This gripping story of one man's involvement in RAF Bomber Command's fledgling offensive was first published in 1943. Written only months after the events described, R. C. Rivaz provides a uniquely fresh and immediate perspective on some of the most harrowing episodes of the war. He was tail gunner to Leonard Cheshire, one of the most famous RAF pilots of the Second World War, and flew in Whitleys with 102 Squadron and Halifaxes with 35 Squadron. Rivaz describes his experiences of night bombing attacks against heavily defended enemy targets like Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Essen, recording in captivating detail the sights and sounds of these dangerous night time raids. But he describes equally well the colour pallet of the setting sun from fifteen thousand feet, and his turbulent mind set as he prepares for each death defying mission. He relates a dramatic shoot-out with German fighters over La Rochelle in broad daylight and describes his near-death encounters with cool but honest detail. Rivaz also describes two agonizing crashes over the sea, one occasion of which he waits near frozen for seven hours, buffeted by stormy weather in a rubber dinghy. Tailgunner is not only unrivalled in its immediacy and insight, but gripping and eminently readable. Richard Rivaz was born in Assam on 15th March 1908. He later returned to England and studied painting at the Royal College of Art. He became an accomplished artist in the 1930s, before training as a teacher and taking up an appointment at Collyer's School in Sussex, where he taught art. Rivaz volunteered for pilot training in 1940 but was bitterly disappointed to learn that, at the age of thirty-two, he was too old to become a pilot. He commenced training as an air-gunner and saw first service with No. 102 Squadron. He survived many dangerous raids and crashes but was unfortunately killed at the end of the war, when his transport aircraft caught fire on take off from Brussels airport on 13 October 1945.
After breakfast on that first day I ent up to see the C.O., a charming man who made me feel quite at home and very happy. He told me I was in 'B' Flight, and sent me down to see my Flight Commander, whom I later learnt was familiarly known as 'Teddy'.
He was an excitable little man with an enormous backside and proportionately large moustache.
As I stood at the door of his office he was on the telephone, and I heard him say: 'But I don't want any more gunners: I've got all the gunners I want.' As he hung up the receiver he called me in and said: 'That was you I was talking about.'
'Not so good...' I thought.
He told me to shut the door, and I found him much more pleasant than I first thought he would be as he explained that I should not be put on a crew yet as there were no vacancies... and that it was up to me to learn all I could in the meantime.
He sent me to see the squadron gunnery leader, who was the oldest and toughest gunner I had as yet seen, and who was known as 'Steve'. He was about forty-five and looked as hard as nails, but had two of the kindest eyes imaginable. He was sometimes known as 'Two-gun Steve', as he used to carry a couple of revolvers and a jack-knife... which made his tunic stick out from his waist as though it had been starched.
Everyone seemed to like and respect him. He had been an observer in the last war; later became a pilot, and was now an air-gunner. He had an amazing capacity for work, and seemed to expect other people to have the same. He had one of the deepest and loudest voices I have ever heard, and was never afraid of using it. He always said exactly what he thought of people and in no uncertain language - his vocabulary for swear words being terrific.
He took me straight out to an aeroplane to see what I knew... or, rather, what I did not know - as he did not seem in the least interested in the little I did know. He spent the rest of the morning teaching me and showing me around.
I soon got really fond of Steve. If he thought anyone was keen to learn, he would do anything he could to help that person... but, on the other hand, if he thought people were slacking, he would have no further use for them at all.
He used to smoke the foulest-smelling cigarettes, which he rolled himself... and used to say in defence of numerous protests that when he smoked he wanted something he could taste. He also had one of the largest appetites I have ever seen in anybody. He taught me a tremendous amount about gunnery during my early days with the squadron, and used to maintain that everybody should know as much as possible about the aeroplane in which they would have to fly, quite apart from their own particular job.
I was not to know Steve for long, as he was killed on an operational trip a few months after I joined the squadron.
About a week after my arrival I was sitting in the ante-room after lunch writing a letter thanking a friend for 'Ming'. Ming had arrived that morning by post, and was my mascot; he was a tiny stuffed baby panda, and I had him in my pocket while I was writing. The air-raid siren sounded, and I looked out of the window and saw people running to the shelters.
'Good lord!' I thought, 'what on earth is all the rush about...?'
The ante-room, which had been crowded a few seconds before, was almost empty, and the few remaining were rushing to the door.
'Extraordinary!' I thought.
While the siren was still going there came an unearthly screaming noise. All other sounds were then promptly drowned by the largest explosion I had ever heard... and the windows of the ante-room were blown in with a din like several rifle-shots. I left my letter and ran to the door.
'This is something like,' I thought. 'This is action - real fun and excitement...'
I had never heard a bomb