Air Sea Rescue

An airborne lifeboat is parachuted by a Lockheed Hudson of No. 279 Squadron to the crew of a USAAF Boeing B-17 who had difficulty in getting into their dinghy after making a forced landing in the North Sea on July 26 1943. “In the event of ditching, there was no contest. That low B-17 wing could serve as a temporary pontoon while the crew scrambled into life rafts. The B-24’s high wing put the fuselage underwater- often badly damaged. Crew members, if they escaped at all, had to swim out.”

Before the Second World War there was little formal provision for rescuing downed aircrew from the sea. The RNLI, of course, did sterling work; there were sometimes RAF high speed launches (HSLs) available and use was made of shipping available in the area. Aerial searches were largely left to the unit that “owned” the missing aircraft. Ahead of the declaration of war it was agreed to make more HSLs available. Responsibility for the co-ordination of searches was given to the various Coastal Command Groups, but the approach to a vital task remained haphazard.

A crisis was reached in the summer of 1940 during Fighter Command operations over the Channel ports and in the Battle of Britain. Many pilots and other aircrew were going into the sea and a significant proportion was not being rescued, at least by the British. This led to some unorthodox rescue attempts. On September 27 1940, for example, off Folkestone, Pilot Officer “Pip” Cardell of No. 603 Squadron jumped from his stricken Spitfire. His parachute failed to open. However, Pilot Officer Keith Dexter, of the same squadron, having failed to attract attention on the shore, crash-landed on the beach, commandeered a rowing boat, but found himself recovering Cardell’s body.

Pilot Officer “Tim” Elkington of No. 1 Squadron did not land in the sea after baling out of a burning Hurricane on August 16 1940. Instead Flight Sergeant Frederick Berry used his aircraft to blow Elkington to a landing at West Wittering, Sussex. By chance Elkington had taken to his parachute near the Nab Tower Light, the structure of which was originally part of a planned First World War U-boat defence system consisting of towers and booms. It was far from complete when hostilities ceased.

Flight Sergeant Berry would be lost in action on September 1 1940.

At this point German rescue of their aircrew (and sometimes British as well) was more effective. Their float planes operated close to the English coast, despite RAF pilots being under orders to shoot them down (the Luftwaffe also attacked British aircraft engaged in rescue work). In addition, combat aircraft often carried inflatable rubber dinghies and use was made of a chemical method of causing the sea around an airman to turn bright green. Some aircrew considered the German lifejacket to be superior to the “Mae West”.

Improvement had come about from July 1940, when Air Vice-Marshal Park, commanding Fighter Command’s No. 11 Group, and working in conjunction with Bertram Ramsay, Vice Admiral, Dover, had obtained some Army Co-operation Lysanders to be used to assist HSLs in searches for downed aircrew. Dye and other equipment improvements were adopted. Lysanders were officially transferred to Fighter Command in August 1940.

Pilot Officer (later Wing Commander) Jack Rose recalled that the dye was issued to No. 32 Squadron pilots on the morning of August 25 1940, with instructions that the pack be sewn on their life jackets. Shortly afterwards at dispersal, Rose performed the task. At about 19.00 hours that day Rose and Pilot Officer Keith “Colt” Gillman were both shot down over the Channel. Two hours later a searching aircraft from the squadron spotted a dye stain and directed a ship to Rose. By Rose’s account Gillman had not undertaken the sewing task. He was not found.

In January 1941 a Directorate of Sea Rescue Services was set up at the Air Ministry. Its functions were later taken over by the Directorate of Aircraft Safety. Coastal Command was made responsible for air sea rescue that was required more than twenty miles from the British coast.

The existing Fighter Command rescue units became Nos. 275–278 Squadrons. Two ASR squadrons were formed in Coastal Command – No. 279 at Bircham Newton and No. 280 at Thorney Island. In theory both were equipped with Hudsons, but such was the demand for the type for other duties that No. 280 started with Ansons and some were also operated by No. 279. Flying boats, notably the Walrus and Sunderland, were used to land on the sea to pick up survivors. Fighters were equipped with dinghies. Later the Vickers Warwick was used as an ASR aircraft and became one of the types to drop lifeboats.

Further new equipment was developed. From 1941 the practice was to issue aircrew with whistles for attracting attention after being downed.

A rescue that attracted some attention at the time and later was that carried out on October 22 1941, by a Sunderland of No. 10 Squadron, RAAF, skippered by Flight Lieutenant Reg Burrage, RAAF, flying from Pembroke Dock. The aircraft in trouble was a Whitley attached to No. 502 Squadron at St Eval from No. 612 Squadron at Wick. It was returning on one engine from an anti-submarine patrol off the coast of Spain and the pilot was Pilot Officer D. H. Limbrey.

Burrage later recorded that his aircraft, “Reached the latest recorded position of the Whitley … and commenced a square search. After completing two legs of the search received a signal from base giving a later estimated position of the Whitley which was further east towards The Lizard, and set course accordingly … We had almost reached The Lizard when we intercepted a signal from a Hudson (indicating that it was over a dinghy containing five live aircrew) … Dropped a smoke float near the dinghy and waved as we flew low over the survivors.”

Burrage was ordered by base not to land, “unless conditions permit”. For some time Burrage reflected on the right course of action to take. There was not much daylight left, the swell was “fairly moderate by Atlantic standards”, though difficult to assess and the sea was broken with white caps and appeared to be about eight feet from trough to crest. Eventually Burrage decided to jettison his bombs and depth charges and try to land. A landing was effected and, after considerable difficulty, the six men in a two-man dinghy were picked up.


The air sea rescue service of a Coastal Command Group rescued 20 airmen yesterday. In addition to nine survivors of a Sunderland, the crew of seven of a four-engine bomber were saved after being in their dinghy for only two-and-a-half hours. A Walrus took them aboard just before a Coastal Command high speed launch arrived. Not one of the seven was injured.

“In the evening the crew of four of another aircraft was rescued.”

(From the Daily Telegraph, April 17 1943).

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