Air Sea Rescue

One of the great myths of the Battle of Britain was that the bombing of London on 7 September and the subsequent Blitz “saved” the RAF and allowed us to win the Battle. In fact, the Battle had by then already been won, not by the action of Goering’s Luftwaffe in bombing the cities, and London in particular, but in moving inland to attack the RAF bases, the part of the campaign which started in earnest on 15 August.

Contrary to perceptions, it was at this time that the massive losses of RAF pilots began to stabilise and the tide began to turn.

The explanation for this has emerged more clearly from an evaluation of the statistics throughout the battle, and in particular in first phase of the Battle of Britain which started on 10 July 1940, and in fact earlier, This was the attack on the coastal convoys known as Kanalkampf.

In one of the most shameful episodes of the entire Battle, there had been no systemic provision for air sea rescue. Air Chiefs had assumed that the high volume of shipping in British coastal waters would mean that downed airmen would be spotted and recovered, using normal shipping and civilian rescue services such as the Lifeboat Services.

Tragically, this was not the case and, during this phase of the battle, over 200 pilots were lost who might have otherwise been saved.

A typical example was during the air battles of 8 August when 19 British fighters were shot down and no less than 18 were reported killed or missing - including three in one machine, a Blenheim F1. Of those, 15 of 18 of the pilots were lost at sea – over 80 percent. Is seems statistically improbable that they were all killed in combat or died on impact. One the fighting moved inland, the loss rate dropped to below 50 percent and on some days was much less, as pilots were able to bale out over land.

One of those lost was Flt Lt "Henry" Hall, friend of Battle of Britain ace Johnnie Kent. He observed that these early combats had been, in his opinion, “the most deadly of all”. Many a good fighter pilot was lost who would have been invaluable in the days that followed.

Fighting over England, Kent wrote in his autobiography, one always had the comfort of knowing that if one was forced to jump one would come down on land where medical attention, if required, could rapidly be obtained. He continued:
Over the sea it was a different matter, he wrote. We were only equipped with archaic Mae Wests, the buoyancy of which depended upon wads of kapok and a rubber bladder that had to be inflated by mouth.
"The chances of being picked up during a convoy attack were very remote and this may well have happened to Henry as it did to so many others." Kent added. Hall had been commanding a flight in No. 257 Sqn but had previously been a test pilot at Farnborough.

In the official history of the RAF during the war, we are told that Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, AOC No. 11 Group at the heart of the battle, had in late July succeeded in borrowing some Lysander aircraft to work systematically with the launches and other craft, a step towards building a truly comprehensive organisation for air-sea rescue service.

Few investments of aircraft were to yield more precious dividends, the history asserts. How badly we needed special aircraft for this purpose is then highlighted by the "not unrepresentative" experience of Pilot Officer Stevenson from No. 74 Sqn, sent in to intercept a raid. It is an illustration, the official historian cites, of: "the almost fortuitous fashion in which our airmen were being picked up from the sea."

Having baled out of his aircraft at high altitude (23,000 ft) after mixing it with a group of Me 109s, he has drifted eleven miles out to sea on the end of his parachute by the time he hits the water. His narrative thus continues:
One string of my parachute did not come undone, and I was dragged along by my left leg at ten miles an hour with my head underneath the water. After three minutes I was almost unconscious, when the string came undone. I got my breath back and started swimming. There was a heavy sea running. After one and a half hours an MTB came to look for me. I fired my revolver at it. It went out of sight, but came back. I changed magazines and fired all my shots over it. It heard my shots and I kicked up a foam in the water, and it saw me. It then picked me up and took me to Dover.
The figure of twelve Lysanders is often mentioned but it would appear that the arrangement was for Army Co-operation squadrons to provide a detachment at Manston in Kent, for the express purpose of air-sea Rescue. Each of four Lysander squadrons were to provide three crews and aircraft in month-long detachments. It is claimed that the first three crews left Linton from No. 4 Sqn early in the month of August and on the 20th of the month carried out the first successful rescue.

There are, however, some inconsistencies in this account as by mid-August Manston was under frequent attack from the Luftwaffe and was in the process of being abandoned. Yet, we are told that "in late August" one of the Lysanders was lost, with its crew, Plt Off Empson and Sgt Gethin, being posted missing. No trace was ever found of their aircraft.

On the other hand, records for John Edward Gethin and Philip Thomas Empson with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record their deaths on 15 November, with evidence that the bodies were recovered as both have marked graves. Furthermore, another website identifies Luftwaffe ace Heinz "Pietzsch" Bretnütz as having shot down a Lysander of No. 4 Sqn, RAF flown by P/O Empson on the 15 November.

Another inconsistency arises in a claim that "September also saw the loss of Plt Offs Knight and Edwards to enemy fighters whilst on an ASR sortie." This would be a period when Manston was shut down for the main part of the month, available for emergency landings and refuelling. Lysander operations from this station are improbable. More puzzling though, there is no Commonwealth War Grave Commission of Knight and Edwards, as a pair, being killed in September, or at any time on the same day.

On the face of it, therefore, there is no easily accessible evidence which confirms that the RAF was operating dedicated ASR aircraft in 1940. Even the deaths of Gethin and Empson in the November is not evidence of an ASR operation as Lysanders were frequently used on anti-invasion reconnaissance sorties.

We do know, however, that on 19 August, Park issueed his Fighter Controllers with instructions not to vector pilots over the sea because "too many were getting drowned". And we also know that on 22 August an emergency meeting was held under the chairmanship of "Bomber" Harris to explore the shortcomings of air sea rescue provision and set in motion the development of a dedicated service.

Such was the bureaucratic inertia that it was not until February 1941 that an Air Sea Rescue Directorate was set up and it was not fully functional until the end of the year. By the end of the war, the RAF having started with only 18 rescue launches, mainly to service its seaplane bases, ended up with over 600, plus squadrons of dedicated rescue aircraft.

Perversely, the Germans had a well-developed air-sea rescue service, which they had established in 1935. Flying a dedicated fleet of white-painted Heinkel 59 floatplanes, each unarmed and marked with red crosses, they saved many airmen, German and British. But, in a controversial decision, on 19 July 1940, the then C-in-C of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding, ordered them shot down.

In a report written in 1946, he noted:
It might also be assumed that all German crews who were in aircraft brought down during the Battle were permanently lost to the Luftwaffe because the fighting took place on our side of the Channel. Such an assumption would not be literally true, because the Germans succeeded in rescuing a proportion of their crews from the sea by means of rescue boats, floats and aircraft which will be later described.
On the other side though, for an RAF pilot to be shot down over the sea was an almost certain death sentence.