Benbecula – a remote outpost of RAF Coastal Command
A Boeing Flying Fortress Mk IIA of No. 220 Squadron RAF, based at Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, May 1943.
One of the critical factors in winning the Battle of the Atlantic was the ever increasing use of airborne surveillance to hunt for U-Boats. This meant long tiring hours for the crews as they ceaselessly searched the sea below or monitored the radar. Very few patrols resulted in a sighting of a U-boat, much less a successful attack. Yet the crews had to be ready to go into action in an instant and deliver their depth charges before a U-boat could submerge.
The need to patrol a massive sea area meant that RAF Coastal Command stations were often located in some very remote locations on the east side of the Atlantic, including west Africa. Their Canadian and U.S. counterparts were based in similar locations on the west side. In May 1943 an Air Ministry photographer was sent to one of the remotest islands in Britain, Benbecula, to document the work of these men:
Fortress Mark IIA, FL459 J, of No. 220 Squadron RAF, preparing to taxy at Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides. This aircraft sank two U-boats (U624 and U707) and shared in the sinking of another (U575) during its period of service with the squadron. The aerials of the ASV II radar with which FL459 is equipped are clearly visible on the nose and under the starboard wing.
The presence of aircraft in an otherwise remote location, previously linked to the mainland by boat only, meant that No 220 Squadron flew its share of mercy missions from Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. This patient with acute appendicitis was airlifted to hospital on the mainland in one of the Squadron’s Fortresses, the open waist window serving as a convenient entrance to the aircraft, May 1943.
Fortress Mark IIA, FK212 V, of No. 220 Squadron RAF based at Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, in flight over the Atlantic Ocean. FK212 failed to return from a patrol on 14 June 1943.
Oblique aerial view of the airfield at Benbecula, Outer Hebrides, from west-south-west, while the runways were under construction. The method used was known as ‘sand carpet’, which consisted of bitumen laid directly over compacted sand, resulting in a flexible surface.
Posed photograph of a No 220 Squadron Fortress radar operator at his set, peering through a light guard at the CRT indicator screen for the ‘tell-tale return from a surfaced U-boat’, Benbecula, May 1943.
A No 220 Squadron Fortress IIA seen ‘bombing up’ with depth charges at Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides, May 1943.
250lb depth charges are being hoisted into the bomb bay of a No 220 Squadron Fortress IIA at Benbecula, May 1943.
Interesting compilation of contemporary film of Coastal Command aircraft and U-Boats with contemporary music
Several new books recently sent to me are featured, and you can read extracts from them here. A new study of prominent American Aviators examines the Doolittle Raid in detail and reconstructs events. The pivotal month of November 1942 is explored in Seesaw, when suddenly the fortunes of war changed in favour of the Allies. The experiences of US bomber pilot 'Jack' Hubbard in the Pacific are contained in the Route to Tokyo include some amusing anecdotes. The little known story of the plight of the refugees from Gibraltar is covered in 'We thank God and England' and includes a valuable collection of original material.
Hearing the noise of low flying aircraft, I assumed it was the usual patrol and opened the front door to look across the valley towards Hastings. Flying towards me along the line of the Ridge, just above rooftop height, there were indeed two aircraft, but I realised instantly that instead of RAF roundels, these planes had black crosses on their sides,…
The wonderful thing is that they were marching in rows of three and were singing! We step out of the heavily shelled huts and bunkers which have been our home and are unable to comprehend such a miracle. We stand there silently in our camouflage, caked with dirt, and we touch our stubbly faces in disbelief. They march along a series of small grave mounds with crosses on top and I get the impression that their voices tremble for a moment.
The armoured divisions’ progress, however, was disappointingly slow; there were bad traffic jams and petrol shortages; and for a time there was a complete breakdown in communications between Corps and Army Headquarters. This last was not surprising, since 2nd Canadian Corps Signals was neither fully equipped nor fully trained. It should moreover be remembered that this was the first occasion on which the whole of the 5th Division was actually exercised together as a formation.