Product Reviews

Published on July 29th, 2022 | by Guy Warner

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Book Review – The RAF Air Sea Rescue Service 1918-1986

The RAF Air Sea Rescue Service 1918-1986 by Jon Sutherland & Diane Canwell, SB 244 pages, 92 B&W images, Pen & Sword £16.99, ISBN 184884303-8

My interest in the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue Service was first awakened by illustrations, in boys’ comics of the 1960s, of high-speed launches dashing out to save downed aircrew in the teeth of enemy E-boats, blazing away return fire from deck-mounted aircraft turrets or of a waddling Supermarine Walrus alighting on the waves alongside a rubber dinghy to perform a dangerous and heroic rescue.

Its original tasks, as the Marine Craft Section in its early days at the end of the First World War and into the 1920s, were more prosaic, tending and servicing the RAF’s flying boats and seaplanes, though standby, inshore motorboats were soon introduced, with provision for the carriage of stretchers. The authors cover the first decade in the opening chapter and include the extremely useful contributions of Aircraftman TE Shaw, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, particularly with regards to the development in the 1930s  of high-speed launches, as well as other purpose-built craft of increasing size, capability and sophistication.

Lessons hard-earned at Dunkirk and especially during the Battle of Britain resulted, early in 1941, in the creation of the Air Sea Rescue Service as a Directorate within Coastal Command, adopting the motto, ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them.’ Its three primary responsibilities and five major problems are clearly laid out and how the eventual solutions were found are well-described. These included faster, armed and armoured launches, better aircrew dinghies and sea-survival equipment, air-droppable lifeboats, more capable dedicated search aircraft and the establishment of an Air Sea Rescue School in 1943.

Detailed descriptions of rescues are also included  – in home waters, the Mediterranean, the Middle East,  West Africa, the Far East and the Indian Ocean, as far afield as the Cocos Islands. In all 13269 lives were saved and by 1945 the Service had over 300 high-speed launches.

Post-war brought the inevitable contraction but also National Servicemen, full Branch status in 1947, the designation of larger vessels as HMAFV in 1948, new classes of marine craft, the advent of SAR helicopters and, consequent upon this, the closure of the Branch in 1986. The final chapters include interesting personal memories, but also oddly selected and selective descriptions of ASR vessels and aircraft. The photos are good in quantity and scope but could have been more sharply reproduced. A bibliography and a glossary would also have been useful.

This is an interesting and useful book shedding light on an innovative and heroic part of the RAF, which has not, perhaps received the recognition that it should have had. I learned a lot, though it could have been improved by a bit more editing and proofreading.

It has inspired me to start researching the history of the RAF’s marine craft in and around Northern Ireland, of which more anon, I hope.

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