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Things Might Have Been Done Better


Written by: Don Mackintosh


Thanks to our Editor, I have been re-introduced to some chaps I met for the one and only time fifty three years ago during an eventful few hours. At that time they were the Canadian crew of a Halifax bomber that ditched fifty miles off the Lincolnshire coast in September 1944. RML 512 of which l was C.O. played a part in their rescue.

Pieter Jansen received a request from one of them to be put in touch, if possible, with anyone involved in the incident and hence that renewal of a brief acquaintance, when he passed it to me.

In the circumstances, I have decided to get off my chest something that has been nagging me all this time and that it is the indifferent liaison the RML’s had with the RAF air-sea rescue organisation— bearing m mind that the RML’s Fairmile ‘B’ ML’s) had been purposely modified and equipped to support the RAF high speed inshore launches with long range, all weather facilities.

These poor inter-service relationships were to plague the RML’s constantly and to prolong, unnecessarily, the ordeal of air crews when speed of rescue should have been a priority.

A plane, without hydraulic power and losing fuel after a mauling over Kiel, was nursed back across the North Sea until it could no longer be kept in the air. In accordance with RAF emergency procedure, when ditching became inevitable, the Wireless Operator sent a distress message and then screwed down the Morse key to emit a continuous signal on which shore RDF station could take a fix until contact was lost. This gave an approximation of the ditching position.

The pilot then, in the dark and without knowing the sea conditions had to land on the water, evacuate the crew, including any wounded, in the few minutes before the plane sank, get them into a dinghy and wet cold, and near to nervous exhaustion await hopefully the arrival of rescuers. The urgent need for speedy rescue would seem to be obvious. But that was not what happened all too often.

This Halifax ditched at 0410. From 0800, RML 512 was on station fifty miles away but was not ordered to join a search until 1430. It took the boat over three hours to reach the search area and the men were picked up at 1800, having been drifted thirty miles from their original position. To add to the frustration, on the way to the search area the RML was circled by another Halifax which indicated it should be followed by waggling its wings and setting off in the required direction. There was no other way of communicating.

Fortunately, none of the survivors was hurt but had there been badly wounded among them, the result could have been tragic.

This happened late in 1944 and was the latest in a number of instances going back to 1942 when RML 512 accompanied by RML 498 made their first pick-up.

This was the Polish crew of a Wellington which ditched in the night some hundred miles east of the Humber. Although it was daylight enough by 0600 to commence a search, the RML’s, which had been only nine miles away al the time, were not ordered to search until 0900. The rescue was successfully completed by 1000 some five miles from the original position. One man had a head wound, happily not serious but had it been otherwise, things might not have turned so well.

A few weeks later, a Beaufighter ditched close to Texel Island off the Dutch coast at 1500 one afternoon without being able to send a distress call. The crew in their dinghy were spotted at 1600 by a another plane and reported. RML 512, again with 498, was upon station sixty miles to the west from 2200 hours but did not receive search orders until midnight, eight hours after the ditching had been reported. On this occasion it was not crucial since a night search so close to the enemy coast would have been out of the question. However, the long delay in providing search information is difficult to explain.

Then, there was the Lancaster crew picked up quite fortuitously by a boat on its way to a patrol position which happened to pass close enough for a keen-eyed look-out to spot their dinghy. No search had been ordered although they had been adrift for several hours.

On another occasion, at 0200 one morning, the lookout on an RML on a Z position east of Lowestoft spotted a strange light in the far distance drifting slowly down to disappear beyond the horizon. A flare or a plane on fire?

The RML could not leave the Z position during the night but set off at 0800 hours to search along the bearing of the sighting. An hour later, they came upon a small amount of wreckage and the body of an airman. Sadly, there was nothing that could be done but it was now seven hours since what it was now clear had been plane on fire coming down yet no signal had been received to search for a missing plane. It was only the fact that the plane had been on fire that it was seen. What would have been the situation had it been a normal ditching in the dark with the search in motion seven hours later?

Alan Rowe in his book on ASR in WW2 based on his experiences in the 69th RML Flotilla gives other instances of rescues hampered by lack of co-ordination between organisations involved.

Some years after the war, I met a former Lancaster pilot who took a dim view of ASR. Having followed the prescribed emergency drill, he had safely landed in the sea and got his crew away in the dinghy. They actually paddled to the Lincolnshire coast where they were seen by a person on shore, who warned them not to come ashore because of beach mines and then alerted the police as a result of which an HSL from Grimsby came to collect then — the first anyone knew of their predicament. Yet there was a nightly RML presence at sea off the Humber.

By contrast, the 8th USAAF recognised the value of speed in ASR from the beginning. The Americans had been in the war for little more than six months and were in the process of building up the massive air strength, we were to see in due course when, in the summer of 1942, while the 60th Flotilla was still at Immingham, staff officers of the 8th USAAF paid a visit to size up the quality of the boats and crews and to discuss our method of operation.

By the time the Flotilla moved to great Yarmouth at the end of 1942, the basis of an ASR organisation had been established which was to develop quickly once we were operational. Each RML was given an R/T call Sign (‘seagull’ and a number), VHF sets were calibrated to give the boats access to the USAAF Distress and Rescue channels by which means they could communicate direct with search aircraft (Usually Thunderbolts with call signs prefixed ‛Teamwork’.

Even sailing orders were different, giving the points on the coast and the times at which bomber strikes would leave and return together with the course of inward and outward flight paths. In other words, the rescue boats were seen as part of the whole offensive an treated accordingly.

All communication was by R/T not by Morse key, which made it quicker and clearer to pass instructions to a pilot with a crippled plane to help him on his way home. The very fact that Control knew where the rescue boats were and could direct a plane in trouble to pass near them not only helped aircrew morale but put rescue boats on the alert as well. Of course, the Americans had the natural advantage over RAF bomber crews in that by operating in mass formations in daylight, the chances were good for a plane going down in the sea being seen. Also, there were Thunderbolt search aircraft patrolling the homeward flightpath to give added surveillance. These things the RAF could not provide for night operations.

However, there seems no reason why the RML’s could not have been informed of the directions in which bombers would be flying out and back and why the air crews could not have been aware of where the rescue boats were waiting so that, in distress, they would have had the chance to ditch, if they had to, somewhere near, firing, flares as they came down to attract attention. But none of these suggestions accounts for those appalling time lags between a ditching and the ordering of a search.

Just to give a couple of examples of how effective the American system was, on one occasion a fighter pilot was able to land on the water close enough to an RML that the boat was able to come alongside and enable him to walk along the wing and clamber aboard before the plane sank.

Even more significant was the Liberator, which had to ditch through fuel loss. By following the dialogue between pilot and Control, and knowing the plane’s course, the RML was able to change its patrol position so that when the plane finally hit the water in a flurry of spray, the boat was only four miles off and on the scene in ten minutes. The survivors were scattered over a hundred yards of water because the dinghy had not been released but were brought aboard in minutes to be given a change of clothing and warm drinks. Sadly one man was dead but in those sea conditions, given any extended time in the water, the death toll would almost certainly have been greater.

Today with helicopters and sophisticated electronic and navigational aids, even this advanced 8th USAAF rescue organisation must seem primitive but what it demonstrated was the importance of a close inter-service relationship, the lack of which was at the root of our previous frustrations.

I hope this lesson has been learned because without that co-operation all the wonders of technology will fail to deliver.


CFVA News: Edition: March 1998 Volume: 93 Page: 45