AT THE age of 18, Norman Smith was the rear gunner on RAF bombing raids over Germany – five years later he was a gunner of a different kind, playing wing half for Arsenal.

Norman, who belonged to the Magic Circle and also had a talent for golf, snooker and darts, came from Darwen and his nephew Jim Smith has told the story of the man who will always be his hero.


Born in 1925, he was one of eight children brought up in a two up, two down home in Garnett Street, where his siblings Tom – who was a glider pilot in WWII – Jim, Peter, Connie, Mona, Winnie and Sylvia all slept top to tail.

He attended Lower Chapel primary school, before moving on to Sudell Road, where his football skills helped the school team win the Daily Despatch Schoolboys Football competition for the north, in 1939.

Leaving school at the age of 14, he started work as a trainee mechanic at India Mill, before signing up for the RAF in 1943.

Family often later asked why he chose to be a rear gunner – ‘tail end charlie’ being the most vulnerable post on a Lancaster Bomber – he would simply reply that it was the only position left.

He joined 101 Squadron, a special duties squadron, based in Lincoln, fitted with an ‘airborne cigar’, a highly secret radio system which disrupted enemy fighters’ transmissions.

Norman flew 30 missions, bombing munitions factories, as far away as Poland, marshalling yards, oil refineries and cities – but it was the crew’s 18th operation to Russelsheim to target the Opel Motor Works on August 12, 1944, which was their closest shave.

Flying Lancaster N2 (Nan Squared), as their own aircraft Lancaster L (Love) was not serviceable, they had just dropped their payload when an enemy fighter appeared and the plane was shaken by a series of dull thumps.

They had been hit and the starboard outer engine was on fire.

The pilot Ron Holmes, who became a well known artist after the war, wrote about his experience: “We were a choice target, now lit up in the night sky like a flaming comet and if we did not get this fire out, we’d had it.”

In the rear, Norman reported his turret was useless and that, totally soaked in petrol, his eyes were badly smarting.

Working together, nerves at breaking point, establishing their position and their course home, the Lancaster made it across the channel in the darkness and with fuel low, pilot Ron landed it safely at RAF Woodbridge.

He was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, but aware that it had been a team effort, he chopped his ribbon into eight, a piece for each to wear on their later, annual reunions.

101 Squadron later supported the D-Day landings in Normandy by flying overhead and jamming the Nazi’s radio communications, After the war Norman joined Darwen FC in the Lancashire Combination, but was spotted by an Arsenal scout and moved to Highbury in 1948, for a fee believed to be £500.

He was at Arsenal for the FA Cup win in 1950, but two years later moved to Barnsley, where he became captain, and met his wife Adele, before joining Shrewsbury as player/coach in 1959.

When he finally hung up his boots – he suffered several serious injuries – he became an insurance salesman, while also building his magic act.

But one little girl who watched his show later told her mum: “He was very good, but he can’t be a real magician, because he’s the man who calls at my grandma’s every Friday tea-time to collect her insurance money.”