but I had a finger on the trigger of each gun. I knew I had the tail-end Charlie position and I couldnt let them babies sneak up on our formation. The Nazis seemed to be trying to gauge our speed, finally they got the same altitude as ours and were right in my sights. I let them get within 300 yards or so. Then I figured, Adam, its time to let go. I had never seen anything like what happened then, only in the movies. That Nazis wings came plumb off, busted into bits and he just burst into a big flame and went trailing down to the clouds."
The tail gunner was perhaps the most important gunner on the B-17. He protected the rear quater of the aircraft with twin .50 cal. machine guns. When enemy fighters first apprached the E model B-17, they were met with a nasty surprise. Enemy pilots gained a healthy respect for the tail guns. It was this efective position that forced German pilots to rethink their tactics which lead to them addopting the famous "12 O'Clock" attack, boaring into formations head on at a closeing speed of over 500 mph!
Tail gunners had a rough existance. Their compartment in the rear of the plane was one of the tightest next possibly only to the ball turret. The gunner sat on a modified bicycle type seat in a kneeling position for the majority of the mission. The tail was drafty and the gunner had to constantly battle with fighting off frostbite and clearing the windows of frost.
In the earlier models of the B-17, there was no tail gun possition at all. The idea was that as enemy fighters came in, the waist gunners, who's guns at that time were in teardrop bubble canopies, could depress their guns far enough to the rear to ward off the attack. This was not to be the case. It was soon apparent with the war raging in Europe that a tail defense would be necessary. The first option had been a power turret but the B-17 design did not lend itself to using a rear power turret. The cramped tail gun compartment was the sollution.
In the E throu early G models, the guns where mounted on a simple pivot mount in a hole and covered with a canvas bag in the rear of the fusalage. Cables connected the guns to the pin and rectical sight that the gunner used to aim with. The one problem with this type of sight was that the gunner had to maintain a certain referance point with the sight in order to be accurate. This was no small feat in an aircraft bouncing around at 30,000 feet bundled up for sub zero temperatures and wearing an oxygen mask while fighters came at you from every angle. With the exception for the first few built, the G incorporated the powered Cheyane tail turret. This turret freed the gunner from fighting with the guns while also giving the position a greater field of fire. With this turret also came a reflecting gun sight which did not need the gunner to keep a referance point with the sight giving him greater accuracy.
While the tail gunner's primary duty was to shoot down enemy planes, the position carried other duties. With him being the only constantly rear facing crewmember, he was responsible for passing along anything he saw behind the aircraft, including fighters, to the rest of the crew. He would relay information to the bombardier and navigator concerning bombing results as the formations left the target. He also aided the navigator and radio operator by counting chutes from B-17s that were going down and the condition of straglers that were lagging behind the formation.
While the tail gunner position was sloted for an enlisted man, sometimes the possition would be flown by a co-pilot who was an officer. This was usually done in lead aircraft where the squadron commander would fly as pilot and was referred to as the Command Pilot. The aircraft's regular pilot would be moved to co-pilot. The reason the regular co-pilot was moved back to the tail gunner position instead of leaving the regular gunner in place was to allow him to relay information on the condition of the formation to the pilots. This helped to co-ordinate the formation and keep it as tight as possible.