Shot Down and in the Drink Cover

Shot Down and in the Drink

True Stories of RAF and Commonwealth Aircrews Saved from the Sea in World War II

Graham Pitchfork

Osprey, New York, 2017, 288 pages

Book Review published on: July 10, 2020

This 2017 version of Shot Down and in the Drink is the third printing of a book released in 2005 and 2007. The author, Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork, is a veteran navigator of the Royal Air Force (RAF) with thirty-six years of service to the British Commonwealth. He is a respected and an accomplished author with fourteen books on aviation history to his credit. He has also written over three hundred articles for aviation magazines and journals and delivered over three hundred lectures and presentations on RAF history. These accomplishments have resulted in Pitchfork being highly regarded as a prolific author with proven expertise in RAF history from its formation to the present day. In 1971, Pitchfork was appointed as a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the United Kingdom.

Shot Down and in the Drink is organized into four parts/sections and fourteen chapters that span the mid-1930s to 1945. Part 1, “The Air Sea Rescue [ASR] Organization,” includes chapters that focus on the background on ASR, early wartime organization, aircrew training, survival equipment, and locational aids. The chapters in part 2, “Northwest Europe,” provide the reader a picture of the rescue crafts, the first three years of ASR, the Battle of the Atlantic, the bomber offensive, and the return to Europe. Part 3, “Mediterranean and West Africa,” concentrates on the early years in this region, the invasion of Sicily and Italy, the Italian and Balkans campaigns, and West Africa. Finally, part 4, “India and the Far East,” provides a glimpse into the limited ASR organization operations and rescues from Karachi, India, to the border of Burma and Siam (now Thailand).

This book also provides insight into the evolution of survival that was forged through the hardships experienced as a result of the expansion of airplanes as instruments of warfare. The airplane provided a far-reaching capability that neither the British nor the Germans had used before to influence their war efforts. Airplanes, both fighters and bombers, increased the ability to reach out and deliver ordinance to destroy the enemy and their will to fight. This capability came at a heavy price, because to reach targets, aircrews had to leave the British Isle to attack targets on foreign lands or for the Germans to fly to the British Isle to service targets. The air defenses faced en route to the targets and the enemy fighter aircraft protecting the targets were accurate and lethal. After successful bombing engagements, damaged aircraft were sometimes unable to remain airborne back to their home airfields. On many occasions, they had to ditch them in the ocean after nursing their aircraft to keep flying and ensuring they were out of the enemy’s area of operation. This book provides insight into the pioneering leaders who had the foresight to see the need to develop methods to increase the survivability of aircrews when they had to ditch their aircraft. The author’s research provides numerous recorded testimonies of personal reports from the downed crewmembers of the arduous conditions they had to endure and sometimes succumb to as the RAF responded to this new warfighting methodology.

Shot Down and in the Drink further discusses how RAF leaders were faced with developing viable solutions that were lightweight yet durable enough to withstand a controlled crash sequence and the harsh environment conditions the crew would experience and endure. How would distressed crews report their location? How would they survive the harsh brutal conditions of the winter North Sea and the sweltering heat and humidity of the Gulf of Martaban (Burma)? The leaders experimented with many options from homing pigeons to many different types of radios, from single Mae West inflatable personal survival vest equipped with individual antiexposure suits with floatation capabilities for aircrew members/pilots to single and multiperson dinghies for bomber crews. Additionally, they had to develop training to prepare international aircrews for standardized international recovery procedures.

Shot Down and in the Drink is a good read and has something for all readers. Pitchfork has included not only the major operations such as Operation Overlord but also provided insight into some of the less known campaigns occurring in 1944, Operation Dragoon’s invasion of France in 1945, and Operation Zipper’s Landing on the Malayan Coast. His focus is how ASR supported multiple theaters from 1939 through 1945. Novice or scholar, the reader of this book will find something that raises their interest in the significance of ASR and its contribution to the war effort beginning in the mid-1930s.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Calvin J. Owens, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Gordon, Georgia