Rettungsbojen: The Floating Rescue Buoys of The Luftwaffe

Apr 13, 2020 0 comments

During World War 2, both the RAF and the Luftwaffe lost a large number of pilots at sea. The British used a couple of high speed boats that patrolled the English Channel and picked up downed pilots before they were overcome by the elements. The Germans used the Heinkel He 59 float planes that could land on water, in addition to boats. The German sea rescue service, or Seenotdienst, was more successful than the Allied effort. They had bases all along the coast of Denmark, Norway, Netherlands and France, covering much of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. They also enlisted the help of local rescue societies to increase their reach.


The Seenotdienst was a humanitarian service that did not discriminate between pilots belonging to the Luftwaffe and the enemy air force. In fact, one of the first major air-sea rescue operation, conducted on December 18, 1939, involved a group of 24 British airmen shot down into the icy waters of the North Sea.

In order to improve survivability in the ocean, German pilots in trouble over the ocean were recommended to make an emergency water landing in their aircraft instead of bailing out and parachuting down. Each aircraft was equipped with an inflatable rubber raft which kept the airmen out of water and away from hypothermia, thus improving their chances of survival. British airplanes carried no such thing. Their fighters carried only lifejackets which were little help against the cold.

In 1940, the Luftwaffe developed a floating rescue buoy called Rettungsboje and anchored several of these on the English Channel. Bobbing up and down the waves, these highly visible buoys held emergency equipment including food, water, blankets and dry clothing, enough to keep distressed airmen alive until they were rescued.


The Rettungsboje were square or hexagonal in shape with a floor space of about 43 square feet. The cabins were 8 feet tall with a 6 feet high turret carrying a ladder and a signal mast with a wireless antenna. The whole thing was encircled by railings just above and below the water line for downed flyers to grab on to. The buoy was anchored to the bottom of the sea by a rope. Over fifty of these buoys were placed in the English Channel during 1940.

The cabin had room for four persons, but in an emergency several more could cram inside. Batteries powered electrical lights, and if those ran out, kerosene lamps took over. There were two double-deck beds and adequate cupboard space for first-aid equipment, dry clothing and shoes, emergency rations, and a water supply. Food could also be prepared on a alcohol stove. Games, stationery, playing cards, etc. afforded diversion until rescue was effected. A radio transmitter allowed the stranded airmen to send out SOS signals. They could also hoist a yellow and red striped flag on the mast to indicate passing ships that the buoy was occupied and needed rescuing. Both German and British rescue units checked the floats from time to time to pick up any airmen they found and to replenish supplies.


Many of these buoys became dislodged from their anchor and got stranded on the beach. Photo: Islander/Flickr

Before they had their own air-rescue service, British pilots had to rely almost entirely on their enemy to survive.

“For an RAF airman to be shot down over the sea was an almost certain death sentence if the German rescue services were not close at hand,” said military historian, Dr Richard North.

Eventually, the British developed their own rescue buoys and deployed them under the main routes bombers took to and from continental Europe. This, along with other British innovation, such as the air-dropped lifeboat, helped save countless pilots from sure death. By spring of 1943, the British had four squadrons each with twenty aircrafts dedicated to air-rescue. By the end of the war, the British air-rescue service saved over 13,000 lives and became one of the largest such organizations in the world.


Many of these buoys became dislodged from their anchor and got stranded on the beach. Photo: Islander/Flickr

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