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
Lying there, listening to the sounds of tempest, straining my ears for any sounds to indicate the proximity of guards, it was grimly amusing to think of what might happen in the next hour or two. Having seen the reactions of the Japanese to previous alarms, it was easy to imagine the scene should a false move cause me to short-circuit the electrified wires on the fence. Before my frizzled body hit the ground there would be guards yelling and rushing about the camp.
After returning to Japan, I saw photographs of bodies scorched pitch-black by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. As I looked at them, the red corpse I had seen in Manchuria, of someone killed out of vengeance and then skinned, ﬂoated before my eye. The two corpses, the red and the black, became overlain in my mind. Together, those two corpses tell the whole story of 1945.