Library Reference Number: 036
Memoirs of a Coastal Command Pilot: 1939-1946
The author of this 30-page Book is WIO Wilfred J.L. Hall, R.A.F.V.R., better known as our branch colleague Wilf Hall who sadly died earlier this year. Mrs Hall, herself a former member of the WRNS, informs us that following her husband's heart operation, she knew he would need something to occupy his time and we are indeed fortunate that he accepted her sound advice and after many hours spent at his typewriter, completed the book in 1999. Mrs Hall has very kindly agreed to allow us to extract some of the book's content for this website in the hope it may rekindle aircrew memories of other branch members.
Readers will discover from the book that Wilfred J.L. Hall was born in Pittsburgh, USA on 10th November, 1917. His mother being English and father Scottish, this dual nationality produced many problems later in his service life. Because the USA was not at war when Wilf volunteered for the RAF at 3.30 pm on 3rd September 1939, his application was passed from the Air Ministry in London to the American Embassy. Wilf was informed he could only join the RAF if he was prepared to renounce his American nationality. Even having done so at this early stage in his service career, he was approached towards the end of his flying training in the USA and offered a transfer from the RAF to becoming a US Navy pilot with an immediate award of a commission and obvious enhanced financial benefits. Turning this offer down, Wilf was again apprehended after gaining his "US Naval Aviators Wings" at Pensacola. On this occasion, Wilf was preparing to return to UK to commence operational flying, when he was stopped by US Naval Police who informed him that as an American-born citizen, they had orders to return him to Pensacola as a pilot with the US Navy. After spending a night in a prison cell, Wilf managed to convince the US authorities (with the help of the RAF Delegation, Washington) that he no longer had allegiance to the USA.
Returning to UK, Wilf was posted to Little Risington home of 617 'Dambusters' Squadron for a period of multi-engined flying experience in war-time Britain, before being sent to an OTU at Alness on the Cromarty Firth. Here, he was introduced to the Sunderland. Wilf makes it very clear in his book, that although having lots of experience on Catalinas at Pensacola, his real aircraft love was for the Sunderland Flying Boat. He goes on to state "Serving in a Sunderland flying-boat was an unique experience and those of us who were involved in any way with this splendid aircraft will always regret the day it had to be withdrawn from service." Wilf continues "When considering the role of the Sunderland flying-boat in the U-boat conflict it is important to appreciate how vital it was to keep British merchant ships afloat. The country was by no means self-sufficient in food and raw materials. Under threat from an enemy in wartime, the country's very survival depended on adequate protection being given to her ships when they were transporting not only food but also the military materials and equipment needed for the effective conduct of the war."
Wilf certainly experienced his share of escorting and protecting convoys of Allied shipping bringing essential supplies to Britain, and these he recalls in his usual modest manner. He also brings several interesting anecdotes into his book. For example,during his initial training, German aircraft came over in January 1940 and dropped 40 bombs at Driffield Airfield where he was stationed. Another account he recalls was being in civilian billets awaiting a sea passage to USA. The German wife of the ex-army officer landlord remarked on seeing Will's kitbag code markings "Oh, I see by the code they have given you, that you are about to embark on the 'Oueen Mary' for your Atlantic crossing." - - So much for wartime secrecy!
It emerges from the book that Wilf had a great deal of respect and admiration for his aircrew comrades in Fighter & Bomber Commands in their well-defined roles. He was proud to point out however, that his beloved Sunderlands played a major rolein maintaining a life-line for supplies to Britain in the face of the U-boat conflict. He states:- "For our success there was a price to pay and although Coastal Command was considerably smaller than Fighter and Bomber Commands their losses were, by comparison, very heavy. From 1939 to 1945 there were over 10,000 airmen in Coastal Command who lost their lives, and it is a sacrifice we must never forget."
Wilf describes some of the hazards which occurred during his many long (12 hour plus) convoy escorts and U-boat searches. After many hours, a cigar-shape radar blip or a periscope would suddenly bring all the crew to instant 'action stations.' It was extremely difficult to claim a U-boat had been 'destroyed' but on several occasions while based in West Africa, Wilf had experiences of straddling U-boats with depth charges, observing oil slicks coming from the submarine which would then dive suddenly to avoid flirther conflict. These cases were officially recorded as "possibly damaged." On one occasion on patrol,Wilf was about 200 miles south-east of Lagos, West Africa, when without warning the inboard port propeller detached itself and travelled forward and sideways cutting through the hull. On making an emergency landing at Lagos, it was discovered the loss of the airscrew had been the result of enemy fire from a U-boat they had attacked earlier.
On another operation, a large ship was observed in the Atlantic fully-lit and displaying a 'Red Cross.' Checking his briefing notes, Wilf realised there was no gen of a Hospital Ship in that area. After challenging this vessel and flying low over its bow, suddenly trap-doors opened up, and anti-aircraft guns pened fire on the Sunderland. After contacting Naval Intelligence at Freetown, the 'Hospital Ship' was captured by the Navy, and proved to be a German submarine supply ship. Wilf received a commendation for his part in uncovering this vessel which had been supporting U-boats sinking Allied shipping.
A copy of this Book has been kindly donated to our Branch Library by Mrs Isobel Hall. We share with Mrs Hall the wish, that many other branch members may be encouraged by her husband's achievement in transferring his aircrew memories into print. The Press Notice for E. Fortune stated "There is a growing awareness that time is running out to record these events before being completely lost." Even if not a complete book, - a few 'aircrew experiences' for our Newsletter would be very welcome!