Air Gunners, Mepal 1945

In the last post there was a letter written to Mr & Mrs Williamson by Wing Commander H.C. “Mac” Baigent, DFC and Bar (later DSO and AFC), Officer Commanding 75 (NZ) Squadron, sending condolences for their missing son, Sgt Doug Williamson. I was shown the letter by Doug & Janet a few weeks back, one of several letters addressing Doug’s failure to return that they have kept in a folder.

By amazing coincidence, that afternoon I was meeting with “Mac” Baigent’s daughter Jan.

Although Mac sadly died quite young, only 30 years of age, his wife (Jan’s Mum) kept his photo albums, letters and memorabilia, some of which Jan now has in her possession.

Jan has very kindly given permission to share photos related to Mac’s very impressive air force career, and of course there are a number from his time in command of 75(NZ) Squadron at Mepal.

Among them is this photo of a group of Air Gunners, probably taken around March 1945, complete with Browning machine gun, held by the Maori gunner sitting centre, front:

75(NZ) Squadron Air Gunners, Mepal, probably March 1945
_ “Mac” Baigent collection, kind permission of his daughter Jan

I had seen the photo before, but only dark and grainy versions. Mac’s print was pristine and a scan gave us a high-resolution copy in which it was easy to identify individuals – and there in the second-to-back row (sixth from right) is F/Sgt Ralph Sparrow RCAF!

F/Sgt Jack Cash should also be in the photo but I haven’t been able to identify him?

Sitting immediately behind the gunner holding the gun is probably F/L Kenneth Tugwell, DFC, DFM, the squadron Gunnery Leader.

Mid-upper turret, MoTaT Lancaster
Armourer inspecting rear turret guns, MoTaT Lancaster

Having spent some time recently in the three gun turrets in MoTaT’s Lancaster, trying to find the serial numbers on the machine guns, I have a whole new level of respect for the gunners.

Their turrets were extremely cramped, awkward, cold and uncomfortable, especially with all the gear that the boys had to wear. The Mid-Upper Gunner, in particular, was sat on a simple plank suspended between two strips of canvas – a fold-away ‘swing seat’ that looks bum-achingly hard. Even to get up into his seat he needed to be something of a gymnast …!

They were manning their turrets for long periods – trips of up to eight hours duration, with the majority of that time in unfriendly skies – and often in the dark.

The Mid-Upper and Rear Gunner were to some extent isolated from the rest of the crew, although they had intercom contact with the others. The narrow, cluttered fuselage is not exactly conducive to moving around and of course if there was any possibility of fighters they had to be on the job.

The Rear Gunner must have felt a bit lonely down the back, having to close a set of doors behind him as he climbed into his position, with a limited field of view and knowing that his was the most vulnerable position in the event of a fighter attack. He was supposed to scan back and forth, looking out for enemy aircraft and it wasn’t really possible to have a short break – the pilot could tell by the feel of the aircraft if the rear turret stopped moving!

– Thanks to Jan for permission to reproduce this photo.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: