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.