SEENOTRETTUNGSDIENST AUS DER LUFT
The U.S./British rescue organization was not the only one operating in the dangerous waters separating Britain from occupied Europe.
The opposition, in the form of the Luftwaffe, also provided an efficient service, sometimes in competition for the same customers. The Germans were, in fact, quicker off the mark than the British. Although Luftwaffe planners committed some enormous errors in putting together an air force to support a 1,000 year Reich, they had early on realized the importance of a sea rescue service. As a consequence, the SEENOTRETUNGSDIRNST AUS DER LUFT (Air Sea Emergency Rescue Service) had units on station in 1940, equipped with a combination of air and sea craft. These units had one important advantage over their early British counterparts from the very beginning they operated aircraft able to take off and land from the open sea. The most widely used aircraft in the early days was the He 59, a rather handsome twin-engine, twin-float biplane, painted white with large red crosses. These were initially crewed by civilians, which probably accounts for the civil registrations they carried. Later when the channel war got nastier, and rescue aircraft became combatants, they were camouflaged and flown by Luftwaffe crews. The He 59 was eventually at least supplemented by the more effective Do 18, Do 24, and the French-built Brequet Bizerte, all flying boats.
Regardless of who fired first, rescue boats and aircraft of both sides were fired on and the crews killed. Both sides began providing fighter escort, which sometimes resulted in combat between the two, and more aircrews in the water!
The above has been only a brief overview of the much neglected and fascinating subject of ASR in the deadly waters of the Channel and the North Sea.
This not being a history of the 357th Fighter Group, we will provide only a brief sketch of the unit as background for the story of it's members who survived a bailout into the English Channel or the North Sea.
After training on P-39's in the ZI (Zone of the Interior - the U.S.) the Group arrived in the United Kingdom in the late fall of 1943. There was a brief interlude at Raydon Wood Airfield before the 1,000 men of the Group took up permanent residence at Station F-373, near the town of Leiston in the eastern county of Suffolk surrounded by a vast complex of airfields housing hordes of bombers and fighters of the Eighth Air Force. It was the first Mustang equipped group in the 8th Fighter Command, and in the remaining months of the war, it was the fastest scoring unit in that command, second only to the great Hub Zemke's 56th Group in total victories. The 56th ended up with some 60 more victories, but had been in combat much longer.
The 357th became operational on 11 February 1944, just in time to fly a few familiarization missions before being catapulted headlong into the Eighth's assault on the German Aircraft industry, known ever since as "The Big Week."
The Spring and summer of 1944 were to signal the beginning of the end for the Luftwaffe, and to show the size of the Eighth's effort, and the intensity of combat, a few figures are in order.
During "Big Week", 20th to 25th February, the 8th launched almost 2800 bomber sorties, and some 3800 fighters. Operational on the 11th of February, by the end of the month, it's pilots had claimed 21 enemy aircraft destroyed, and ten 357th pilots were gone - dead, missing, or POW. It was only the beginning of an incredible 14 months.
During those approximately 14 months of combat, about 28 357th pilots crashed, or bailed out over the waters of the English Channel or the North Sea. The number is approximate because others went missing and were never found and some of these may also have gone to a watery grave. Of these 28 men, there were nine rescues. Of the nine occurrences, one man was rescued twice, and two were picked up by the Germans. Of the eight men involved three are known to be alive and have contributed to this narrative.
On the 13th of February 1944, the Group had not yet encountered the enemy and this day was to be no different. Lt. Col. Don Blakeslee, on loan from the 4th Fighter Group, and an experienced combat pilot, led the 43 neophyte Mustang pilots on a leisurely 3-hour afternoon tour of France. Blakelsee's brief summary reported:
"L/F (Land Fall) in east of Dieppe 1445 at 22,000. Patrolled Dieppe, Rouen, Abbeville until crossed out east of the Dieppe at 21,000 at 1620. Bomber seen to explode near Abbeville at 1526 no chutes. Parker garbled. (Parker was the code sign for the fighter controller.) Lt. R. W. Brown bailed out near English coast and was later rescued."
This was Lt. Robert W. Brown's first, and last combat mission, and the end of his operational career.
When the 357th arrived in the early winter of 1943, it took up station for a brief 2 months at Raydon Wood Airfield, where a few P-51s were assigned and pilot training began before the Group's move to Leiston.
Fifty-one years later, Brown remembers: "At Raydon I got 10 hours in the '51 and on a training mission the Wash, got my only kill - flew into a flock of ducks and put a dent in the wing root. On 13 February, I finally got my chance to fly from Leiston, but never landed there."
As with many rescue incidents, there is much we do not know. However, in this case the European edition of Yank, the weekly newspaper, ran a feature article on the medical saga of R. W. Brown, in the usual flamboyant fashion. We quote from that publication:
"First Lieutenant Robert W. Brown Jr, of Baton Rouge, LA, was returning quite happily from his first mission in the European theater of Operations in his P-51 Mustang fighter. He had been over France and now, 20,000 feet over the cold gray North Sea and headed for England and a hot dinner, things seemed all right with the world, or at least with that particular segment of it that pertained to Lt. Brown. Suddenly without warning the smooth purr of the Merlin engine faltered and then failed. Quit cold for no reason whatsoever. One minute it had been humming on all cylinders, the next it was a dead bird."
In a December, 1945 letter to the author, Brown recalls: "After my engine quit I tried restarting. It didn't. Made calls on the two channels that I was bailing out. Rolled the plane over and came half way out. Plane now diving. I am falling and remember to pull the ripcord. It was so quiet. I could hear a plane but did not see it. Inflated Mae West and remember caution about releasing chute buckle before hitting water. Short time later I saw a launch and tried, but failed to get the whistle (for signaling) from my pocket. Next I remember lying on a deck freezing.
Brown's bailout was not a textbook exit however, as he hit some part of the airframe, probably the tail, with damage to his legs which plague him for years. He had dropped into the water off Clacton-On-Sea. We quote from the Yank article:
"Though it sounds like a mere few minutes of excitement was Lt. Brown tells it, actually more that a half-hour elapsed between the time he dropped into the sea in his Mae West life jacket, and the time the crew of the RAF launch hauled him from the water, half conscious, numb with cold, suffering from shock and considerable loss of blood. That was 10 minutes longer that nay man had ever cast about in the North Sea in winter, and liver to tell about it. Twenty minutes of that paralyzing cold, they said, was the limit that any man - healthy and uninjured - could endure."
RAF Coastal Command weekly ASR records for that period, report: "ARB (Air Rescue Boat) #4 picked up "66 USAAF (Sawston Hall) pilot" 4 miles SE Clacton at 1658. Pilot rescued had broken both legs. Lifeboat also sent out."
The reference to "66 (Sawston Hall)" refers to 66th Fighter Wing, which was the 357th Group's parent unit. Its headquarters were at Sawston Hall.
When the RAF launch arrived in port he was taken to the nearest hospital, a very small eight-bed facility at Clacton-On-Sea. The rest of the Brown story is a medical one, well told in the Yank article. The British nurses and doctors kept him alive until U.S. Army doctors arrived 2 days later, along with the first of 11 army nurses which would take over from the British staff. On the 17th day after his bailout Brown came out of his coma and two days later he was strong enough to begin a lengthy Journey through a series of army hospitals, culminating in his return to the ZI, and eventually his release from the Army Air Forces. Robert Brown's first mission had been a long and painful one, but he survived his ordeal in the sea, when many did not.