Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Bombing with Hope

Imagine if you will, you are a young soldier in September 1944, and you are in a glider bouncing over the North Sea towards Arnhem. Perhaps you are from a land locked state in the US, or an inner-city area in the UK. The only light into your dark cocoon of a glider comes from the windscreen around the cockpit. Suddenly there is a commotion up front from the pilots, along with a 'thunk'. Seconds later as you stare towards the cockpit you see the towing aircraft cross rapidly up the windscreen. Then ahead of you is nothing but the rolling grey waves of the North Sea. Suddenly around everyone is dropping their equipment and weapons in preparation for ditching. Then the shuddering impact, followed by a hectic few seconds of crowded activity and the seeping cold of water trickling into your boots and clothing. You manage to fight your way out of the aircraft and inflate your life vest. But now you are adrift in the North Sea with a few of your mates. All you experience are huge waves and sky, and the taste of saltwater. On the crest of one of these waves you catch a glimpse of an large aircraft in the distance, flying low, heading right for you, salvation? No, it is not a flying boat it cannot land to save you, if you don't get out of the water soon you'll die from the cold. You're dead.
A Vickers Warwick, possibly your view from the sea.
Or at least you would be, if it was not for the yachtsman, and boat designer Uffa Fox. As the war progressed the Air Sea Rescue capabilities of the UK underwent a massive upgrade from the early years of the war. Small floating shelters were being moored along the routes of bombers, fully equipped with food, water, first aid kits, entertainment and signaling equipment. Equally, the planes of Coastal Command would start to carry dinghy's that could be dropped to people in the water. These would, invariably be governed by the tides and winds, and would often end up pushed ashore onto mainland Europe, resulting in eventual capture by the Germans. But what, if one could drop a boat by parachute to a stranded person? This idea was termed the Airborne Lifeboat, or ABL.

One of the rescue floats that were moored in the channel. The colours are actually yellow and red.
The requirements for the boat were tough, it had to be lightweight, but incredibly strong to survive the forces of dropping. Equally, it had to be able to be operable by the most inexperienced, and be all but unsinkable, as well as self-righting. Uffa Fox, along with help from several RAF officers designed the first Airborne Lifeboat after his company was given official sanction on the 8th of January 1942. Built from double skinned mahogany with waterproofed fabric in-between, the first examples tried several different engines, but all turned out to be too heavy. Eventually a pair of lightweight Vincent 2-stroke motorcycle engines were used, these gave a top speed of about six knots. There was a set of sails, and a beginner’s guide to sailing (on waterproof paper) included in the boat was well.

A series of shots showing an ABL in action.
On landing the boat would automatically deploy, including a salvo of rockets which would fire lines out fore and aft to act as a sea anchor, and provide adrift crew something to haul themselves onto the boat with.
Inside an ABL. This is obviously a posed shot, as the rockets have not fired, as well as the crewman looking suspiciously well groomed and not particularly soggy. There were other rockets in the bow and stern as well.
Often the ABL would only be needed for a short time until one of the RAF rescue launches, or another boat picked up the rescuees. On one occasion the bomber crew in an ABL was picked up by a Danish fishing boat, which then set course for home. The Coastal Command bomber that had dropped the boat, had stayed on station to ensure pick up, had scotched this idea by firing a few warning bursts from its gun turrets. The fishing boat heaved too until a short while later an RAF launch arrived to take off the crew. It is claimed that by the end of the war the ABL had saved over 5,000 lives.
Salvation arriving from coastal command for a ditched B-17 crew.
On the 30th of March 1945 a US Catalina flying boat was sent to retrieve a P-51 pilot who had ditched off Schiermonnikoog (one of the islands off the coast of Holland). They eventually spotted him and landed in heavy seas, however, before they could rescue the pilot a wave smashed one of the engines. Despite this the crew continued to attempt to rescue the downed pilot. Unfortunately, it appears the pilot was already dead or unconscious and he did not respond to attempt to save him, and he drifted apart from the Catalina and was lost. A distress call was sent by the Catalina crew, but no one was able to locate the flying boat for the rest of the day, or the missing pilot’s body. The next morning a RAF Warwick, along with an escort of four Mustangs, spent some two hours searching for the Catalina. When they eventually located it, an ABL was dropped. The Catalina crew tried to taxi over to the ABL, however this exposed them to the waves, and the tail was smashed off the plane, which began to sink. As the first ABL had been lost a second Warwick was vectored in and dropped another ABL. As the Catalina crew abandoned their aircraft, they climbed onboard the ABL, which also began to sink, so they abandoned ship once again and returned to the partially submerged Catalina. The final decision to abandon the Catalina was provided by the Germans when a ME262 streaked into the area and strafed the Catalina. So, the crews left the flying boat for the final time on three dinghies. At this point a third ABL was dropped by a US B-17.

The ABL was fitted to a huge number of planes. Here a fairing is being demonstrated for the fit to a B-29. After the war A new, improved, standardised version of the ABL was introduced and fitted to Avro Shackleton's.
The crew boarded and spent the next 36 hours or so heading North-West, until the ABL's fuel supplies ran out. Battling the weather and Germans a Beaufighter managed to enter the area but was lost for unknown reasons. The following day, the 3rd of April, supplies were dropped, including fuel. Despite this the ABL's engines could not be restarted. In the evening another ABL was dropped, but by this time the Catalina crew were too exhausted and made no effort to reach it. RAF launches spent the night of the 3rd looking for the Catalina crew. On the 4th of April several aircraft were searching the area when the news came that the Catalina crew had been recovered by an RAF launch. In total the Catalina crew had spent some 109 hours adrift, but they all survived and were landed on the morning of the 5th.

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