On July 19, 1909, Hubert Latham took off from Calais, France, in an Antoinette monoplane, attempting to be the first man to fly across the English Channel. Soon afterwards, his engine failed and he came down in the Channel where he was rescued by a French warship. Latham failed in his venture, but achieved another distinction: he was the first pilot saved following an aerial mishap at sea.
Air/Sea Rescue (ASR), which involved the location and retrieval of aircrews who force-landed at sea, improved with time and saved thousands of lives between then and the end of the Second World War. In the 1920s, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm developed portable, inflatable dinghies, and from 1935 onwards, the Royal Air Force accomplished much while faced with the growing prospect of extended operations over the North Sea.
Planners soon realized that the first goal in ASR was ensuring the survival of the aircrews—or at least improving their odds of survival at sea in the event they had to ditch. This led to the development of life jackets that could be worn inside the narrow confines of an aircraft. Eventually these designs evolved into the famous Mae West inflatable life jacket which gave the wearer a buxom appearance.
Organizing an ASR operation was initially an ad hoc affair, conducted by the units directly allied with the missing aircraft, a responsibility that distracted the units from their primary duties. In January 1941, the RAF created a specialized ASR directorate within the Air Ministry. It drew on civil, naval and air force resources and adopted the motto, The Sea Shall Not Have Them, which in 1953 became the title of a John Harris novel, followed by a British war film starring Michael Redgrave.
In addition to teaching aircrews how to ditch and abandon aircraft at sea, and how to survive once outside the aircraft, ASR had to find ways to locate downed crew, and bring them home. Another challenge—improving aircraft construction to facilitate ditching and exiting on water—was handled by the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
The job of manoeuvering an aircraft to alight on water remained the sole responsibility of the pilot. Abandoning the machine quickly and in an orderly manner was crucial, and each crewman had a role in safeguarding himself and his comrades. Navigators and radio operators were especially responsible for determining and reporting locations up to the last minute before ditching. Detailed instructions extended to such points as advising crewmen to loosen their collars and ties. If time allowed, as many men as possible would concentrate at a central point in the fuselage where they would brace themselves against something solid.
It helped that aircrews trained for such emergencies in “dinghy drills,” but evacuating from a training fuselage in a hangar was only partial preparation for the real thing which was often executed in darkness as the aircraft flooded.
An example of a well-trained crew was that of a Halifax bomber of No. 419 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Squadron. Flying their first mission on the night of March 22, 1944, they had been dispatched on a mine-laying mission to Kiel, Germany, a task they completed in spite of one engine catching fire. While returning home at 10,000 feet on three engines, a second motor burst into flames. Although the blaze was extinguished, the Halifax gradually lost altitude. An SOS was transmitted a few minutes before midnight, and 10 minutes later the bomber was gently ditched. All seven crewmen got into their dinghy and were rescued three and a half hours later by a trawler guided to the scene by flares dropped from search aircraft. The Halifax floated nearby until it was sunk by the trawler’s gunfire. Three of the crew, Pilot Officer George Peck of Westmount, Que., Flying Officer Aubrey Winch of Guelph, Ont., and FO Archie Paton of Vancouver were subsequently decorated.
Assistance and rescue took many forms. Once survivors were located, land-based aircraft could drop emergency equipment. At the beginning of the war the RAF used Thornaby Bags, named after the air base where they were developed. These were floating packages adapted from parachute packs and stuffed with rations. Dropped onto the water without a parachute, the bags often broke on impact and so they were difficult to see and retrieve unless dropped near the survivors.
Staff at RAF Station Bircham Newton developed the Bircham Barrel which was tougher, larger and carried on a bomb rack. RAF Station Lindholme improved on that with Lindholme Gear—five packages, each about the size of a 500-pound bomb, roped together with colourful lines and dropped simultaneously. One unit held an eight-man dinghy while the other four contained medicine, water, food and signalling equipment.
Airborne lifeboats (larger than dinghies) were introduced in May 1943, and although very spectacular, their use and effectiveness was limited. The most sympathetic assessment is that British-based aircraft dropped 112 lifeboats and that in 61 cases they were boarded successfully by at least one man. In 12 cases the results were not known and in the remaining 39 cases no rescue was achieved, usually because the lifeboat had been dropped too far from survivors.
Almost any airplane could be adapted to a passive ASR role. In 1940, Westland Lysanders failed as tactical support aircraft, but their ability to fly slowly made them useful in air searches and dropping equipment to those in need. The Boulton-Paul Defiant, disastrous as a dayfighter, was switched to odd jobs such as target towing and ASR operations. The best-known wartime ASR aircraft was the amphibious Supermarine Walrus, which had to be practically wrestled from Royal Navy stocks.
Specialist units were formed to conduct ASR work. Nos. 275, 276, 277 and 278 squadrons, based in Britain, operated the single-engine types; No. 279 and 280 squadrons undertook long-range searches and lifeboat drops with Wellingtons, Warwicks and Hudsons. Nos. 283, 284 and 293 squadrons flew in the Mediterranean theatre and No.282 Sqdn. was associated with ASR work out of India and Ceylon.
The Allies also learned much from German ASR practices. During the Battle of Britain, which lasted from August to October 1940, the RAF was using yellow dinghies and it extended the use of this colour to skull caps and life jackets. Dye packages and the development of a one-man dinghy for fighter pilots were other practical ideas borrowed from the Germans.
Final rescues were usually carried out by high-speed launches, warships and sometimes by the enemy. Aerial rescues by flying boats were most common close to land, but not on the high seas. It is worth noting that the Canso crew of Flight Lieutenant David Hornell, VC, shot down at sea on June 24, 1944, spent almost 24 hours in a dinghy. During half of that time, two different flying boats—a Catalina and a Sunderland—were overhead, yet neither attempted to land on the water. Instead, they guided rescuers to the scene.
The reluctance of flying boat crews to alight was understandable; these aircraft were more fragile than they appeared. Events of Aug. 11-12, 1942, provided a cautionary tale. A Wellington aircraft was forced to ditch in the Bay of Biscay off France. The six-man crew escaped to their dinghies and a Sunderland flying boat of No. 461 (Royal Australian Air Force) Sqdn. attempted to land on rough seas. The Sunderland crashed, killing 10 of its 11-man crew. Other aircraft kept authorities informed of the dinghies’ location, and motor launches finally rescued the survivors on Aug. 17. Nevertheless, the loss of 10 men—to rescue six—was clearly bad mathematics.
Those with romantic notions of “chivalry in the air” might think that enemies in battle would still find common ground in ASR. Not so. During the Battle of Britain, numerous German aircrew were plucked from the English Channel by He.59 floatplanes, painted white and marked with a Red Cross. The RAF regarded this as an abuse of the Red Cross symbol, and also quickly concluded that the aircraft were rescuing combatants who would probably rejoin the fight. Moreover, the He.59s, if left unmolested, might engage in reconnaissance. Fighter Command broadcast its views to the enemy, and emphasized its message by downing two He.59s. Thereafter, both sides regarded each other’s rescue aircraft and boats as fair game.
The dinghy radio, introduced in 1942, was another instance of borrowing an idea from the Germans. Air Ministry attempts to improve on a Luftwaffe design only delayed its use in the RAF. By August 1942, it was decided to adopt an American radio which was, in fact, an exact copy of the original Luftwaffe device. The best known radio was the Gibson Girl, named for the hourglass figure of a pinup. About the size of a breadbox, it could be carried on aircraft or easily dropped to stranded crews. Users gripped it between their knees, then hand-cranked it to generate and broadcast a distress and location signal.
While RCAF personnel overseas were active participants in ASR work, they were more often the objects of ASR rescue. A case in point was Flt. Lt. Alfred B. Brenner of Toronto who flew with No. 415 Sqdn. On Feb. 18, 1943, following an attack on a German convoy off the Dutch coast, he ditched his Hampden torpedo-bomber some 30 miles from Yarmouth.
The aircraft sank in seconds, taking with it the rations, dinghy paddles and mast, signal flares and even waterproof skullcaps, leaving the four-man crew with only the barest emergency supplies. While their flashlights were unserviceable, the men used their cases to bail water from the dinghy. Somehow, the pigeons had been salvaged and, once they dried out, they were released, never to be seen again. With only a quart of fresh water in the dinghy the men abstained from using it. For meals they allowed themselves one Horlicks high-energy tablet each from their Aid Boxes. Some 42 hours after their ditching, the crew was rescued by a Walrus amphibian of No. 277 Sqdn.
If the RCAF had an ASR “ace” pilot it was Flt. Lt. John Spence of Fergus, Ont. He joined No. 277 Sqdn. in June 1941. In the next 20 months he flew 73 sorties in Lysander and Defiant aircraft, locating downed crews, dropping emergency supplies and assisting in the rescue of seven men. His adventures included being attacked by a German fighter on Dec. 11, 1942. The recommendation for his first Distinguished Flying Cross said, in part: “This sortie took him to within five miles of Le Tréport, France, where he landed and picked up a Canadian Flight Sergeant Pilot who had been shot down three hours before. He then took off and returned safely to base. The visibility was deteriorating fast, and this rescue is typical of the skill, courage and resourcefulness that this officer has so frequently exhibited.”
Spence was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross for an action on June 16, 1943, during which he conducted a search for a British fighter pilot near Calais. After locating the man within three miles of the coast, Spence alighted on heavy seas and hauled the survivor on board. Two attempts to take off failed, and so Spence taxied back across the Channel, into waves that broke over his windscreen and threatened to swamp his Walrus. He also faced the risk of striking a mine.
It was only after he chugged into Dover and disposed of his passenger that he learned about the 20 or so German fighters that had tried to intercept him, that four RAF Spitfires had intervened, and that a furious dogfight had been fought over his head which resulted in the downing of two German aircraft and one Spitfire.
Canadians worked at ASR in other theatres as well. Warrant Officer Gordon F. Brown of Danville, Que., piloted Walrus aircraft of No. 293 Sqdn. in the Mediterranean. On April 4, 1944, he rescued five RAF crewmen from a ditched Wellington. The overloaded Walrus could not take off and Brown taxied for nearly five hours until he could transfer his charges to a ship. Twice he picked up airmen so close to enemy shores that he came under fire. Sometimes the rescuers themselves had to be rescued. FO Anthony Morabito of Cranbrook, B.C., a veteran of several rescues, was crewman on a Walrus of No. 293 Sqdn. which foundered in heavy seas after picking up a downed Spitfire pilot on April 10, 1944. The Walrus crew and Spitfire pilot were all rescued by a high-speed launch.
A 1952 Air Ministry ASR history stated that the British-based rescue organization, from its inception to VE-Day, saved 5,721 aircrew plus 4,665 non-flying Allied personnel and 277 enemy personnel. The latter two figures include theatres other than Britain. Besides saving lives, ASR wartime developments paid rich dividends in the peace that followed. Although the need for such operations declined when combat ended, the restoration of open, unsecured radio traffic simplified the tasks of those who ditched and those who strove to save them.
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