RAF Coastal Command was the red-headed stepchild of the British military in World War Two. Its primary function was patrolling the waters off the coast of the United Kingdom, providing air cover for convoys, sinking U-Boats, and attacking German aircraft trying to attack Allied convoys. This was quite a big job although the Command did not receive these responsibilities all at once. Because all of their responsibilities involved coordination with the Royal Navy, Coastal Command was placed under the tactical command of the Royal Navy while maintaining its status as part of the RAF.
In terms of priority for aircraft, crew, bases et al, Coastal Command was always “second cab off the rank” to use a wonderful English expression. The reason? Military planners in the 1930s throughout Western Europe and the United States never anticipated how dangerous aircraft would become to ships. No one thought that aircraft would play a key role in the defeat of the German U-Boats. In the first years of the war Coastal Command received old aircraft no longer suitable for frontline service. In essence, hand-me-downs, hence the nickname, “the Cinderella Service.”
German U-Boat command had not given much thought to air attack on their boats either. This proved to be a fatal error: half of all U-Boats sunk in WW Two were sunk by aircraft. If you examine photographs of Type VII boats, the first U-Boats built for war time service, you will note the paucity of anti-aircraft armament.
Since German U-Boats were designed to run on the surface and only submerge in certain circumstances, they could not make more than 4 knots underwater and if they did that for more than four hours they drained their over 40 tons of batteries and had to surface. When they sighted a convoy, they signaled the position to U-Boat Command. Then the U-Boat would plot an interception course and run at full speed on the surface – about 17 knots to get ahead ahead of the convoy. Since Allied convoys sailed no faster than 9 knots, the U-Boats were faster. By running ahead of the convoy the U-Boat would get into firing position for a night attack from the surface which is what they were trained to do.
Slowly, very slowly, the Allies began to understand that air cover over convoys was critical to reducing U-Boat attacks because aircraft would force U-Boats to submerge and stay down. Thus they could not make their high speed runs to get ahead of the convoy and into an advantageous position to strike the convoy at night. Whenever possible a U-Boat attacked a convoy “down moon”, that is from the dark side of the convoy which had the advantage of silhouetting the convoy against the moonlight while not silhouetting the U-Boat against the moonlight. Once proper radar was installed in Coastal Command aircraft, they patrolled over convoys at night as well as attacking U-Boats at night.
A Leigh Light fitted under the wing of an aircraft
of the Royal Air Force Coastal Command
In addition to patrolling over convoys and coastal shipping, Coastal Command aircraft also made the Bay of Biscay a graveyard for German U-Boats. Since all U-Boats in French Channel ports had to cross the Bay of Biscay to reach the Atlantic, Coastal Command began to concentrate tremendous resources in that area by mid-1943 when Coastal Command finally began to receive sufficient planes and trained aircrew. By autumn of 1943, almost 50% of German U-Boats transiting the Bay of Biscay were being sunk.
By that time, the radar in Coastal Command aircraft had become more sophisticated and the Leigh Light (invented by Wing Commander Leigh) had been developed. While slightly more complex than I describe here, the Leigh Light was a naval searchlight mounted underneath the nose of a Coastal Command aircraft. Prior to this, when patrolling aircraft located a surfaced U-Boat by radar, they were difficult to attack and hit with bombs because the pilots couldn’t actually see the U-boat. With the invention of the Leigh Light this changed. When the Coastal Command aircraft was about two miles away from the U-Boat it turned on its Leigh Light which brilliantly illuminated the surfaced U-Boat and gave the pilots a very clear target. The bright light also ruined the night vision of the U-Boat gunners (as well as the aircraft pilots who sometimes misjudged their distance from the water and after bombing the U-Boat, flew right into the dark water).
This particular book explains all of this very well. But it isn’t a narrative history. It’s just the facts. And the facts are presented in such a way as to make this book a long slog to get through. There is an immense amount of technical information about weapons and aircraft used, tables of organizations, and individual statistics on different squadrons so I would only recommend this book to readers who really, really want to know every detail of Coastal Command.
If you want to just get an idea about life in Coastal Command (which usually was deadly boring since one spent hours staring out of the windows at the ocean) then buy the DVD: The Coastal Command – Flying Boats At War. This is a film made in 1942 and recently spiffed up and issued on DVD.
[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]