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The Short Sunderland at War – Sentinel of the Sea-lanes

If you were to ask most people to think of important aircraft from the Second World War, they would probably include such classics as the Supermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109 and North American Mustang in their shortlist. It would be highly unlikely that many would include the distinctive Short Sunderland flying boat, even though this aircraft is certainly deserving of consideration – in the latest edition of Aerodrome, we take a closer look at the Sunderland and why it should have a much higher profile.
As an island nation, Britain has a long and illustrious history of seafaring prowess and as Europe was plunging inexorably towards conflict in the 1930s, protection of both the British Empire and her seaborne supply lanes was going to be of critical importance. Although Britain possessed hugely powerful naval forces, it was clear that air power would now play a pivotal role in the conflict to come and a long-range maritime patrol aircraft was an absolute priority. Fortunately, Britain already had a very successful flying boat template in service, which could easily be developed to fill this new military patrol aircraft role.

The Short S.23 Empire flying boat has to be considered as one of the most visually appealing four-engined aircraft ever to take to the skies. Flying passenger and mail services to the colonies in Africa and Australia, these beautiful flying boats were the flagship aircraft of Imperial Airways and were a source of fascination for the British public, who could only dream of taking one of these spectacular flights, which were purely the domain of the rich and influential. The aircraft itself was only capable of quite modest flight ranges, which probably helped to promote the enigma of this service – there would be frequent stops on the way, with the opportunity to overnight in some rather interesting and exotic places. Unfortunately, no such luxuries would be required for the new military version of the flying boat, although crews would do their very best to make them a home from home.

Britain’s military flying boat takes shape

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Using the successful S.23 Empire flying boat as a template, Short Brothers Ltd extensively re-designed the aircraft for a new military role, with endurance, offensive and defensive armament all becoming critical considerations. The profile of the aircraft was highly distinctive, but was very much the result of necessity – there was a deep hull, which had a noticeable step incorporated, which was designed to allow the aircraft to lift off from the water more easily. The huge wings were set high on the aircraft’s fuselage, which allowed as much distance as possible between the water and the engines and control surfaces, thus reducing the possibility of damage. As control of this large aircraft on the water proved to be quite problematic, there were also large stabilizing floats beneath each wing tip, which were attached by two strong struts, supported by a network of wire bracing and were again designed to aid operation of the aircraft whilst on the water. The crew would control the aircraft whilst on water by traditional rudder and aileron flight control inputs, but also by use of a pair of large sea drogues, which could be manually extended from the galley hatches after landing, but normally stowed in the fuselage of the aircraft. Operation of these drogues could be quite hazardous and was very much dependant on the sheer strength and dexterity of the crew.

The fuselage of the new aircraft housed two decks, with a host of internal features. There were up to six crew bunks, a fully equipped galley, with twin stoves and even a yacht style porcelain toilet, to support crews on their long patrol missions. The hull also housed an anchoring winch, weapons compartment and even a small workshop, which would allow the crew to attempt any number of inflight repairs, whenever required. Should the new flying boat need to be hauled ashore, a specially designed set of beaching gear could be attached to the aircraft, but certainly to the determent of the stunning good looks of a waterborne flying boat. A pair of large and substantial twin wheeled struts, could be attached on either side of the fuselage, below the wing, with an additional special trolley and tow bar attached under the rear section of the aircraft – the aircraft could now be unceremoniously pulled onto dry land.

Importantly, this new aircraft was designed from the outset as a military aircraft and it had to possess a significant offensive capability, in order that it was able to effectively protect Allied shipping from seaborne attack. It would have to carry bombs, mines and depth charges, along with a seemingly ever-increasing array of machine gun armament – the mighty Short Sunderland flying boat was about to embark on its celebrated military career.

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What was it like to serve on as Sunderland flying boat crew?

As you may well imagine, much has been written about the Short Sunderland and how it helped to protect Allied sea-lanes against both U-boat and aerial attack. That being the case, I thought that it might be slightly more interesting to consider what it must have been like to serve on board a Sunderland flying boat, during WWII – let’s see how we go on!

Having already enjoyed a hearty breakfast, the Sunderland crew would gather in the briefing room, to collate information for the long mission to come. The standard mission profile for a Sunderland crew would be that of long-range maritime patrol, during which they had to be prepared for anything that they might come across – this could involve rescuing sailors from torpedoed vessels, attacking marauding U-boats, or even challenging enemy aircraft. As these missions were conducted over incredibly large expanses of water, they were particularly perilous for the crews, who quite literally had to be prepared for anything. One of the most visible manifestations of this preparation was in the flying gear that the crew would wear – it made them look twice their actual size! With warm flight jackets, mae-wests and waterproof boots, the crew of a Sunderland certainly had some weight to lug around with them.

As a Sunderland maritime patrol could be as long as thirteen hours in duration, there would be quite an amount of stores required to be loaded onto the aircraft for a mission, which was a rather delicate operation. Loaded manually, using a small boat to the side hatch of the aircraft’s fuselage, great care had to be taken, as even the slightest damage to the side of the aircraft could class it as unserviceable and with Sunderlands being very much in demand at this time of the war, someone could be for the chop! Even the slightest sea swell could have rendered this operation highly hazardous.

As well as the machine guns, ammunition, depth charges and bombs that you would expect to be needed on the average Sunderland patrol sortie, there were also such things as additional crew clothing, blankets, food and drink, fuel for the cooker, binoculars, toilet paper and pigeons, that all had to be stowed aboard the aircraft! It was a good job that the hull of the Sunderland was particularly cavernous!

As the pilot and co-pilot prepared the aircraft for flight, other crew-members would empty the bilge tanks, using either the APU powered pump, or if this was not available, pumping it out manually. The four mighty Bristol Pegasus engines would spring into life and the moorings released, as the pilot lined up the aircraft for take-off. It is accepted that take off and landing are the most difficult phases of any flight and I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to pilot this mighty aircraft into the air, from a watery runway. It would have been heavy with fuel and supplies, trying to get airborne from water that was invariably less than calm and literally clinging at the hull, trying to prevent it from breaking the surface. Once in the air, the Sunderland really did become a highly reliable, self-contained fighting machine – the crew could now begin to settle in for a very long and arduous sortie.

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The long-range maritime patrol mission was a unique challenge for the WWII aviator. They were conducted over large expanses of water, often out of contact from any other friendly forces, with little chance of rescue should you develop a problem during the flight. There were clearly many opportunities for the aircraft to experience difficulties during a patrol, from either mechanical failure, pilot disorientation, or as a result of contact with the enemy, even though many patrols would have been relatively uneventful. Despite this, crews would have to be ready to spring into action immediately, with the slightest notice – they had to stay alert throughout the entirety of the mission.

With water extending as far as the eye could see in every direction, the crew would be scanning the ocean, trying to catch a glimpse of anything that would give away the position of a German U-boat, which would have more often than not, already been alerted to the presence of the aircraft. If the U-boat was travelling on the surface and attempting to re-charge its batteries, there would possibly be the opportunity for the Sunderland crew to launch an effective attack, even though you might only have time for a single pass. Unfortunately, a well-drilled U-boat crew could initiate a submersion in less than thirty seconds and if you did not spot them in time, they would be free to continue their reign of terror and destruction on Allied shipping. Even more difficult than this, the Sunderland crew could be searching this huge expanse of water for something as innocuous as the wake from a submerged U-boat periscope, then immediately needing to load bombs, or depth charges and commence an attack.

Another critically important mission profile for the Sunderland crew was that of rescuing stricken sailors, who were victims of torpedo attack. This is again, not quite as simple a task as you might imagine – the aircraft could be forced to land on some very heavy seas and dependant on the number of men they had to pick up, could have a significant weight increase in the aircraft, which would make it much more difficult to get back in the air. It would also require the engines to work much harder, burning precious fuel at a much faster rate. Indeed, this action was so potentially hazardous that crews were expressly forbidden from landing on open water, unless in special circumstances. This must have been a terribly difficult order to follow, particularly if you could actually see sailors struggling in the cold and unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic.

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At the end of any long patrol mission, having successfully navigated back to your home base in all weathers, the pilot of the Sunderland simply had to bring this mighty aircraft back for a landing on home water. Already being physically and mentally exhausted from the exertions of the flight, landing this beast on water would have been a challenge at the best of times and it was highly likely that the water was not flat calm – these young men must have been very impressive people indeed!

The Short Sunderland – a real home from home

One of the most interesting aspects of Short Sunderland operation is how the crews that served on it actually perceived the aircraft. Being equipped with portholes, bilges and an anchor, the Sunderland was clearly a boat first and an aircraft second, which seems to be quite an odd statement. The sheer size of the hull made it rather a comfortable aircraft in which to go to war and crews grew attached to their aircraft, to the point that most would modify and adapt it to their own personal specifications. Many Sunderlands were almost unique in their internal construction, due to the crew adapting it to their own particular preferences. As well as the fully equipped galley, many Sunderlands would have wash basins, shaving mirrors, a rather nice collection of crockery and cooking utensils and in some cases, even the hanging of curtains! When the aircraft was moored, many crews preferred to stay on their aircraft, as it was almost viewed as home and at least two crew members were required to stay on board at all times – in windy conditions, the pilot also had to be on board, just in case the aircraft had to be manoeuvred into wind, to prevent damage.

When asked, I think that most people will probably regard the Battle of Britain as the most significant victory that British forces achieved during WWII, but without doubt, the Battle of the Atlantic was absolutely crucial in Britain eventually managing to prevail. Even though it did not have the range to actually close the Atlantic gap completely, the Short Sunderland was an extremely important weapon in trying to combat the U-boat menace and keep Britain fighting. It took part in savage, maritime combat and helped to ensure the Allied sea-lanes remained open.

The legend of the ‘Fliegendes Stachelschwein’

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One of the most significant attributes of the Short Sunderland was its ability to defend itself. This large aircraft was often operating far from land and without the security of any Allied fighter protection whatsoever – it must have made a juicy target for any roaming German aircraft. The early Sunderlands suffered quite badly at the hands of the Luftwaffe, but crews quickly learned how to adapt their aircraft to give a better account of themselves. Defensive armament was constantly upgraded, throughout the service life of the Sunderland and crews would also load additional machine-guns into the aircraft, which could be used for extra punch, in the event of an engagement.

If attacked, any crew member not involved in immediately defending the aircraft would grab one of these spare guns, open one of the hull hatches and spray the attacking aircraft with bullets. This hail of fire often caught out the attacking aircraft and led to the Luftwaffe christening the Sunderland ‘Fliegendes Stachelschwein’, which translates roughly as ‘The Flying Porcupine’ – it is also thought that this could have been attributed to the large array of aerials and antennae which protruded from the aircraft’s fuselage, like spikes. Whatever the reason, the Luftwaffe quickly learned to treat the Short Sunderland with respect.

 

The Royal Australian Air Force and the Sunderland

I always find it quite surprising that airmen from the other side of the World were fully engaged in flying Sunderland flying boats against the U-boat menace in the North Atlantic. These men and machines were absolutely vital for Britain’s survival in the early stages of WWII and dictate that the Sunderland is forever linked with RAAF units and airmen. For Britain, it was most fortuitous that Australia had two squadrons of Sunderland flying boats under construction in the UK, at the outbreak of WWII and not only did Australia allow the aircraft to be committed to the defence of UK waters, they also committed their Australian crews to the cause.

At around the same time, the Empire Aircrew Training Scheme was established, to ensure that the RAF would have a steady supply of new aircrew in the months and years to come – it was clear that they would be sorely needed. Large numbers of Commonwealth aircrew would receive training in their home countries, before heading for Canada and advanced training, then operational conversion with RAF Units in Britain. This ensured that a great many Australian and Commonwealth aircrew saw action in the skies above Europe, throughout the entirety of WWII.

 

Short Sunderland EJ134 ‘N for Nuts’ – RAAF Junkers Ju-88 killer

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On 2nd June 1943, Sunderland N/461 ‘N for Nuts’ took off from its home base at Pembroke Dock, in Wales and set off on a routine anti-submarine patrol, over the Bay of Biscay. Once they arrived over their patrol station, they were instructed to keep a look out for survivors from a KLM/BOAC civil airliner (actually a camouflaged Douglas DC-3) that had been shot down by Luftwaffe heavy fighters, whilst en route from Lisbon to Britain. The attack on this airliner has been shrouded in various conspiracy theories over the years, but it was clearly a determined effort by the Luftwaffe to bring down an un-armed civilian aircraft, as they sent a number of Junkers Ju-88C heavy fighters to intercept it.

On board the KLM DC-3 was famous British actor Leslie Howard, who you may remember as the star and director of the film ‘The First of the Few’, which marked the life of R.J Mitchell and his famous Spitfire fighter. Howard was also an extremely successful British propagandist, who was reputedly loathed by German Propaganda Minister, Dr Josef Goebbels, which is one of the leading theories behind a motive for the attack. Another theory concerns the fact that British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was travelling through the Mediterranean at the time, en route to a meeting in Gibraltar and the Germans thought he might be on board this civilian DC-3. The aircraft was using the same route it had taken without challenge, for the previous three years, but for whatever reason, the Luftwaffe attacked the DC-3 and all thirteen passengers and crew on board KLM flight 777 were lost. Sunderland ‘N for Nuts’ did not manage to spot any wreckage, but they certainly found the Ju-88s and were forced to fight for their lives!

The actions of the ‘Battle of Biscay’, on 2nd June 1943 are written in glory, in the annals of RAF Coastal Command and certainly go a long way to promoting the nickname of the ‘Flying Porcupine’. As the Sunderland approached the search area, the aircraft came under a concerted, almost frenzied attack by no less than eight Ju-88C heavy fighters – making numerous attack runs, the aircraft seemed determined on destroying the Sunderland, no matter what the detriment to their own numbers. Their first attack destroyed the Sunderland’s port outer engine, with subsequent attacks inflicting significant additional damage to the aircraft and wounding several members of the crew. The Sunderland put up a stunning defence and had a nasty surprise for the Luftwaffe fighters – this was the first crew to carry an additional pair of .50 calibre machine guns on board, which they positioned through the galley hatches on both sides of the aircraft’s fuselage and brought to bear on the attacking fighters.

At the end of the 45 minute engagement and having endured at least twenty separate attack passes, the Sunderland was severely damaged and several crew members were injured, with one unfortunately killed. The guns of the Sunderland had fired over seven thousand rounds of ammunition at the attacking fighters and three Ju-88s had been shot down during the engagement. A further two had been severely damaged, probably crashing into the sea some time later, with the remaining fighters returning to base, more than likely riddled with numerous bullet holes. This particular porcupine had given a very good account of herself. Unfortunately, ‘N for Nuts’ was in pretty bad shape and more than three hundred miles from home – with no compass, radio, or airspeed indicator and fuel levels displaying as empty, the crew headed for home and prayed.

Short Sunderland EJ134 ‘N for Nuts’ managed to limp back to Britain, but not before the port outer engine’s propeller simply sheered off it’s mountings and fell in to the sea. The fuselage was riddled with more than five hundred bullet holes, but it managed to make it as far as Praa Sands, off the Cornish coast, where it ditched into the sea at around 11pm. Pilot Flight Lieutenant Colin Walker, took a series of famous photographs of the stricken aircraft, as it lay wrecked on the sands the following day – I am sure that he would have been thankful that he had been flying a Short Sunderland on that fateful mission. The astonishing actions of June 2nd 1943 resulted in the award of a DSO, a DFC, two DFMs, a posthumous commission and mentions in dispatches.

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