In the spring of 1943 the U-Boat war was really hotting up, with the Allies bringing forward a range of new measures to protect convoys coming across the Atlantic. At the same time the Germans were bringing into operation many new U boats.
For the men in RAF Coastal Command this meant more patrols over the Bay of Biscay, trying to catch the U-boats either leaving or returning to their French bases on the Atlantic coast. Even if they did not catch any U Boats they were forcing them to remain submerged for much longer periods over a critical part of their patrol, impeding communication between boats and base, making the formation of wolfpacks more difficult.
The Australians were to make an important contribution to this battle, at the outbreak of war they had had two RAAF Squadrons in Britain, forming up with newly built Sunderland aircraft. It was decided to keep them in Britain to contribute to home defence. This was, of course, long before Japan entered the war.
For the men flying the Sunderland flying boats on these patrols this meant long hours of patrol with constant vigilance expected. Only rarely would they be committed to action. Australian Ivan Southall was one of the men on these patrols. He describes his preparation for his first flight on operations, sometime in the spring of 1943:
You hadn’t been in the ops room before, and your eyes were like a movie camera, seeing all, recording all, missing nothing; the coal fire buming in the stove, the comfortable lazy warmth so strangely at odds with the winds outside, the chatter and the shuffling of feet, the senior officers, the rugged-up air-crew, the hard seats arranged one behind the other like the setting for a religious ceremony, the teacups, the Waafs, the continuing surge of the heart, the nerve- soothing balm of a good cigarette perhaps too deeply inhaled. You sat down.
On the wall before you was a huge map of the patrol zone. There were ribbons all over it of different colours. Each ribbon was a patrol. One of them was yours. There were numbers and arrows, and they were the positions of Allied and neutral shipping and their courses. There were bombing-restriction areas clearly marked. There were enemy aircraft motifs and U-boat motifs pinned here and there. And there were officers talking to you slowly and deliberately.
You listened in growing confusion and disquiet, to a recital of do’s and don’t’s. You heard strange words without apparent meanings which were code expressions for secret procedures about which as yet you knew nothing. You were appalled by what you were expected to know and remember. You wondered whether it were possible for the captain to absorb it, or whether he sat there quietly nodding his head only to conceal the great gulf of his ignorance. You heard of radio frequencies, and studs – whatever they were – of Junkers 88s and Spanish warships and U-boats. You heard of merchant vessels scattered in a gale; of Allied and neutral and enemy fishing-vessels.
You heard the CO saying ‘Good luck.’ Then you were outside in the cold and the dark and the wind struggling down to the pier, clumping laboriously in your great boots, trailing the gang, laden with equipment and rations for thirteen hours in the air. Camera and binoculars, eggs and chops, charts and pigeons, bread and chewing gum.
The routine check ofthe aircraft began while the duty hand, still in his underwear, tried to drag on his trousers and rub the sleep out of his eyes.You wandered round watching every body move through the orderly procession of duty; inspecting the bilges and the guns and the ammunition, adjusting the moorings for casting off, unlocking the flying controls, arranging the signal colours, checking the cockpit and the wireless and testing the engine controls, setting up the charts, blacking out the portholes, and clambering up top out onto the wing to examine the mainplane.
They were working hard, all of them, and you were watching and thinking and listening and you were sore in the pit of the stomach.
The captain and the first pilot settled down into the flying-seats in front ofthe blackout curtain, and the crew came up to the bridge and everyone checked their Mae Wests and secured the tapes that held them to the body.
An engine exploded into life and soon the two outers were running with a steady healthy beat. And that was the real beginning, the casting of the die, the jumping of the hurdle, when they slipped moorings and slowly taxied out into the harbour like a great bus, towards the lone line of swaying little ships blazing with lights which were the flare path.
See Ivan Southall: They Shall Not Pass Unseen. Ivan Southall’s childrens’ books have been published in many countries, this early memoir of wartime flying is difficult to obtain.