemy armour during preparations for the Normandy landings. His efforts earned him a rare telegram of congratulations from the leader of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris

During the war, he was based at RAF Langar in Nottinghamshire and RAF Spilsby in Lincolnshire.  RAF spokesman Michael Mulford described Mr McIntosh as a "true hero".   He said: "Anyone who flew in Lancaster's during the bombings knew the odds were against them.  "Your life was on the line every moment. To do the job as well as he did was truly exceptional.   "He did that 55 times and lived to tell the tale.  "You had to be very highly skilled to be able to fire these guns when your own aircraft is bouncing about twisting and turning.  Lancaster crews faced some of the most hazardous conditions during WWII with Tail Gunners particularly exposed.  The 207 Squadron alone lost 1,007 men.

After the war he remained in the RAF, dropping supplies from Dakotas to feed cattle in remote areas during the severe winter of 1947. He found it difficult to settle in a peacetime Air Force, however, and left the following year to work as an Agricultural Salesman in Aberdeenshire, where he met his wife Christina.  One of Mr McIntosh's 3 children, Mary, 44, said: "We never really became aware of his achievements until after he retired.   "He had a very hard start to life and did well to overcome that."

Rear Gun Turret

The tail gunner fulfilled a 2nd role 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' 1st reaction to an attacking night fighter was to engage in radical evasive manoeuvre's such as a corkscrew roll; firing guns in defense was of secondary importance. The slang term for tail gunners was "Tail-end Charlies", while in the Luftwaffe they were called Heckschwein ("tail-end pigs").

Many veterans will have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and when asked if they experienced this they would say how wartime missions left them "a bit flak happy" - raising hands and shaking them.  "You also had nightmares, but after 12 months you got yourself hardened to it. But you had to stick it out or else you were labelled a coward," they had every reason to suffer nightmares.  Estimates for the life expectancy for a WWII Lancaster rear gunner vary but were never high, about just 5 sorties.

"Tail-end Charlie" was subject to the most violent movements of the aircraft. Squeezed into the cramped metal and perspex cupola, the Rear Gunner had so little leg space that some had to place their flying boots into the turret before climbing in themselves. Many rear gunners removed a section of the 'plexiglas' to improve their view, so with temperatures at 20,000 feet reaching minus 40ºF, frostbite was a regular occurrence. Through the entire operation, the Rear Gunner knew that the Luftwaffe fighter pilots preferred to attack from the rear and under the belly of the bomber, so he was often 1st in line for elimination. During World War II - 20,000 air gunners were killed while serving with Bomber Command."

"During an operation, the only sounds the gunner would hear, aside from the constant deafening roar of the engines, would be the hiss of the oxygen and the occasional crackling, distorted voices of other crew members in his earphones. From take off to landing, at times for as long as 10 hours, the air gunner was constantly rotating the turret, scanning the surrounding blackness, quarter by quarter, for the gray shadow that could instantly become an attacking enemy night fighter. The air gunner's closest friends were likely his crew members in the forward section of the bomber and the relaxation of his vigilance for even a moment could mean death for them all."

'Snaking' on take off or when taxiing may have been seen as 'normal' and 'under control' by the Pilot and other Crew up front, but in the darkness of the Rear Turret, sitting almost over the tail wheel it was something different!  It sometimes felt as if the tail wheel was made of wood everything at the back end strained, banged, shook and rattled, and it was a tense 'hold on to everything' few moments, including the stomach. Ammunition jostled and rattled in the fuselage as the Turret swayed shook and vibrated it was the closest one could get to being airsick on the ground.  When the Tail of the aeroplane lifted into the air, one could then 'relax............'.

Suddenly we were over the Big City...... after long hours of searching the night sky from the coast, to be suddenly propelled into the brilliant Hell over Berlin produced a freezing of the mind...flak sliced up through the broken illuminated clouds, ascending gracefully to stream past the turret.  A Lancaster slid across at right angles with a single fighter just behind it, as if attached by an invisible thread... the City far below was bubbling and boiling, splashes of fire opening out as the blockbusters pierced this terrible brew.

AGLT - Village Inn - Radome Scanner

The Automatic Gun Laying Turret (AGLT) was a Radar-aimed FN121 turret fitted to some Lancaster and Halifax bombers in 1944. The AGLT system was devised to allow a target to be tracked and fired-on in total darkness, the target's range being accurately computed as well as allowing for lead and bullet drop. The system was referred to by the codename Village Inn during development.   The system, known as TR3548, was devised by a team led by Dr Philip Dee and designed under the aegis of Chief Designer Dr Alan Hodgkin, after receiving a request from the Air Ministry for such a system in early 1943.  Village Inn was evaluated and tested by the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at RAF Dertford using the Lancaster Mark I ND712 and the Lancaster Mark IIIs JB705 and LL737 and subsequently put into production. 

The system consisted of a Transmitter / Receiver unit mounted in the navigator's compartment, operating through a conical scanning parabolic aerial attached to the standard Fraser-Nash turret. It worked on a wavelength of 9.1 cm (3 GHz) with a pulse repetition frequency of 660 hertz. The Magnetron used was the CV.186 of approx 35kW. The electronics sent a signal back to the turret, where it was displayed on a cathode ray tube (CRT) display screen positioned adjacent to the gun sight, the image of which was projected on to the Mark IIC gyro gun-sight via a semi-transparent mirror.

Initially, ranging information was provided only at the transmitter situated in the Navigator's Compartment and was read off to the gunner over the intercom, the gunner using foot pedals to set the target range on the sight. In production equipment the process was made automatic, the range information being fed electronically directly into the gun-sight, with the navigator's "running commentary" only being retained for the benefit of the rest of the crew. The gunner simply manoeuvred his guns to place the "blip" in the centre of the gunsight's reticle, and opened fire when the range was appropriate. Windage, bullet drop and other factors were already calculated by the gun-sight.  The 1st Squadron to use Village Inn operationally was No.101 Squadron RAF, based at Ludford Magna, in the Autumn of 1944, followed soon afterwards by No.49 (in the attack on Darmstadt on 11/12th, September  with 156 and 635 Squadrons.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013