If you say loudly that Winston Churchill was a war criminal since 1899 when he shot at Boer fighters whilst being a “neutral war correspondent,” you will be attacked as a man in need of professional psychological help (as if such a thing exists, lol). But that and the incident below happened. Let me tell you the story which is repeated in Code Name Phantom and you can decide for yourself who is to blame. As I said in a previous blog, history is quite complex when not the schoolbook version and you are allowed to think for yourself.
The British Royal Air Force (RAF) was for the first two years of World War Two badly equipped to deal with fliers that went down in the English Channel. Whereas the Luftwaffe had compact inflatable dinghies even for single engine aircraft together with a bright green fluorescent dye to mark the spot (for rescue) the RAF had nothing of the kind. Only multi engine aircraft had some rescue/survival dinghies. This changed later but for the time, during the Battle of France, and then Britain, an RAF pilot going down would die of exposure/hypothermia within the hour unless extremely lucky. Sadly, at Dachau Concentration Camp, medical experiments would be done on prisoners/inmates to look at the effects of hypothermia – a subject that I discuss and condemn in Code Name VET 101. Enter Ernst Udet. He was the highest scoring German fighter pilot to survive World War One rated behind only the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Between the wars, he worked as a stunt pilot becoming even more famous. He is also reckoned as the man behind the dive bomber concept proved to be so effective. By World War Two he was Director-General of Equipment for the Luftwaffe. He took this job seriously. Losing pilots and aircrew are always a problem. Udet introduced not only personal life-saving equipment (dinghies etc.) but also yellow-painted Rettungsbojen (sea rescue buoys/floats/boats) anchored throughout the English Channel. They were highly visible and held emergency equipment that included food, water, blankets and dry clothing. Enough for four men but many more could be found on them. The Brits called them “Lobster Pots” due to their shape. By the end of the Battle of Britain 50 were available to save lives. They could be used by any nationality and were... The buoys even had communication devices and their positions were well known to all, brightly lit with a strobe. They were in no way secret. From time to time the RAF rescue boats (they had 28 boats and no aircraft at the time) would visit the rescue buoys. Logically, any Germans found on them were taken prisoner, at the same time rescuing their own. The Germans used float planes to land at night and rescue the fliers. Any RAF pilot found would become a POW. These float planes were painted white (not the usual camouflage, highly visible) and had the red cross prominently displayed on them. It may be claimed that the flights were of a merciful/rescue nature. They were not warplanes. The aircraft/rescue service became known as the “Seenotdienst.”
In July 1940 one of the German rescue aircraft was shot down near Deal, Kent. The reason given was that it was flying with 12 Bf 109 fighters and thus were a legitimate target. Now, that is nonsense. The He 59 was a twin-engine German biplane designed in 1930 unable to fly or keep up with the fast mono wing BF 109 fighter. It was simply too slow, obsolete and of zero danger to the RAF. Even so, the claim was then made that it could have been dropping or picking up spies and saboteurs and thus were a legitimate target. The German pilot’s logbook apparently showed “the position and direction of British convoys” which makes it not a rescue aircraft but a reconnaissance one. If a bona fide reconnaissance aircraft then it is a legitimate target. But was it? I must ask you. Can a harbour be moved? No. Therefore, the convoy routes from out of a harbour are well known and dictated by the channels leading into the harbour. Once the convoy is across the horizon, well, then it can weave into whatever course as long as it is not the direct one to wherever it is going. Still, the convoy will arrive at the harbour entrance again soon after. I am sure that you understand my point, the endpoints are predetermined. Therefore, whatever that pilot noted down had nothing to do with reconnaissance as claimed subsequently. Nevertheless, on this, the Air Ministry issued Bulletin 1254 that “all enemy air-sea rescue aircraft were to be destroyed if encountered even if painted white and having the red cross on them.” In effect, the War Cabinet under Churchill ordered the RAF to engage and shoot down rescue aircraft painted white with the red cross on them. That is where the war crime allegation comes in which is debated to this very day.
The Germans protested in vain but correctly so, according to me and many others. According to the Geneva Conventions on War, medical personnel and mobile sanitary formations such as field ambulances and hospital ships are not to be attacked. It seems quite simple. Winston Churchill was making excuses after the war when it came out, “German transport planes, marked with the Red Cross, began to appear in some numbers over the Channel in July and August whenever there was an air fight. We did not recognise this means of rescuing enemy pilots who had been shot down in action, in order that they might come and bomb our civil population again. We rescued them ourselves whenever it was possible and made them prisoners of war. But all German air ambulances were forced down or shot down by our fighters on definite orders approved by the War Cabinet. The German crews and doctors on these machines professed astonishment at being treated this way.” This is the same fellow that wanted the captured German pilots/aircrew handed over by France before the 1940 surrender. He specifically asked the French for them, another contravention of the Geneva Conventions. The French agreed and but never did so. The pilots were released to fly again. Churchill also prayed for London to be attacked and thus create sympathy in Washington for the British Cause. Without the US entering the war the British Empire had no chance against Germany. By the time that the Allies invaded France in June 1944, no less than 44 American soldiers were deployed for every 1 English/Canadian. Everything Churchill did was to get the US into the war, a subject for another day but you might enjoy what was said about this aspect and the relative lack of English war casualties in Code Name Caribbean.
As the RAF attacks increased the Germans repainted the rescue aircraft to the standard camouflage and armed them with machine guns. One RAF Hurricane was shot down by them. They were also provided with fighter escort. It could have been different, of course. The Seenotdienst was already known as a humanitarian outfit. In December 1939, Churchill was not Prime Minister yet, 24 RAF British Vickers Wellington medium bombers attacked Wilhelmshaven. More than half were shot down. The Seenotdienst rescued 20 RAF aircrew. In May 1941, the Service rescued 65 British survivors of the sinking of HMS Gloucester, a light cruiser, during the Battle of Cape Matapan. Wherever they went they assisted whoever needed assistance. The US-UK followed the with their own Air Sea Rescue Services. By the end of the war, the British effort alone rescued 13,629 people from the ocean, 8,000 of which were airmen. Ernest Udet would shoot himself in 1941. Churchill became the most admired man in Britain and across the world. After all, he did say that “History will be kind to me since I intend writing it.” Well, what do you think? War crime or not?