Belfast Telegraph

As rear gunner, Martin Charters flew 40 missions under heavy fire... now, at the age of 93, his heroics are finally honoured

By Nevin Farrell

As a so-called 'Tail-end Charlie' - a rear gunner in a World War Two bomber plane - Martin Charters had the most dangerous job in the most dangerous part of the UK's armed forces.

Not only did he survive almost 40 raids in the flak-filled skies over heavily defended Nazi-occupied Europe, he has now reached the age of 93.

Now his service has been recognised with a special ceremony to award him a Bomber Command clasp.

It took so long for the government to honour the actions of the wartime bomber air crews that many of the Killyleagh man's comrades did not live long enough to get the special clasps which have only been issued over the past two years.

Moral questions over the bombing of residential areas in German cities 70 years ago meant that in post-war Britain the work of Bomber Command was never officially recognised by the authorities until the Queen backed moves by Prime Minister David Cameron for the Bomber Command Clasp in 2012.

Of the 125,000 who served in Bomber Command, almost half were killed and it had the highest casualty rate of any British unit in the war.

Only a few thousand are still alive but up until recent years they had not received any campaign medals.

Mr Charters flew dozens of missions during World War Two, many as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber.

He signed up to the RAF in 1941 and during the conflict he was also a rear gunner on a Halifax bomber and worked as a mechanic on the legendary Spitfire fighter planes as well as being an instructor for Lancaster rear gunners.

He was transferred to Bomber Command in 1943 and he can recall the war very clearly.

"When we did the Ruhr Valley, there were as many as 800 bombers going in, and it was very tough.

"The Germans would throw everything up there but the kitchen sink. They'd send up these things called 'scarecrows' which would explode and light the countryside up, and then there were these small aeroplanes that would get into the bomber stream and explode."

He even flew the mighty Lancasters for special missions which saw the huge craft race towards the Germans just feet above the waves to avoid radar detection.

"We went over the North Sea about 20 feet - you could feel the water coming up," he said.

Martin said one of the biggest challenges he faced was from German night-fighter planes, who would not attack until the bombers were on their way home and had their guard down.

"There was a twin-engine plane that had its guns at 45 degrees, so they could get underneath you and shoot upwards," he said.

One of the biggest operations he took part in was the 'thousand bomber raid' where planes were sent en masse to bomb the German city of Cologne.

"We were first in and as we looked back as it was getting dark, it was lovely to see all those bombers behind us," he added.

Martin said his crew were close friends but being in a wartime bomber meant girls weren't interested in them because so many were being killed during raids.

On one mission many of his friends did not come home: "At Nuremberg in February 1944, 92 were shot down -I lost a lot of friends."

With so many people being killed, to survive so many missions is incredible but he did have some close escapes.

"We were flying to a target in one particular hotspot when a German Junkers JU88 attacked. Then I saw the tracer bullets whizzing over the top of our aircraft before seeing a large flame at the side of my turret and I realised we were on fire.

"We put the flames out and while we lost one engine, we continued on and hit our target."

Martin said lone bombing missions to eastern Germany were the most scary.

"We were on our own and had no air cover, leaving us very vulnerable to attack. It was four hours to get there to drop mines and four hours home again."

He said the Bomber Command clasp for his 1939-45 Star medal is an acknowledgement of what he and his colleagues did during WW2, and he is proud of his service.

"It's a recognition you've done something and it's appreciated," he added.

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