A Ball Turret Gunner not a job I would want!

Lord  Banks By Lord Banks, 25th Jun 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/26l-krb6/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Columns & Opinions

The Ball Turret Gunner hung below the bottom of American bombers in WWII he had the most dangerous job of the entire crew of 10, I explain the job!

Ball Turret

The Ball Turret Gunner not a job you would want!

In WW2 (World War 2) huge bomber aircraft were state of the art killing machines. Some of the most famous are the Avro Lancaster, a four engined long range bomber designed and built in Britain, Canada and Australia. The North American Consolidated Liberator, a four engined bomber which was built in huge numbers in the U.S.A. Not forgetting the famous Boeing B17 Flying Fortress, a very successful four engined high flying bomber.

In between WW1 and WW2 war strategists came up with the theory that a heavily armed high flying bomber aircraft could penetrate your enemies homeland and destroy their cities, which would in turn force your enemy to surrender. Hind-sight has proved this theory wrong but hind-sight is not something we posses at the time we need it!

Prior to WW2 Germany and Great Britain along with America were designing four engined long range bombers. Adolf Hitler was not a fan of large four engined aircraft and dropped out of the arms race, Germany concentrated its efforts on designing dive bombers and two engined medium bombers.

Britain eventually designed and built the Avro Lancaster a beautiful looking aircraft with a very long range. The Lancaster also carried the heaviest bomb load of WW2. The theory of a bomber fighting its way to a target and back, needed armament to defend the aircraft. The Lancaster had a front turret which had two Browning .303machine guns. It had a dorsal turret (Which is on top of the aircraft) this turret also had two .303 machine guns. Finally at the rear of the aircraft there was a turret with four .303 machine guns.

The theorists felt this armament was adequate to protect the Lancaster. In combat the machine guns of the Lancaster were totally out classed by the cannon fire from German fighter aircraft such as the ME 110 and ME 109s. Hundreds of aircraft were shot down and thousands of airmen lost there lives.

The best way to attack the huge Lancaster was to fly beneath the wings and fire cannon shells into the fuel tanks and unprotected belly of the Lancaster. The aircraft would catch fire easily and explode or crash to the ground in a fireball.

The American Liberator or B24 fore saw this problem and installed a ball turret which could return fire to any aircraft attacking from below. This turret hung below the aircraft and could be retracted for landings and take off, or if the gunner was hurt.

The focus of this article is the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress. The Fortress was the most heavily defended of all the heavy bombers. The B17 had a power operated chin turret with two .50 machine guns. A dorsal turret had also two 0.50 machine guns. The tail gunner had the same armament. There were two waste gunners equipped with 0.50 machine guns.

To get around the problem of attacks from enemy aircraft from below Boeing fitted a ball turret. The B17 was a sleek airframe and quite compact inside, this meant that the ball turret didn’t have room to be retracted! All the American gunners went through the same training as each other. Their fighting positions on the B17 were allocated when they were in the combat area.

The ball turret was a tiny space anyone over 5’4” would not physically fit into the bubble shaped turret. The turret machine guns stuck into the cramped bubble and the knees of the unfortunate gunner had to brought up almost touching the gunners chest! This tortuous position had to maintained perhaps for five hours or more of flight!

The life expectancy of a B17 ball turret gunner was less than that of the other aircrew for several reasons. Enemy fighters would still prefer to attack the American bomber from below in an attempt to hit the wing fuel tanks or hit the bombs in the bomb bay. This form of attack often resulted in the ball gunner being shot to pieces by cannon shell from a German fighter.

The “Sperry” ball turret was operated electrically and by hydraulic pressure. The turret was extremely susceptible to the loss of either of the operating systems. If a engine was hit and had to shut down sometimes this meant the turret could not be moved through lack of electrical supply. Therefore the gunner could not escape from his turret.

The unlucky gunner did not have room in his turret for a parachute! If his turret was hit badly he would often fall out into the freezing skies over Germany and fall 21,000ft to his death. The worst fear for the ball gunner was the turret being jammed through loss of electrics or hydraulics. The turret couldn’t be moved to extricate the gunner.

There are many reported cases of a badly shot up B17 having to land with its undercarriage up! In other words a belly landing, the full weight of the B17 would squash the poor gunner to death. Some aircrew were never the same again after witnessing their buddy being washed out of his turret with a hose!

I sometimes wonder why someone would volunteer for this duty and the answer is patriotism and a want to try to save their aircraft and buddies from being shot down over enemy soil.

I can only imagine the shear terror of being suspended in a Perspex bubble underneath an aircraft flying at over 20,000ft my absolute admiration goes out to those gunners who had the courage and bravery to fill the ball gunners position all those moons ago.

Lord Banks


050Cal, American, B17, Britain, German Fighters, Liberator, Machine Guns

Meet the author

author avatar Lord Banks
I am 46 years old. I was born in London and have lived in various counties around the UK. I presently live in Yorkshire. By trade I am a qualified Vehicle Engineer. I have been writing since my school days. I specialise in WWII aircraft. My blog pag...(more)

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author avatar Forrest Higgs
13th Jun 2011 (#)

"waist" gunners, not "waste" gunners. :-)

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author avatar Brad Higginbottom
3rd Sep 2011 (#)

My father-in-law was 5'10" and a B-17 ball gunner. You sure about that height restriction?

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author avatar Hal
16th Sep 2011 (#)

I was a B-17 Ball Turret Gunner in the 15th Army Air Force I flew my 3rd mission to Vienna Austria on my 19th birthday. I was 5' 6 or 7 at that time. I grew another inch and a half after that . The break was at 5'8" in 1944. I am a retired SMSgt and have never heard of a man over 5'8" fully suite to fly at temperatures of -55 or cloderflying in the ball turret of a B-17. Respectfully, Hal

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author avatar P Gitta
18th Sep 2011 (#)

Sorry, but Ball Turret had the LOWEST fatality rate of ANY gunner position.

So you are reporting 100% incorrectly. Look it up.

It was however, the most hated, probably because of the comfort level.

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author avatar Stephan Wilkinson
4th Feb 2015 (#)

You are absolutely right, and statistics prove it. The ball-turret gunner had the lowest fatality rate, the left-seat pilot the highest.

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author avatar M. Geller
29th Jul 2013 (#)

Randal Jarrell's Poem (1945) Death of a Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

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author avatar Mark Durham
28th Jun 2014 (#)

My Uncle Marvin, now 93 yo. and going strong, flew over 27 bombing missions from England to Germany on B-17 bombers as a ball torrent gunner, many of his crew members and friends never made it back across the English Channel alive. Several of the B-17s he flew on never went back in the air due to the damage from flak, German fighter planes, and several crash landings. He doesn't talk much about it and never ever bragged about it, he's a true American hero and never realized it until he went on this honor flight. Thanks, and Bless all those for their service.

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author avatar Karen Thomas
5th Sep 2017 (#)

My father, Winford, "Winnie" Thomas, was a ball turret gunner in WWII, based in Yorkshire, England, flying missions over Germany. He would never, NEVER, talk about his war time experiences.... although his two Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medal and the accompanying commendation letters have told us a bit, as had my Aunt, his older sister, in whom he confided. He flew all of his missions and then was transferred to the Pacific theatre. One of my most cherished possessions is the letter he was writing to his parents when his base in Burma got word the war was over. I have never been able to read that letter without a complete breakdown in tears. Truly, these men were our heroes. I miss you, Dad!

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