The late George Maier of Regina was a Saskatchewan boy who entered the wartime RCAF in the autumn of 1941 and went through the service flying training school (SFTS) at Dauphin, Manitoba, then the general reconnaissance school at Summerside, PEI, where he initially was told he’d be going onto the hot new Mosquito fighter-bomber.
But overseas, he arrived at the RAF’s 4 (C) OTU in the spring of 1943, when the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic was at its very height. Mosquito pilots were in less demand than pilots who could handle antisubmarine aircraft.
He instead was posted to fly the Sunderland flying boat, essentially a military version of the Short Empire-class flying boats operated just before the Second World War by Britain’s Imperial Airways.
The first RAF version flew in 1938; by war’s end, no fewer than 20 squadrons were operating them. Indeed, Sunderlands continued in RAF service until 1959 – longer, George told our CAHS chapter, than any other RAF operational aircraft at that time.
About 600 examples of the Sunderland were built. As the descendant of an airliner, it was better-appointed than other contemporary military aircraft. It had, for example, an unusual double-deck design with the bottom including a flush toilet, a sink "and a place to get cleaned up". On ferry trips or detachments, "that made it possible for crews to live in the aircraft," George said.
The Sunderland was a relatively large machine, with a wingspan of 112 feet, length of 85 feet and a height of 34 feet. Most versions were powered by four Bristol Pegasus radial engines; later versions had propeller-feathering capability, "which certainly saved a lot of lives and aircraft".
The Mark V Sunderland had four American-made Pratt & Whitney radials, but not the reversible propellers fitted on the American equivalent of the Sunderland, the Martin Mariner flying boat. This was a pity, as Sunderland crews could have used the help when mooring their aircraft.
A total of 2,500 gallons of 100-octane gasoline were carried in five tanks in each wing. Consumption was about 400 gallons in the first hour, falling to 100 later in the patrol area, where speed and weight were reduced. Maximum endurance was 15 hours, though 12-hour flights were common because of the possibility of headwinds on the return leg. This was less endurance then the Catalina/Canso, but George pointed out that the Sunderland was a "much nicer-flying aircraft than the Catalina".
The Sunderland was "extremely stable and light on the controls", especially when compared with the "Cat" and indeed lighter than a Piper Seneca twin that George owned in 1974 ("which surprised me" he said) and also "a very difficult aircraft to stall". Impressive for an aircraft that weighed about 30,000 lbs. empty, and (initially) 49,000 lbs. loaded -- though this had risen to about 60,000 lbs. by the time the heavily loaded Mark V Sunderland entered service late in the war.
Unlike Catalinas, Sunderlands were true flying boats; they had no amphibious capability whatsoever, although for major maintenance, wheels could be bolted on and the aircraft hauled out of the water.
Cruising speed was 125 knots, approach at 85 and touchdown at 65.
The best takeoffs came from water with bit of a chop, which helped the Sunderland get onto the "step" of its hull, then get airborne. With a flat, calm sea, on the other hand, "the hull seemed to stick on the water."
"We’d often run for miles and miles when we were fully loaded and try to get off," George said. "We liked a slightly rough sea ... about 2 1/2 foot waves and some whitecaps."
He added: "if you landed in a swell, you could shoot right off again -- and then land again with a thud."
Also, wings had to be level lest the water catch a wing float, then "rip off the float and flip you right in the other direction -- and then it could flip you over on its back." Indeed, precisely that had happened to the pilot whom George replaced on the squadron.
"All in all, there would either be a crosswind or a swell, so it was never the same; it wasn’t like a landplane," George added. "It certainly kept you on your toes."
Similarly, taxiing in a crosswind "was challenging because you have very little control and the large body tended to weathercock very easily". You also had to be careful to keep the water’s spray away from the propellers as it could chip even the propeller blades.
Also needing protection from the elements are the aircraft’s machine guns. These were two .303 Browning in the nose turret, four more mounted, facing forward, in the fuselage, two in the mid-upper turret, four in the rear turret and two more in the waist, firing from the aircraft’s beam. "I guess that’s where they got the name ‘Flying Porcupine’," said George, who saw Luftwaffe JU-88s many times over the Bay of Biscay, but was never attacked. "Of course, they were faster than us and very heavily armed. so I’m glad they never attacked us."
For the record, the 422 Sunderlands were painted matte white with a thin area of camouflage paint on the top of the fuselage and upper wings.
Of the machine guns, he said, "we’d put them in after takeoff and take them out before we landed because we didn’t want to get any salt water on them."
Even this was not without its dangers when one round inadvertently left in a Browning was somehow triggered by the rigger. It lodged only two feet behind where George was sitting. "He got canned immediately," George recalled. "That was the last shell he ever left in a Browning."
Other armament included eight 250-lbs. depth charges (set to explode from 25-50 feet below the surface) suspended on racks that were rolled out of the fuselage and extended under the wings, plus plenty of flares, which were ejected from a chute near the tail, and also sonobuoys. "You could hear the submarines under the water by dropping the sonobuoys in a circle ... It didn’t always work, but quite a few U-boats were tracked in this way."
422 Squadron’s war could be summed up in the words of W/C L.G. Archambault of the neighbouring 423 Squadron, who said, "I flew like a sonuvagun, never saw anything, never shot at anything, nobody shot at me, not even my friends, and never saw a German." Yet the Sunderlands did valuable work because their mere presence forced U-boats to submerge while convoys sailed past them. "As a result, they [U-boats] played pretty cautious and a lot of people’s lives were saved just because they were out there -- patrolling," he said.
Having said that, RAF and RCAF Sunderlands, over the course of the war, were credited with 37 U-boats destroyed, two "probables" and 19 severely damaged, figures that have been confirmed from German naval records, George pointed out.
George, who passed through a Sunderland OTU at Alness in Scotland, joined 422 Squadron in the autumn of 1943 as a second pilot (co-pilot) and later took over as captain. Tours for aircrew were 18 months or 800 hours on operations. On operations, a Sunderland typically carried three pilots, a navigator, two flight engineers, two wireless operator/air gunners (WAGs), two radar operator-air gunners and a rigger, "who also served in our particular crew as a cook ... we’d have meals for our crew when we were about halfway through the trip." (The menu generally included steak or bacon, and eggs. "We ate very, very well," George said.)
Navigation aids included VHF radio, (airborne direction finding or ADF and GEE gear, the precursor of LORAN, a radio altimeter and sextant for taking starshots. "Over the Atlantic, they’d use it quite a bit ... we picked them (ships) up as far as 60 miles off course."
He recalls flying somewhere north of Scotland when the radar picked up a particularly big blip. "It excited our radar operator so much that he said, ‘Skipper, you’ve got to come and see this!’"
They ran out the depth charges and started to drive down toward the target, laying flares. "There was a big battleship right ahead of us about a mile -- the King George V," he said. "It was about 60 miles away from where it should have been. It sure scared the hell out of us because every gun was turned on us ... every one of them!"
Fortunately, the Sunderland’s IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe electronic gear) was working, "or we’d probably have been shot down that night."
Two more close calls came from engine fires, in the starboard outer and inner engines. This was one of the quirks of the Bristol Pegasus: sometimes you’d blow a cylinder head. A fire would start and it would be impossible to extinguish it. On both occasions, the aircraft’s flight engineer crawled through the tunnel in the Sunderland’s thick wing and pinched shut the oil line that was feeding the fire. "He won a DFC. Took a helluva lot of guts to do that with the fire going."
George’s crew was a cosmopolitan lot. The other two pilots were Canadians, the navigator an American in the RCAF, and there were English, Scottish and Welsh RAF crewmen. In the two RCAF Sunderland squadrons, 422 and 423, most of the pilots were RCAF members, but many navigators and air gunners were British, as were many of the groundcrew. An odd note was that RAF pay rates were far lower than those of the RCAF. "I had to be paymaster one day and those fellows were really very poorly paid."
En route to a convoy, a Sunderland would fly at about five or seven thousand feet, descending to one thousand for patrolling -- dodgy because "the weather was often very, very bad ... very rough flying and the automatic pilot was not very good. It had a tendency to go crazy and put you into either a steep climb or a steep dive."
Once airborne, the first thing you’d do would be to synchronize the engines "or else they’d drive you crazy!" First the inner two, then the outer ones.
No parachutes were carried, but Mae Wests were worn at all times aboard the aircraft, "You had to be careful not to inflate the Mae West prematurely because you’d never make it out through the hatch."
Being forced down in the North Atlantic was not a pleasant prospect. In cold weather, "I think you’d last about seven minutes if you ever had to hang onto a dinghy in the North Atlantic," George said. "It was a pretty cold place to be."
Upon arriving above a convoy, the Sunderland would use an Aldis lamp (radio silence, eh?) to contact the senior naval officer and get instructions on where to patrol. The main search tools were eyeballs and radar, which picked up "blips" reflected from whales, waves, surface ships and occasional U-boats.
Depending on the circumstances, the aircraft would fly a "square search" (gradually making a square larger and larger) or a "creeping line ahead". By the time George joined 422 squadron, U-boats carried electronic warning devices that told them airborne radar was in the vicinity.
As a result, the subs had a chance to submerge before the aircraft arrived -- a welcome change, George says, from earlier in the war when they’d stay on the surface and fight it out with their anti-aircraft guns.
"We patrolled all the way up from Gibraltar to Iceland on missions," he said. ‘You’d cover probably 50 miles square; probably 25 miles around the convoy."
He added: "It was very, very monotonous most of the time."
Iceland, incidentally, was temporarily the crew’s home when it was sent to pick up crewman from an RAF Hudson squadron that was "trading up" to more advanced aircraft. The Sunderland’s generator went unserviceable and the flying boat were stuck there for two or three days, while its crew invested in chocolate bars, silk stockings and other necessities.
George also visited wartime Eire, where German internees could be spotted relaxing in the cafes and where he and his co-pilot were almost jailed for attempting to steal a flag from the German embassy.
George and his Sunderland had another experience with Irish neutrality: they once flew into Irish airspace and inadvertently blew a fisherman into the water with their slipstream. This prompted an angry telegram, threatening anti-aircraft fire the next time such an outrage occurred. His CO sighed and said, "I know they’ve only got 13 old Ansons, so don’t worry about it. But don’t do it again."
If a sub was sighted, instructions were to send a report to naval headquarters at Liverpool, which would then send Allied destroyers and corvettes to the area. If those ships bagged the U-boat, "we didn’t get any credit for it because there was no way of saying they were the same submarines." he said.
Standard tactics called for the front gunner (in his turret) and the captain (using the fixed machine guns) to "clear the decks" of the submarine in order to keep the crew away from its anti-aircraft guns. "We never had to attack a U-boat, but we certainly picked up a lot of blips," he said.
Night landings were on a flarepath in the water, the length of which was marked by three white lights. "If you weren’t on by the second light, you’d have to start all over again," George said. It was easy to land even in bad weather because the pilots could cut the throttles enough to keep flying at 85 mph, using a sink rate of 200 feet per minute.
George took part in the predecessor of radar-assisted landings, with the Sunderland pilot accepting landing instructions from a ground controller. Once, when doing this, George came to the conclusion that WAAF doing the controlling was wrong, aborted the landing and immediately pulled up. "I looked at what direction she’d had me headed for -- and it was a hill on the other side of Loch Erne." The controller apologized profusely; she had misinterpreted the magnetic variation applied to the Sunderland’s course.
But other "blind" landings worked just fine. George recalls doing one at Pembroke Dock through very thick fog. Down at 200 feet per minute they came, touching down so gently that the some members of the crew were alarmed when George surrendered the controls and moved about the cabin -- they couldn’t believe that the Sunderland had landed. "Best landing I ever did!" said George, who noted that one of the little benefits of heavy fog "was that you’d also have it dead calm."
Another time, they were given a special aerial "corridor" over Northern Ireland toward Donegal. At 1,000 feet and well over dry land, they switched to their outer fuel tank -- at which point all four engines died.
"What a sinking feeling!" remembered George, who started banking the Sunderland for an emergency landing. And "by the time I’d got [it] around, we were on the water," he said.
A check showed that the gas cocks had been installed backwards after maintenance; a test flight had not picked up this problem. "We were pretty lucky there because we could have landed on the shore rather than getting back to the water."
On the lighter side, there was the time George’s Sunderland carried on a map-reading exercise a group of British Army officers -- who beseeched George to fly over their camp at precisely 1100h. And could he get low? Say 200 feet?
This was done, but when the Sunderland arrived back at base, George’s CO’s asked, "What happened out there?"
It seems the soldiers assembled for parade at 1100h saw the massive Sunderland flying over them -- and felt moisture. It seems the high-spirited officers had taken the opportunity to empty the flying boat’s toilets onto their brethren! "I knew it was only water," George chuckled. "But they still didn’t feel that good!"
Incidentally, George once got a trip in a British submarine in order to see "how the other side lived". "I was only on it for about three or four hours -- and that was enough for me. They’re cramped and they’re cold. That was enough for me!"
After finishing at 422 Squadron, George went to the RAF’s 302 Ferry Training Unit (FTU) which mated new aircrew and aircraft, gave the former some night flying instruction, "and sent them on their way".
One of the aircraft that George last flew in February 1945 is aircraft ML814, which was airworthy and a few years ago on display at a private aviation museum in Florida. He also flew it in very late December 1944 when the crew detected a blip. It turned out to be a Royal Navy vessel sending out a signal.
Closer and closer the Sunderland roared, the crew straining to make out the signal. Was it in distress? Under attack? "It turned out it wasn’t that at all" George recalled. "He just said, ‘Happy New Year!’
George instructed with the FTU into 1945, then was sent home for demobilization, arriving in Canada in early September, 1945.
The RCAF’s 422 Squadron, RCAF: the historical sketch
(Source: "RCAF Squadrons and Aircraft" by Sam Kostenuk and John Griffin, page 116)
Formed at Lough Erne, Northern Ireland on 2 April 1942.
Nickname: "Flying Yachtsmen".
Locations: Lough Erne (April 1942-Oct 1943
Kesh, Northern Ireland, October/November 1942
Oban, Scotland (Nov. 1942-May 1943
Bowmore, Argyllshire May-November 1943
St. Angelo, Northern Ireland November 1943-April 1944
Castle Archdale, Northern Ireland April-November 1944
Pembroke Dock, Wales November 1944-June 1945
Disbanded at RAF Bassingbourne, England in early September 1945.
It flew the Saro Lerwick in training and the Catalina (July-November 1943) and then the Sunderland III and V.