Only 1 in 5 RAF pilots who ditched into the English channel survived during the battle of britain.
They were either killed in the air;
or in their crash into the Channel;
or by hypothermia;
brought on by immersion in the cold water of the English Channel.
The condensation trails from German and British fighter planes engaged in an aerial battle appear in the sky over Kent, along the southeastern coast of England, on September 3, 1940. (AP Photo )
In the first months of the war, RAF fighter pilots only had lifejackets. They didn’t have dinghies which proved to be critical to the survival of pilots or aircrew who came down into the Channel.
Large aircraft such as RAF bombers used over France had rudimentary survival equipment. But procedures for ditching were not well established when the war began and the men were not trained in what actions to take in event of a ditching.
Complicating matters, portable emergency radios were not available at the beginning of the war. When they did become available, rescued pilots told debriefers that the radios were unreliable and often didn’t work if they got wet–a drawback if you ditched into the English Channel.
Once they landed on the water the air crew usually only had between thirty and ninety seconds before the plane sank. In those brief moments, they had to do everything necessary for survival including getting the hell out of the plane. Unlike in the movies, aircraft do not float.
Most likely this lifeboat saved their lives if it didn’t break-up when it hit the water and if it did not flip over when it landed in the water. The lifeboat provided far more insulation from the penetrating cold of the water than a dinghy did. The North Sea is far larger than the Channel, obviously, and finding a dinghy in the vastness of that much water was very difficult.
Finding lifeboats wasn’t much easier but if they dropped one as they are doing in the photograph above, then the aircraft on scene stayed until relieved by another aircraft which circled the dinghy or lifeboat until the air/sea rescue launched arrived. Sometimes as many as three to four
Aircrew had to they had to take all the emergency equipment they had and push it out of the upper hatches. This could include inflatable small rubber dinghies, emergency ration packs with fresh water, flare pistol, a portable radio transmitter if they had one and, of course, the carrier pigeons which RAF aircraft larger than fighters carried.
As the war went on, bombers were fitted with larger inflatable rubber dinghies stored outboard. An immersion switch triggered the release mechanism of the large outboard dinghy which then automatically broke free of the aircraft and inflated. The rubber boats were connected to the plane by a long rope so they would not float away. In rough seas, these large dinghies had a tendency to flip over before the men got in them. Thus the emergency supplies stored in the dinghies often were lost.
RAF Lancaster crewmen bringing homing pigeons to his bomber before takeoff. (1943. Photo courtesy of IWM)
The rubber boats were connected to the plane by a long rope so they would not float away. In rough seas, these large dinghies had a tendency to flip over before the men got in them. Thus the emergency supplies stored in the dinghies often were lost.
Yet dinghies were critical to the survival of aircrew who ditched into the Channel. If the men only had their life jackets and weren’t in dinghies, they could not survive in the English Channel for longer than four hours. Reason? The water in the Channel was so cold year round that exposure/hypothermia killed the men in a few hours if they were immersed with only their life jackets keeping them afloat.
For example, from 10 July to 31 July 1940 during the Battle of Britain, 220 RAF aircrew were totaled as missing presumed dead, mostly because they had come down in the English Channel. In October 1940, 260 aircrew were missing presumed dead. Once again most had ditched in the English Channel. *
Oblique aerial photograph taken from a Lockheed Hudson of No. 279 Squadron RAF showing High-Speed Launch HSL 130 from Yarmouth, rescuing the crew of a Handley Page Halifax from their dinghy in the English Channel. They had been forced to ditch after their aircraft incurred damage from anti-aircraft fire while raiding Essen, Germany. (photograph copyright by Imperial War Museum)
Air/Sea rescue was not properly organized when the war began nor did the Royal Navy have the high-speed launches required. Eventually, Air/Sea rescue was taken over by the RAF which had to create a Royal Air Force Marine Branch.
RAF Spitfire shot down over the beach at Dunkirk during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force.
(photo courtesy of gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset651563)
*[figures from Shot Down and In the Drink: RAF and Commonwealth Aircrews Saved From the Sea 1939 to 1945 by Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), BA, FRAeS……(Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society)]