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British survival technology for aircrews was inferior to Germany’s during the Battle of Britain.

By Mark A. Keefe IV

Pilots–especially fighter pilots–were a valuable commodity in Britain in 1940. It took time, training and experience to make a competent fighter pilot, so it seems logical to expect that aircrews of fighter planes should have had the very best of escape and survival technology available on land or sea during the Battle of Britain.

It is surprising to learn, then, that when England’s gallant few faced Germany’s best fliers over the English Channel, Royal Air Force (RAF) survival equipment and techniques were in many ways inferior to their enemy’s. For example, the 1932 pattern waistcoat, lifesaving stole–the original “Mae West” life preserver–that shows up in nearly every photo of British aircrews dating from the Battle of Britain relied on kapok inserts (often removed by aircrew members during missions because they were uncomfortable to wear in the cockpit) and oral inflation to make them buoyant.

By contrast, Luftwaffe fighter pilots were issued the much thinner, less bulky waistcoat-style Model 10-30 Schwimmwest, which was inflated by means of a carbon dioxide cartridge with a twist valve. (The Germans also issued some kapok-filled vests, mostly to bomber crews.) In fact, captured Model 10-30 Schwimmwests were very popular among RAF fliers–and for good reason, since the prospect of blowing up one’s own life preserver after being forced to ditch in the drink has little appeal, then or now.

Comparative details such as these make for fascinating reading in Mick J. Prodger’s Luftwaffe vs. RAF: Flying Equipment of the War 1939-1945 (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atglen, Pa., 1998, $49.95). “During the Battle of Britain,” writes Prodger, “the RAF had no such system for rescue or sustenance to downed aircrews, who were in fact poorly equipped to survive in the Channel for any length of time.” It was not until 1941 that the RAF established the Air Sea Rescue service to pick its pilots out of the Channel in a timely and professional manner. Through hard lessons learned during the Battle of Britain, the RAF steadily improved its survival gear as the war continued. By the time the Allies began taking the war to the Germans, the RAF had developed some innovative escape and evasion aids.

The differences in flying equipment between the Luftwaffe and RAF, as illustrated by Prodger, exemplify some of the widely divergent philosophies of the opposing forces. Whereas the Germans came to the conclusion that they should place their emphasis on practical survival equipment, the RAF became enamored with developing ingenious escape and evasion equipment. The RAF, however, did make constant improvements to its survival equipment and added survival equipment to its life jackets.

RAF escape aids, which are amply illustrated in Prodger’s book, are among the most fascinating and collectible pieces of World War II memorabilia. RAF compasses were manufactured to look like tunic or shirt buttons, battle-dress blouse buckles, razors and shaving brushes. The British even came up with a tiny rotor compass that fit inside the stem of an airman’s pipe. “Escape boxes” were also distributed, containing everything from chocolate bars to matches to amphetamines. Also of note are RAF escape boots. When the tops were cut away, these appeared to be a pair of regular walking shoes. Included as well are examples of the badges and paperwork for RAF’s “Caterpillar Club”–airmen who had to literally hit the silk–and “Late Arrivals Club,” those who bailed out and made it back to their units.

Escape tools were not of much use to German airmen, since there was little hope that they would be able to make it from England back to the Continent regardless of what tools they had. The Germans concentrated on survival techniques and equipment, relying in particular on compasses, dye packs and flares.

Luftwaffe vs. RAF: Flying Equipment of the Air War 1939-1945 includes more than 500 photographs–more than 400 in color–that clearly identify the tools of the trade for both sides. The artifacts and ephemera are drawn from an impressive listing of public and private collections and are presented with clear, descriptive captions and text. In addition to recent photos of surviving examples of the individual pieces of equipment, there are vintage images of the “kit” actually worn or used by famous and not-so-famous airmen during the war. For the collector of flying equipment or memorabilia, military miniature modelers or those with an enthusiasm for the Battle of Britain, Flying Equipment of the Air War 1939-1945 will prove an informative and invaluable reference.