German Pilots Became POWs While RAF Pilots Lived to Fight Another Day (corrected 1.26.14)


 Wrecked German aircraft (Me 109E, He 111 and Ju 88A) in Britain, 1940

Source Dennis Richards: Royal Air Force 1939–1945. Volume I: The Fight at Odds; London, HMSO, 1953. (Official history of the RAF photo in the public domain)

One of the odds working in the favor of the Royal Air Force in the Battle Britain was the air battles were often fought over Britain. Hence, RAF pilots who had to bail out lived to fight another day whereas German pilots became POWs.

However, if you were an RAF pilot (or German pilot) shot down over the English Channel and no one saw you go down or no ship came by, hypothermia killed within four hours give or take. The temperature of the water was about 57 degrees during the summer. (The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain)

Efforts were made by both sides to rescue pilots shot down in the English Channel but one man afloat in a small raft or just a Mae West lifejacket such as RAF pilots wore, was hard to spot. Both sides used high speed rescue launches operated by their respective air forces, float planes as well as naval vessels to rescue their men. While they would not search for the pilots of the other side, if they came across one, Air/Sea rescue of either side would rescue them.

However, a centralized and trained air/sea rescue force was not organized by the RAF until 1941. They did have float planes and some high speed rescue launches (operated by the RAF) in the Battle of Britain but without the command and control which was so much a part of the ethos of Fighter Command. It is a surprising oversight.

Obviously, the RAF had a steep learning curve to master to operate their rescue launches with any efficiency. In August of 1940, in a move of more desperation than anything else, the RAF passed control of their handful of rescue launches to local Royal Naval Commands on the Channel. Unfortunately, during the Battle of Britain pilots who ditched in the English Channel died in large numbers.

Prime Minister Churchill gave orders that German rescue float planes marked with a red cross were to be shot down over the channel or destroyed if they had landed in the water. I have not been able to determine if this were done or how often it was done.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: