Coastal Command Attacking U-Boats

RAF Coastal Command Attacking German UBoats
Half of German U-Boats destroyed in World War Two were sunk by Allied aircraft.
ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND (HU 91244) Photograph taken by the rear-facing camera of a No 77 Squadron Whitley during its attack on U-705 in the Bay of Biscay, 3 September 1942. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


Bay of Biscay relatively shallow and U-boats based in French Channel ports had to transit Bay of Biscay to reach Atlantic. Beginning in 1943, RAF Coastal Command began a major campaign to attack U-Boats on surface in Bay of Biscay. A tough fight because planes had to come in low to drop their depth charges and by that time U-Boats had far better anti-aircraft armament.

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND (HU 91259) Photograph taken by the rear-facing camera of a No 77 Squadron Whitley during its attack on U-705 in the Bay of Biscay, 3 September 1942. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


Most of the anti-submarine aircraft under command or seconded to
15 Group RAF Coastal Command HQ co-located with HQ C-in-C Western Approaches Command in secret bunker in Liverpool. Coastal Command under tactical command of Royal Navy in WW Two.

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND (HU 91260) Photograph taken by the rear-facing camera of a No 77 Squadron Whitley during its attack on U-705 in the Bay of Biscay, 3 September 1942. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


It took several years and much analysis of attack reports to formulate both a correct attack doctrine and design and manufacture special depth charge bombs for Coastal Command aircraft. But it was done.

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND (HU 91261) Photograph taken by the rear-facing camera of a No 77 Squadron Whitley during its attack on U-705 in the Bay of Biscay, 3 September 1942. Here the U-boat is sinking, leaving a patch of oil and air bubbles. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


U-705 meets its end during Coastal Command offensive in Bay of Biscay. In spite of after war memoirs and recollections, morale of UBoat crews very low by this point according to interrogation reports of Uboat crew rescued by Royal Navy and US Navy. The men knew their chances of survival by this point in the war very low.

Further, the statement by UBoat men and many historians that UBoat crews were all volunteers has been completely disproven by memoirs from several UBoat men as well as interrogation reports.

Below, U751 sinking after coordinated Coastal Command attack by several aircraft.

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND (HU 91243) Photograph looking back over the starboard wing of a Lancaster of No 61 Squadron, Bomber Command, after an attack on U-751 in the Bay of Biscay, 17 July 1942. The U-boat had been attacked and crippled by a Whitley of No 502 Squadron earlier, before being finally sunk by depth charges dropped by the Lancaster. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Invergordon Mutiny of the Royal Navy – Part 3

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Undated and unattributed photo of the British Home Fleet at anchor in the harbor at Gibraltar sometime between WW I and WW II. The Mediterranean Sea separates Spain on the left from Morocco on the right.

Since Lufthansa was a “civilian” airline they flew in specific air routes with schedules being given in advance to belligerent powers. Other airlines from neutral countries such as Portugal continued to fly unmolested and civilian flights of airliners owned by belligerent powers remained unmolested as long as the flight originated in a neutral country or was flying to a neutral country. These air routes had been negotiated before the war. BOAC flight 777 from Lisbon to England was flying on a specific air route over the Bay of Biscay and the information had been passed by the Portuguese Government per the agreement to the Luftwaffe.

Twin engine German fighter JU 88 R-1 of the type which shot down BOAC (British Overseas Airway Corporation, now British Airlines) flight 777.

A german fighter aircraft operating outside their usual patrol zone intercepted the airliner and shot it down. While claiming this was an accident, there are substantive theories that the airliner, (a DC-3 belonging to the former Dutch KLM airline, operated by a KLM crew with British civilian markings) was shot down because British actor Leslie Howard was on it. The Germans suspected he was heavily involved in espionage and he certainly could have been. The plane crashed into the Bay of Biscay and Howard died.

Best known to Americans from playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, Leslie Howard from the movie trailer, 1939.

Often Lufthansa used an American made DC-3 as its main civilian airliner (its main aircraft before the war was the famous Condor 200, all of which were conveniently refitted as long range maritime patrol and attack aircraft). It is fitting that the cargo on the last flight of Lufthansa from Barcelona to Stuttgart, taking place on April 17, 1945, included seventy-nine kilograms of pig shit. German chemists extracted phosphorous from this which was needed in the manufacture of munitions.

BOAC Boeing 314 Bristol B-AGBZ moving on water; port in background, 1935-1950 period.


Franco was an evil fascist dictator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Many of the secret graveyards where Franco’s henchmen buried the bodies are only now being found.

Spain was dependent on imports of American and British food and oil, of which the Allies could have easily stopped. They made clear they would blockade Spain by sea and completely cut-off all imports into the country (which would have produced a catastrophic famine and total collapse of the Spanish economy). There were already people starving to death in Spain at the time since the agricultural system had been dislocated during the Spanish Civil War just prior to the outbreak of World War Two.

Spain continued to sell tungsten, a rare metal and key substance in the manufacture of ammunition, otherwise known as wolfram, to the Germans.

HMS Illustrious set sail from Portsmouth on Monday morning.

On August 12, 2013, BBC News posted:

A Royal Navy deployment, which will include a stop at Gibraltar, will leave UK ports over the next few days, amid tensions between Spain and the UK. A warship is due to dock at the British territory within a week, a deployment described by the MoD as “long-planned”. It comes as increased vehicle checks at the Spanish border have led to delays.

As you might imagine, Spain has long wanted Gibraltar back and the British won’t give it up. In this news story from the BBC, just published in mid-August of 2013, this issue is still a very contentious one between the two countries.

From a geopolitical point of view, it is one of the few things which gives Great Britain world political clout out of proportion to the size of its economy and what has now become its diminutive military – ships of the British Royal Navy numbering less than 30% of the ships of the US Coast Guard.

[Sources: BBC News. Images courtesy of Matrix Games Forum, RAF Museum, Gone with the Wind Trailer, Poole History Online, and BBC News.]

Review of The Cinderella Service: RAF Coastal Command 1939-1945 by Andrew Hendrie

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.]