"In those days we had very little idea of whether or not our bombing was effective. It was purely visual"
My name is Alan Robertson. I served in the RAF during the Second World War. And in fact, I enlisted on Boxing Day of 1940. And my first day of service was New Year's Day, 1941. In the course of my previous experience, I had been called up in the Emergency Services as a dispatch rider with the fire service. And, at the outbreak of war, everyone assumed that Britain was going to be bombed immediately. And so they dispersed all of the fire appliances out into little tiny communities by a fire alarm or under a bridge and we had to build a shelter. I served for about nine months in that capacity and then, because we were part of what was called the "phoney war" - there wasn't a great deal of activity going on - I decided that I wanted to get into some more active role and I joined the Air Force.
My flying training was, for the most part, done in the United States in Pensacola, Florida. And I was trained as a naval aviator on flying boats. The old Catalina flying boats which were the backbone of the Battle of the Atlantic. And I spent the first tour that I did, flying from Gibraltar out into the middle of the Atlantic, escorting convoys and hunting down U-boats. In that period of time, in one year, almost to the day, I was part of an attack on two separate U-boats. In those days we had very little idea of whether or not our bombing was effective. It was purely visual. The pilot just let the depth charge go when he felt that it was close enough to the conning tower of the submarine or the U-boat. We couldn't really tell whether or not we had been effective because the Royal Navy, the British Navy, set high standards of evidence. And the only evidence that they would really accept was the kind of macabre evidence, like human lungs floating on the water after a U-boat had been attacked.
After the Atlantic stint, I went out to the Far East and I was based at Madras and flew into the Indian Ocean right the way across to the Burma coast. And again, patrolling against submarines and escorting convoys. I did that for a year and then was recalled for some specialist training, when the technology of each side started to get ahead, obviously, we had to do something to match whatever the enemy was doing. And we used a searchlight hung under the starboard wing. And we attacked at night. And then turned the searchlight on at the last half mile, caught the U-boat by surprise and, theoretically, with a new bomb sight, we stood a better chance of either damaging or killing a U-boat.
A lot of people don't understand that the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest battle of the war. It started on the evening of the 3rd of September, the day that Britain declared war on Germany when a U-boat sank the liner SS Athenia, in the mistaken belief that she was an armed merchantman. And there was a tremendous loss of life and these were the first fatalities of a campaign that was to last until Germany's surrender on the 8th of May, 1945.
The importance of our job, I think it was spelled out best in Winston Churchill's memoirs. He said, "The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome. And amid all other cares, we viewed its changing fortune day by day with hope or apprehension."