AVIATION NEWS JUNE 1991
By Michael Payne
LET us ignore the disagreements that have arisen about the date on which the Battle of Britain really began. For all practical purposes it was at the beginning of July that air activity over the Channel began to intensify as the Luftwaffe set about attacking British shipping as it passed through the Dover Strait. Furthermore, it was on 1 July that German troops occupied the Channel Islands.
At the other end of England,a few miles east of Sunderland, the first incident of July took place. It was hardly a 'combat', but it was the first of a long series of incidents involving German air/sea rescue aircraft.
At first light three Spitfires of No.72 Sqn. took off from Acklington. a No. 13 Group fighter base, and were vectored on to an unidentified aircraft reported prowling around an escorted convoy. Under lowering clouds Blue section, comprising Fit. Lt. Graham. Fig. Off. Wilcox and Fit. Sgt. Steer found a low flying Heinkel He 59E-2 twin engined biplane, which they forced to alight on the water. As the damaged seaplane sank, the four crewmen were picked up by an escort vessel of the Royal Navy.
No other German aircraft were seen or reported in that area of the North Sea at that time, so it must remain a moot point why a machine marked with red crosses and a civil registration, D-ASAM and belonging to Seenotkommando 3 should have been searching for national airmen to rescue from the sea, so far from its base and so close to an enemy convoy. Of the all military crew. Uffz. Stuckmann had been wounded by gunfire, but Uffz. Ielsen. Ogefr. Philipp and Ltn. Fehske were captured unhurt. They complained firmly about the action of the Spitfires.
A nominal Luftwaffe search and rescue service had been set up on Norderney on 12 April 1939, equipped with a few He 59 floatplanes in ambulance markings and flown by civilian crews with certain medical qualifications. On the outbreak of war the unit was expanded slightly, but it was when the Wehrmacht gained control of the entire Channel coast that a need emerged for the formation of the Seenotberichskommando with detachments based between the German Bight and Finisterre. No. 1 at Brest, 2 at Cherbourg, 3 at Wimereux and 4 at Ostend. In addition to these seaplane bases various fast rescue boats (some Vedettes captured from the French) were based in the Channel Islands, Le Havre, Dieppe, Boulogne and Schellingwoude.
At this time the RAF had no ASR service like that which it developed in later months. The official ASR Service was not formed until February 1941 and there were only 18 High Speed Launches around the entire UK coast in mid-1940. Thus the Air Ministry was fully aware that German rescue craft often picked up Allied airmen as well as their own people. Obviously it was not without very careful consideration that the Air Ministry issued its Order No. 1254 on 29 July. confirming formally its earlier decision that Luft- waffe rescue aircraft were to be attacked, since it was believed that they were reporting Posi- tion, course and speed of British convoys. German denials make stränge reading when their reaction states that aircraft at that time carried no radio equipment - and our radio listening service could hear them.
Meanwhile a further incident had occurred. On 9 July another He 59. D-ASUO had been shot down by Plt. Off. Allen of No.54 Sqn. It became stranded on the Goodwin sands after being found lurking near a convoy. As it re-floated it was towed to Deal by the Walmer lifeboat, and its crew were made prisoner. Photos of the machine appeared in the Press, and it was immediately stripped by souvenir hunters. Notably it had carried a radio Operator, Uffz. Erich Schiele.
After mid-July all the German rescue aircraft were camouflaged and armed. They carried the usual national markings on wings, tail and fuselage and they were allotted normal four- letter call-sign codes. Some were recorded on various docu- ments. for example:
TW + HH. NE + T. DA + MJ. NE + UX, TV + HM, DA + MJ. TV + HO, NO + FL'. DA + MT. NO + MG. DA + WT
The seaplanes and other res- cue aircraft continued to be lost for a variety of reasons.
As a rescue vehicle the He 59 possessed certain advantages. The open cockpits. high above the water line gave the crew a reasonable view over the wave-tops and a good pilot could taxi over a ditched airman who could then perhaps grab the rope loops on the floats. or be hoisted aboard through the lower rear hatch where a small winch was fitted. It was not always possible to take off in rough conditions and many sea- planes were taxied for miles before reaching safety.
Less populär as a rescue craft was the Dornier Do 18 Flying boat. The early D sub-type had given way in 1939 to the more powerful and better-armed G. In 1940 some of these were modified for a rescue role, probably by removing the heavy rear turret and with interior equipment changes. The view from the low-set cockpit and hatches was poor, but once located. ditched airmen found the Stabilising sponsons helpful as rescue plat- forms. But even with ils two 880 hp motors it was a difficult machine to coax into the air in poor conditions in the open sea. The modified version was designated Do 18N-1.
A similar designation was given to the Dornier Do 24N-1 when this type was used in the rescue role. These large tri-motor flying boats were built in Holland by the Dutch companies Aviolanda and De Schelde. They continued to be built there through the war years, and in France. Some examples served in the post-war French Aeronavale arm until ihey were sold to Spain. One ex-Spanish Do 24 has come to be exhibited, in its SAR colours, in the RAF Museum at Hendon. One cannot but be impressed by its size. The pre-war Wright R I820-F52 Cyclones (890 hp) were replaced in Luftwaffe service by three 1000 hp Bramo Fafnir 323R-2 radial motors and in this form the Do 24 proved itself to be an excellent sea-boat, well de-fended, spacious and popular with its crews. Although, like the Do 18. the hull was low-set. the rescue technique once on the water was to shut down the centre motor so that an ob-server could climb aloft and signal directions down to the cockpit for locating ditched airmen. The Do 24 also made use of the sponsons as platforms. There were hatches on the port side and provision inside the large hull for eight stretchers. It could carry a heavy load and its 3000 hp ensured a lively take-off performance.
One cannot omit the fascinating entry in the Luftwaffe's official loss list for 5 January 1941. which records a crash-landing at Caen of a Do 24 (W.Nr. 19). belonging to '4/Seenotgruppe'.
The other type of flying boat used in 1940 for search and rescue was the huge Breguet 521 Bizerte. This was a big three- motor biplane (really a sesquiplane. since the area of its lower
wing was far less than half that of the upper). It owed certain design features to the earlier Short Calcutta of Imperial Airways. Two Bizertes were captured by the Germans in 1940 and several more were bought from the French Vichv Government. Although Karl Ries (Dora Kurfurst und Rote 13, Vol 3. page 184) shows a photo of a supposedly captured Bizerte on its beaching gear, it appears to be unpainted. so the style and colours of the camouflage and markings used by the Luftwaffe cannot be deter- mined, (standard maritime colours were 72. 73 and 65). These aircraft are reported to have operated from Lorient and St Mandrier.
In the same way that the RAF learned to use certain land-plane types for searching over water (Lysanders, Ansons, Defiants), the Luftwaffe also used similar types in the same role in small numbers: in parti-cular the Henschel Hs 126. captured French Goelands and numbers of Focke Wulf FW 58c Weihe. Moreover mosl operational Gruppen possessed hack machines for general communication journeys, the
most popular being the FW Weihe, and these were often used to search for downed pilots. The Weihe was nick- named 'der Leukoplastbomber' (sticking plaster bomber) in the training schools where it was widely used from 1937 in many roles. It was the C sub-type with the solid nose cone that was found on communication duties, with the Gruppen. On 11 November 1940 the FW 58 be-longing to III./JG 51, W.Nr.3551, coded OZ + AK was shot down over the Thames Estuary where it was on an emergency search mission
for two lost pilots, Josef Filke and the popular Geog (Schorze) Claus. In the event none of the airmen was found. It was also on an overwater
search on 20 July that Hauptm. Helmut Riegel of L/JG 27 was lost, and so also was Ltn. Kloiber of 2./JG 3 on 5 September.
The following registrations were found on He 59 ambulances: D-AFFA, AKVR, ANVL, AROO, ARYX, ASUO,