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
Then shortly before 2.00 p.m., as I was getting ready to head back, accurate artillery fire suddenly began hitting the village. I took cover in an anti-tank bunker. After ten minutes and as many explosions in the immediate area, the houses to the left and the right were burning and the bunker was in shambles. Even the stairway had collapsed. Despite the artillery fire, we scrambled out because the house next to us was threatening to collapse on us. There was more to come.
Shortly afterwards the gendarmes brought three men to me dressed as civilians and asked me to shoot them as they were 5th Columnists and spies. I said, ‘In that case why not shoot them yourselves?’ ‘Ah,’ they said. ‘If we do and the Germans get here tomorrow, we shall be shot ourselves but if the British Army does it, all is well’.
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