A Short History of Air Rescue in World War II

The idea of establishing a specialized and elite force for the rescue of downed aircrews grew out of three interlocked circumstances just before the Second World War: (1) a deep‑seated European belief in the sanctity of life, (2) the high expense of training replacement aircrews for those lost in combat, and (3) the greater effectiveness of aircrews who believed that there was a reasonable expectation of surviving a bailout or crashlanding.

Heinkel-59 Floatplane.

Heinkel-59 Floatplane.

These factors led the German Luftwaffe in 1935 to establish a sea‑ based unit, eventually being named the Seenotdienst (air‑sea rescue service) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Konrad Glotz at Kiel for the sole purpose of recovering aircrews in the ocean. By 1939 the Luftwaffe had expanded this rescue force by adding Heinkel‑59 float aircraft specifically modified for this mission.

The Germans also pioneered the development of equipment and techniques during the years before 1940s. Its Heinkels were equipped with medical supplies, respirators, electrically heated sleeping bags, a floor hatch with a collapsible ladder, and a hoist to lifted injured aircrew members. The exteriors were painted white and sported a red cross to distinguish them from combat aircraft. They also introduced unmanned large buoy‑type floats, outfitting them with all manner of equipment that could be used by downed flyers of all nations.

Each Luftwaffe aircraft, in addition, contained inflatable dinghies, survival equipment, and green dye which could be released in the ocean to aid in spotting survivors. By the time of the Battle of Britain in 1940, there­fore, the Germans had in place for the English Channel and the North Atlantic a rescue system in which a downed aircrew member had a reasonable chance of survival.

The British efforts early in the war were haphazard. The  (RAF) relied on its coastal defense force for the rescue of crewmen, although by March 1940 a communication system was established to give priority to distress signals. With the heavy attrition in men and materiel in July 1940 wrought by the Battle of Britain, Air Vice Marshal Keith R. Park, commanding No. 11 Group of Fighter Command, acquired 12 Lysander patrol aircraft and the services of seacraft to search and recover downed airmen.

RAF Air Sea Rescue Launch.

RAF Air Sea Rescue Launch.

The next month the British formalized this arrangement by forming a Directorate of Air‑Sea Rescue at the Air Ministry to coordinate rescue efforts. In August 1941, executive control of all rescue operations were vested in the commander of Coastal Command. From this beginning, rescue operations became increasingly efficient throughout the remainder of World War II, at least for airmen lost in areas other than those held by the enemy.

Like its allies, the United States entered the war without any organized air‑sea rescue capability. As casualties from the bombing campaign became to mount, however, General H.H. Arnold, the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces made rescue a priority. In September 1942, the British and American forces agreed to cooperate and coordinate rescue operations. Although the British dominated the rescue program in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), the United States assisted and made special efforts to properly equip aircrews and train them for survival in a crash or bailout. It also employed seaplanes for search and rescue over water, although its short 800‑mile radius of action limited its viability.

51st Rescue Squadron SB-17s at Narsarsuaq Air Base, Greenland, in the 1950s.

51st Rescue Squadron SB-17s at Narsarsuaq Air Base, Greenland, in the 1950s.

Later, other aircraft, such as modified bombers were used for these operations as well. For instance, the United States modified some of its B‑17s to carry mahogany‑laminated, plywood boats under its fuselage which could be dropped to airman in the water. The boat was stocked with food, water, clothing, other supplies, and two small motors to allow the airmen to travel home. This B‑17 was christened the SB‑17, the first American aircraft modified and used specifically for rescue. Its first operational mission took place in April 1945, just as the war in Europe was about to end.

The success of air‑sea rescue operations in the ETO was sufficient to elicit excited response from most airmen. A total of 1,972 American airmen were saved in the water around Britain through March 1945. The Eighth Air Force’s rescue efforts saw only a 28 percent save rate in 1942, compared to a 43 percent rate by April 1943. Indeed, by the end of the war allied combat aircrews from all theaters could reasonably expect to be picked up if shot down.

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