Coastal Command

by P B Joubert
Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip B Joubert, KCB, CMG, DSO, PSA, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Coastal Command, played a big part in the development of radiolocation now so vital to Allied defenses. He was born in India in 1887, attended school in England and joined the Royal Artillery in 1907. He entered the Royal Flying Corps in 1913. later graduated from the RAF Staff College. which he subsequently commanded. In 1934 was AOC Fighting Area — then became C-in-C Coastal Command before returning to India as AOC. He was recalled from India in October, 1939, and is now again AOC-in-C Coastal Command.

Britain's shores depend for much of their safety on the ever-alert eyes of the Coastal Command airmen. Its aircraft patrol more than five million square miles of ocean.

In 1918, the Coastal Command of the RAF contained many hundreds of aircraft of various types which were engaged in the protection of our convoys, in reconnaissance for enemy sea forces, and in attack on U-boats. When peace was declared and the grim specter of war was thought to have been banished, these coastal forces shared in the general reduction. They dwindled indeed to a few flying boats, some torpedo bombers and the shore-based organization which supported the carrier-borne aircraft — then manned by the RAF.

But the British are essentially a seafaring nation and before long the need for maintaining an adequate force of aircraft in support of our Navy became more clear. Hence the Coastal Area Royal Air Force, as it was then called, gradually built up its strength both in shore-based and in carrier-borne aircraft.

The manning of aircraft carriers with RAF personnel led, however, to administrative inconveniences and agreement was eventually reached between the Air Ministry and the Admiralty that the recruiting and manning of what was then known as the Fleet Air Arm, comprising carrier and ship-borne aircraft, should be the responsibility of the Admiralty, the Air Ministry remaining responsible for the provision and manning of all shore-based aircraft, whether flying boats or land planes. About this time, too, Coastal Area became Coastal Command.

The period from 1936, until the war broke out was one of considerable development in Naval air cooperation. As an example, the principle of an Area Combined Headquarters in which Naval and Air Force officers sit side by side working out the combined scheme of operations was instituted for all the principal Naval commands in Great Britain. The working of these Area Combined Headquarters today is an indication of the close cooperation that exists between the Royal Navy and the RAF.

Since the outbreak of war one other change in organization has been made to ensure even closer cooperation between the two services. At the beginning of 1941, it was agreed that Coastal Command, while remaining a Royal Air Force Command, should come under the operational control of the Admiralty. This in practice means that the general policy direction of operations by Coastal Command over the sea is in the hands of the Admiralty, while the carrying out of those directions is the responsibility of the commander-in-chief, Coastal Command. In addition the commander-in-chief is directly responsible to the Air Ministry for the conduct and general efficiency of his squadrons. The composition and the numbers of these squadrons are determined by discussion between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry. It is therefore clear that the strength, the scope and the policy of Coastal Command are the result of agreement between the Air Ministry and the Admiralty.

Because, for reasons of policy, the Battle of the Atlantic must be fought in silence, the magnitude of the work of Coastal Command is not often realized outside the services.

Upon the outbreak of war, Coastal Command no less than other commands of the RAF at home and overseas, was inadequate both in strength and modern equipment for the vital role that air power was to be called upon to play. Of its few flying boats the Short Sunderlands were the best. Its land-based aircraft were Avro Anson reconnaissance bombers, slow and not well armed, and some Vickers Wildebeest torpedo-carrying aircraft, which had soon to be replaced by Bristol Beauforts.

The Command had, however, two assets of incalculable worth — a nucleus of air crews who were among the most highly trained and efficient in the world; and a staff which had devoted the years of peace to preparation for the special problems of an air-sea war, a staff led by the then Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick W Bowhill, KCB, CMG, DSO. Sir Frederick Bowhill has a rare knowledge of the sea, both from the air above it and from the surface (he is a master mariner, qualified in a square-rigged ship, a distinction now held by few). Later in the war he was chosen to take charge of the ferrying of aircraft from America to Britain.

Thus with its little fleet manned by a small but remarkably efficient body of officers and men, Coastal Command was thrown straight into the war from the minute of its declaration. There was no nine-month interval of "phoney" war for this Command. In that first period the Germans rarely gave battle, so Fighter Command had little to fight. Bomber Command was confined to the attack on shipping and to those long-ranged leaflet raids which were invaluable as preliminary training.

But on the first day of the war, Coastal Command leapt straight into its tasks of protecting shipping and reconnaissance. The war was scarcely a few hours old when a Coastal Command aircraft sighted and attacked a submarine. In the first month of war its aircraft found and attacked more than a score of U-boats. On the first day of war a particular reconnaissance brought from the chief of the Naval staff a request for the special commendation of a pilot.

To carry out its task effectively the Command was divided into several groups, each covering a specified stretch of the coastline of Britain and radiating into the seas beyond. Each group was subdivided into a number of stations, at each of which were based one, two or more squadrons. Most of the stations were in remote coastal districts, several of those in the north being on the lonely islands that cluster round the coast — the Scottish Isles, the Shetlands and the Hebrides. Coastal Command headquarters worked in close collaboration with the Admiralty, and the groups with the various Naval commands. The aircraft from the stations flew over the shipping convoys, and dovetailed their work with that of the escorting destroyers.

As the war developed and changed its character, the functions of Coastal Command changed. Increases in the area over which it fought were forced upon it by new strategic situations and new tasks were laid on its shoulders. While Norway was neutral the task of reconnaissance in the northern part of the North Sea was not very difficult. The Altmark incident is a good example of the work of our scouting aircraft at that time. This ship, which carried 400 British seamen prisoners destined for a triumphal parade through the streets of Berlin, was located by Coastal Command aircraft, thus enabling HM destroyer Cossack to board her in a Norwegian fjord and rescue the prisoners.

But events swept on to the Norwegian invasion. Coastal Command aircraft, still few in number, worked unremittingly to report every northward movement of German supply vessels and warships. The flying boats made flights of unbelievable length, reporting and carrying important messages and persons.

Norway, however, was lost. Immediately, a serious new problem faced Coastal Command. German short and long range fighters now had bases on the Norwegian coast. Reconnaissance in that area, formerly placid, became subject to fierce opposition. Moreover, the British east coast shipping, which before had risked only U-boat attack, was now exposed to air attack as well.

Fortunately, Coastal Command had been developing squadrons of long-range fighters. These were Bristol Blenheim aircraft, emptied of bomb load and fitted instead with a bank of machine guns beneath the fuselage. Now they came into play and did magnificent work far out over the North Sea, outside the endurance of single-engined fighters.

When in May, 1940, the Germans swept into Holland and Belgium it was largely American-built aircraft which solved for Coastal Command the problems that arose. It had been recognized long before, of course, that the Command urgently needed strengthening and this had been accomplished in two ways.

The Wildebeests had given place to Beaufort aircraft, the speed and power of which gave them a triple function — torpedo-carrying, bomb-carrying, and mine-laying. In addition a reasonably large reconnaissance force of Lockheed Hudson aircraft had been built up.

These squadrons were diverted from reconnaissance work and formed into a striking force. Helped by the Ansons, which proved to possess amazing powers of fighting and bombing, and by Beauforts carrying bombs, the Lockheed Hudson force was turned on to the German-occupied Dutch ports. They fought off superior numbers of enemy aircraft which tried to interfere with our own or with the Dutch naval operations; they shielded sea evacuations from the Netherlands and from Belgium; and then they returned by night to attack material of military value which had been left behind. In particular, they directed their bombs against oil. One Hudson squadron was detailed to deal with the oil installations at Rotterdam alone.

June brought the German breakthrough in France, and the evacuation from Dunkirk. As the Battle of France merged into the Battle of Britain the war as seen by Coastal Command today gradually took shape. The new situation was conditioned by the German occupation of the whole European coastline from the North Cape to the Franco-Spanish border. With U-boat bases not only to the north in the Dutch islands but also to the south along the French coast, the Battle of the Atlantic was grimly intensified. And added to the U-boat threat was that of the long-range Focke-Wulf bombers which roamed from the southwest coast of France to Norway seeking out the vital Atlantic shipping convoys.

In this phase again American-built aircraft came to the aid of Coastal Command. Squadrons of Consolidated PBY flying boats, known to the RAF as Catalinas, had been built up. These flying boats, with their phenomenal endurance, have played a part in the war against the U-boat which cannot now be fully told, but which nevertheless will form a notable chapter of aviation history. In addition, the Consolidated Liberator four-engined bombers lent their aid to the British Vickers Wellingtons and Armstrong-Whitworth Whitleys and to the Hudsons, which were by then protecting the vital lifeline of ships across the Atlantic.

And so today Coastal Command's task has been determined, and can be summed up as follows. To the west, the vital task of protecting the sea routes; to the east, the equally important tasks of reconnaissance against invasion and striking the enemy's invasion ports and supply shipping; while, superimposed, there is the ever present task of preventing the German surface raiders from breaking out into the Atlantic.

Consider, now, how the changing facets of the war have always enlarged the area over which Coastal Command must fight. In the early stages it was not small, but it had very definite limits. It embraced the North Sea, the English Channel, the home waters to the west of Britain and the southwestern approaches of the Atlantic, with a communications line to Gibraltar. With the invasion of Norway a great additional area of sea stretching up to the Arctic Circle was added. The German occupation of Denmark, Holland and Belgium did not extend the area of operations but it added hundreds of miles of heavily defended coastline to the operational liability of the Command. The German occupation of France completed the picture. To the south, the battleground was extended far down into the South Atlantic, practically to the equator, while to the north its area extended as far as the coast of Greenland and far beyond the Arctic Circle.

British forces moved into Iceland (to be followed soon afterwards by the Americans), and Coastal Command land and flying boat squadrons were posted to that northern island. To the west, where as the result of naval and air attack the U-boats were driven to operate farther and farther out into the Atlantic, Coastal Command had to range right out to the limits of the US Navy patrol zone.

There was to be one more addition, the result of the opening of the Russo-German war. Coastal Command's area then curled round the northwest points of the European land mass to touch the north Russian battle fronts.

The present total area of Coastal Command's battle zone, over which the war is actively fought every day of the year, is more than 5,500,000 square miles.

In covering that area, Coastal Command aircraft have now flown, on war operations, 50,000,000 miles, a mileage more than half the distance from the earth to the sun. That is some indication of the endurance of the air crews. It is no uncommon thing for a Coastal Command flying boat pilot to have to his credit more than 2,000 hours of operational flying.

The worst enemy of Coastal Command — far more formidable than the Nazis — is the weather. It is rare that over some part of that vast battle area there is no gale blowing, no bank of fog to cover the landing ground or the home moorings. It is mere routine for a Coastal Command aircraft to face several hundred miles of sea in the teeth of a full gale. A flying boat in distress has actually put down far out in the Atlantic in an extremely heavy sea and floated for seven and one-half hours. As it sank the crew was rescued by a Naval vessel.

The number of hours since the war began when there have been no Coastal Command aircraft flying could probably be counted on a man's fingers. There have been occasions in winter when probably the only aircraft in the air over the whole of western Europe were those of Coastal Command on reconnaissance patrol.

A special — though by no means exclusive — function of the Command, and one which has been emphasized in the recent stages of the war, is that of attacking enemy shipping. Germany never offers anything like the sea target that Britain presents every day, but circumstances have forced the Germans to employ a certain amount of shipping in coastal traffic. The overloaded rail transport system of Europe has been badly damaged by RAF bombing, and sometimes by sabotage, while the needs of war have taxed it far beyond capacity. In order to supply armies of occupation in the west, and now to supply armies in action in Russia, the Germans have been compelled to divert much of their transport to the coastal water routes, the dominant factor in this decision being the fact that one supply ship of 6,000 tons carries roughly the same amount at 10 long goods trains. Supply shipping started to show itself directly the Germans had occupied the European coast and as promptly the Coastal Command started to harry it.

The aircraft used are mainly Beauforts and Hudsons. At first the Beauforts, firing torpedoes, were the more successful. In a period of eight months from November, 1940, one squadron alone either sank or damaged beyond hope of repair 110,000 tons of German shipping.

But, meanwhile, a completely new method of attacking ships was being evolved. It was first employed most successfully by a Bomber Command group using bombs which were fitted with a delayed action of a few seconds. These aircraft attacked the ships from, at or below mast height. This method revolutionized the technique of shipping attacks. In addition to the many ships sunk or damaged by Bomber Command during early November, 1941, Hudsons of Coastal Command, in their attacks on German shipping supplying the Nazi armies in north Russia, hit (within a period of four nights) some 30 ships for certain, many of which are known to have sunk outright.

The attacks were made from so low a height that sometimes the air crews could hear (in spite of the noise of their engines) the thud of their bombs as they pierced the ship's deck. Sometimes the crews choked and spluttered from the smoke from the ship's funnels as it swirled through their aircraft. Sometimes they came home with splinters of wood embedded in the fuselage.

The German's took such a serious view of this type of attack that they began to provide heavy escorts of antiaircraft ships, sometimes destroyers, for their supply shipping. A single supply vessel has been seen escorted by no fewer than five "flakships." But even the curtains of fire — mostly quick-firing cannon shells and tracer bullets — which these ships put up have not deterred the Coastal Command pilots from pressing home their attacks from levels just as low and with results just as satisfactory.

There are many lesser tasks which Coastal Command is called upon to perform. One of them (to pick at random) is the ferrying of important officers and high officials to the various theatres of the war. For this task, flying boats are used — either Sunderlands or Catalinas. Another of their tasks is to patrol the ice far north of the Arctic Circle and along the remote coasts of Greenland, to report how the pack ice is moving or how the bergs are tending — information vital to the safe conduct of Atlantic shipping farther south. Long range Lockheed Hudsons carry out this duty from Iceland.

These are some of the tasks. The aircraft types with which they are carried out have all been named already, with one exception. That is the Bristol Beaufighter. This long-range fighter, of great power, and equipped with four cannon and six machine guns, has now practically replaced the Blenheim fighter on the establishment of Coastal Command. One of these aircraft literally blew a Junkers Ju-88 to bits with one burst of fire from its powerful armament.

Although Coastal Command aircraft and aircrews are now flying in the Middle East and the Far East, the main task of the Command is still, and will always be, the Battle of the Atlantic. This is the crucial battle of the war. It began on September 3, 1939, when some of the U-boats were already out at sea. It has been fought without respite ever since.

Secrecy must surround this battle. Experience in the last war, and in the early stages of this, showed clearly how potent a weapon is silence in regard to U-boat sinkings when directed against German submarine personnel.

The U-boat is the chief enemy. The Nazi U-boats hunt in packs, being directed to the British convoys on some occasions by scouting Focke-Wulf bombers. Once a U-boat has contacted a convoy it shadows it until the whole pack has come up. Then a mass attack is made at night.

Coastal Command aircraft, in taking their part in the Battle of the Atlantic, have therefore two duties with regard to U-boats. If possible, they must attack and sink them. But almost of equal importance is the keeping of them below the surface, thus dislocating their timetables and often enabling the threatened convoy to escape; for as the U-boats have been driven to hunt farther and farther out in the Atlantic, in order to reach their hunting areas they have had to increase their average speed and this has meant traveling on the surface by day as well as by night.

As for the first duty, that of sinking U-boats, it is permissible to say that Coastal Command aircraft have attacked several hundreds of U-boats and that there is good reason to believe that much damage has been done. The U-boat commanders take the most elaborate precautions to avoid detection by our aircraft and are really frightened of air attacks.

On one occasion in the Battle of the Atlantic a Coastal Command Lockheed Hudson forced a U-boat to surrender. This aircraft, together with a Catalina that relieved it, held the U-boat captive from the air for 11 hours until a Naval surface vessel could arrive to take over. Coastal Command aircraft then gave continuous air escort for the next 40 hours, during which time the Navy boarded the U-boat, removed the crew and brought the vessel intact into a British port with a prize crew aboard.

This was a highlight in the Battle of the Atlantic. There have been many such highlights, and many reverses. The battle itself, fought in the waters between the front line of Britain and the arsenal of America, is not yet decided. As the convoys increase in size and frequency, there is a demand for more and more aircraft. There always will be. For we can never have too many aircraft for this battle.

A Catalina, with its long endurance (its average flights is 18 hours) is a vast improvement, for this purpose, on a flying boat or land aircraft with shorter staying power. Two Catalinas are an improvement on one. A fifth Catalina might, perhaps, destroy a U-boat that four on patrol had missed. But to get them all we should need 10 … 20 … an unlimited number …. The area to search is so vast, the target to find so small. There cannot be too many.

Thus, just as Coastal Command looks westward when it fights its greatest battle, so it looks still farther west when preparing to continue the fight to the end. It looks to the aircraft factories of America. Every long-range flying boat from those inexhaustible resources can be used in this Battle of the Atlantic and used well.

The Battle of the Atlantic is a battle of chances. There are Coastal Command pilots who have flown week after week, month after month, for more than two years and yet have never seen a U-boat. There are others who have attacked three U-boats in two days.

Every additional aircraft that can be put into the sky over the Atlantic increases the chances. It can mean the salvation of tens of thousands of tons of precious shipping, the safe delivery to Britain of vast consignments of war stores and the safe transport of trained fighting men from the west.

Even to keep the U-boat below the surface can temporarily achieve these results by breaking its contact with a convoy.

To use a comparison with a land battle, each U-boat forced by an aircraft to crash dive is a few hundred yards of trenches won. Every U-boat destroyed is the reduction of a salient. Every convoy of shipping that passes unscathed to a British port is a local victory. And when the U-boats and the Focke-Wulfs are, one day, in full retreat from the waters between Britain and America, the war will have been won.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942 special Royal Air Force issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 70-75.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author, 16 photos, and a map showing Coastal Command patrol area(s).
Photos from the RAF.

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