FOR SOME OF US, THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR HAS NEVER…
SURVIVAL TIME for a fighter pilot who baled out into the winter sea off the coast of Devon during the early years of WW2 could be measured in minutes. They had no dinghies then, only Mae Wests to keep them afloat.
During a 21 day period in July, 1940, and in much warmer seas, some 220 air crew had perished in Channel waters. Their deaths brought about the urgent formation of the Air Sea Rescue Service.
From that point onwards no ‘ditched’ airman would need to rely on passing shipping for rescue. Specially developed high-speed rescue launches – designed by T. E. Shaw, or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as he is better known, at RAF Mountbatten, Plymouth – were rushed into service, all aircraft would finally be equipped with dinghies and programmes of survival training intensified for pilots and crew.
Devon had an RAF squadron dedicated to the role of rescue based at RAF Harrowbeer north of Plymouth and later at RAF Warmwell, near Poole. Both worked in close cooperation with the RNLI and the RAF’s high speed rescue launches based along the coast and between them they saved many aircrew from watery graves – British, American and German alike.
Nobody knows for sure how many wrecks lie on the seabed in Lyme Bay. From Portland Bill to Start Point that vast expanse of water is the final resting place of countless wrecks. They span the ages and punctuate the history of our island nation through storm, mishap, peace, war and invasion.
But there are aircraft out there too, most of them warplanes, fighter aircraft, bombers and most poignant of all perhaps, some of the aircraft of the Royal Air Force Air Sea Rescue Service itself (ARS) whose job it was to find the airmen who had ‘ditched’ before the sea could take them.
Here in the South West those brave men were members of 276 Squadron, a rescue unit that saved more than a thousand fliers from almost certain death by their bravery and swift actions.
They flew what at first glance appeared to be an odd assortment of aircraft but each of them uniquely qualified for their part. The two Spitfires with 276 for instance had their guns removed so that they could get to where they thought a downed pilot or aircrew might be as quickly as possible.
In a special compartment behind the cockpit they carried a bright yellow rubber dinghy which could be dropped when they spotted a pilot in the water, supported by his Mae West life-preserver.
But before they dropped the dinghy, they dropped orange smoke flares because it was all too easy to lose sight of that tiny speck of humanity in the vast greyness of the ocean.
Then they came in again as low as they dared to drop the self-inflating dinghy as close as possible to their target before they climbed again to circle and signal their position to base.
This was the call for the slow-moving amphibian aircraft based at Warmwell or Harrowbeer – the Walrus – to make for the pick-up point where it would attempt to land amid the waves.
But that vital radio signal also started a second race. German radio ‘fixers’ based in Brest and Cherbourg, ever alert to the RAF’s transmissions in the South West, would quickly make a ‘fix’ on the Spitfire’s signal and scramble a flight of ME109e fighter aircraft to send them racing across from Normandy to create what havoc they could.
“This was no time or place for chivalry”, recalled one of the 276 Squadron’s pilots, Nick Berryman in his book of wartime reminiscences, In the Nick of Time. “Anything that 276 Squadron put up for the rescue was fair game with the enemy”, he said in an interview many years later at RAF Tangmere where he became the President of the RAF Museum.
Nick joined the RAF at 19 and initially became a fighter pilot with 66 Squadron based in South West England flying Spitfires as they escorted bombers across the Channel.
His experience there earned him a new and a very different role that changed the rest of the war for him: instead of shooting down aircraft he spent the next part of a distinguished career in air sea rescue, saving aircrew – both Allied and German – who had been forced to ‘hit the silk’ or been forced to ditch in Lyme Bay.
This is where he first encountered the humble wood and canvas Walrus, an aircraft he said that was “the most exciting of any I ever flew”.
As an amphibian is was neither fish nor foul and was known affectionately by those who flew it as The Shagbat or even, The Steam Pigeon because of the clouds of vapour that came off the single engine with its ‘pusher’ propeller whenever waves broke over the cockpit: which was more often than not.
Rescuing ditched pilots from Lyme Bay and beyond was the job given to 276 Squadron, based initially at RAF Harrowbeer. near the village of Yelverton, north of Plymouth. It was called ‘Harrowbeer’ in order to distinguish it from the similar-sounding RNAS Yeovilton.
The need for speed
His first flight in the Walrus was also almost his last and came out of the blue. He was roused from sleep at 0600 hours in early April, 1942 and told that a Spitfire had gone down in the bay off Portland and he was to be the Observer/Second Pilot.
He writes, “We circled for half an hour. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Then, suddenly, there he was. Our hearts sank when we saw he had no dinghy and was floating in just his life jacket. We would have to hurry”.
They landed in a seriously choppy sea and Berryman crouched low and scrambled up into the bows of the aircraft and opened the forward hatch. He tried to reach out and grab the pilot as they went past but missed. He knew that it would take time to circle and come in for a second try – too long perhaps – so he fell out over the side and into the numbingly cold water, and after being knocked half senseless by one of the wing-tip floats managed to recover sufficiently to swim to the hapless pilot.
After a long struggle to disengage the man’s parachute, which was still attached and dragging both of them down, he managed to find the gas bottle that inflated the man’s Mae West more fully and they both bobbed up higher in the water. He now saw that the man had a sergeant’s stripes on his upper arm a metal shoulder flash reading “Australia”.
Alas, when he got him back into the Walrus and they were both hauled from the water they found that he was dead and Berryman, numb with the cold, lost consciousness. He later likened it to his baptism to his new career.
On a wing and a prayer
Bomber crews had parachutes but only the one dinghy between them. This meant that a Lancaster with a crew of seven, would need to ditch perfectly on the surface of the sea – even at night – to enable the aircraft to float long enough to evacuate the aircraft and for them to scramble out and onto the upper side of the port wing where their rubber dinghy was stowed. If their luck held they might have four or five minutes before it slipped beneath the waves.
Only when the crew was safely aboard the dinghy was the carrier pigeon released. All Lancasters in WW2 carried carrier pigeons: sometimes two. These extraordinary birds, carried the estimated position of the downed aircraft – written in waterproof pencil on a tightly rolled message strip in a canister on its right leg – to fly back to their roosts in England.
As all of these dramas unfolded of course, Devon’s brave RNLI lifeboat crews raced out to the rescue, together with the high speed launches of the RAF Air Sea Rescue Service based at Poole, Lyme Regis, Exmouth and Torquay. Their teamwork saved countless lives.
Loss of a Lysander
On Monday, 24th August 1942 tragedy struck 276 Squadron itself when one of its own search and rescue aircraft went missing, shot down probably by German fighters. The aircraft was a Lysander, a high wing single engine monoplane that gave a good all round view of the sea and could fly at just 70 mph if needs be.
The pilot was a 21 year old Canadian, Jack Ernst and the Observer on that fateful trip was a Devon lad, Stuart Fleet 18, from Torquay. Ever since his days in the Air Training Corps he had been mad keen to fly and on that fateful day had tossed a penny with a chum – and won – to see who would go up on what was a flight to practice the storage and release of the dinghy the aircraft carried.
Flying south east and ten minutes into their flight and they were over Start Point when two German FW.190s were reported on a lightning raid, dropping their bombs near Brixham. The Lysander acknowledged the radio warning but that was the last ever heard from them and it is thought that they were shot down.
The last of the few
By chance there are still two Walrus aircraft to be seen in the West Country. The first and best preserved (and one hundred percent the real thing) is at the Royal Naval Air Station Museum at Yeovilton.
The second is part of a display at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth. It is a replica of the old Steam Pigeon that once criss-crossed the city to and from RAF Harrowbeer on its missions of mercy and now sits, inappropriately enough under the circumstances, under water at the bottom of one of the aquarium’s enormous tanks where fish glide in and out of the cockpit: imaginative backdrop to a day out with a family, as well as a gentle reminder perhaps of all those other aircraft out there beyond the Sound which never quite made it back to Blighty.