The legendary aerial gunner Thomas Joseph McLean died on July 20, aged 89. He is arguably the highest-scoring gunner, his DFC citation crediting him with seven confirmed kills as well as two probables. Postwar research indicated the two probables were actually destroyed, giving him a total of nine aerial kills, but McLean always limited his tally to what was officially awarded to him.
McLean joined the RAF at eighteen in June 1940 and was trained as a ground defence gunner, learning everything he could about guns, ammunition and ballistics. He later volunteered as an aerial gunner and was posted to No 102 Squadron as a Halifax rear-gunner. On his very first mission on 28 August 1942, McLean shot down an attacking Me 109.
He was awarded an immediate DFM after shooting down 2 Junkers Ju 88 on 6 December 1942, on his 17th mission. Astonishingly, this was not to the taste of some of the squadron’s officers, who made sure that McLean remained “in his place”.
McLean shot down an Me 110 and claimed another one as probable over Lorient on 16 February 1943. The probable was later recognized as a confirmed victory by intelligence. Ending his first tour of operations in April 1943, he became a gunnery instructor in Bomber Command.
Some time later, he was assigned as a gunnery instructor in a remote Coastal Command station and felt that his skills were mis-used. He managed to take part in patrols but never recorded these as actual operations in his logbook.
His morale was very low and he had begun considering desertion when he was invited to join the elite 617 Squadron, where he was well received and found an atmosphere more suited to his personality and skills.
On 15 March 1944, McLean’s aircraft was attacked by two night fighters over France. McLean was wounded but immediately shot the first attacker down in flames. The second attacker inflicted even more damage to the Lancaster but was quickly dispatched by fire from McLean’s turret and crashed. A nearby Me 109 was attracted by the action and proceeded to attack them but McLean was able to fend him off.
After recovering from his wounds, McLean continued flying with 617 Squadron until after D-Day, retiring with an official total of 51 sorties. He was awarded a DFC and was received by King George VI.
After a bried time a a civilian, McLean rejoined the RAF in 1946 and remained there until 1956. He then worked as a a barber and later as a caretaker, up to age 80. After his first marriage was dissolved, he married, in 1981, Kay Thompson. He is survived by both his wives, four children from his first marriage, a daughter from his second and by two stepchildren.
An obituary can be read on the Telegraph. I highly recommend reading about his wartime exploits in the book “617 Squadron – The Dambusters at War” by Tom Bennett (Patrick Stephens Ltd, ISBN 1852600411, new edition 1987, Chapter 4).