Short Sunderland – Introduction and Development

The Short Sunderland flying boat was one of the mainstays of Coastal Command during the Second World War, and was one of the longest serving military aircraft of its era, with an RAF career that lasted from 1938 until 1959.

The Sunderland was developed at the same time as the S.23 Empire boats. These civilian flying boats were designed for Imperial Airways, who at the end of 1934 won a contract to carry most long range post within the British Empire. Early in 1934 Imperial had asked Shorts to work on a design for an updated version of the Kent-type flying boat, with a 150mpg cruising speed, a range of 800 miles and room for 24 passengers and 1.5 tons of mail. Shorts had a design ready by June 1934, and were given permission to proceed by Imperial in January 1935. This was followed in May by an order for 14 boats, which was then doubled in size in September. The maiden flight of the first of the Empire boats came on 4 July 1936.

This overlapped with the design of the Sunderland. In November 1933 the Air Ministry had issued specification R.2/33, which called for a four engined long range flying boat, with a range of 1,600 miles, a speed of 200mph, four gun positions and a 2,000lb bomb load. Shorts were given a contract to build eleven Sunderland Is in March 1936, before the first Empire boat had made its maiden flight. The first flight of the prototype Sunderland came on 15 October 1937.

By the time the prototype made its first flight the requirement to carry a 37mm gun in the nose had been withdrawn. Instead the Sunderland was to be armed with a two-gun powered nose turret and a four-gun powered tail turret. This moved the centre of gravity of the aircraft back, and forced Shorts to angle the wings back at 4 degrees.

The main competitor to the Shorts design was the Saunders-Roe A.33. Eleven of these aircraft were also ordered in March 1936, but the prototype of this aircraft did not make its maiden flight until 14 October 1938, and was damaged in a crash on 25 October. Repairs were not considered economical and the design was abandoned.

Pilot's cabin on Short Sunderland I
Pilot's cabin on Short Sunderland I

The Sunderland had a similar hull to the S.23 Empire boats, but with a tapered rear step, which reduced aerodynamic drag. The fuselage was built around a series of vertical box frames and divided into compartments by watertight bulkheads. The upper deck contained the five-man flight deck (pilot, co-pilot, radio operator, navigator and engineer). From front-to-back the lower deck contained the FN.11 turret with the bomb aiming position below, a store for mooring equipment, a toilet, the officers wardroom, then the galley, the bomb compartment, the crew’s quarters and bunks, the upper beam guns, a workshop and more storage and finally the FN.13 four-gun rear turret.

Bombs being loaded into Short Sunderland
Bombs being loaded into Short Sunderland

The front turret was retractable, and could be pulled back into the body of the aircraft, creating an open platform which was used during mooring. The bomb aimer’s position was protected by a solid hinged window to prevent water breaking in when taking off or landing. The 2,000lb of bombs were stored internally on racks which could slide out into a position under the inner wing.

A total of 749 Sunderlands were built, at four factories. 331 were built at Short’s original base at Rochester and another 133 at their new factory in Belfast (operated as Short & Harland). 250 were built at Blackburn’s Dumbarton factory, and 35 at a plant on the shores of Windermere.

By the start of the Second World War three squadrons had received the Sunderland – Nos.210 and 228 at Pembroke Dock and No.204 at Mount Batten. By the end of the war the Sunderland had equipped twenty-eight RAF and Commonwealth squadrons, and alongside the Consolidated Catalinas and Liberators played a vital part in winning the battle of the Atlantic.

Short Sunderland Squadrons of World War 2, Jon Lake. A look at the service carrier of the most successful British flying boat of the Second World War, and a key component in Coastal Command's battle against the U-boat. Covers the introduction of the aircraft, its role in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, West Africa and other theatres.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 October 2008), Short Sunderland – Introduction and Development ,

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