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Downed in the Channel: Kanalkrankheit played out

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Colchester, 12 April 2016

The English Channel can make for some delightful sailing on a balmy summer's day, as it was when I shot the background for this latest headline image: Bf109 down in the Channel. I'm not sure I would want to swim far in it though. 

As so often the picture is one I have had in my mind's eye for some time, and in fact I began it ages ago and have been playing around with variations on the theme. 

Finally I had a little time between commissions to complete it. I lit and posed the 109 specifically for this scenario, while the Hurricane overhead is an adaptation of a photo that I had on file but had not used before: the lighting on it was just right already. 

As you can see this is one of my 'generic' images: the aircraft are not identified and I have not in this case researched a specific operation, but they stand for those that saw daily combat during the summer of 1940. 


It prompted me to revisit things I had read about the horrors of the Channel for Luftwaffe fighter pilots in particular, obliged to operate at the limits of their fuel range when attacking Britain.

The Germans called it Kanalkrankheit: Channel sickness, a condition that could spawn a range of reasons for returning to base rather than having to cross the miles of water between France and England with the ever-present risk that you would not make it back. 

Come the following year of course the tables began to be reversed, driving the widespread adoption of long-range drop tanks by Allied air forces to extend their fighters' reach onto the Continent. 

I vacillated for a time on the inclusion of the parachute: has the German pilot escaped certain doom or not? In the end I have shown him having bailed out, but now descending for a swim.

Later advice to such pilots from the veteran fighter leader Adolf Galland was to stay in the aircraft and ditch it if necessary, because you would then have an inflatable life raft for some protection from the elements – but obviously that works only if the aircraft is still capable of a controlled splashdown. In this case, with the hydraulics shot up and one of the undercarriage legs deployed, it would not be an option. 

So the pilot had to jettison the canopy, unstrap himself and jump out. Incidentally, I keep seeing references online to aircrew "ejecting" from WW2 aircraft. Maybe it is just sloppy use of English. Do some people really think they had ejector seats? 


What might happen next opens up a host of other possibilities. Assuming the pilot is not too badly hurt he might last in the water for a time. Would he be picked up? If so, by which side? 

The Germans, certainly in 1940, had a far more organised air-sea rescue operation or Seenotdienst. In comparison the British response was lamentable: to begin with there was no organised rescue service. 

As an aside, British standing orders (Air Ministry Bulletin 1254) were that all enemy air-sea rescue aircraft were to be destroyed on sight. The Germans protested this was a violation of the Geneva Convention on recognising military field ambulances and ships. UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill later justified the policy on the basis that rescued pilots might come back and bomb British civilians again. 

Even in the height of summer the temperature of the water makes survival highly time dependent. Even if a pilot were picked up he might succumb to 'secondary drowning': collapsing later. 

All sobering thoughts for a sailor like myself, and one of the reasons yacht crews practise "man overboard" drills so everyone knows immediately what to do in an emergency. That was something I was grateful for when I went over the bow 35 miles south of the Irish coast on a crossing from the Scilly Isles. But that's another story. 


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