The Supermarine Walrus (4)

Last time, we looked at how practically no provisions whatsoever were made in 1940 to rescue RAF fighter pilots who were forced to bale out over the sea:

“A passing ship is bound to pick them up, and pretty damn speedily at that, don’t you know, what ? what?”

During the Battle of Britain, Flight Lieutenant RF Aitken of the RNZAF was so disturbed by the death rates among his fellow fighter pilots that he actually “borrowed” a Supermarine Walrus flying boat from the Fleet Air Arm. During this period of grotesque complacency on the part of the RAF top brass, Flight Lieutenant Aitken,  despite working single handed, managed to rescue thirty five British and German flyers from The Cruel Sea during the summer of 1940.

The situation though, did not really improve. Twelve hundred British airmen went “into the drink” between February 1941-August 1941. Of these 444 were picked up by the British. 78 were picked up by the German Seenotdienst and 678 were not picked up by anybody whatsoever and they all died. Every single one. It was lucky that their training cost so little.

At official levels, it was only on August 22nd 1940 that an emergency meeting was held under the chairmanship of Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris to explore the shortcomings of air sea rescue provision.

And thus, from September 1941 onwards, the Air Sea Rescue Directorate became functional and gradually the RAF began to use the Supermarine Walrus more widely from coastal land bases as an Air Sea Rescue aircraft.

By the end of the war things had improved out of all recognition. The RAF now possessed not eighteen but 600 high speed rescue launches and numerous squadrons of specialist aircraft.

Even so, results were nowhere near 100%.

Many crews did not ever rescue anybody in all their years looking for stranded airmen. Some never found even a single dinghy. Worse still, some only ever found empty dinghies.

Some crews only ever found corpses, men frozen stiff with the cold, dead from exposure or any of the other conditions likely to occur in a dinghy which, for some reason best known to the top brass, did not have a covering of any kind and was completely open to the elements.

Old Nottinghamian, John Harold Gilbert Walker (1918-1942), died in this dreadful way. He was shot down in his Spitfire over St Omer, and four days later, the dinghy and his lifeless body 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.

John’s remains were returned to his family in Nottingham and he was interred in the cemetery of St Leonard’s Church in Wollaton on May 19th 1942. If you’re ever out that way, go and put a few flowers on his grave.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

34 responses to “The Supermarine Walrus (4)

  1. Jan

    The Germans did subject prisoners to cold water experiments in order to develop better equipment and treatment for downed pilots. And, I believe, that some of those responsible were executed after the war. Which led to a difficult position for the Allies.. The Germans had lots of experimental data that had been obtained illegally. Should they use it or not? Of course they did.

    • Yes, indeed. I can’t get over just how stupid the top brass were during the war. Decision after decision was wrong, and usually cost a lot of lives. Somebody who has bought all three of my books published so far about the High School’s war dead actually said to me, “Is it just me, or do most of these men die without ever encountering the enemy?” And sadly, he was absolutely right.

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on RAF 293 Squadron and commented:

    Part four of John’s post on the Walrus.

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    Were airmen that expandable John when you think about the time it took to trained them? Very sad indeed.

    • Quite right, Pierre. The issue is one of two things.
      EITHER: Do you count up the money it cost for one man to fly a Spitfire over St.Omer, and realise that he is too valuable financially to leave him out there to die?
      OR: Do you say that no human being deserves to die such a dreadful,slow death, and that if we can do anything about it, we will try very hard to help him?
      Whichever question you think is the correct one to ask, the answers both boil down to setting up the very best ASR organisation that we can.

      • Jan

        We like do things on the cheap and cross our fingers that things won’t go pear-shaped. In the Falklands we got lucky; in the Gulf War the Americans nicknamed the us the “The Borrowers”. The hundred years of Britain’s position as a truly global superpower (1815-1918) was possible because it could be done cheaply. Once the pace and cost of technological development accelerated, with the introduction of the Dreadnoughts, the strain began to tell. I am going re-read Corelli Barnet’s “Audit of War”

  4. I will never get accustomed to the horrors of war. Ever.

    • I’m just so glad that this pandemic appears to be the closest I shall come to war. My Dad fought in one, and so did both of my grandfathers. The two of them seem not to have been too affected by the horrors they must have seen in WW1, but my Dad was well into his fifties before he lost his facial tics and his outbursts of temper. None of them ever seemed to care that they had achieved good things in the long thread of history. They were just glad to get back to their families and to doing an ordinary job in what we over here call “civvy street” (civilian life).

      • This period of history is a war, John, and what is so horrifying about it, it is a psychological warfare on citizens. If people don’t know by now this is a battle to control and own us, then they truly are not aware of what is going on. Of course, MSM doesn’t help matters by narrating straight out lies. I just rely heavily on my faith that knows knows knows this too shall pass and better days are truly ahead of us.

      • Let’s hope so, Amy!

  5. Considering the situation we were in in 1940, you’d have thought every pilot was a valuable resource (and life!) worth the effort of saving. If one man can rescue 35 on his own, just think what one hundred trained crews could do. Something was seriously wrong and many unnecessarily paid the price for it.

  6. Chris Waller

    The cavalier and callous attitude of the RAF is almost beyond belief.

    • I’m afraid it’s a theme that runs right through World War 2. Very often, the top brass adapted a certain code of conduct, thought up over a glass of port and a cigar, and then stuck to it, even when it wasn’t justified.
      All men in Bomber Command were volunteers, but if you wanted to quit, you weren’t allowed to. Men who wanted to leave were threatened with disgrace and “LMF” (Lack of Moral Fibre) stamped on the record.
      If a member of the American Eighth Air Force said he wanted to stop flying because he was too frightened, he was allowed to leave and given a ground job.
      The RAF argued that the American system would lead to mass walkouts in Bomber Command, huge numbers of men quitting and so on. It didn’t. The figures of men who wanted to leave and who actually left was pretty much the same in both services, whether they were terrified and disgraced or whether they were treated with kindness and understanding.

  7. Doug

    Hi John, I am trying to locate more exact information on these individual rescues that Russell Aitken performed during the Battle of Britain. Would you be able to assist with any more details? Cheers. Doug.

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