25 June 2012

The Luftwaffe Seenotdienst: The First Air Rescue Units

Cover of a German history book on the Seenotdienst.

Since the beginnings of military aviation air rescue operations had taken place, but the operations were quite ad hoc and improvised in most situations. That would change with the rise of the Luftwaffe which would be publicly acknowledged for the first time by Hermann Goering in 1935. As the Luftwaffe needed to expand rapidly as part of Germany's expansionist aims, the air arm could ill afford the loss of a highly trained pilot or flight crew member. Given that most of the Luftwaffe's taskings were in support of the Wehrmacht, it was expected that most crewmen would bail out over land. Despite this, the Luftwaffe did have a small number of seaplanes at bases in Baltic Sea and North Sea, both of which complicated the bail out from an aircraft in trouble. In 1935, Lt. Colonel Konrad Goltz, a supply officer based in Kiel, was tasked with organizing a system for recovering downed aircrew from the inhospitable waters of the surrounding seas. His initial command consisted of a flotilla of second-hand, if not run-down, boats with local commanders given authority to seek assistance from Kriegsmarine aircraft and local German lifeboat rescue societies. By the following year his units were designated the Ships and Boats Group- an unusual situation of a Luftwaffe officer commanding a fleet of ships!

By 1938 it was apparent to Luftwaffe planners that war with Great Britain was on the horizon and that Luftwaffe crews would be routinely traversing the English Channel and North Sea to strike British targets. In the following year the Ships and Boats Group acquired twelve old Heinkel He 59 float planes which were painted white with Red Cross markings. The aircraft were modified with a floor hatch and extendable ladders as well as a hoist to help lift injured crews into the aircraft. Medical gear, respirators and electrically-heated sleeping bags were also fitted to the old biplane aircraft. Renamed the Seenotdienst (Air-Sea Rescue Service), the Heinkels went into action on 18 December 1939 not to rescue Luftwaffe crews, but downed RAF crews from a Vickers Wellington force that was badly mauled after a bombing attack on the port of Wilhemshaven.

The Seenotdienst's first aircraft, the Heinkel He 59.
As the Reich conquered the Low Countries and Denmark and Norway, Seenodienst units were established in those countries for the rescue of downed aircrews. With the fall of France in 1940, captured French aircraft were added to the Seenotdienst fleet along with larger and more capable Dornier Do 24 flying boats. With the massing of Luftwaffe units in France for the anticipated invasion of Britain, German fighter ace and commander Adolf Galland stressed the importance of water survival to his flight crews- even single seat fighters were equipped with a survival raft and Luftwaffe crews were trained to ditch their aircraft and use the rafts as opposed to RAF crews who were trained to bail out and rely on their life vests. In addition, Luftwaffe general Ernst Udet had a series of rescue buoys placed throughout the English Channel- the buoys could hold four men and were stocked with blankets, dry clothes, food, water, and flares. Painted bright yellow and nicknamed "Lobster Pots" by the RAF, through the Battle of Britain both British and German patrol boats would check on the buoys and unusually, kept them stocked as they knew the buoys could save any downed aircrew regardless if they were British or German. The Luftwaffe also pioneered the use of fluorescein green dye to stain the waters around downed aircrew so as to make their positions more visible to rescue aircraft. The Luftwaffe Seenotdienst also pioneered the idea of a rescue task force with Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin engine fighters assigned the task of escorting and protecting the Seenotdienst aircraft.

Between February and August of 1941, of the over 1200 air crews from both sides that went down in the North Sea and English Channel, 444 of them were saved by the Seenotdienst. Of those 444, 78 were RAF crews. With painful awareness that British efforts were severely lacking in air-sea rescue during the Battle of Britain, in 1941 the RAF Coastal Command set about improving its air rescue capability and would use the Seenotdienst as a model. With the expansion of the US Army Air Forces in Britain, the RAF Coastal Command in turn assisted the United States in developing its air sea rescue capabilities.

Source: Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia by Earl H. Tilford, Jr. Center for Air Force History, 1992, p3-6.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. Thank you for another great post!