There were plenty of positions during World War II that put a serviceman’s life at risk. Arguably one of the worst was as a ball turret gunner. Small, tight, difficult to escape from and with minimal visibility, the ball turret was a sphere of danger. Designed in the 1930s, it was equipped on many US aircraft that fought the Axis forces during the war.
Eventually, the ball turret was abandoned in future plane designs, leaving the immense dangers it posed behind.
That’s one dangerous ball
Designed by the Sperry Corporation, the ventral ball turret was a hydraulically-operated addition to the two main aircraft that housed it: the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator. It also saw use with the US Navy‘s PB4Y-1. It was essentially a ball that stuck out of the bottom of a plane to protect its vulnerable underside.
Standard Briggs/Sperry ball turret installation.
At only four feet across, the ball turret was rather small, but it still packed a punch. It was equipped with two Browning AN/M2 .50-caliber machine guns, a Sperry optical gunsight and two ammo cans with 250 rounds for each weapon. The turret also rotated 360-degrees, allowing the gunner to locate targets and stay on them, regardless of their position.
The kind of men best suited for the ball turret
Aerial gunners were trained in Air Corps schools that popped up across the United States in 1941. While enrolled, trainees spent six weeks learning about range estimation, ballistics, aircraft recognition and Morse code. They also received shooting practice on the ground and in tester aircraft.
At their height, the schools were pumping out 3,500 graduates a week, producing approximately 300,000 by the end of the war.
An illustration of a ball turret by Alfred D. Crimi, 1943
Because of the size of the ball, the men best suited to take the position were typically the smallest in an aircraft’s crew. Taller men would have struggled in the cramped, tiny space. Wearing flak jackets and electrically heated flight suits, the gunners were ready to enter the uninsulated sphere that, if they did not react quick enough, would make them vulnerable to enemy fire.
What was it like inside a ball turret?
To get inside the ball turret, the gunner had to enter through the door located on the floor of the aircraft, positioning the ball so the guns were pointed toward the ground. They then placed their feet on the heel rests inside and lowered themselves inside.
In order to fit inside the turret, the gunner had to assume a fetal-like position, with their knees bent close to their body. Some gunners had to maintain this position on missions of up to 10 hours.
Sperry ventral ball turret on a B-17 Flying Fortress.
The gunner held two joysticks in either hand, one to pivot the ball and the other to trigger the firing mechanism for the machine guns. Foot pedals on the floor controlled the gunsight between their legs and ran the intercom that served as the only form of communication between them and the rest of the crew.
Small windows allowed the gunner to see below the aircraft, but not above.
The problem with parachutes
The small size of the ball turret didn’t allow for additional equipment to be housed within it. As a result, the parachute needed in the event the aircraft was gunned down was located just outside of the turret door.
A B-17 Flying Fortress equipped with the ball turret.
Unfortunately, this was not a very good place for the parachute, as the gunner needed to open the turret door, enter the fuselage and strap themselves in – all before the plane crashed. Additionally, the spheres were difficult to escape from, as they were raised and lowered by a mechanism that was easily damaged.
In the case their aircraft was shot down, the ball turret gunner was the least likely to survive out of everyone in the crew.
The danger of landing
Another problem with ball turrets was they never fully retracted into the plane. When not in full operation, the turrets still stuck out of the bottom. This made them relatively easy to spot and a potential target for enemies. This also made it difficult for the aircraft to land safely.
Rudolf Portong of Long Island shows a Royal Air Force crew worker the mechanism for the ball turret machine gun, 1942.
It was critical that the ball turret gunner assume a particular position for belly landings, otherwise the sphere would hit the ground far before the landing gear and pose a threat to their safety. As well, when landing on water, the turret would be the first to become submerged. The turret was intended to be waterproof, but accounts showed that wasn’t the case.