Monday, March 9, 2015

RAF Pilot Rescue

On December 18 1939, a group of 24 British Vickers Wellington medium bombers were frustrated by low clouds and fog in their mission to bomb Wilhelmshaven, and they turned for home. The formation attracted the energetic attention of Luftwaffe pilots flying Messerschmitt 109 and 110 fighter aircraft and more than half of the Wellingtons went down in the North Sea. The German air sea rescue service, Seenotdienst, sent rescue boats based at Hörnum to work with Heinkel 59 float planes to save some twenty British airmen from the icy water. This was the first multiple air-sea rescue operation.

During the first two years of the war, the British had no coordinated air-sea rescue (ASR) units, just 28 marine craft launches and no dedicated aircraft. Inaugurated as the Marine Craft Section, just eleven days after the Royal Air Force itself was founded, the Marine Craft Section initially provided back-up for the flying boats. The ditching of a British aircraft in the Channel or the North Sea usually doomed its crew, only one out of five would survive. Fighter Command borrowed 12 Lysander aircraft from the British Army to use as spotter planes for ASR.

Early Allied rescues of downed airmen were ad hoc affairs involving a search by operational aircraft from the crews own unit and then attempting to divert any surface craft in the vicinity to the aircrew in distress. New Zealand pilot, Flt Lt RF Aitken even borrowed a Walrus flying boat from the Fleet Air Arm and saved 35 airmen over the summer of 1940.

One of the most important lessons learnt from the Battle of Britain was that the RAF could not afford to lose pilots who ditched to the sea. British fighters such as the Spitfire and the Hurricane did not carry inflatable rafts, only lifejackets which were little help against the cold. During the early stages of the battle 220 aircrew were killed or missing in the Channel close to our shores. Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park, commanding the South East Fighter Group from RAF Uxbridge even ordered his controllers not to vector aircraft over the sea ‘as too many were getting drowned.’

In 1940, the Seenotdienst added bases in Denmark, Holland and France. The Heinkel He59s were painted white in June of that year, with red crosses to indicate emergency services. A few French seaplanes were also modified for rescue and attached to the organisation. In response to the heavy toll of German air action against Great Britain, Adolf Galland recommended that German pilots in trouble over the ocean make an emergency water landing in their aircraft, instead of bailing out and parachuting down, as the aircraft each carried an inflatable rubber raft which would help the airmen avoid hypothermia from continued immersion in the cold water and increase the time
available for rescue.

In July 1940, a white-painted Heinkel 59 operating near Deal, Kent was shot down and the crew taken captive because it was sharing the air with 12 Messerschmitt 109 fighters and because the British were wary of Luftwaffe aircraft dropping spies and saboteurs. Significantly, the German pilot’s log showed that he had noted the position and direction of British convoys. British officials determined that this constituted military reconnaissance, not rescue work. The Air Ministry issued Bulletin 1254 indicating that all enemy air-sea rescue aircraft were to be destroyed if encountered.

Winston Churchill later wrote “We did not recognise this means of rescuing enemy pilots who had been shot down in action, in order that they might come and bomb our civil population again.” Germany protested this order on the grounds that rescue aircraft were part of the Geneva Convention agreement, stipulating that belligerents must respect each other’s “mobile sanitary formations” such as field ambulances and hospital ships.

Churchill argued that rescue aircraft were not anticipated by the treaty, and were not covered. British attacks on He59s increased. The Seenotdienst as a result, ordered the rescue aircraft armed as well as painted in the camouflage scheme of their area of operation and rescue flights were to be protected by fighter aircraft when possible.

In October 1940, yellow-painted Sea Rescue Floats code-named ‘Lobster Pots’ were placed by the Germans in waters where air emergencies were likely. The highly visible buoy-type floats held emergency equipment including food, water, blankets and dry clothing and they attracted distressed airmen from both sides of the war. The British equivalent code-named ‘Cuckoos’ were rumoured to have had some design features from Churchill himself. A model float is on display to this day at the SARF HQ at RAF Valley. Both German and British rescue units checked the floats from time to time, picking up any airmen they found, though enemy airmen were immediately made prisoner of war. In British waters moored navigational buoys were fitted with a hatch where crews would find rations, a first aid box and a flag to hoist to indicate it was occupied. Sixteen larger floats containing food, clothing, a cooking stove, bunks and blankets for six men were provided around the South East coastline.

As a result of an emergency meeting chaired by Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris to discuss the shortcomings of rescue provision and acting on the instructions from the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the Directorate of Air Sea Rescue was formed. The Directorate took up its duties at HQ Coastal Command on 6th February 1941.

With a keen interest in Sea Rescue, the Station Commander at RAF St Eval in Cornwall, Group Captain Lewis George Le Blount Croke RAF was appointed Director of Sea Rescue with Captain C L Howe R.N. as his deputy. They were responsible for the co-ordination of all sea rescue operations for aircraft and crews, providing ancillary equipment to be dropped by aircraft at the scene of distress and provide marine craft, moored buoys and similar aids to rescue. The organisation copied much from the successful efforts of the German Seenotdienst which first employed the use of yellow dinghies, skull caps and flotation jackets.

The Directorate had four main problems to solve; how to teach aircrew to ditch and abandon a plane, how to maintain the life of the aircrew and how to locate them and then bring them safely home. A fifth problem was how to improve the design of aircraft so it could be successfully ditched and the crew could make a safe exit. The introduction of water tight lower hatches, auxiliary floatation gear and stowage of pneumatic dinghies became the norm in aircraft design. Aircrew were trained in ditching and dinghy drills for different aircraft types and how to use equipment that could be dropped to them in the sea.

The first airborne lifeboat was a 32-foot (10m) reinforced wooden canoe-shaped boat designed in 1943 by Uffa Fox, to be dropped by Avro Lancaster heavy bombers for the rescue of aircrew downed in the English Channel. The Mark I lifeboat’s descent to the water was slowed by parachutes. The ‘Thornaby Bag’ (consisting of a parachute pack with floatation pads taken from a life jacket) containing food, drink and first aid equipment could also be dropped to survivors and later the ‘Bircham Barrel’ made from a watertight cardboard bomb tail container, which could be carried and dropped from standard bomb racks. ‘Lindholme Gear’ has been used with modifications up to the present day and consists of a 7-8 man inflatable dinghy together with 4 supply packs, all linked by a floating rope, helping survivors easily seize the apparatus.

Every RAF station had an Air Sea Rescue (ASR) Officer appointed who was responsible for all aspects of rescue on his unit. Even homing pigeons were placed aboard multi-seater aircraft if the crew had no time to send a May Day (M’Aidez) or S.O.S. before ditching.

By May 1941 the number of Lysanders with Fighter Command had increased to 18, with 2 placed at each coastal fighter station. By October, that had increased to 36 with 9 Walrus flying boats and two squadrons of Hudsons with Coastal Command. In 1942 ASR consisted of six squadrons of 85 aircraft and by the busiest time for ASR in June 1944, it had 81/2 squadrons of 169 aircraft including, Ansons, Warwicks, Spifires, and Defiants.

No comments:

Post a Comment