The Supermarine Walrus (3)

The RAF’s provisions for Air Sea Rescue during much of the Second World War were absolutely abysmal. Nowadays there would be Public Inquiries and the newspapers would be explaining to their readers exactly what corporate manslaughter was.

Throughout the first two years of the conflict the RAF had twenty eight ships and no search aircraft. During the Battle of Britain, recent research has revealed that around two hundred pilots died unnecessarily when they ditched in the English Channel:

Indeed, in August 1940, Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park, who commanded the fighter group in the south east, actually ordered his flight controllers not to vector pilots over the sea because “too many were getting drowned:

The problem was that most of them perished once they hit the water because they were only visible until their parachute folded up into the waves and both pilot and parachute sank.

There was just no effective means of looking at all those waves from above and finding a downed pilot.

It all came from that lack of decent search aircraft. Making up the deficit in reconnaissance aircraft with Avro Ansons and Westland Lysanders was no use. Their range was not long enough. The Anson was 660 miles, and the Lysander just 600 miles. A limit of 600-700 miles didn’t allow them to carry out patrols of either the required time or the required distance.

Overall therefore, there was very little chance of survival if you ditched into the sea, and only the occasional flier was picked up by a passing destroyer or fishing boat:

On one day in August 1940, fifteen of the eighteen RAF pilots who baled out over the North Sea and the English Channel were lost to the cold, cold, waves. Overall, the statistics showed that if a pilot baled out over land, he had a fifty per cent chance of survival. Over water that fell to twenty per cent. In the words of one writer, “The ditching of a British aeroplane in the Channel or the North Sea usually doomed its crew.”

The men to blame, of course, as always, were the top brass who sat in their offices and decided:

“There are so many ships constantly sailing round British waters that nobody could possibly fail to be picked up, and picked up pretty damn speedily at that, don’t you know, what ? what?”



Filed under Aviation, History, Humour

30 responses to “The Supermarine Walrus (3)

    • Absolutely, Derrick, and what brings it a little closer to “tragic” is the fact that the people at the top whose fault it was were never censured nor, God forbid, sacked. It was as if they were running everything with no idea whatsoever of “Duty of care”.
      Of course, it was a war, but even so, the men doing the real fighting should have been helped not hindered. Furthermore, those two hundred pilots who died unnecessarily in the English Channel cost a huge sum to train, as well as the fact that they could have gone on to serve their country even more in other campaigns, such as the Blitz.

  1. It really was a disgrace wasn’t it. Knowing that the Battle of Britain would be fought partly over water, the top brass should have considered a quick response to downed airmen. The channel may well have been busy, but clearly not that busy and whose to say which side would pick them up.

    • Excellent points, well made. When you send young men into danger of their lives,you owe it to their mothers and fathers to take some kind of care of them.
      I’ve just read a story where, in 1943, when the top brass had got their act together, an aircraft crashed in the Atlantic a good 200 miles, west of Brittany. They managed to radio their position to their base and inside twelve hours a Sunderland had found them and rescued them.
      In 1940, a pilot froze to death five miles off Cromer because there was no means of getting out to his dinghy. People on shore though, had seen him plunge down toward the sea.
      The only consolation we have is that eventually ASR was sorted out properly.

  2. Never knew that, I always assumed pilots that parachuted would be rescued.

    • Alas, no so ! !
      In the books I am currently self-publishing, John Harold Gilbert Walker was shot down near St Omer but was not killed. He tried to limp home in his stricken Spitfire but it crashed into the English Channel. Four days later, the dinghy and the lifeless body of John Walker were found, a mere eight miles south of Dungeness. John was only twenty three years of age and he had died of exposure waiting in vain to be rescued.
      And all for the want of some proper planning !!

  3. Chris Waller

    That is horrifying. I had naively assumed that ships were sent out to recover downed airmen after a dog-fight or other engagement with enemy aircraft. It seems to indicate a cavalier attitude to the lives of their pilots, who, notwithstanding the value of human life, had been trained at enormous expense. But then perhaps the powers-that-be calculated the potential loss of a ship and crew to enemy submarines.

    • It is horrifying ! The people at the top always seem to forget the cost of training aircrew but it could be astonishingly high. I read somewhere that for a couple of years at least, the Bomber Command offensive took something like 40%-50% of the nation’s GDP.
      I think it was because the people at the top were used to servants who did everything for them but who ultimately counted for nothing. They were all easily replaceable. The very same people at the top never ever organised anything for themselves, so I don’t think that it will even have occurred to them that provision needed to be made for ASR.
      Just finally, I picked the wrong word to describe the “ships” the RAF had. They were a lot smaller, very high speed motor boats, capable of 50mph in calm seas.
      To be honest, both sides in WW2 were vainly waiting for the helicopter to be perfected and brought into service.

  4. Jan

    Britain has a long history of preparing for war on the cheap, so I guess the Treasury regarded having the right equipment for recovering downed aircrew as an unnecessary peacetime expense.

    In 1982 the Government crossed its fingers and sent the Navy to The Falklands knowing it lacked AEW. If the dice had landed the other way, many more ships would have ended up at the bottom of the South Atlantic.

    The Treasury’s penny-wise, pound-foolishness is best exemplified by the Nimrod fiasco: let’s save lots of money by repurposing some 1940s Comet airframes – they may be on the small size but we will be able to work round the lack of space with some clever GEC/Ferranti technology! And they did this twice at a cost of billions.

    • And let’s be honest, we have seen exactly the same scenario during this pandemic when somehow we turned out to be woefully short of masks, gloves and all the other paraphernalia you are bound to use when dealing with an airborne virus.
      You can add to the list many of the aircraft we started WW2 with…the Whitley and the Blenheim, for example, with only the Spitfire and the Hurricane to boast about, and maybe the Wellington.

  5. I AM so done with those who “rule” who do not give a damn about people under them. How sad, John, to read this post knowing how many men unnecessarily died. It just reflects how little things have changed and how those in “command” today do so without any care what happens to those they “rule”. Yes there are exceptions of course. Not all are bad apples. But the continuance of the neglect and outright slaughter of mankind all throughout history is horrific. Honestly I don’t know how you keep reading and writing about these subjects …. it would just be too hard for me to do.

    • To be honest Amy, after writing about the deaths of around 125 young men I was beginning to weaken a little, and to see everything in funereal black.
      I want to keep on writing though, because if only one young man or woman doesn’t join up, and doesn’t go off to get killed, then I have done my job.
      The vast majority of wars are organised by people who have everything to gain and nothing to lose, and how often do their family members go off to fight?

  6. It is too sad not to be annoyed.

    • Absolutely.
      And over here, the top brass always hide behind the idea that “These things happen in war” and nothing can be done about such events. Furthermore, the law is fixed so that nobody can sue the Armed Forces or seek compensation from them.
      In the 1950s, the RAF had the Gloster Meteor which was a deathtrap and killed countless young pilots. At one coroner’s inquest, the coroner actually asked the commander of RAF Finningley, “Why is our church yard filling up so suddenly and so quickly with so many dead pilots?”
      And the commander played the card that has been played so many times by the armed forces at times of difficulty in a courtroom, namely “I’m afraid I cannot answer because of the Official Secrets Act.”

  7. Jan

    To be fair, if you had been aircrew during WW2, a hardened attitude towards the death of pilots is understandable.

    At the 1952 Farnborough Airshow, two test pilots and 29 spectators died when the DeHavilland jet broke up in midair. They cleared away the debris and carried on with the entertainment.

    Different times, and to modern sensibilities rather callous. But do you prefer, the hysterical blubbing we have nowadays?

    • The problem is that if you just clear away the debris and carry on with the entertainment, you run the risk of the 1962 Farnborough Airshow killing ten test pilots and a 129 spectators. All I ask for is that the people with the top jobs get them on merit and that care, in a genuine way, about the people for whom they are responsible.
      I actually had somebody who’d by now read all three of my books about the Old Nottinghamians, and his comment was that most casualties had occurred without the enemy being involved…..which is pretty well true.
      In wartime, casualties are always expected, but that is clearly ridiculous and runs the risk of creating the first combattant to defeat themselves !

  8. atcDave

    What really gets me is that the Germans had apparently put quite a bit more thought and effort into the whole thing; including search and rescue aircraft, launches, and even anchored buoys that would provide refuge. As I understand, several RAF pilots were thus rescued by the Germans to become POWs. In time, British rescue launches took to making rounds on the German buoys.

    I do think, it takes time to formulate a plan and system for such things. And it takes some time to recognize when current efforts aren’t enough. But it is a little baffling how British efforts came to be so behind? Especially as an island nation you’d expect this to be more hardwired into the thinking?
    I would also mention the US Navy was apparently quite good at this sort of work, while the IJN definitely was not. Although that story starts two years later so the British experience may have influenced American Search and Rescue.

    • British efforts were so far behind, in my opinion, because the people at the top always got their jobs because of who their father was, what school they went to, who their wives married and so on. It has always been so in England, a society which is still too deferential by far.
      At the same time, in 1939, the country had just come through a long depression, and was short of cash. I have read somewhere that up to 25% of government money was still being used to pay for the previous war and in particular, the vast numbers of men too badly injured to work.
      The Germans knew that they were about to start a new war, and so they had got everything ready for that. Government expenditure was directed towards the military with much less on non-military schemes. And don’t forget the money confiscated from Jews, Socialists, Gays and so on. That would have paid for quite a few ASR aircraft!
      Indeed, there is at least one historian who has said that given Germany’s expenditure on armaments, Hitler had no choice but to carry on invading places just to buy his bombs and bullets. Thus the first few countries to be invaded paid for the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, and then the French and more confiscated money paid for Barbarossa, and so on. It certainly wasn’t an economy based on careful management. More a sort of “smash and grab” arrangement.

      • atcDave

        Very interesting. The German approach is appropriately medieval!
        Interesting thought on the patronage angle for the British. I see similar things here now, although it’s more about politics. The decline and fall of western civilization…

      • As far as I can see, the only remedy for the problems caused by patronage is to give the brainy poor kids something important and difficult to do. In Victorian times, that would be the British Civil Service, which contained many different sections that between them, ran the country and the British Empire. At the school I used to work in, in 1890, 1900, they regularly found geniuses in the slums of Nottingham, educated them and then sent them to Oxford or Cambridge. One of them might then run the government’s finance section, or the taxes paid in Bombay or anything else that was very difficult, too difficult, in fact, for Lord Fauntleroy to manage.

  9. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on RAF 293 Squadron and commented:

    Part three of John’s post on the Walrus.

  10. Pierre Lagacé

    I have read all the comments in the comment section. Thank God for amateur historians to let the truth out.

    • And they do ! Horrific stories of mismanagement are still discovered by part time investigators. While writing my books about the High School’s war dead, I found the story of a Diving Club near Portsmouth. They found the wreck of a landing craft on the seabed, and discovered that it was supposed to have been sunk on D-Day with some thirteen deaths. All of the thirteen families of those poor men went to their own graves thinking that their sons had died as they landed on the beaches of Normandy.
      Not so !! In absolute darkness during the early hours of June 7th, their landing craft had been run down by the 45,000 ton HMS Rodney, five or six miles outside Portsmouth. The Royal Navy had preferred that the truth should not get out, and they kept the truth secret. It didn’t get out for at least sixty odd years, but then the Southsea Sub-Aqua Club took a hand !

      • Pierre Lagacé

        Same for the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan on April 29, 1944. It was probably hit by a second torpedo, this time by a British MTB. Sailors who were there swear that’s what had happened.

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