Formed at Gorleston-on-Sea on the Norfolk coast in the early years of World War Two, No.24 Air Sea Rescue Unit (24ASRU) of the Royal Air Force Marine Branch was responsible for one of the busiest stretches of water in the European theatre of war. At the time East Anglia was home to the main Allied bomber force and the skies above Gorleston, at the mouth of the river Yare, gateway to the Norfolk Broads, were seldom silent.
Thousands of Allied aircraft – the Americans by day, the British by night – took off from their home airfields to attack targets in Nazi-occupied Europe and Germany, but in order to do so they first had to cross the North Sea, running the gauntlet of enemy fighter aircraft and numerous ship and shore-based flak batteries before reaching mainland Europe.
If the Allied airmen were lucky enough not to be shot down over their targets they would have to face the same ordeal again on the homeward leg, and this second North Sea crossing often proved too much for damaged aircraft. If the pilot successfully ‘ditched’ the aircraft in one piece, the crew would have only minutes to transfer to tiny life-rafts before their aircraft sank, leaving them at the mercy of the cold and the waves, adrift in a vast stretch of open water with only a few hours to live if they were not rescued.
It was now that the 'crash boats' of units such as 24ASRU Gorleston came into their own. Built using traditional methods in the shipyards of the Norfolk Broads, these wooden-hulled high-speed launches (HSLs) would put to sea in all weathers to search the survivors.
Their hard-working crews had to contend not only with the volatile weather for which the North Sea is famous but also enemy E-boats and aircraft, which would attempt to sink them on sight. Theirs was a difficult and dangerous job, carried out with stoical courage, and in the course of the war many hundreds of stranded airmen came to owe them their lives.
In charting the history of 24ASRU and paying tribute to the bravery of its personnel ~ several of whom were killed in the line of duty ~ this book ensures that their important wartime contribution, and that of similar air sea rescue outfits, is placed on permanent record.