Within the RAF, Armourers are considered the most specialised of any Trade. After spending an initial phase of generic Training at RAF Halton with the majority other non-Commissioned Trainees they transfer to DCAE Cosford for their Trade Specific Training. Once qualified they can find themselves employed on a wide variety of tasks including non-Trade specific jobs such as the Flight Line Servicing of Aircraft. As well as sweeping Bomb Dumps, painting boxes, various other shit jobs, prepping, maintaining & loading Aircraft Bombs, Aircraft assisted escape systems they are also responsible for the maintenance of Explosive release systems and small Arms within Station Armouries like the L85A2 (SA80), 9mm Browning Pistol and the GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun). Armourers can also volunteer to specialise in Explosive Ordnance Disposal and are often employed on clearing Airfields from any unexploded Ordnance (UXO). The Founder of the RAF Lord Trenchard held the Armourer in high esteem and was quoted as saying “The Armourer, without him, there is no need for an Airforce”. Within RAF Squadrons Armourers are colloquially known as “Pin-monkeys” and, more commonly, “Plumbers”. The term “Plumber” has several origins, but it most likely stems from the maintenance of the Gun Turrets on Heavy Bombers. The Turrets were hydraulically & electrically powered and contained pipework hence the reference to Plumbers.
There were 16 Bomb Stations on a Lancaster and the Aircraft was loaded in order to keep the Aircraft stable when the Bombs were dropped. The switchgear inside the Bomb Bay was numbered 1-16. As well as Bombs, being a Pathfinder Unit, we had to load flares of different colours, which indicated Clear Visibility, Part Visibility or Full Cloud. Part of the job was to get the Order correct. We had wheels to turn like on an Enigma Machine. The Wheel was numbered and you turned the Wheel to reflect the order in which the Load would be dropped from the Cockpit. The Bombs could be Nose Fused or Tail Fused, depending on how you wanted them to explode. When the Aircraft came back it was their job to check the switches and check that all the Bombs had gone away correctly with the Fuses Activated. When we got a Bomb that had failed to release we reversed the process in which we loaded it and the Bomb would be sent back to the Bomb Dump.
Typical Lancaster Bomb Load (December 43 to February 44) 1 x 4000-lbs, 640 x 4-lbs Incendiary and 16 x 30 lbs Incendiary.
Bomb Fusing Point
The “Nissen Hut” type structure is formed by the erection of 5in x 4in (125mm x 100mm) Steel Ribs at approximately 4’-6” centres to form the semi-circle shape. The Ribs were then clad with heavy gauge galvanised “Big 6” sheets bolted to the framework. The entire structure was then covered in earth to form a Blast Mound. To give extra protection, and in the case of any accidents, the Floor of the Bomb Fusing Point was laid 4’-6” (1.35M) below ground level. Access was gained by pairs of doors at either end of the structure and a sloping Ramp was also constructed at either end due to it being below Ground Level. These Ramps were graded over a distance of 38’-0” (11.6M). Paperwork detailing the Bomb quantity, Bomb Fuse Type & Fuse Setting would be sent to the Bomb Fusing Point in readiness for the arrival of the bombs. The Bomb Trolley would be towed into the Nissen Hut were the Armourers would fit & set the Bomb Fuse in accordance with the instructions. Once Fusing was completed the Bombs were towed out of the Fusing Point exiting by the opposite end and then to the awaiting Aircraft which were dispersed around the Airfield.
I never thought of the job as dangerous. I was confident. Provided you did it OK you were fine. I only ever had the one occasion with a dangerous fault. There was one thing that always stood out to me, sometimes I’d be the last one out before the Aircraft took off. Arming the Bombs.
I remember a Bomb Aimer saying to me that he wouldn’t mess with the Fuses because he didn’t know what he was doing. That impressed me. He was out there every night risking his life but he had that respect for what we were doing. I never forgot that. The busiest year was 1943-1944. I would be 9am before you came off shift sometimes and you’d be back on at 1pm preparing for the next Operation. The Aircraft would take-off at 8pm-9pm depending on the time of year and then come back early morning. I remember we lost 2- Master Bombers over the Marshalling Yards at Le Mans in France. I went to an Aircraft and a Pilot said they’d died. He said; “Fraser’s gone”. Fraser was an 80 Ops New Zealander. His Deputy followed behind him. I spent VE-Day Guarding Aircraft at an Operational Training Unit. We were confined to Camp because Group were concerned that people may set Fire to our Aircraft as part of the celebrations. So there were no drinks for us, we spent the night Patrolling!
So the days passed. We Bombed up, we de-Bombed; we stripped & cleaned the Guns; we rearmed the Planes with varied coloured ammunition Red for tracer, Blue for Armour Piercing, etc; we cursed the Aircrews when they had shot away all their Ammunition in practice Flights for the Guns had to be completely stripped down & cleaned; we did daily inspections on all the Aircraft, except when a white screen was around the Nose of the Plane. We were kept well away from the Planes which were thus shrouded while a Fitter, usually worked inside the Plane.
Brownings in Aircraft
With assistance from Firearms Engineers at Fabrique Nationale de Herstal, Belgium, the Model 1919 was completely re-engineered into the .30 calibre M2 AN (Army-Navy) Aircraft Machine Gun. The .30 in M2 AN Browning was widely adopted as both a fixed (offensive) and Flexible (defensive) Weapon on Aircraft. Aircraft Machine Guns required lightweight, firepower & reliability, and achieving all 3 goals proved a difficult challenge, with the mandate for a closed bolt Firing cycle to enable the Gun to be safely & properly synchronised for fixed-mount, forward-Aimed Guns firing through a spinning Propeller, a necessity on many single-Engined Fighter Aircraft designs through to nearly the end of WW2. The receiver walls and operating components of the M2 were made thinner and lighter, and with air cooling provided by the speed of the aircraft, designers were able to reduce the barrel’s weight & profile. As a result, the M2 weighed 2/3rds that of the 1919A4, and the lightened mechanism gave it a rate of Fire approaching 1,200 rpm (some variants could achieve 1,500 rpm), a necessity for engaging fast-moving Aircraft. The M2’s feed mechanism had to lift its own loaded belt out of the Ammunition Box and feed it into the Gun, equivalent to a weight of 11-lb (5kg) In Ordnance circles, the .30 M2 AN Browning had the reputation of being the most difficult-to-repair weapon in the entire small arms inventory. The M2 also appeared in a twin-mount version which paired two M2 guns with opposing feed chutes in one unit for operation by a single Gunner, with a combined rate of fire of 2,400 rpm. All of the various .30 M2 models saw service in the early stages of WW2, but were phased out beginning in 1943, as hand-trained rifle-calibre defensive Machine Guns became obsolete for Air Warfare (the .50 in/12.7 mm M2 Browning and 20 mm Hispano HS.404 Automatic Cannon had replaced the .30 in as offensive Air Armament as well). The .30 in M2 Aircraft Gun was widely distributed to other Allies during and after WW2, and in British & Commonwealth Service saw limited use as a vehicle-mounted anti-Aircraft or anti-Personnel Machine Gun.
The Bomb Dump would have held Explosives, the system was designed to safely store Bomb Components until the time came to assemble and Arm the Bombs ready for Flight. Bomb cases, minus the Tail Fins and were stored in the open on a series of raised concrete plinths surrounded by earth revetments designed to contain the blast from accidental bomb detonation and provide a degree of protection from Air Attack. Small Arms Ammunition, Incendiary Bombs and Small Bomb Carriers would have been stored in a series of Brick & Nissen Huts around the Site. A series of concrete tracks looped through the Bomb Dump in wide arcs to enable Tractor Drivers to tow laden Bomb Trolleys from the stores to a Fusing Point building. There were concrete plinths from where Bombs were designed to be unloaded and each wall has a series of Iron Eyelets in them. These were for securing Camouflage Netting & Tarpaulin to disguise against Air Attack. Exiting the Bomb Store, the roadway splits off into 2 Loops – This is possibly where 2 Fusing Point buildings (ultra-heavy) Type 4735/42 Building may have stood – they would have been a drive-through, 16ft wide and 40ft long Nissen huts with brick end walls – one of which is superimposed on photo below. Buildings are shown on the original plans for the airfield as well as the aerial photos, but the exact specification of the buildings is unproven. Paperwork detailing the bomb quantity, bomb fuse type and fuse setting would be delivered to the stores in readiness for the arrival of the bombs. The bomb trolleys would be towed into the Nissen hut where the Armourers would fit and set the bomb fuses in accordance with instructions. Once fusing was complete the bombs were then designed to be towed around the airfield perimeter track to the aircraft dispersal. Some had magnificent oak trees that were there well before the war – the reason for this is that wooded areas were favoured for Bomb Dumps, due to the extra protection that was given to an accidental explosion and camouflage from overflying Aircraft.