Air-sea rescue

On specific occasions special arrangements were made to afford air-sea rescue protection. Thus in August 1938 and July-August 1939, when extensive home defense exercises were being held, special safety boats were supplied by the RAF and attendant destroyers by the Royal Navy (RN). Coastguardsmen were also instructed to keep special watch for aircraft distress signals during these maneuvers.(4)

Increasing concerns over the possibility of a war which would
entail long-distance flights over water led to the decision early in
1939 to place the whole high-speed launch organization in home waters
under the control of Coastal Command. In addition 13 more high-speed
launches were ordered. Just prior to the beginning of the war in
July 1939 the Air Ministry issued amended instructions outlining the
rescue responsibility of Costal reconnaissance group commanders.

Included in their mission was the coordination of aircraft and marine
craft engaged in rescue, and the responsibility for calling upon
high-speed launches and requesting naval assistance when necessary.(5)

In the early months of the war these peacetime rescue
arrangements were continued. Aircraft down at sea were searched for
by operational air-craft from their own units, and impromptu
arrangements were made direct surface craft to the rescue point if
the downed airplane was located. Communication delays-the results of
wartime security measures and congestion of the public telephone
system-soon became a problem, however. A revised chain of
communication system was therefore set up in March 1940. When a
distressed aircraft broadcast an SOS or Mayday, the RAF station which
received the signal transmitted a priority message to the Movements
Liaison Section of Fighter Command. The information was then passed
on to naval authorities, the appropriate reconnaissance group of
Coastal Command, and to the group distress area headquarters for
action by air and marine craft.(6)

During the summer and autumn of 1940 the rescue of fighter pilots
from the English Channel was a particularly difficult problem.
"During the last 21 days of July over 220 aircrew were killed or
missing, the majority over the sea."(7) In an attempted solution the
RAF Fighter Command borrowed Lysander planes from the Army Co-
operation Command and placed them under the operational control of
Fighter Command. These planes were given a fighter escort and sent
out after each air battle. Their chief rescue equipment was a rubber
dinghy carried in the bomb rack. Although with close cooperation
with the Royal Navy some success was achieved, it was felt that too
many airmen were still being lost.(8)

After British air operations shifted to the interior of Europe,
losses soared. Especially high losses in October 1940 prompted the
Chief of Air Staff to propose a drastic reorganization and expansion
of the sea rescue organization. Accordingly the Air/Sea Rescue
Services was formed at a meeting held at the Air Ministry on 14
January 1941 under the chairmanship of the Deputy Chief of Air Staff
and composed of representatives of the Royal Navy and of RAF
operational commands. It was agreed that sea rescue of RAF personnel
had become of such importance that it required the full-time
attention of an air commodore (a rank equivalent to that of an
American brigadier general) as director and a naval officer as deputy
director. However, despite the important function of the new
directorate, no aircraft or aircrews could be spared specifically for
rescue purposes, and the operation of the rescue service was to
remain the responsibility of the operational commands.(9)

After the initial meeting, a period of several months passed in
which the functions of the Directorate of Air/Sea Rescue were
clarified and the organization completed. It was decided that the
directorate was to be responsible directly to the Deputy Chief of Air
Staff, but the director and his staff were to be attached to Coastal
Command for close coordination with sea and air authorities concerned
with search activities. In addition, officers of the directorate
were to be attached to the area combined headquarters of Groups No.
15, 16, 18, and 19, whose functions were to control sea rescue
activities and coordinate air and sea search. The British Isles were
divided into four geographic areas coinciding with the regions of
responsibility of the Coastal Command groups. Close-in search, to a
distance of 20 miles from shore, became the responsibilities of the
Directorate of Air/Sea Rescue were to include:(10)

1) The coordination of all sea rescue operations for aircraft
and aircrews.

2) The provision of ancillary equipment to be dropped by
aircraft at the scene of distress to provide aircrews with a
chance of survival until the arrival of the rescue craft.

3) The provision of adequate marine craft, moored buoys, and
similar aids to rescue.

Through the Directorate of Operational Requirements, the
Directorate of Air/Sea Rescue was also responsible for the
"development, improvement, and introduction of all life-saving
equipment and safety devices for aircraft which might land at

In accord with its functions, the directorate interested itself
in drop-survival equipment. In this category the Lindholme Dinghy
Dropping Gear, the Thornaby Bag, the Bircham Barrel, and the Lysander
Rescue Outfit were of particular importance. All of these contained
food, water, distress signals, and first-aid kits. In addition, the
Lindholme Outfit held a dinghy in one of its five parts. Visual and
radio aids were other matters of constant concern. The difficulty of
spotting an object as small as a man in a lifevest, or even a dinghy
bearing several passengers, led to continuing search for a better
signaling equipment, more distinctive coloration, and more efficient
communications apparatus. Pyrotechnic signals, signal torches, and
whistles were among the devices perfected for attracting the
attention of would-be rescuers. It was discovered that yellow was
the color which contrasted to the greatest extent with the sea, and
skull caps, life vests, and other items of rescue equipment were
painted a glaring yellow. Fluorescine bags containing green sea dye
became common articles of identification equipment. Balloons and
kites were included in the dinghy equipment, and "K"-type dinghies
were equipped with a telescopic mast and flag. The most important
aid to location was the dinghy wireless set, but not until September
1941 were the first of these ready for trail. Meanwhile many multi-
seater aircraft attempted to meet their needs by carrying a cage of
homing pigeons to be released with a position report if no radio SOS
was possible before a ditching.(12)

The directorate started to function with only 12 Lysanders
available on temporary loan. Furthermore, the Deputy Chief of Air
Staff had stated at the time of formation that no aircraft could be
made available for permanent assignment. However, the directorate
continually emphasized the value of air-sea rescue in building morale
and conserving manpower and finally convinced the Air Staff of the
need for additional aircraft. Heavy losses of personnel in the sea,
an average of 200 per month during 1941, was probably the deciding
factor. Accordingly, in May 1941 the Lysanders were transferred to
the complete control of Fighter Command and six more were added to
the total. In September this number was further increased to a total
of 36 aircraft divided into 4 squadrons. The recommendations
concerning the need for amphibious aircraft were also finally
accorded recognition, and in July 1941 three Walruses were authorized
for use as rescue aircraft. The following month six more were
obtained. These additional aircraft were assigned to the four
squadrons which became composite units designated as Air/Sea Rescue
Squadrons Nos. 275, 276, 277, and 278.(13)

Until late in 1941 operations of the Air/Sea Rescue Services were
restricted to an area within 20 miles of the English coast. Search
beyond this point, known as deep search, was handled by those
aircraft which could be spared from operational missions. The loss
of time involved and the uncertainty of having enough search aircraft
reduced the efficiency of deep search below that which prevailed
within the Air/Sea Rescue Services sphere of operational
responsibility. In September 1941 the allocation of enough long-
range aircraft to form two squadrons was approved by an Air Staff
conference, but previous commitments for the delivery of this type of
plane made the immediate implementation of this decision impossible.
By October, however, it was decided that enough Hudsons were
available for the formation of one deep search squadron, and a second
was authorized in November. Continued shortages of aircraft,
however, prevented the quick entry of these new squadrons (Nos. 279
and 280) into rescue work. The first did not become fully operational
until March 1942, and No. 280 flew no missions until June of the same

One logical way to rescue aircrews in the sea far from their home
base was to provide them with the means of self-rescue. The most
practicable equipment for this purpose seemed to be self-propelling
marine craft that would be carried to the scene by a rescue plane and
dropped to the survivors. As early as 1940 a glider-type boat had
been visualized, but its construction involved technical problems too
difficult to solve. In the same year plans for a 32-foot motor
dinghy were also abandoned, although a great deal of experimentation
and discussion had gone into them. Finally, in January 1942
preparations were begun for the production of a 20-foot wooden boat
fitted with sails, oars, and a motor to be carried under the fuselage
of a Hudson aircraft and dropped by parachute. The possibility of
capsizing was eliminated by the installation of buoyancy chambers,
inflated by carbon-dioxide bottles whose caps were "triggered" by the
opening parachutes. To aid the distressed crew in finding and
reaching the boat, a rocket which would fire on contact with the sea
was placed on either side. Each rocket carried 200 feet of buoyant
line which the survivors could seize and thus get aboard. The
lifeboat was fitted with a rocket-fired sea anchor to keep it from
floating away from the survivors. Production of 24 of these boats
was authorized in November 1942.(15)

Communication between rescue aircraft and rescue boats was made
easier by the authorization of the two Hudson deep search squadrons.
Adequate communication between aircraft and boat was impossible when
operational aircraft with varying radio frequencies were used. The
decision was therefore reached in September 1941 to equip all rescue
craft, air and sea, with VHF radio sets and high frequency radio
telephone (HF/RT). Barring static, communication was direct and

After studying requirements for rescue boats, the Directorate of
Air/Sea Rescue in 1941 concluded that there were two major
requisites: boats capable of low-speed prolonged cruising, but with
an available speed of 25 knots; and high-speed boats capable of rough
sea operation. It was considered necessary that these boats,
designed for open-sea operation, be 60 feet or more in length,
although 40-foot seaplane tenders could be used close to shore. The
difficulty of combining high speed and sea-worthiness finally led to
the conclusion that the first should be sacrificed in order to attain
the second. Efforts to obtain boats for rescue service met with the
same difficulties of equipment shortages as those concerning
aircraft, but by 1942 more than 150 sea rescue boats-high-speed
launches, seaplane tenders and RAF pinnaces-were available for rescue

Crew survival, dependent on knowledge and practice of proper
ditching and escape procedure, was a major concern of Air/Sea Rescue
Service. A syllabus was accordingly prepared, pamphlets issued,
lectures given, and practice encouraged.(18)

The RAF, and later the AAF, benefited from observation of German
equipment. The German rescue service perfected a one-man dinghy
before it was a feature of British fighter planes. They were the
first to use fluorescine as a sea coloring to aid searchers in
finding downed airmen, and the first to discover that yellow was the
best color for sea-rescue equipment. In the fall of 1940 German sea
rescue floats began to appear in the English Channel. These had
bunks for four men, blankets, food, water and distress signals. The
RAF copied the example.(19)

Through the autumn of 1941 and the year of 1942 British air-sea
rescue was able to save more than a third of those who ditched or
bailed out over water. In the fourth quarter of 1941, 160 out of 473
aircrew members, or 33.8 percent, were saved; in the same period in
1942, there were 205 out of 568, or 36 percent.(20)

When the United States air units arrived in England in 1942, the
British had completed their air-sea rescue organization. There were
air-sea rescue liaison officers at each area combined headquarters,
Coastal Command headquarters, and Fighter Command headquarters.
Fighter Command was responsible for the area within 40 miles of the
English coast, and provided planes for search in its zone and fighter
cover for search planes and rescue craft. Coastal Command covered
all other areas, detailed a flying-control officer in each area
combined headquarters to initiate air-sea rescue action, provided
planes for extended search, maintained liaison with the Royal Navy,
and coordinated all activities not under the direct jurisdiction of
Fighter Command. Any RAF operational group could be called on for
assistance. For instance, Bomber Command might provide long-range
planes, and naval surface craft often participated in search and

British air-sea rescue control techniques were also well developed by August 1942, when the first AAF heavy bombing mission was flown. Communication procedure was standardised and fixer stations and central rooms were in operation.

When a distress signal was received at a fixer station, the position was plotted and the information phoned to the control staff of the nearest area combined headquarters, which in turn notified the controller of the group in whose area the plane had fallen. The controller informed the nearest Coastal Command station, and a reconnaissance plane was immediately dispatched (Fighter planes known as "spotters" were often used for this purpose). In addition, the area combined headquarters notified the nearest naval station at which rescue boats were based. These put to sea and were directed to the survivors by the reconnaissance plane if and when the survivors were found. Besides leading rescue boats to the downed crews, and circled them constantly to insure that their position would not be lost. If rescue craft were not able to reach the survivors immediately, relays of planes might relieve each other, and, if the delay was prolonged, drop further supplies.(22)