RAF Coastal Command played a pivotal role in the Allied war effort, most notably against Hitler's U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic – a role which has been largely obscured by the more famous achievements of Fighter Command, and Bomber Command's costly and controversial offensive against German industry. Yet the war to protect Britain's Atlantic life-line and secure safe shipping routes for men and materiel from North America was perhaps the most important struggle of all.

From weak and feeble beginnings, and in the face of massive competition for resources, Coastal Command built a formidable force of anti-submarine aircraft. Armed with effective new weapons and the latest radar technology, these could hunt and attack U-boats by day or night, off Britain’s shores or out in the vast expanses of the Atlantic Ocean.

Coastal Command patrolled a vast area of the Atlantic from the Arctic Circle to North Africa – some ten million square miles of ocean. To extend its reach, squadrons were based at Gibraltar, Iceland, West Africa and in the Azores.

A small number of long-range aircraft made a huge difference in the convoy battles, which was fortunate as Coastal Command was denied its fair share of home-grown aircraft.


Daily inspection for a Liberator III of No 224 Squadron

A Liberator Mark III of No.224 Squadron undergoes a daily inspection by ground staff at Beaulieu in Hampshire, December 1942. The American-built Consolidated Liberator was Coastal Command's most effective anti-submarine aircraft. 

Instead, it relied mostly on American-built Liberators, Catalinas and Flying Fortresses, and the obsolescent cast-offs from RAF Bomber Command. Ironically, aircraft numbers only reached satisfactory levels after the Battle of the Atlantic had been won, but U-boats were pursued until the very end of the war.    


Operations Room at Coastal Command Headquarters at Eastbury Park, Northwood, Middlesex

Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) plotters and clerks record the details of convoy movements and the positions of individual warships, aircraft and U-boats in the Operations Room at Coastal Command HQ at Eastbury Park, near London, in 1944. The tapes on the map indicate the various patrol areas covered by RAF aircraft. 

A lesser-known facet of Coastal Command's war was its campaign against German shipping operating along the coast of occupied Europe. After a costly and ineffective start, Coastal Command's offensive arm grew strong, so that in the last year of the war the powerful Beaufighter and Mosquito Strike Wings halted much of Germany's traffic of raw materials.

Related Content

Airborne troops of 6th Airlanding Brigade admire the graffiti chalked on the side of their Horsa glider at an RAF airfield as they prepare to fly out to Normandy as part of 6th Airborne Division's second lift on the evening of 6 June 1944.
© IWM (H 39178)

How D-Day Was Fought From The Air

Shortly after midnight on 6 June, over 18,000 men of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 6th Airborne Division were dropped into Normandy. Allied paratroopers and glider-borne infantry were well trained and highly skilled, but for many this was their first experience of combat. 

Consolidated B-24H Liberators of 486th Bombardment Group, US Eighth Air Force, flying over part of the Allied invasion fleet gathered off the Normandy coast, 6 June 1944. They were part of a force of 380 aircraft of 3rd Bombardment Division despatched on the morning of D-Day to bomb villages through which access roads ran to the beachheads.
© IWM EA 25713

7 Amazing Photos of D-Day from the Air

Discover a collection of amazing bird's eye photographs of the fateful day in Normandy.

Handley Page Hampden of No. 83 Squadron with crew, seated on a loaded bomb trolley at Scampton, 2 October 1940.
© IWM HU 104656
Battle of Britain

How Bomber Command Helped Win The Battle Of Britain

The RAF's victory over the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 made a German invasion of Britain all but impossible. In his book Bomber Offensive, published in 1947, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris wrote that all the credit for preventing the invasion of Britain had been given to Fighter Command.