The Rescue of a B-24 Crew After
Ditching in the North Sea

A Personal Account by a Member of
the British Air-Sea Rescue Service

By Don Mackintosh

The time was Summer 1944 -- I cannot give a more precise date -- when I was on patrol one day in RML (Rescue Motor Launch) 512, thirty miles off England's East Anglian coast. Early in the morning, we had watched a large formation of B-24 Liberator bombers flying a few miles south of our position on a north-easterly course towards their German target. Some time later, P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, in pairs, came speeding along the same flight path, to rendezvous with the bomber force over enemy territory, and provide a defence against German fighter aircraft. For the next three or four hours, we would have little to do but wait, while keeping a constant radio watch to pick up any distress ("Mayday") calls from the strike force, and ever, with guns manned, prepared to defend ourselves against a sneak attack from a marauding enemy aircraft.

Around noon, the first "Mayday" calls came over the radio -- far away, faint and confused. Gradually they died away. We never found out why. Many possibilities went through our minds, some we preferred not to dwell on. However, on this occasion, there was one call that persisted, and grew stronger and clearer. Control headquarters ashore responded with course instructions that would take the casualty to a track where rescue craft would be most able to respond quickly should it have to ditch. Alternatively, the plane might remain airborne long enough for it to be guided to a friendly airfield. We could only await developments, and make our preparations should we be called into action. Still the "Mayday" calls kept coming, and increased in strength all the time.

Meantime the main bomber force passed us, three or four miles to the east on a south-westerly course, heading for a landfall on the Suffolk coast. If the plane in trouble followed the same flight path, it too would pass through our sector -- if it got that far. I decided that this was the most likely of the pilot's options, although our sector covered about a thousand square miles, and he could enter it at any point and come nowhere near us. I decided to play my hunch and close the gap between our patrol station and the presumed flight path. The "Mayday" call was by this time almost overpowering over the radio. The plane must be very close.

It was. I had only been on the move for a few minutes when a lookout shouted "Aircraft Red Four Five. Low!". That meant that there was an aircraft low in the sky forty five degrees off the port (left hand) bow. There, to the north-east and clearly visible to the naked eye, were three specks against the sky, low over the water. Through binoculars these showed up as a B-24 Liberator, with a P-47 Thunderbolt on either side as escort. Nearer still, and it could be seen that the Liberator had no power on the engines, and that the plane was on a long low glide. It was simply the speed of the descent that enabled the pilot to keep his plane airborne for long enough to be able to make a successful touchdown on the water. His, and his aircraft's, ordeal ended when, after skimming the wave tops for a short distance, the plane eventually hit the water on an even keel, sending up a great wave of spray which completely hid it.

We were, by then, a little more than a mile away, and the plane had ditched right ahead of us. In the seconds it took the disturbed water to subside, the plane had disappeared, and in its place were men floating among the waves. Two men were clinging to a wheel, but there was no other wreckage. The plane's dinghy, which should have surfaced, had not done so. But for our being on the spot and able to take the survivors on board, they would have had to wait for a rescue boat to reach them, and shock and hypothermia would almost certainly have taken lives. It is a tribute to the Air-Sea Rescue control ashore for their deployment of the rescue boats along the bombers' flight path, and the skill and courage of the Liberator pilot and crew in keeping airborne for long enough for us to be able to reach them so quickly.

However, there was one casualty. Before we radioed details of the rescue to base, I took a last look at the apparently untroubled sea, and I saw, almost alongside, the body of an airman floating upright just beneath the surface. Our crew got a line around him and hauled him aboard, where our paramedic spent a long time trying resuscitation, but it was hopeless. Quick though the rescue had been, this casualty must have been under water for all of fifteen minutes. Meantime, the fighter escorts were circling the area where the Liberator had gone down, but when we arrived on the scene one of them flew off to continue its patrol. The other followed after I had given details of the pick-up over the R/T.

After I had passed the same information by radio to our own base, together with our estimated time of return, I had a chance to make personal contact with the survivors, now sitting in the officers' cabin - wardroom. Off-watch members of my crew had helped them to dry off after they had shed their soaked flying gear, and had provided them with survivors' clothing that we carried, comprising sailors' navy-blue trousers, thick white roll-neck jerseys, and footwear. Not elegant, but warm and dry. They had also been given hot drinks, and, if they wanted it, a tot of rum. The men were very subdued as they came to realise that they were now safe after having suffered a nightmare ordeal. However I learned from the pilot, their skipper, that they had had a massive loss of fuel, probably caused by damage to the supply system through enemy action.

I told him how sorry we were at the loss of one of his crew. The man had evidently stayed at his action station, instead of joining the rest of the crew in the position prescribed for minimising fatalities and injuries, and had probably been either killed or knocked unconscious by the impact when the plane struck the water. Dead or unconscious, he had gone down with the plane.

When we reached our base, transport and an ambulance from the USAAF were waiting on the quayside. Stretcher-bearers came aboard to take the dead airman away, and the survivors collected their flying gear and went ashore. We hoisted our White Ensign, which had been flown at half-mast as a salute to the dead, and we got ready for our next patrol.