Sunderland Flying Boat on Maritime Patrol

RAF Coastal Command maintains constant vigilance over waters surrounding Great Britain

The demands placed on Coastal Command on the outbreak of war were far beyond its capabilities. Hurriedly recruited pilots and crewmen were not well trained and most had great difficulty in identifying ships from the air. They knew they were looking at a ship but from 5,000 feet or higher, they had a difficult time determining what type of ship.


Short Sunderland Flying Boat on maritime patrol


One of the mainstays of Coastal Command in the early years was the Short Sunderland flying boat. (The plane was built by Short Brothers, Ltd. ‘Short’ is not a reference to the size of the plane). Although lacking in very long range (VLR) capabilities the Sunderland proved an excellent maritime patrol aircraft. Its maximum range was roughly 1,780 miles (2,848 km). Hence it could fly about 800 miles outbound into the North Atlantic for instance but had to return to base once it reached the 800-mile limit.


Once over the ocean with no reference points, navigators had difficulty establishing the position of the aircraft because they were poorly trained in using a sextant to take sun sights or star sights then working out their position on a chart along with Dead Reckoning calculators and instruments which measured drift. (That is, how far the wind pushed you sideways). While radio beacons to aid in navigation had been set up throughout the world many were turned off when the war began.


Short Sunderland Mk II flying boat of 10 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, used for reconnaissance and anti-U-boat duties Copyright: © IWM.

Coastal Command also suffered from a lack of aircraft and a shortage of well-trained ground support units who could maintain and repair aircraft.  (Even by winter of 1942 factories were producing five or less Sunderland flying boats).  In a compromise which fortunately worked well most of the time, Coastal Command was placed under the tactical command of the Royal Navy on 15 February 1941, and slow improvement began. Nonetheless, it was a long and bitterly fought intraservice conflict for Coastal Command to receive the aircraft, crew, and specialized equipment required by its mission of trade protection.



Sunderland flying boat landing on the water. This was the most dangerous evolution in flying a Sunderland. If the waves were more than three feet high they would damage the boat severely.


The two side-gunners in a Short Sunderland Mark I of No. 10 Squadron RAAF, Coastal Command, mount watch from their positions by the open dorsal hatches mid-way along the fuselage, during a flight. Two .303 Vickers K-type gas-operated guns were usually fitted in these positions during operations Copyright: © IWM. 


During the years of World War Two, the pilots and aircrew of Coastal Command performed a monotonous mission well. There were many crews who flew thousands of hours of reconnaissance patrols and never saw anything during the entire war. The ocean is a big place.


8,218 RAF Coastal Command personnel were killed on active service in World War Two.






author’s research

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