In the immediate aftermath and chaos of the evacuation from Dunkirk, Britain faced seemingly overwhelming aerial assaults from the Luftwaffe. It had not been envisaged that Britain would be the front line against the Germans; it was assumed that the bulk of the troops and airfields would be based in France. Therefore, when the Allies were driven from the continent it became obvious that air operations would now need to cross the sea, but the preparations for dealing with ditched crews was rudimentary at best.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had jealously held many of his Fighter Command squadrons out of the fight in France. He had realised that there was every possibility that his airmen would have to fight a defensive war over Britain and around her shores. As a result, by July 1940, he could muster around 800 aircraft. Two hundred of these were Spitfires and a further 400 Hurricanes. At the height of what would become known as the Battle of Britain, between mid-July and the end of October 1940, some 537 of his aircrew were lost. Of this number 215 were killed or missing after having ditched in either the English Channel or the North Sea. At this stage Britain’s ability to find and rescue ditched aircrew was underdeveloped. Civilian fishing vessels, merchant ships, the RAF, the Royal Navy and the regular lifeboat service (the RNLI) all retrieved downed aircrew. At this stage, however, the chances of being found and surviving in the water were slim.
The fighter crews were issued with Mae West lifejackets, but they lacked dinghies and survival kits. Their heavy engines meant that the aircraft sank extremely quickly. In some cases the pilots had a matter of seconds to get out and very little chance to indicate their position in order to aid their search and rescue.
During the Battle of Britain thirteen high-speed launches were available. Just ten covered the North Sea and the English Channel, and at any one time at least three were non-operational. The engines had to be changed or refitted after just 360 hours of running. If nothing else this alerted the RAF to the fact that although the 100 Class launches were a vast improvement over what had been available before, the engines at the very least were not the easiest to maintain in peak condition.
Losses mounted and on several days casualties on either side were such that the chances of being rescued were reduced to virtually zero. Between 20 and 21 July 1940, twenty-one British and German aircraft were shot down and crashed into the sea. Of the forty men involved, just six were recovered and one of these was picked up by the German rescue service. Most crews that were nursing a damaged aircraft would attempt to make it back to a friendly coastline. Crash landing or baling out over territory held by their own forces immeasurably increased their chances of survival. During the Battle of Britain, however, crews from both air forces, who were forced to ditch over the sea had approximately a 20 per cent chance of returning to their squadron.
The most successful air sea rescue day during the Battle of Britain was 26 August 1940. Two Spitfires were shot down near Dover, another off the Sussex coast; two Hurricanes and two Defiants were lost over Herne Bay. Of these, all but one Spitfire pilot and two Defiant gunners were saved.
The chances of being picked out of the water were increased if the pilot could ditch in the Thames estuary. By September this was where the main action was taking place; massed RAF squadrons intercepted German aircraft as they made their turn, using the estuary as a navigational aid. It has been estimated that RAF craft, including the HSLs, picked up around forty British aircrew over the course of the Battle of Britain. To this figure needs to be added all the crew picked up by the other civilian and military services. It is certain that the total number of pick-ups proved to be a small, but decisive factor in returning experienced pilots to their squadrons to continue the fight.
During the last twenty-one days of July 1940, the RAF lost 220 aircrew killed or missing over the seas. The high fatality figures shocked everyone, but by October a further 260 had been lost. In August the Sea Rescue Organisation was set up to coordinate the picking up of aircrews that had baled out or ditched in the North Sea or the English Channel. Most of the responsibility for this fell to Coastal Command.
By comparison, the German rescue service was far better equipped; it had also been integrated into the Luftwaffe at an early stage in the war. German aircraft were fitted with one-man dinghies and the bomber crews had portable radios. The Germans tended to rely on He 59 floatplanes for sea pick-ups, although a large number of crew were picked up by E-boats of the German navy.
The Germans also set up a string of sea rescue floats from around October 1940. These peculiar-looking craft were moored virtually in the middle of the English Channel and consisted of a floating refuge that had no power of its own and had a 250 ft (75 m) line trailing in the current to help people clamber aboard. The float had a central tower; the craft was painted yellow and there were red crosses on the tower. Having clambered down the steps from the tower, the downed crew would find four bunks, food, clothing, water, blankets, lamps, a bucket and distress flares. Later the British designed their own rescue float of a broadly similar pattern.
The British cast about for a way to increase the life expectancy of downed crews in the water. Standard dinghies were really only capable of protecting them for a matter of hours, yet in many instances men were afloat in them for days. Two solutions were the Thornaby bag and the Bircham barrel. The Thornaby bag was invented and first used in 1940 by RAF Thornaby. It consisted of a bag constructed out of parachute fabric, with kapok pads from Mae West jackets. Inside was a survival kit consisting of first-aid equipment, tins of food, drink and cigarettes. It could be dropped close to downed aircrew but, except in calm conditions, it tended to burst open.
An alternative came from RAF Bircham Newton and was, in effect, a cylindrical container, often the tail container of a 250 lb bomb. It had a reinforced frame and a canvas bag inside to make it watertight. As with the Thornaby bag, the exact contents differed from station to station. Generally, however, it would have a first-aid kit, food, water and distress flares. The main purpose of both devices was to help the aircrew sustain themselves until a vessel could pick them up.
The next development came from Group Captain Waring, the Station Commander at RAF Lindholme. He and his colleagues invented a device to drop an inflatable dinghy, clothing, food and a first-aid kit in a series of containers. The original invention consisted of five, the largest of which contained the dinghy, which were dropped in the tail unit of a 500 lb bomb case. The dinghy inflated automatically when it hit the water. The four smaller containers, in 250 lb bomb cases, held clothing, water and food. The five containers were strung together with ropes so that once the crew had got into the dinghy they could pull the other containers towards them.
RAF bomber crews at least had dinghies, but fighter pilots’ only means of staying afloat were their Mae Wests. The Ministry of Aircraft Production looked at ways in which a single-seat dinghy could be attached to a fighter pilot’s harness. Initially they rejected the idea, but when a German single-seat dinghy was examined it was decided to copy this model and put it into production.
The experience of the Battle of Britain proved beyond doubt that the sea rescue service needed to be both improved and expanded. It was generally agreed by all the services that something needed to be done. The retrieval of RAF aircrew was of paramount importance and it was suggested that an air commodore be given responsibility as the Director of Air Sea Rescue Services.
An expansion of the service was one thing, but what was of equal importance was a considerable improvement in communication and coordination between the services. Any effective air sea rescue service needed to know, with a certain degree of precision, where they needed to search and for what. Simply having HSLs on standby or on station was not going to be sufficient to improve the survival rate of downed aircrew in the sea. A radical re-examination was required of how information was passed from Fighter Command, Bomber Command, or indeed any other service operating aircraft.
Provisional approval for the appointment of a new director was given on 24 January 1941. Initially he would operate for six months and then a review would be undertaken. At that point it would be decided whether it was working and whether it still needed to maintain a separate identity. The responsibility for the new directorate would be given to both the RAF and the Royal Navy. Subsequently Group Captain Croke was appointed as the first Director of Air Sea Rescue Services and his deputy was a Royal Navy Captain, C. L. Howe. It was decided that the directorate would be called Air Sea Rescues (ASR) Services, in order to avoid confusion with the already existing Naval Sea Rescue Services. The new directorate would be set up at Coastal Command headquarters.