Question about WWII defensive bomber armament

There are plenty of publications of the exploits of bomber gunners for the US air and naval air forces. What I was curious about is the effectiveness of other nations’ defensive guns. Now I know that a big part of the US spotlight is because of their transcontinental/oceanic bomber forces, particularly the B-17 and B-29.

But other nations had bombers, and were compelled to put guns on those bombers to protect them. Unfortunately, from the looks of many of them, and their tech specs, it seems like a lot of the tailguns, waist/nose/etc guns were almost an afterthought.

Quite a few dive bombers, for instance, seemed to only have a single 7.62 or .30 cal (that might be the same caliber, don’t know the conversion offhand :stuck_out_tongue: ) machine gun. I’m wondering just how effective this would be against a fighter that may have several .50 caliber or even 20mm cannons trained on the bomber. Now I know that bombers generally flew in formations, and it wasn’t just one tailgunner, but multiple gunners in overlapping fields of fire. Even still, a puny machine gun like that almost doesn’t seem worth it- why not ditch a small machine gun with inferior range, have one less guys life jeapordized (something tells me that against fighters a dive bomber’s tail gunner is bullet catcher #1) and save the weight? Were those tiny guns really worth it?

I would probably add the B-24 liberator , the B 25 Mitchell and Davids Bomber , the B 26 marauder , before I would mention the 29. The remote twenty mil cannons were removed to gain altitude in the asian theatre.

The British and by extension the Canadian airforce used dinky little .303’s but looking at the Halifax, Sterling and Wellington bombers , the defensive turrets looked to be designed in , rather than an afterthought on a civillian airframe. German designs looked like the gun was an afterthought, I cant really comment too well on the Japanese , Italian and Russian designs.

Part of the ansewer is institutional design, a number of the airframes that you are talking about had a lot of design elements of the thirties, when metal framed armored fighters were not really contemplated and the conventional construction was fabric over a metal frame.

Nothing more that I can really think of , except that I love these ww2 aviation threads


Some of this I can help a tiny bit with, but I’m gonna have to go with some of my actual paper books, so it will be quotes, not linkies that anyone can click on. I hope this doesn’t make my post suspect.

  1. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of a dive bomber’s tail gunner, but Germany’s Me.110 twin-engine “fighter” had a rear gunner, and while they were a threat to bombers, they were pretty much toast against a British Spitfire or Hurricane and they had much more maneuverability than a dive bomber:

(from “Black Thursday,” by Martin Caidin, Bantam Books, (c)1960, page 32)

  1. I seem to recall that the lighter German bombers with their lighter armament did not do so good, but I’ll have to go over some of my other books to see if I can find what I seem to be remembering.

I realize this is not much, and does not directly address your questions, or even all of them, but maybe it’s a “kinda-sorta” help.

Those defensive guns on the other nations bombers were not there just to shoot down fighters. They had two other purposes: to spoil the aim of incoming fighters (it is hard to concentrate when you are bing shot at) and to increase the morale of the aircrew so they knew they weren’t defenceless.

And there’s also the fact many of those bombers were designed before WWII, when fighters were still more like the Gladiator. Many nations thought their bombers would outrun enemy fighters!

The “tailgunner” on the dive bomber wasn’t really there juts as a tailgunner. He was usually there as a navigator and radio operator and sometimes the bomb/torpedo aimer.

Pretty much only the Americans with their huge, super heavily armed bombers, flying in “box” formation and in daylight were anything close to effective in shooting down enemy fighters.

As an aside, I played some WWII dogfighter games, and the rear-gunner (with a .50 or two) on my Stormovik became an Ace in his own right. That “stinger” was pretty nasty when the plane is that heavily armored. :smiley:

Even a puny machine gun on the back of a Stuka it´s enough to prevent a fighter on the 12 O´clock quadrant from taking a long time to aim; you don´t want to stay still while the gunner is hosing you down. A kill with that armament my be very difficult but it helps as a disuasive measure.

True, but I remember a story about a Sunderland seaplane that took on a number of Luftwaffe fighters and came off best in the encounter.

Ah, wikipedia has the story here.

Yeah , they did not call that thing the porcupine for nothing.


You have to distinguish between light bombers and medium/heavy bombers. In principle the light bombers - such as the dive bombers of all nations - relied on speed rather than defensive firepower to survive. As already noted many of the designs dated from the '30s when the top speed of fighers was only a bit over 200mph and they were armed with only a few machine guns. so a single rear facing machine gun looked not unreasonable. At the opposite end of the spectrum, heavy bomber were meant to fly in formation and fight their way to the target so they were designed with nose, tail, dorsal, and ventral turrets with multiple guns.

Inevitably, by the start of the war, fighters had got faster and better armed, completely outclassing the light bombers. Check out what happened to unescorted RAF Fairey Battles during the Battle for France in 1940 - in one raid 40 out of 71 attacking aircraft were shot down - or the Luftwaffe Stukas over England in the Battle of Britain.

Unfortunately for the medium and heavy bombers they proved to be just a vunerable to modern fighters in daylight however many guns they carried. Examples of bombers shooting down/fighting off fighters did not alter the odds. The RAF had realised in 1940 that they could not fight their way, unescorted by fighters, through to Germany and back in daylight and switched to night attacks with all the problems of navigation and bombing accuracy. In 1943 as the USAAF 8th Air Force built up in the UK its leaders believed the B17s and B24s with their heavier armament and tight box formations could do so. Unfortunately they were wrong and in one raid on Schweinfurt in October '43 147 our of 376 bombers were lost. Of course, the ultimate answer was the P-51 with drop tanks flying all the way with the bombers and establishing air superiority over Germany.

It is. 25.4 mm = 1 inch. Therefore, 7.62 mm / 25.4 mm = 0.30 inches.


Only the US, with their Sperry ball turret, ever came up with a solidly designed ventral defense. This was especially problematic for the British, as Luftwaffe night fighters quickly learned to attack from below and behind, and then some genius Luftwaffe commander devised something called Schrage Musik, designed precisely for attacking from below. I dunno why the ball turret design was never Lend-Leased to the British (perhaps the structure of their bombers couldn’t handle the weight or something).

The ball turret would have been very difficult to add to the Lancaster, anyway - its bomb bay was almost the entire length of the fuselage. There was no obvious place to put it. It really had to be designed in. Plus, the British did the bulk of their bombing at night, and it would have been nearly impossible to find a blacked-out night fighter visually anyway.

Legend has it that Lanc crews were told they’d know they were under attack when they could feel the Schragemusik rounds hitting them.

Totally anecdotally and FWIW, a former neighbour piloted just about every type of British bomber during the War, on God knows how many missions. His gunners never fired a round. I wonder how common that was, and how relevant the defensive guns were, compared to how much weight they added, and how many more men they put in danger.

THe Allies did not know about Jazz Music until after the war.

Interesting. I heard from somewhere (sorry, no cite) that the ball turret wasn’t all that effective. But, I mean it had to have some effectiveness otherwise they wouldn’t have been willing to deal with all the extra weight of the contraption.

What about other nations’ medium bombers? Certainly they don’t seem, at a glance, to have the same beefy defensive armament as US planes of the same size. The Ju-88 had a really awkward gun configuration; I’d be really surprised if they got any kills at all with that thing.

Dinky, but those .303s could whack out 1000rpm each, and the bigger tail turrets had four of them - so did the mid-upper, in the Halifax.

IIRC, the RAF considered the guns useful for morale and kept them despite knowing the drawbacks on performance. Besides, accounts of bombing missions at night describe tortuous corkscrew manoeuvres to evade fighters, not much about the actions of the gunners.


Rear-facing gunners in small bombers were a holdover from the WWI and inter-war year plane designs when planes were much slower and less heavily armed than was the case in WWII. a .30 cal could do a real number on a slow, lightly armed pursuer. It’s not so useful against a Spitfire, but the Stuka was not designed with Spitfires in mind.

A small plane like a Stuka or any number of torpedo bombers simply couldn’t have a lot of guns on them, or big guns, because they didn’t have the carrying capacity. Add more weight and you either reduce range and performance, or you have to reduce payload.

As for large bombers, there were really only two major practitioners of heavy bomber usage during the war; the United States, which didn’t have “intercontinental” bombers, but did have the big B-17, B-24 and B-29, and the Commonwealth (largely British/Canadian) force, which used the Stirling, Wellington, Halifax and Lancaster (mostly the latter two as the war wore on.)

The bristly defensive armament on those bombers was, at least originally, legitimately designed in with the idea that enough guns could protect a bomber formation. The U.S. went with a heavier gun and the British with a lighter gun in part due to differences in offensive theory; British bombers, for most of the war, could carry larger bombloads and emphasized sheer bomb weight over anything else, including accuracy. The U.S. originally sought daytime accuracy with smaller bombloads, and so logically their bombers needed more defensive capability.

Hmm…never fired in anger, perhaps; I believe it was standard practice to test-fire the defensive guns for a short burst before hitting enemy territory (generally over the Channel). Or so I have always heard from the many Bomber Command types that I’ve spoken to. That said, I have only heard from a small minority that every actually got a shot at a confirmed enemy a/c.

The JU88 was made into a very effective nightfighter, and claimed many Allied bombers, especially when equipped with schragemusik, directed by ground radar, and using the “Wilde Sau” box system of assigning one night fighter to an area.

It is interesting to reflect that daylight bombing was abandoned by the RAF as too dangerous-untill radar guided nightfighters made night bombinh more dangerous. The WWII bombers were a good 100 MPH slower than the best german fighters, and were vulnerable from below and the front-Luftwaffe pilots learned to fly straight into the nose of a B-17-there was no defense against this. The only answer was long-range fighter escorts-that saved the bombers. USAAF bomber losses were horrific-caused in part by the doctrine of “strategic bombing”-i.e., trying to hit industries like ball bearings, railroad years, aircraft engine plants, etc. I wonder if the bombing wouldn have been more effecive, had the allies agreed on one type of target from the beginning (like oil refineries and oil pipelines)?

The RAF bombed at night and the Germans had no effective night fighter. A night fighter needs a target detection and identification system. A fire control method to compute air points for a target the pilot can’t see is also needed. We didn’t have an effective night fighter, the Northrup P-61 until after the need for it had disappeared.

Germany’s problem in building the high powered, airborne radar that night fighters need was that they didn’t have the magnetron. Such tubes deliver a short, high-powered pulse; are small and are at such a high frequency that a small antenna can provide excellent directivity.