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Coastal Command’s Air War Against the German U-Boat by Norman Franks

RAF Coastal Command, like Army Co-Operation Command, was aptly described as a ‘Cinderella Service’ at the outbreak of World War 2. The ‘locust years’ of the interwar period, and the dubious legacy of Churchill’s ’10-Year Rule’ – a financial sleight of hand which assumed that no war would be fought with a major opponent for the next 10 years – would leave Britain under-equipped, under-manned and doctrinally weak on the outbreak of war, especially in the neglected field of anti-submarine warfare. Equipped with elegant but obsolete biplane flying boats such as the Saro London and Supermarine Stranraer, Coastal Command was locked into the same desperate race as the other Allied services in the Battle of the Atlantic. Either they would find a way to deliver effective Anti Submarine Maritime Patrol capability, or the existing gap would cost victory. This book has a remarkable collection of photographs that help to tell this story.

As the Allies painfully re-learned the lessons of the First World War (the prize is the safe delivery of the cargo, the merchant vessel and its crew, run these ships in a convoy, provide sufficient escorts to drive off U-Boats with sufficient maritime patrol aircraft for continuous cover, only prosecute a submarine contact if you have sufficient assets remaining to protect the convoy), Coastal Command had to expand and modernise rapidly. Operating complex aircraft in a harsh environment made great demands on the service, and precise navigation in poor conditions was vital to maintain effective cover. The old aviation adage that flying is 99% boredom and 1% terror was particularly accurate in Coastal Command’s case, with millions of man-hours spent searching for a surfaced U-Boat throughout the war.

As the war progressed, Coastal Command began to receive more Very Long-Range aircraft, and with innovations such as the Leigh Light airborne searchlight, Anti-Surface Vessel Radar and acoustic homing torpedos, Coastal Command began to pose a serious threat to the U-Boat fleet. The main challenge throughout was timely detection of the U-Boat to allow an attack to be made, and preventing counter-detection by the target until it was too late for it to dive below effective bomb or depth charge range.

This book clearly sets out the risks that Coastal Command aircraft faced when attacking U-Boats. Although they turned the Bay of Biscay into a killing ground for departing and returning U-Boats, it was no ‘Happy Time’ for the aircrews as their targets were heavily-armed with 20mm cannon, and an attack involved a low and straight run-in for accurate placement of bombs or depth-charges. Both of Coastal Command’s VCs (Hornell VC and Cruickshank VC) were earned while pressing home attacks with damaged aircraft and crew casualties. The author was called upon to provide casualty numbers for the Command: over 10,00 personnel, of which over 5,800 were aircrew.

5/5 anchors to Mr. Franks for this valuable book. The text is accurate, brief and concise, giving an excellent introduction or reminder to the reader about the Coastal Command war experience. The amassed photographs speak for themselves. The most remarkable images are those taken during attacks. We see blurry images of surface submarines just a few feet below the aircraft, with U-Boat crewmen either ducked down or manning anti-aircraft armament, and can only imagine the sensory overload of fighting for one’s life at close range, miles away from a safe haven. The book is an excellent tribute to Coastal Command and is strongly recommended.