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Paul Roberts looks back at his time stationed at RAF Alness, Ross & Cromarty during World War 2.

Sunderland Flying Boats were constructed differently from conventional aircraft. The metal used was Alclad. This was a sandwich of aluminium and an alloy. Sunderlands were taken out to sea after use and sunk, their metal could not be melted down, separated and reused. The base of the boat was the keelson (commonly known as the keel). This was inside the bottom of the hull. The bottom of the hull was called the planing bottom. This was curved and threw the water outward on landing and take-off. 

At the frame 46 came the step. This was about 9 inches higher than the front bottom and allowed air in the water to collect and enabled the flyingboat to lift in the water. After the bomb bay the keelson ended. The rest of the aircraft curved up and out to the rear gun turret. This gave the Sunderlands a counter stern, like olden liners and steamers.

From the keelson came the frames, which circled the boat. Between each frame were half frames that came half way up from the keelson. Joining the half frames and main frames were horizontal strips called intercostals. On to the frames attached by rivets were the panels of the outer skin. Sealing the joint of the panels and the keelson was the keel strip. The keel strip was commonly called the keel by non-naval and non-Sunderland types. The first line of plating from the keelstrip was called the gareboard strake. 

Frames 42 and 46 were Alclad girders, similar to the keelson. They were joined by cross members from 42 to 46. Girders joined each across the boat on the flight deck. Between these frames was the engineer’s panel. It was necessary to climb over no.42 cross member to get into the compartment of the engineers. This was about three feet high. On the girder across no.46 frame was the Alclad walling separating the flight deck from the bomb bay. 

On to 42 and 46 attached by four steel bolts were the wings. The frame that held the wing end was strengthened at each corner that took the steel bolt by a ‘T’ shaped strengthener. The top of the ‘T’ was angled – this, if my memory serves me right, was called a ‘topple T section spar’. Below the floor, at the junction of the lounge and the galley and the galley and the bomb bay, were similar cross beams joined to the keelson. Like one’s service number, these were facts that one remembers forever, whether useful or not in later life.  

Engineers could look into the gloomy inside of each wing and hear the roar of the four engines. It was possible to crawl into each wing, and had been necessary during some engagements, but not on any flight I was on. 

We were issued with chewing gum for each flight. Chewing the gum enabled one to adjust the ears due to changing air pressure on descending to land or during turbulence whilst flying. It was also useful to seal a petrol leak we were told. One other item of knowledge given at the beginning of the conversion course was that if out over the Atlantic and the engine warning light came on, ‘do not bale out, but treat it as a faulty warning light’. Such was the humour. We did not carry parachutes because these were the first things to be thrown out if in an emergency it was necessary to lighten the load to keep airborne. It has amazed many that we never flew carrying a parachute. Yet what purpose would a parachute do if out over the ocean? – it was better to stay with the flying boat and survive the impact. This Sunderlands could do because of the shape of their construction that threw the water outwards on landing whereas normal aircraft with its cigar shaped fuselage would break up and the water on impact cover the plane and it would immediately sink.

On four engine landplanes training was on twin engine planes and then conversion to four engined planes. There was no two-engine flying boat to train on so that we went straight onto a Sunderland initially at training. Apart from the Blenheims and Avro-Ansons at gunnery school we never flew any other aircraft. This also applied to the airgunners (AGs), the wireless operators or mechanic (WOPs and WOM), navigator and pilots (Captains, 1st, 2nd or 3rd pilots). Several years ago I was watching a TV programme about Concorde and I was amazed at the little room that passengers and crew had. Also how cramped passengers seemed on modern super aircraft. After all those years I still lived in a flying world of a dozen of us on a Sunderland flying boat. I don’t think I could fly in a modern aircraft. Even today in a motor car travelling at 75mph I can feel the speed that a Sunderland would get a lift in the water. 

On the bottom deck you entered through the front door. Forward was the front gun turret which could be retracted. A bollard lifted up and screwed to the front frame. On to this bollard one first lifted up the floating grommet and attached it. This was similar to a rope ladder but with wooden cross members. One then used the boat hook to grope under the mooring buoy for a metal ring. This when pulled up brought up the mooring cable. This was hooked on to the bollard. The front of the boat had a panel that opened out. In a gale one could then attach to an eye on the keel strip a sort cable, the other end was attached to the buoy. The front gun turret would then be wound as far forward as it would go. Also in a gale a cover could be placed over the whole, sealing the insides from rain.

One had to bend, as it was not high enough to stand if you were normal height. On the left was the toilet with a seven gallon water tank for flushing. In the centre a short flight of stairs led to the flight deck and came between the captain’s seat and the 1st pilot’s seat. There was a door to close this off between the pilots. The door on the right lead into the lounge. The lounge had seating along the outside walling. A table was in the centre, which could be taken down. I believe that the lounge was twelve feet long with a ten foot beam at this point. The door at the end of the lounge lead into the galley. 

The galley occupied the space between No.42 and No.46 frames. The galley contained a double primus stove for cooking, a sink and a water tank of some 10 gallons of water. We carried six knives, forks, spoons and cups. For extra cups the bowls of the light fittings would be used. On the lounge side was a ladder angled going up to the flight deck. It came out by the side of the engineer’s panel and could be closed by a hatch. A door in the galley lead into the bomb bay. The beam of the Sunderland at this point was twelve feet. (In rough flying weather as the aircraft pitched and rolled it was possible to go up or down this ladder by just moving ones legs up and down quickly and standing stationary, the rise and fall of the aircraft acted like a lift).  

Each side of the galley was a hatch. Below each hatches were stowed the drogues, attached to the frame by a steel cable. The drogues were like a large canvass bucket with a slit at each end of the bottom. Attached to the bottom of each drogue was a rope. On landing a member of the crew, usually the rear gunners, would open the hatches and on orders from the captain throw out the drogues. This slowed down the landing speed, which would be about 80-90 mph on approach. When sufficiently slowed down the aircraft would taxi, the rope pulled which turned the drogue so that it collapsed and could be pulled in and stowed. 

Earlier Sunderlands, those on the Atlantic and Bay of Biscay patrols during the Battle of the Atlantic, had a pivot attached to the centre of the hatch. On this an extra gun could be mounted and fired when the aircraft was attacked. The gun was a Thompson sub-machine gun. The bullets were in a pan on top of the gun. It was exactly like Chicago gangsters used. On the outside of the spigot was a metal bridge. This cut the trigger mechanism preventing the gun shooting the float. It took three JU88’s of the Germans to attack a Sunderland in the Bay of Biscay. The four engines and the shape of the boat caused such turbulence behind that fighters would be thrown off. Also by diving and corkscrewing near the sea no aircraft could attack because they could not carry on and fly under and out. 

Sometimes when landing or taking off in smooth waters a crewmember would lean out of the hatch to inform the captain if the feather was visible. The feather was the stream of water caused by the keel touching the water. In dead flat water this was sometimes the only means of knowing if we had achieved lift off or touches down. 

The bomb bay was a large hall from the floor of the lower deck to the roof of the aircraft. The bomb bay held the trolley on the underside of each wing on which were carried the depth charges. These trundled out by pulling down large doors in the upper half of the bay under the wings. From frame 46 on the bomb bay side was a sort of balcony. Entrance was by a small door from the engineer’s side. This was called the “oven door”. To access you crawled through the oven door. 

On this balcony were the electrical motors for winding out the trolleys with the depth charges on. It was also the access to the mid-upper gun turret. The wireless operators operated this gun turret. The engineers operated the front gun turret and the air-gunners the rear gun turret. In the bomb bay on the starboard side were the rear outer door and the gyroscopic compass. On each side was a bunk. There was also a winch for loading depth charges to the trolleys. Depth charges would brake up if dropped above 5,000 feet. For this reason Sunderlands rarely flew above that height. The gyroscopic compass was like a reliquary as it hung. It was the only non-manual thing on a flying boat. Today, of course, it would be one of many electrical things. 

The length of the Sunderland was some 60 feet, the height from the keelstrip to the top of the tail 35 to 36 feet. What I do know is that the length of the wingspread was 112 feet nine and three quarter inches. The flight mechanic/air-gunner or FME/AG (second engineer) had the task to climb out onto the wings, dip the tanks to check the fuel, hand start the starboard inner and walk along the wings.

Whatever the weather or sea condition we did this, no other crewmember could climb out or walk along the rolling wings like we could with no handholds. They had no cause or duty. One walked like a duck! In the port wing was the APU (auxiliary power unit). This was a small petrol engine fitted with a pump. This could be used for bailing out the boat if it flooded.  

The captain sat in the front starboard seat, the 1st pilot sat in the front port seat. Between them were the levers operating the throttles of each engine. At the full throttle position was a flap, called the “gate”. Only in an extreme situation would the throttle be opened to this full extent. Then the engines would be dismantled and overhauled. On the front of the throttle box was the lever that operated the wing flaps.  

The ‘joy stick’ operated the ailerons. The captain and 1st pilot had each a connected control. In gale force weather and winds sometimes the captain and 1st pilot had to both keep hands on to control the steering column. The 1st pilot would set the controls to the command of the captain. Only the captain was allowed to land and take off a Sunderland. 

Behind the captain was a side cubicle in which the WOPs sat at the radio. Then the 42nd cross frame. On the other side behind the 1st pilot was the WOM with the radar set and controls. Next came the desk of the navigator and the 42nd frame. Between the frames on the port side was the engineer’s panel. This consisted of the levers operating the 10 petrol tank cocks, 5 in each wing plus a main lever that shut off all tanks. The panel had 10 dials indicating the contents of each tank. A row of four warning lights of each engine, five dials giving the boost to each engine and also a set of 5 dials giving engine revs. Everyone had a place with a connection for the intercom, though often the intercom connection was not used. Orders would be passed verbally along the flight deck or called down to whoever was in the galley.

Flying a Sunderland or a Catalina was unlike flying any other type of aircraft. For this reason we felt special. I believe sailors on submarines felt the same. 

Paul Roberts,
18 January 2006.   

Ed - Once again we thank Paul for allowing us to reproduce here his memories of his World War 2 experiences.