Air Force Marine Craft :: Air/Sea Rescue Service
"The sea shall not have them"
> Units and Formations
Updated: 7 Aug 04
The maritime dimension to the RAF began with the 238 motor boats it inherited from the RNAS and RFC on 1 Apr 1918. They were used for general duties in support of floatplanes, including refuelling and crew ferrying. Acting as rescue boats was merely an additional duty into which they had been pressed ad-hoc.
Air Sea Rescue services were organised in May 1940 when the modern motor craft were based around flying boat bases in the UK and abroad. T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was involved in planning the 200 Class Seaplane Tender (37½ ft and capable of 27 kts) which was delivered from 1932. It developed into the standard RAF ASR Service vessel, the 100 Class High-Speed Launch (HSL)
The ASR Service proved its value to doubters during the Battle of Britain when over 200 airmen were killed or went missing in the seas around England. OC 11 Group initiated the co-ordination of aircrew rescues with the ASR HSL launches. The Air/Sea Rescue service was then officially constituted in Feb 1941. Its first official action was at Dieppe in Aug 1942 when ASR launches saved many aircrew but lost 3 launches and 20 men to German attack.
As the RAF's priority switched from the air defence of Great Britain to strategic heavy bombing of Germany, so the ASR priorities switched from single fighter pilots downed in the English Channel to larger bomber crews in the North Sea. Fighter Command maintained responsibility for offshore resuce while Coastal Command took over the 'deep search' with its long-range aircraft. This led to the development of items such as airborne lifeboats which could be dropped to crews. These 27-ft craft were a step change over the single-seat dinghies and came equipped with petrol engines, radio, homing beacons and water distilling equipment. The arrival of USAAF bomber crews, which were larger, meant that larger lifeboats were designed to be dropped from Flying Fortresses.
After hostilities ended ASR services were rapidly downsized. HSL were redesignated as Rescue/Target-Towing Launches (RTTL). Then in 1948 all RAF vessels over 68 ft were redesignated HMAFV (His Majesty's Air Force Vessel), an honour the preserve of the Royal Navy, permitting them to fly the Union Flag.
At around the same time, the RAF element of the combined Air Sea Rescue Service was formed into a separate arm of the RAF known as the RAF Marine Branch. The Marine Branch survived until well after the introduction of the helicopter, which begain in 1953 with 275 Sqn equipped with the Bristol Sycamore. The last unit was not disbanded until April 1986. The Branch was then privatised with its few maritime activities contracted out to civilian organisations.
Sycamore helicopter of the RAF Marine Branch
ASR lives on in the RAF in the expanded role of Search and Rescue (SAR), now catering to rescue on the mountains as well. SAR cover is provided by 22 Sqn and 202 Sqn Sea King, 771 Naval Air Sqn Sea King and HM Coastguard chartered Bristow.
For some key dates in the development of aerial rescue and air sea rescue, consult the key dates page.
RAF Air Sea Rescue history on RAF website
Key dates in ASR
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