The first phase of the Battle of Britain between 10 July and 11 August 1940 was characterised by the Luftwaffe attempting to lure the RAF fighters into combat whilst defending Allied shipping. German intelligence believed that numbers of Spitfires and Hurricanes were severely depleted after the Battle of France and the Dunkirk evacuation and could be quickly eliminated before an invasion. This German tactic also had the additional benefit of disrupting convoys bringing much needed supplies into the UK. However the preponderance of combat over the English Channel in particular meant that possessing the means of saving the lives through Air Sea rescue became a critical issue.
Unfortunately in the early stages of the war, there was no search and rescue organisation. Coastal Command had ordered launches for this purpose but these were not in place in time for the early stages of the Battle of Britain. Instead, there was a reliance that there may be a passing ship that would pick up a downed airman. The lifeboat service could be called out if a pilot was seen to go down but, as Richard Hillary testifies in 'The Last Enemy', survival depended heavily on good fortune and even better eyesight:
"It was to the Margate lifeboat that I owed my rescue. Watchers on the coast had seen me come down, and for three hours they had been searching for me. Owing to wrong directions, they were just giving up and turning back for land when ironically enough one of them saw my parachute. They were then fifteen miles east of Margate." Richard Hillary, 'The Last Enemy', p10
Despite pilots wearing their inflatable lifejacket (see Peter Townsend below) - known affectionately as a 'Mae West' after the eponymous, big bosomed Hollywood actress - they were neither equipped with a dinghy or florescent markings unlike their Luftwaffe counterparts. The temperature in the Channel rarely rose above 14 degrees Centigrade in the summer which would typically would give a man four hours survival time. Fighter Command became equipped with twelve Lysanders to help look for downed pilots and flourescence could be but a feasible air sea rescue service was not in operation until 1941. As a consequence many RAF pilots died unnecessarily and their bodies never found. (See Stephen Bungay, 'The Most Dangerous Enemy - A History Of The Battle Of Britain')
Peter Townsend was one of the lucky ones to be rescued. When he was shot down into the sea on 11 July, he baled out and was rescued by Cap Finisterre and landed at Harwich.
If you would like to hear more about the experiences of fighter pilots such as Peter Townsend and Richard Hillary on either a London walking tour or whole day tour in East Kent, please get in touch now. You can also visit the website www.thebattleofbritain.co.uk, call 07852 765901 or email email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of the Battle of Britain monument.