The Short Sunderland was the most important British built aircraft to serve with RAF Coastal Command during the Second World War. Operating alongside American Hudsons, Liberators and Catalinas the crews of the Sunderlands flew endless patrols over the North Atlantic, and played a vital part in the Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The Sunderland gained something of an exaggerated reputation during the war, mostly because it was the most important British aircraft in use with Coastal Command. American produced land-based aircraft such as the Lockheed Hudson or Consolidated Liberator actually played a bigger part in the Battle of the Atlantic, while the Consolidated Catalina was more important on overseas stations. What made the Sunderland unique was that it remained an important part of Coastal Command’s armoury from the beginning to the end of the war. At least until the arrival of the long range Liberators the story of the Sunderland is the same as that of the wider battle of the Atlantic.
Coastal Command fought a very different type of battle to those of Fighter or Bomber Command. Thousands of patrols were flown without making any contact with the enemy. The crew of Coastal Command’s patrol aircraft always had to be alert for the distant sighting of a U-boat (or later for a radar contact). A patrol that saw no U-boat activity was a success, for the presence of the Sunderland might have prevented an attack.
Three Sunderland squadrons were available in Britain at the start of the Second World War – Nos.204, 210 and 10 (RAAF). One Sunderland of No.210 Squadron made Coastal Command’s first sortie of the war, for it had been in the air for six hours when Chamberlain announced the declaration of war on 3 September 1939.
The first attack on a U-boat came on 8 September, without success. This was followed on 18 September by the first air-sea rescue mission of the war, when two aircraft from Nos. 228 and 204 Squadrons rescued 34 crewmen from the tramp-steam SS Kensington Court, after the ship was sunk seventy miles from the Sicily Islands. The Sunderland was not well suited to the air-sea rescue role, which would later be performed with distinction by the Catalina. Despite its robust appearance, the Sunderland had a thin hull that was not designed for landings on exposed waters, and a number of Sunderlands would be lost attempting to land on rough seas.
The Sunderlands of No.204, 210 and 228 Squadrons fought in the Norwegian campaign in the spring of 1940, sending detachments to Sullom Voe and Invergordon. From those bases they flew a mix of reconnaissance and transport missions, before helping with the final evacuation.
Their main duty was convoy protection, and with it anti-submarine warfare. At first successes were few and far between – no aerial depth charges were available, and so the Sunderlands were armed with useless 100-lb anti-submarine bombs, and slightly more useful 250lb bombs. During 1940 the Sunderlands sank two U-boats (shared with Naval ships) and damaged a third. The Sunderland’s first victim was U-55. She had been damaged by surface warships, and was then attacked and forced to scuttle by Sunderlands of No.228 Squadron on 30 January 1940. During 1941 and 1942 no U-boats were sunk by home based Sunderlands (partly because the U-boats could operate beyond the range of the Sunderlands).
Things changed during 1943. The number of Sunderland squadrons increased during 1941. New centimetric ASV Mk.III radar was introduced, allowing the Sunderlands to detect German U-boats on the surface without themselves being detected. Cooperate with the navy improved with practise, while better weapons were provided. Unfortunately the Sunderland was unable to carry some of the most potent of these weapons due to its unusual retractable bomb racks, but the Sunderland squadrons did benefit from all of the other improvements. The first secure un-assisted U-boat sinkings came in May 1943, when five submarines were sunk by Sunderlands, two on the last day of the month.
May 1943 was the turning point of the battle of the Atlantic. Heavy losses forced Dönitz to pull his U-boats out of the North Atlantic. Over the next year the Allies were able to build up the D-Day invasion forces in Britain without the devastating losses that had been feared. Dönitz made a series of attempts to return to the battle, most notably in 1944 after the introduction of schnorkels allowed his boats to remain underwater for much longer, but the interlocking aerial and naval anti-submarine forces were able to defeat each of these attempts.
In the spring of 1944 the main thrust of all British efforts went into preparations for the D-Day invasion. Coastal Command’s Sunderlands focused their activities on the western Channel and the south west approaches, where the Germans were known to be concentrated U-boats in preparation for an attack on the invasion convoys.
On the morning of 6 June the Germans ordered every available U-boat to sea. In anticipation of this the Allies had put in place a massive defensive screen on each side of the invasion fleet (Operation Cork), and as a result the U-boats were unable to interfere with Overlord. The Sunderland squadrons alone sank two U-boats (U-955 and U-970) on the night of 6-7 June.
Soon after the invasion of France the Germans were forced to abandon their U-boat bases on the west coast of France. Dönitz moved his forces to Norwegian and German bases, but his attempts to break out into the Atlantic were too costly. The Sunderland squadrons redeployed from their bases in the south west of England and Wales up to Scotland. Their new patrol areas included the North Sea and British coastal waters, where the Germans achieved their last significant successes.
1945 was a quiet time for the Sunderlands. The only U-boat credited to a Sunderland squadron in home waters was U-242, destroyed on 30 April after a combined attack. Sunderland patrols continued for a month after the German surrender on 9 May 1945, in case any fanatical U-boat commanders attempted to continue the war. Having flown the first Coastal Command sortie of the war, it was fitting that it was a Sunderland (of No.201 Squadron) flew the last, which ended at one minute past midnight on 4 June 1945.
One Sunderland Squadron, No.228, was based at Alexandria at the start of the Second World War, but was quickly moved back to Pembroke Dock. The Sunderland returned to the Mediterranean in the spring and summer of 1940. No.230 Squadron moved west from Singapore in May 1940, while No.228 returned to Malta as Italy entered the war.
At first the Sunderland’s main opponents were the Italians. On 28 June 1940 a Sunderland of No.230 Squadron achieved the type’s first victory, sinking the Italian submarine Argonauta. A second submarine, the Rubino, was sunk on the following day. This initial burst of activity soon ended, and as in the Atlantic long periods of uneventful patrolling became the norm in the Mediterranean.
This routine was interrupted by the series of naval battles between the British and Italian fleets. Here the Sunderlands operated as the eyes of the fleet. The most famous of these battles, at Cape Matapan in March 1941, actually came about because Allied code breakers had cracked the German Enigma code. The Sunderland’s first duty was to find the Italian fleet on what had to look like a normal patrol, to prevent the Germans from realising their codes had been broken.
The Sunderlands were also involved in the campaign in Greece, helping in the evacuations from Greece and Crete, and rescuing the King of Yugoslavia. Late in 1940 No.228 Squadron moved to West Africa, but No.230 remained in the Mediterranean until early in 1943. During that time it took part in attempts to run supply convoys to Malta. Nos. 202 and 204 Squadrons also used the Sunderland for short periods in the Mediterranean, but none operated in the area after No.230 moved to East Africa in January 1943.
The fall of France and the entry of Italy in the war in the summer of 1940 blocked the Mediterranean to Allied shipping. This made the route around Africa more important than it had been at any point since the opening of the Suez Canal, and a number of U-boats began to operate off the west coast. At the start of 1941 the RAF responded by moving three Sunderlands to Sierra Leone, where they formed the nucleus of No.95 Squadron. They were joined in West Africa by No.204 Squadron in August 1941, and eventually aircraft operated from Freetown, Bathurst, Apapa (Nigeria), Dakar and Jui (Sierra Leone).
Although these squadrons failed to sink a single U-boat, they were spectacularly successful in their main role. In the areas patrolled by Sunderlands not a single merchant ship was lost to U-boat attack.
The West African Sunderlands found themselves with range of hostile Vicky French fighters, especially Mohawks based in Dakar. On at least one occasion, in September 1941, the increasingly heavily armed Sunderlands were able to shoot down their attackers, on this occasion claiming two Mohawks. A more practical response was to form a Hurricane squadron in West Africa.
The Sunderland had a troubled career in the Far East. No.230 Squadron at Seletar (Singapore) received the aircraft in 1938. In 1940 the squadron had moved to the Middle East, remaining there until January 1943. The squadron returned to Dar-es-Salaam to carry out patrols over the India Ocean. Despite constant patrols, the squadron never encountered an enemy submarine, while the Sunderland III proved to be rather less reliable in the Far East than over the Atlantic. The problem was eventually traced to lower quality local oil, used in place of the imported oil that had been used by Imperial Airways.
Late in the war the Sunderland was used as a transport aircraft, helping to evacuate wounded Chindits from Lake Indawgyi (Burma). A bigger contribution came at the end of the war, when five Sunderland squadrons were used to ferry POWs and Allied internees home from Japanese captivity.
At the end of the war the Sunderland briefly became the most important aircraft in Coastal Command. The Catalinas, Hudsons and Liberators provided under lend-lease had either be returned to the United States or scrapped. Eventually surplus Lancasters and then the Avro Shackleton would replace them, but the Sunderland would remain in service until 1959.
By the end of 1945 only five Sunderland squadrons remained in Coastal Command – two home-based and one each in Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and Singapore. Production of the Sunderland also ended at Rochester and Dumfries during 1945, and at Belfast in June 1946.
The Sunderland squadrons soon found themselves involved in the cold war. Nos. 204 and 230 Squadrons took part in the Berlin air lift in 1948, ferrying between the River Elbe and Lake Havel in Berlin. The squadrons in the Far East took part in the long running anti-insurgency campaign in Malaya, at first as bombers and later patrolling around the Malaya coast. At the same time they found themselves patrolling off the Korean coast during the early years of the Korean War.
The home based squadrons had a rather less dramatic time after Berlin, although Nos.230 and 201 Squadrons were used to support the British North Greenland Expedition of 1953-54. These squadrons were disbanded during 1957. A lack of replacement aircraft meant that the squadrons in the Far East slowly withered away, until on 15 May 1959 the last Sunderland of No.209 Squadron Detachment made a ceremonial flypast, which counts as the last operational sortie, followed five days later by the last actual flight.
The RNZAF was the last military user of the Sunderland. It had acquired sixteen Sunderland Vs in 1952, and they remained in use in ever decreasing numbers until 2 April 1967. A number of civilian conversions remained in use into the 1970s, giving the Sunderland a lifespan of nearly forty years.