Chapter 5: Coastal Command and the Struggle at Sea: The North Russian Convoys, Photographic Reconnaissance, and Air-Sea Rescue
Hitler’s unconscious admiration of the British Commonwealth was at no time to be seen more clearly than in the opening months of 1942. While the Japanese were stripping us of our possessions in the Far East he continued to believe that we were about to invade Norway. Undeterred by the fate of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen he therefore proceeded with his plans, and by 20th March, 1942 the Tirpitz, the Scheer and the Hipper were all at Trondheim. This was harmless enough from the point of view of an operation which was never more than a figment of the Führer’s imagination. It was not so harmless from the point of view of our North Russian convoys, the story of which must now be told.
The first British convoy had sailed to Russia on 21st August, 1941. The second had followed in September, the third in October. From then on the PQ convoys, as they were called, had left Iceland three times a month. Normally they passed west of Iceland through the Denmark Strait, rounded Northern Norway as far to the north as the presence of ice and the land-mass of Spitsbergen allowed, and then turned south for Archangel or Murmansk. Over the first 150 miles of this route they enjoyed the support of Nos. 330 (Norwegian) and 269 Squadrons from Iceland. Thereafter, as all aircraft carriers and long-range coastal aircraft were fully occupied elsewhere, their air support consisted only of occasional patrols flown to detect U-boats off Northern Norway. Like all other convoys, however, the Russian convoys were greatly helped by Coastal Command’s constant watch and ward over German warships.
The most dangerous part of the voyage began with the passage north of Norway. From that point, for the rest of the long journey through the Barents Sea, the vessels were mostly within easy range of
German aircraft, U-boats and destroyers based in Northern Norway and Finland. Unfortunately this liability to attack continued even after the arrival of the ships in port, and it was for this reason that the first convoy included Royal Air Force fighters intended to operate from Russian soil. As one of the very few examples of successful co-operation with our Eastern ally, the story of this venture deserves recording in some detail.
No. 151 Wing comprised two newly formed squadrons—Nos. 81 and 134. The instructions of its commander, Wing Commander H. N. G. Ramsbottom-Isherwood, a sturdy, hard-bitten New Zealander, were to help in the defence of Murmansk until the weather stopped intensive flying in October or November. He was then to hand over what remained of his aircraft to the Russians. The force placed under his command numbered thirty-nine Hurricanes, of which twenty-four travelled more or less intact, the rest dismantled.
In due course the twenty-four flew off the Argus and touched down at Vaenga airfield, seventeen miles outside Murmansk. German air attacks, however, caused the ships containing the fifteen crated Hurricanes to be diverted to Archangel, some four hundred miles further east. The first task was thus to erect these aircraft at a spot where no arrangements existed for the purpose. Hard work, willing co-operation, and clever improvisation on the part of the ground crews and the Russians overcame all the various local handicaps—including a shortage of airscrew-spanners and a surplus of minor insect life—and the fifteen aircraft were assembled within nine days. The subsequent flight to Vaenga on 12th September was accomplished with only one undue incident. At the refuelling point Russian hospitality proved too much for a couple of the pilots, who found it advisable to postpone their departure until the following morning.
At Vaenga the aircraft from the Argus were already installed and operating, ammunition having arrived from Archangel by train the day before. The airfield, which the Wing shared with a Russian medium bomber squadron, was large and reasonably satisfactory, though in wet weather the surface of rolled sand became’ very cut-up and bumpy’. A metalled road about a mile long connected the main points inside the camp, but outside there were only country tracks full of deep ruts and pot-holes. Accommodation in the main brick blocks was good, but the wooden out-buildings were dirty. No complaint could be levelled against the bedding, which was new, and the plentiful food, which was described, according to taste, as ‘rich’ or ‘greasy’. The one really bad feature was the sanitation, which was unhygienic to a degree which revolted the British airmen. It did not, however, destroy their sense of humour. Their main latrine, sited
directly over a cesspit and exposed on all sides to the Arctic blast, they at once dubbed ‘The Kremlin’.
On the whole our men were pleasantly surprised with their conditions, for they had been warned to expect far worse. The Russians, too, proved extremely helpful, and Isherwood was soon on good terms with the local commander. This officer, at once a general, a skilled pilot and a man of considerable charm, even parted with a set of local military maps—something for which our Military Mission in Moscow would certainly have pleaded in vain. Despite contrary proposals from the Russians, Isherwood was also able to carry out his own plans for making the squadrons operational and escorting the bombers. Indeed, the Wing Commander’s most awkward moments were to come not from any obstruction on the part of our allies, but from the difficulty of keeping his own airmen usefully employed after the aircraft had been handed over, and from Slavonic exuberance at, or after, official celebrations. On one occasion, for instance, an extremely drunk Russian Colonel seized the blue-chinned and ultra-masculine Wing Commander in a fierce embrace and endeavoured to smother him in kisses.
Less than twenty-four hours after beginning patrols the Wing scored its first victory. In the afternoon of 12th September five aircraft of No. 81 Squadron intercepted a Henschel and five Me. 109s on reconnaissance from Petsamo. Despite the fact that the Hurricanes were as yet carrying only six of their eight guns, they damaged the Henschel and destroyed three of the escort at the cost of one of their own number. No further casualties were suffered in later combats, and at the end of its five weeks’ spell of operations the Wing was able to claim, for the loss of this single machine, sixteen enemy aircraft destroyed, four probably destroyed, and seven damaged1.
The first snows fell on 22nd September, and by mid-October it was time to begin handing over the Hurricanes to the Russians. The keenness of the local military commander, who insisted on being the first to handle the aircraft, was matched by that of his pilots. ‘They would turn up’, wrote the Commanding Officer of No. 134 Squadron, ‘and demand training in the most appalling weather. I remember one pilot doing his first solo in a snow-storm that would have shaken any of us. It took him three shots to get down, and each
time he went round again he disappeared completely from sight. I never expected to see him again. However, he made it’. Equal enthusiasm was displayed on the ground, though the Russians’ maintenance standards were much less strict than our own, and their technical staffs consisted of a few competent engineers diluted with large numbers of unskilled labourers. No undue difficulties arose in completing the programme of instruction and transferring the aircraft, and at the end of November the Wing was withdrawn to England with its tasks successfully accomplished. Only a few of the signals staffs then remained behind. Equipped by the Russians with sheepskin coats, they afforded great amusement to their departing comrades. ‘Their entry into a cinema’, records No. 81 Squadron’s diary, ‘was always the signal for a storm of “Baas” ’.
Up to the end of 1941 the PQ convoys and their westbound counterparts (which consisted mostly of empty ships) suffered no damage. Relying on a rapid collapse of Russian resistance the Germans made little attempt to interfere with the traffic, and in any case the long Arctic dark of November and December told in our favour. In the opening months of 1942, however, the enemy set about repairing this omission. In anticipation of the better weather and the longer hours of daylight, reinforcements of German aircraft, U-boats and destroyers were despatched to Northern Norway and Finland. The result was seen at the end of March, when casualties to Allied vessels sharply increased. Worse was to come. In May, when Hitler at last dismissed the bogy of a British invasion, the whole group of twenty U-boats between Norway and Iceland, as well as the three capital ships, became available for action against the convoy route. The seriousness of this new situation came fully home in the closing days of the month, when greatly extended support by Sunderlands and U.S. naval flying boats from Iceland failed to prevent heavy losses in PQ.16. Of the seven ships sunk, six fell victim to attack from the air.
The ordeal of PQ.16 was bound to be re-enacted with other convoys unless we could arrange stronger air protection over the eastern half of the route. But the Navy were still unable to supply an aircraft carrier and our hard-pressed allies could not provide enough support from Russian bases. This led Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert at Coastal Command to offer three suggestions. The first, that Coastal Command should establish flying-boats at Spitsbergen, proved impracticable: part of the island, from which the Norwegian and Russian mining communities had been withdrawn in August 1941, had just been reoccupied by an intrepid little band of Norwegians, but German forces were also present and the expedition had lost both its ships and all its stores to attack from the air. Other
obstacles of remoteness and unsuitable flying weather, as will appear later, were not less formidable. Fewer difficulties attended Joubert’s second proposal, to base flying-boats near Murmansk, and it was accordingly arranged that eight Catalinas of Nos. 210 and 240 Squadrons should operate from the Kola Inlet, and from Lake Lakhta, near Archangel, during the passage of the next convoy. The third proposal, to hold the enemy capital ships in check by sending a force of torpedo-bombers to Vaenga, was ruled out by the Admiralty on the grounds that we had at home only two fully trained squadrons of these aircraft.
PQ. 17 sailed from the Iceland anchorage of Hvalfiord on 27th June. We were aware that the Germans intended to strike in strength with their capital ships. On 1st July the convoy was picked up by enemy aircraft and U-boats; on 2nd July it began to come under heavy air attack; and on 3rd July Tirpitz, Hipper and attendant destroyers headed north from Trondheim. The next day the Admiralty, fearing the annihilation not only of the merchantmen but also of the comparatively weak escorting forces, instructed the former to disperse and proceed independently and the latter to withdraw. This gave the Germans what they wanted. Cautiously ordering their big ships back to the shelter of the Norwegian fiords, they directed their aircraft and submarines to hunt down the unprotected merchant vessels. The Catalinas in North Russia, which had thus far been searching for U-boats, accordingly soon found their task transformed into rounding up survivors. In this they did admirable work, and it was in part through their help that fourteen of the thirty-seven merchant ships which had left Iceland eventually reached Archangel.
This disaster, one of the worst suffered by the Allies during the whole course of the war at sea, spurred Joubert to press once more for the despatch of torpedo-bombers to North Russia; for the Coastal chief was quick to point out that had his suggestion been adopted the Admiralty might not have felt impelled to give the order for dispersal. In the two months’ interval before the sailing of the next PQ convoy—an interval caused not by our losses but by the demands of the great August convoy to Malta—plans were accordingly made for the temporary transfer to North Russia of a balanced force of search-and-strike aircraft. Under the command of Group Captain F. R. Hopps, this was to consist of four photographic reconnaissance Spitfires, a squadron of Catalinas (No. 210), and two squadrons of Hampden torpedo-bombers (No. 144 and No. 455, RAAF). The Catalinas were to operate from Grasnaya, on the Kola Inlet; the Spitfires and the Hampdens from Vaenga.
The task of flying these aircraft to distant destinations across
enemy territory was in itself formidable. Moreover, the Catalinas were required to operate from their home bases until the last possible moment, which meant that their ground staff and stores had also to be carried by air. The greatest difficulties, however, arose from the limited range and navigational facilities of the Hampdens. The result was a very heavy casualty roll merely in getting the aircraft to their operational bases. One Hampden was shot down by a Russian fighter while coming in over a prohibited area. It ‘ditched’ off-shore and sank before the wounded air gunner could be released: the rest of the crew were then ‘shot up’ in the water, but managed to struggle ashore, where they were greeted with rifle fire until their cries of ‘Angliski’ earned recognition. Two other Hampdens, one of which was damaged beyond repair, ran out of petrol and made forced landings on Russian soil. Worst of all, no fewer than six crashed in Norway or Sweden. Those crews who reached their goal received a well merited tribute from the Prime Minister for having—in the words of one pilot—‘got there without wireless, in very bad weather, with very poor maps, and having as our only means of identification the undercarriage, which we put down as a friendly gesture when the quick-fingered Russians started to shoot’.
Equally strenuous efforts to safeguard the forthcoming convoy were made by the Royal Navy. Stronger surface escort, including for the first time an auxiliary aircraft carrier—HMS Avenger, with twelve Hurricanes and three Swordfish—accompanied the vessels; arrangements were made for a destroyer group to refuel at Spitsbergen and maintain close escort right through to Archangel; and the main battle fleet stood ready off North Iceland to engage the enemy’s heavy ships. Thus protected, PQ.18 sailed from Loch Ewe on 3rd September. At dawn it came under Coastal Command escort and anti-U-boat cover, first from North Scotland and then from Iceland, and this continued uninterruptedly for nine days. During this period the convoy suffered no loss, though on 8th September it was sighted by a Focke-Wulf and from the 10th it was trailed by U-boats. Later that day a report came through that the German heavy cruisers and destroyers were putting out from Narvik, and the Catalinas of No. 210 Squadron at once prepared to carry out their task. Between 11th and 13th September the eight flying-boats took off one by one from Invergordon and scoured the waters off Northern Norway for any sign of the enemy warships. Eighteen hours later, each in turn became waterborne at Grasnaya.
On 12th September, a few hours after the last Coastal Command patrol from Iceland had turned for home, the U-boats claimed their first victim. The next day the German torpedo-bombers appeared
in force and sank six vessels while the Avenger’s fighters were repelling high-level attacks. On 14th September the naval pilots, flying with desperate gallantry and resolutely supported by the ships’ gunners, beat off four furious assaults with the loss of only one vessel. On 15th September they improved on this performance, entirely frustrating a prolonged attack by seventy bombers. Not even the personal intervention of Goring, who signalled that the destruction of the convoy was of decisive importance and demanded attacks by all available aircraft, could now mend matters for the enemy. Bad weather had settled in, and though the German pilots got through to deliver three further attacks, they sank only one more ship. PQ. 18s losses during the whole voyage, at thirteen out of forty ships, were grievous enough; but the effort had cost the enemy three U-boats and thirty-five aircraft, including no fewer than thirty-one torpedo-bombers.
During all this time Group Captain Hopps was making full use of his aircraft in Russia. The Catalinas of No. 210 Squadron continued their watch for U-boats and surface vessels, the Spitfires strove in vile weather to photograph the German anchorages, the Hampdens carried out a long, vain search for major units which in fact had remained in Norwegian waters. Under the cover of these movements and of the German pre-occupation with PQ. 18 the westbound convoy QP.14 got through the first stages of its journey unscathed. Later it lost four ships in a fierce battle with U-boats. One of these attackers shot down a Catalina from Iceland, but accounts were more than squared when another of the pack was sunk by a Catalina from Scotland.
With PQ.18 in port and QP.14 well on the homeward leg of the journey, it remained to dispose of the aircraft in Russia. For the Spitfires and Hampdens the return flight against the prevailing wind would have been dangerous, if not impossible. These were accordingly handed over to the Russians. The Catalinas, however, were long-range aircraft, and all the pilots save one were able to fly their machines home. The exception was Flight Lieutenant D. E. Healy, whose previous exploits in visiting Spitsbergen are a story in themselves.
The importance of Spitsbergen in the North Russian convoy route has already been mentioned. When the Allies proposed to reoccupy the island in the spring of 1942 it became essential to discover how far south the ice extended, and whether the enemy was in possession. After Flight Lieutenant D. E. Hawkins of No. 240 Squadron had made the initial reconnaissance on 4th–5th April, 1942, carrying as observers Major Sverdrup, the leader of the projected Norwegian
expedition, and the Arctic explorer Lieutenant A. R. Glen, RNVR, the task of visiting Spitsbergen and tracking the ice-edge along the convoy route had fallen largely to Healy. Hawkins’ flight from Sullom Voe, a matter of some 2,500 miles and twenty-six hours out and home, had been undertaken exceptionally early in the year for high latitude flying, but Healy’s first reconnaissance on 3rd–4th May was little less exacting. Fierce headwinds of up to a hundred knots, huge belts of fog, heavy ice formation endangering the controls, inability to make more than the most occasional use of wireless or astral fixes as an aid to dead reckoning, utter weariness of mind and body from the long hours of flying—these were the perils surmounted on the first two flights, to say nothing of the danger of enemy opposition.
Then followed a period in which the weather made further flights impossible, the expedition sailed and was attacked from the air while landing supplies, and the Admiralty waited in vain for news. It was Healy who broke the suspense. Flying a Catalina specially equipped with long-range tanks, long-range ASV, and an extensive selection of compasses, on 26th May he discovered the survivors of the expedition (who had meanwhile existed largely on a ‘find’ of frozen pork and Russian sweets), and by an interchange of signals on the Aldis lamp learned of the presence of enemy patrols and aircraft. By 29th May he was back again with food, medical stores, arms and ammunition, which he dropped by parachute when his efforts to land on the fiords were defeated by ice. ‘The full glory of the scene that followed’, recorded Lieutenant Glen, ‘could not be properly appreciated from the air. Dirty, bearded ruffians darted out on skis to seize half-buried kit bags, tearing them open and thrusting mixtures of chocolate and boracic powder into their mouths with one hand while with the other they pulled off their tattered bed-sheets to parade back in the full glamour of an Irvin suit. Perhaps the best of all was the sight of a most respectable colonel of the Royal Corps of Signals, sitting on a coal heap oblivious to all else as he devoured large spoonsful of apricot jam and coal dust out of a 4 lb. tin which had burst open on impact’.
Two days later, on the third of these long and immensely exacting trips within a week, Healy was compelled by bad weather to abandon his mission after 17½ hours, but on 7th June his efforts to alight were at last rewarded. Stores were unloaded, and six wounded men were taken on board. Other trips followed in the next two months, that on 27th June being notable for the destruction of a Ju.88 on the ground at Spitsbergen and a sea-fog all the way back to the Shetlands. Finally, after the award of a richly deserved DSO to himself and a DFC.
to his navigator, Flight Lieutenant E. Schofield, Healy proceeded with his comrades of No. 210 Squadron to North Russia. He completed his flights for the passage of PQ.18, then took off from Grasnaya for a final visit to Spitsbergen. His instructions were to collect Glen and proceed home. Unfortunately bad weather forced him to abandon the trip, and he decided to return to Murmansk and try again the next day. Some two hundred miles from the Russian coast the clouds cleared and the crew saw a Ju.88 approaching rapidly from astern. The alarm was sounded on the hooter, the crew took up their action stations, and as the enemy drew closer the starboard gunner of the Catalina opened fire. Some of the shots apparently went home, and the enemy, disliking his reception, tore rapidly past and away. This brought him within the arc of fire of the Catalina’s front gun; but the weapon jammed, and as the German machine sped off its rear-gunner got in a parting burst. The shells smashed through the windscreen of the Catalina and fatally wounded one member of the crew—the pilot who had done so much to preserve our hold on Spitsbergen, and with it the safety of our convoys.
The death of Healy and the return of the remaining Catalinas from North Russia brought the episode of PQ.18 to a close. All told, the support of the convoy and its westbound counterpart had occupied 111 aircraft from fourteen different squadrons of Coastal Command. Between them these aircraft had put in 279 sorties and 2,290 flying-hours. But by far the greater part of this time had been taken up getting to and from the area of operations. The obvious remedy of stronger escort from aircraft carriers-could not yet be applied; and in view of this and the large part to be played by British surface forces in the forthcoming landings in North Africa it was decided for the time being to discontinue the Russian convoys. During October and November several ships sailed to North Russia independently, with a fair measure of success; and convoys were then resumed in December under cover of the winter darkness. They were discontinued during the spring and summer months of 1943, and a similar halt, though for a much shorter period, was made in 1944. By that time the development of the supply line through Persia had made the Northern route less important, while the regular employment of auxiliary carriers had obviated the need for shore-based support by Coastal Command in Arctic waters. The Command continued, however, to help the Northern convoys by reconnaissance, escort and anti-U-boat sweeps from Scotland and Iceland. Many gallant actions remained to be fought during these later years, but the Northern route was never again threatened as it had been in 1942. To the crews of the Royal Navy, the mercantile marine and Coastal Command,
who in that dire season braved and overcame the worst that the enemy could do, the whole Allied cause thus owed an immeasurable debt of gratitude. The ‘iron curtain’ has now descended, and on one side of it the deeds of our sailors and airmen are ignored, forgotten, or held in despite and contempt. That is the more reason for honouring them on the other.
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During 1942 Coastal Command continued to execute two essential tasks somewhat aside from its main work. One of these was photographic reconnaissance, the other air-sea rescue. The progress of these two highly important activities must now be briefly recounted.
Long-range photographic reconnaissance over Europe was, as earlier related, the function of the high-level Spitfires of No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.2 To these the fast and versatile Mosquitos had now been added. From the Unit’s base at Benson, near Oxford, from the neighbouring satellite of Mount Farm, and from the outlying detachments at Leuchars, Wick, St. Eval and Gibraltar, these unarmed aircraft took off on their hazardous and vital missions. As their numbers grew, and the longer range of the Mosquito enabled still more ambitious tasks to be attempted, so our acquaintance with events in enemy territory improved. By May 1942, ten sorties a day, as against four a year earlier, were returning with their precious spools of precise and irrefutable evidence. By that time, too, the Mosquitos were ranging as far afield as Narvik in the north, the Skoda Works at Pilsen in the south.
With the increase in the aircraft resources of No. 1 PRU went many parallel developments. On the technical side, the new F.53 camera, introduced in January 1942, gave a much larger print than the old F.24; its scale of 1 in 10,000 at 30,000 feet at last made possible a completely detailed and accurate interpretation. At the same time larger magazines, capable of taking up to 500 exposures, helped to give better cover. On the organizational side the most striking feature was perhaps the growth of the Central Interpretation Unit. Medmenham, which in earlier days had witnessed the frolics of the Hell Fire Club, now saw earnest figures peering intently through stereos at prints which would have aroused no glimmer of interest among John Wilkes and his cronies. Here was done that ‘second phase’ and ‘third phase’ interpretation which would amplify and systematize the information obtained from the immediate interpretation
at the operational stations. By the end of 1942 there were at this centre over a thousand men and women of the Royal Air Force; and specialized sections—naval, military, airfields, industries, damage assessment, night photos, and many others—existed to deal with every aspect of the work. Some idea of the size of the organization may be gathered from the year’s output, which totalled 204 models, 5,437 reports, and 1,454,742 prints. This last figure was possible only through the introduction of film-processing machines which developed, dried and spooled film at a rate of four feet per second, and of multi-printers which produced a thousand prints to the hour.
The photographic aircraft, it is important to remember, served many masters. Though part of Coastal Command it was as much their duty to obtain information for the Admiralty or the Ministry of Economic Warfare as for the Air Ministry. Among the multitude of their achievements in the period from June 1941 to December 1942 it is perhaps sufficient to mention the discovery of the He. 177 and a new class of German destroyer; the constant vigil over the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Tirpitz—729 photographic sorties, or on some occasions as many as seven a day, were flown over Brest during the stay of the two battle cruisers; the revelation of what Bomber Command was, or was not, achieving in Germany; the location of some seventy enemy radar stations; and the preliminary reconnaissance for the raids on Bruneval, St. Nazaire and Dieppe, as well as for the invasion of French North Africa. By October 1942, when the continued expansion of No. 1 PRU brought about its division into five separate squadrons (Nos. 540 to 544), strategic photographic reconnaissance was unquestionably among the most vital and rewarding of all our many activities in the air.
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Some account was given in Volume I of the origins of the air-sea rescue organization, and the assignment of Lysander aircraft in Fighter Command to this distinctive task. In the months that followed the Battle of Britain much progress was made, but responsibility continued to be divided among a large number of authorities. In August 1941 it was accordingly decided to concentrate executive control over all air-sea rescue operations in a single person. The choice naturally fell upon the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Coastal Command, and from this date Coastal Command became primarily responsible for the work of rescue. At the same time the Directorate of Air-Sea Rescue at the Air Ministry, which had already done much to develop and co-ordinate methods, was merged in a
larger Directorate-General of Aircraft Safety; and over this a distinguished ex-Chief of Air Staff, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Salmond, was invited to preside. These decisions were a reflection of the increasing interest in work the ever-growing importance of which may be seen from the fact that between February and August 1941 some 1,200 aircrew had crashed into the sea. Thanks to the still-undeveloped rescue services, 444 of these had been saved to fight again.
The increased responsibility of Coastal Command, it should be made clear, in no way lessened the dependence of the rescue services on outside help. The Post Office Radio Stations, the Royal Observer Corps, the Coastguards, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Merchant Navy and even amateur wireless enthusiasts all continued to play an essential part. And behind the rescue services proper—the high speed launches, seaplane tenders and pinnaces of the Royal Air Force, the naval craft, and the ‘search’ Lysanders and Walruses—still stood the general resources of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
In September 1941 the Lysanders and Walruses were formed into four squadrons—Nos. 275 to 278. These were the first squadrons to be assigned specifically to air-sea rescue. They remained in Fighter Command, distributed at suitable points around the coast, but their limit of search was extended to 40 miles from the shore. Three other air-sea rescue squadrons—Nos. 279-281—were formed before the end of 1942. The first two, intended for deep search and equipped with Hudsons and Ansons, became units of Coastal Command; the third, another ‘close-in’ squadron for Fighter Command, was formed on Defiants, then nearing the end of their life as night-fighters.
Together with this growth in the rescue squadrons and a corresponding increase in the number of marine craft went ceaseless progress in devices to sustain life and attract attention to the crashed crews. Such devices, however, were by no means the only points to consider. For the actual rescue was the end of a long chain of circumstance which stretched right back to the design of the aircraft—its reliability, its strength to resist the impact of the water, its facilities for stowage and exit. Equally important, too, was the training of the air crews—the readiness with which they absorbed and practised the drills for ditching and abandoning aircraft laid down by the Air Ministry and tirelessly preached after March 1942 by an air-sea rescue officer at every station. Only if due attention had been given to all these points could the crew survive to take advantage of the safety equipment provided. The great importance of this training may be seen from the fact that of those who crashed into the sea considerably more Allied
crews were rescued than British, in proportion to the numbers involved. This was undoubtedly because the Czechs and Poles, knowing the fate that awaited them in the hands of the enemy, were determined if possible to ‘ditch’ rather than bale out over German territory, and so took the rescue-drills more seriously.
Once the plane had ditched and the crew emerged, then the long list of safety aids came into play. By 1942 all crews were provided, either personally or in their dinghies, with emergency rations, drinking water or fruit juice, chocolate, a first-aid kit, distress signals, Verey cartridges, fluorescein, paddles, a telescopic mast, a flag, balers, leak stoppers, weather-covers, a skull cap, a whistle, a floating torch and a floating knife. With the issue of the one-man, or fighter-pilot’s, dinghy to bomber crews, the latter, if forced to bale out, were able to survive when their multi-seater dinghy went down with the aircraft.3 Other devices issued to crews during 1942 included a miniature wireless transmitter, packed in a waterproof floating case—a piece of equipment, like fluorescein and the one-man dinghy, copied from the Germans; while a further aid, in production but not yet in use, was WALTER—an automatic oscillator which registered on the ASV of searching aircraft. As for aids dropped from the air when the distressed crew was discovered, there were the comprehensive packs already well known as the Bircham Barrel, the Thornaby Bag, and the Lindholme Apparatus; and in production there was that masterpiece of ingenuity, the airborne lifeboat.
Thanks to all these devices, to the unstinted co-operation of the outside authorities, and to the unfailing gallantry of the crews of aircraft and launches alike, 1,016 of the 3,000 or so airmen known to have crashed into the sea in 1942 were recovered. Of the many remarkable incidents that occurred there is space to mention only two. The first received some publicity at the time, as it brought into prominence an unusual means of rescue –the carrier pigeon. Such birds were, of course, carried as an emergency aid for communication; but as they do not fly by night, or in bad visibility, or when wet, they were not expected to play any useful part once an aircraft had ditched. The following episode led to their capacities in this respect being taken more seriously.
On the afternoon of 23rd February, 1942, six Beauforts of No. 42 Squadron left Sumburgh for a sweep against enemy shipping. They reached the Norwegian coast, but saw no vessels, and on the return journey the aircraft became separated. Suddenly Beaufort M, piloted
by Squadron Leader W. H. Cliff, went into an uncontrollable dive and hit the sea. Cliff and his crew, who only a fortnight before had led No. 42 Squadron’s attack on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, thought that their last moment had come; but by some miracle all survived the impact and scrambled out, or were thrown clear, as the aircraft went down. Fortunately one of them was able to secure the dinghy, and this all four men eventually succeeded in boarding. Very soon they were joined by one of the two pigeons carried in the aircraft. They at once captured this welcome arrival, attached to its leg a note of the approximate position of the crash, and launched the bird into the air. But the creature was wet, and darkness was already coming on. After performing a few perfunctory circles the pigeon merely alighted back on the dinghy; and no amount of cajoling, or beating about the head, could persuade it to resume its flight. Its fixed intention was obviously to make a fifth passenger. In disgust the crew therefore abandoned their attempts to drive it off, and huddled together against the rigours of the February night.
By this time the search had begun. The last known position of the aircraft was 150 miles east of Aberdeen, and throughout the night a Catalina sought in vain for the distressed crew. At first light other aircraft went out from Leuchars, Dyce and Arbroath, but several hours’ search yielded no sign of the missing men. Meanwhile a pigeon had arrived back at base—not the obstinate creature of the previous evening, but its companion from the same basket. Unknown to the Beaufort crew, ‘Winkie’—as the unfortunate bird was called—had made his escape from the aircraft. He of course carried no message; but this did not defeat the acute intelligences at the station. Since he could not have flown in the dark, he must obviously have found somewhere to rest; and an examination of his feathers revealed unmistakable traces of oil. Someone hazarded the guess that he had spent the night on a tanker; enquiry revealed that such a vessel had in fact been passing off the North East Coast; and from a knowledge of its course, and a calculation of the time taken by the pigeon to reach base, the area of search was readjusted to some fifty miles nearer shore. The next aircraft sent out, a Hudson of No. 320 Squadron, flew almost straight to the spot where the dinghy lay tossing on the waves. The crew wirelessed a message to base, then dropped a Thornaby Bag. Three hours later a high-speed launch arrived, and the sufferings of the four bruised and frost-bitten airmen were over.
The second incident was marked by less good fortune, but it exemplifies that determination to succeed without which all the most elaborate preparations would have been in vain. In this case the cost
of saving a distressed crew proved heavier than that of leaving them to their fate. Nevertheless the moral value of the episode, in the confidence it inspired in crews that no effort would be spared to save them, far outbalanced any material loss.
On the night of 11th August, 1942 a Leigh Light Wellington of No. 172 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer A. W. R. Triggs, was on anti-submarine patrol in the Bay of Biscay. In the small hours of the following morning the tail gunner suddenly saw ‘excessive sparks passing behind like a cluster of stars’, the oil pressure fell to zero, the aircraft lost height, and in a few minutes the pilot was forced to ditch. The crew carried out their drill correctly, including the transmission of an SOS, but when the aircraft struck the water the dinghy failed to blow out of the stowage. This the pilot remedied by prising off the lid of the stowage with his bare hands, while the rest of the crew stood on the wing up to their knees in water. The dinghy then began to inflate and despite the high seas the drenched crew managed to climb aboard.
For the next three hours all six men baled furiously. Then the search aircraft began to appear. No less than eleven of them passed over or near in the course of the morning, but all the efforts of the distressed crew could not attract their attention. There were only two marine signals in the dinghy, and both of these were fired in vain.
The morning turned to afternoon, and at last a Whitley of No. 51 Squadron spotted the six airmen. The Whitley dropped a spare dinghy and a Thornaby Bag, and saw the crew retrieve the latter. It then sent off a signal giving the survivors’ correct position and turned for home. Within a short time a Sunderland of No. 461 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, escorted by three Beaufighters, was hastening towards the scene. The flying-boat survived an encounter en route with a Focke-Wulf Condor; but another Whitley, which spotted the dinghy and signalled ‘Sunderland coming’, was shot down on its way home.
The instructions of the Sunderland’s pilot were to alight and pick up the survivors if the state of wind and water permitted. The conditions, in fact, were far from good. Nevertheless he decided to make the attempt. As he touched down, the flying-boat hit a wave, bounced, hit the water again, and at once lost the tip of the starboard wing. A second later a starboard engine burst into flames and the aircraft nosed into the sea. The crew just had time to launch one of their dinghies before the Sunderland sank. They had barely clambered aboard when a bulge appeared on the side. Within a few seconds this swelled up and the whole dinghy burst, scattering the crew into the water. The navigator then swam towards the spare dinghy dropped
earlier by the Whitley, intending to propel it back towards his comrades. But the dinghy was 400 yards away, and in such seas it was all the utterly exhausted survivor could do to reach it and scramble aboard. The other members of the crew were soon engulfed by the waves.
So 12th August passed. Wet, cold and uncomfortable the six men from the Wellington now faced another night. The next day two more Whitleys arrived over the spot, only to be intercepted and driven off by German aircraft. A French fishing vessel also passed near, but the distressed aircrew pinned their faith to the efforts of their comrades, and made no move to attract its attention. Then the weather closed in. Throughout August 14th and 15th most of the search aircraft were grounded. Meantime on August 14th the six men took their first meal—a biscuit, a Horlicks tablet, a square of chocolate, and a mouthful of water. They also beat off a shark which showed an unwelcome interest in them. Towards the close of the following day they staged a Friday night celebration by drinking a can of tomato juice. On this day, too, they tried to make some progress towards horns with an improvised sail—for it was not until later in the year, after a number of fighter pilots had been picked up dead in their dinghies, that proper sails were included in the packs. While the Wellington crew thus kept up their spirits the single survivor from the Sunderland in the other dinghy was without food. He consoled himself by drinking water and chewing at the strap of his wrist-watch.
On 16th August, four days after the first crash, the weather cleared. At midday a Beaufighter of No. 235 Squadron appeared and signalled to the Wellington crew: ‘contact other dinghy—injured man aboard’. Guided by the aircraft the six men began to paddle the half mile or so which separated them from the survivor of the Sunderland. While they were doing so a Hudson of No. 279 Squadron arrived over the scene and dropped a Lindholme gear. After five hours’ intense effort they reached the other dinghy and pulled the solitary occupant aboard their own. They then rubbed him down and gave him a malted milk tablet and half a can of tomato juice. His first words were: ‘I’m all for the open air life, aren’t you?’ This the crew of the Wellington countered with another question: ‘You wouldn’t be an Australian, would you?’
By then a British destroyer, accompanied by launches and Beau-fighters, was fast approaching. But so were German aircraft. Soon the Beaufighters were shooting down a Ju.88, only to be attacked by FW.190s. Night fell. The seven men were still in the two dinghies, now lashed together.
Early the next morning a German motor launch, escorted by three
Arado 196s and two FW.190s, was seen heading towards the dinghies. But the Beaufighters were back on the scene, and they at once dived at the enemy. Under cover of their attacks, two of our own launches were then able to approach the dinghies and take aboard the exhausted survivors.
Their adventures were not yet over. On the return voyage, German aircraft shadowed and attacked the launches. But the Beaufighters and the gunners on deck held all attempts at bay, and in the evening of 127th August the little convoy reached the safety of Newlyn Harbour. So ended an outstanding rescue which, despite fierce opposition and great mischance, not only snatched seven skilled aircrew from the very jaws of the enemy, but also inspired all others with the knowledge that, in like misfortune, they too would be assured of that ‘last full measure of devotion’ which is the tradition of the service.