"'I'm luckiest man in the R.A.F.," was the way in which Flight
Lieutenant E. R. Baker was once described, and few in the Royal Air
Force or Royal Navy would disagree. Information concerning him,
however, was so meagre that one morning I trudged through the deep
snow of a distant city to travel all day in search of someone who knew
Around that city dozens of motor cars lay abandoned in the drifts, but
the train gradually carried me into a belt of country that was quite
balmy and spring-like, with no snow to be seen. It was an astonishing
transformation. For hours I journeyed slowly through sunny valleys
over which the touch of spring already seemed to hover. It was lovely
country with beauty everywhere, far removed from war. But the tops of
the mountains piling up around were covered with snow. Now and again
the sun was reflected by fairylike waterfalls which had solidified
into icicles, and by evening I arrived at my destination. '
Never in my life have I seen anything more beautiful than the scene
which greeted me next morning. The snow on the peaks around was turned
to a rosy -pink by the sun, their bases were purple and blue, lovely
clouds made a pattern in the sky and in the foreground were sparkling
blue waters with ships falling picturesquely into place and Sunderland
flying-boats at their moorings, while the buildings of the town were
grouped so artistically round the waters that it was difficult to
believe that this enchanted place was in the British Isles.
Gazing on the scene to take in its full
beauty before the changing light banished the
exquisite tones, I went on to pay a call to try to find out something
about the luckiest man in the Royal
He was, I learned, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a spare
figure, very blue eyes, a small fair moustache to set off a well-cut
mouth and firm chin, and a natural wave in his fairish hair. Very
modest, quiet of speech, with a sense of humour, Flight Lieutenant
Ernest Reginald Baker, D.F.C., had at that time wrought more havoc
among the German U-boat fleet than any other man in the fighting
services. He was the captain of a Sunderland flying-boat which he
regarded with as much affection and pride as any owner of a shapely
yacht. His flying-boat, which he christened Queen of the Air, had her
name -painted over the doorway leading into the hull, and over the
name were painted four white stars.
Those stars were signs of high honour, for each
represented a submarine which was sunk by Flight Lieutenant Baker and
his crew of the Queen of the Air. Happily the same boat and crew took
part in all four triumphs
At the beginning of 1941 Flight Lieutenant Baker had
already done 1000 hours of active service flying. Before the war he
was the second pilot of a Sunderland flying-boat.
"My Skipper, who taught me all I know about
flying-boats, was a South African-Flight Lieutenant A. S. Ainslie. He
won the D.F.C. He was the grandest chap I've ever known we used to
call him Angel. Unfortunately he got shot down by a U-boat," Baker
They were out on patrol on September 3, 1939, and when
they alighted at 4 o'clock in the afternoon they had no idea that war
had been declared, nor had they a gun or a bomb on board.
On September 9th, they took off on their first war
patrol and were lucky enough to sight a submarine on that initial
trip. They at once attacked
with bombs, but to their chagrin the submarine escaped. During their
second patrol on September 14th, they again sighted a submarine and
let loose their load of bombs, but once more the enemy eluded them. On
September 16th they went out for their third patrol and sighted their
third submarine which was promptly bombed without avail.
Three submarines sighted on three trips and not one
attack successful there is no need to touch on their feelings!
Hopefully they took the air again on September 19th, and generous Dame
Fortune gave them another chance to sink an enemy submarine, but
their bombs crashed down without delay, the U-boat
got away. Thus on four successive patrols Flight Lieutenant Ainslie
and his second pilot Flight Lieutenant Baker had the unusual luck to
sight four submarines and the misfortune to lose them all.
By trial and error some of the greatest discoveries
have been made. As attacks had not given the results expected, it
seemed that something more was needed to bring success. The question
remained whether the method of attack and the weapons employed were
the most suitable for the purpose. That was the problem which all
those engaged on the task had to work out.
The following months increased the experience of
Flight Lieutenant Baker. On those long patrols which took him hundreds
of miles out into the Atlantic to watch over the convoys of ships that
were conveying essentials to Great Britain, his knowledge of the
tricks of the weather and the sea grew - with every hour that was
added to his flying time. He tasted the joy of being promoted to
command a fine new flying-boat which to him and her crew was the Queen of the Air, and he suffered the loss of his
friend Ainslie, who was shot down by a U-boat.
It looked as though Dame Fortune, who had given him
four chances to sink enemy submarines in the first month of the war, .
viewed him with disfavour. Then early on August 16, 1940, he dropped
into the launch at the quay to be rushed out to the Queen of the Air,
and by 7 o'clock he opened the throttle, taxied over the water and,
took off to pick up a convoy and go on anti-submarine
patrol. It was a dreadful day: The rain poured down and the base of
the clouds was within 400 feet of the sea. The Sunderland thrashed
through it, but the weather was so bad that her captain once said that
he almost decided to go home. He changed his mind, however-which was
Six hours of flying brought little improvement in the
weather, but the activities going on at the primus stoves in the
galley reminded the crew, whose appetites were in no way affected by
weather or anything else, that lunch was ready, so they settled down
to enjoy their meal and a friendly chat.
The engines roared rhythmically as the flying-boat
cruised over the sea with the captain at the controls. The second
pilot kept a keen watch on the seas below, though the bad weather made
visibility poor. Suddenly the second pilot let out a shout of "sub!"
and pointed to port. A glance
revealed the U-boat to the captain, who instantly sounded the warning
Klaxon which made the crew drop knives and forks and jump to action
"I put my foot on everything!" was the graphic way the
captain on his return explained how he unleashed all his power to get
to- the submarine before it could escape. "The U-boat
was on the surface when we
sighted it, and they must have sighted us at the same time, for they
started to do a crash dive. By the time the submarine was down, I was
diving low -over the top of it to drop a depth charge. The
result was terrific. The whole of the surface of the sea seemed to
shudder for yards around and then suddenly blew up. In the middle of
the boiling sea the submarine emerged with its decks awash, then sank
rather like a brick. I did a steep turn and came over it again just as
it was disappearing. The explosion actually blew the submarine right
out of the water. There was such an enormous amount of it out of water
that my rigger saw daylight under it. I turned and climbed, and as the
submarine heaved on its side and sank I dropped my bombs right across
it. Large air bubbles came rushing up-one was over thirty feet across.
Then great gobs of oil began to spread over the surface until a wide
area was covered. I waited for about an hour until there was no more
air or oil coming up, then I fetched a destroyer from the convoy and
signalled what had happened. After carrying out an Asdic sweep and
reporting no contact, the destroyer signalled to me: `Nice work. I
hope you get your reward!’”
From the moment the submarine was sighted until it was
destroyed only ninety seconds elapsed. A submarine can crash dive in
about forty seconds, and unless the first blow is struck at it within
about this time, there is a good chance of it escaping, so it will be
realized that the captain and crew of a flying-boat must act
instantly, without a second's hesitation, if they are to sink the
U-boat. Obviously much depends on the distance at which the submarine
is sighted and the time that the flying-boat takes to reach the spot.
So steeply did the captain bank the Queen of the
Air to bring her round with the least possible delay, that each time
he turned, members of the crew were flung about, and the observer who
tried to take photographs collapsed on the bottom of the boat in a
heap. But it was the rear-gunner who came off worst. Sitting in the
tail waiting for a chance to have a crack at something, he suddenly
thought that somebody was having a crack at him, for the flying-boat
was so low when she made her attack that the force of the explosion
gave her tail a jolt which bounced him out of his seat hard up against
the top of the turret, with the result that his souvenir of the action
was a large bump on top of the head. Of course, the other members of
the crew laughed--no one was in a mood to do anything else after their
But as base was informed and the Queen of the Air
continued to guard her convoy, memories of the grandest chap he'd ever
known crept into the mind of the blue-eyed pilot sitting so quietly at
the controls. "Well, thank God, that's one back for Angel!" was his
As the rigger made a cup of tea to take to the captain,
he was heard to remark: "I'll bet those fellows in the sub are
drinking salt water now instead of tea! "
The Queen of the Air taxied to her moorings about 7.30
that evening, after flying for twelve and a half hours. Shortly
afterwards the first white star appeared on her hull.
Less than a fortnight later, on August 29th, just
before dawn, the Queen of the Air began to roar over, the waters. The
smoke from the adjacent city mingled with the mist to add to the
difficulties of that particular base, but she got safely away and was
soon heading out to
sea to pick up her convoy. At dawn contact was made
and thereafter for hour on hour the captain and crew of the Sunderland
carried out their normal submarine patrol, circling the convoy and
flying ahead to search for submarines or mines in the course of the
About 11 o'clock that morning the escorting
destroyer signalled: "There's a U-boat about here somewhere." The
sensitive ears of the Asdic
had detected the sound of the submarine moving under the sea and the
naval commander had at once invoked the eyes overhead to help to find
Diving low, the flying-boat began a creeping
line ahead search, but it was
about ten minutes before the keen eyes on the aircraft saw the track
of the submarine's periscope. Instantly the captain attacked
with a depth charge, flinging
the crew about as he came round steeply to get in another attack
before climbing to finish the U-boat
off with bombs. He made no mistake. All that he had been taught
about the distance a submarine can travel under water in a minute was
in his mind as he made his three attacks along the track of the
invisible-enemy. Directly the Sunderland had finished attacking, the
destroyer came roaring on the scene to add a
few more depth charges just
to make sure. The huge air bubbles which belched up to the surface and
the gobs of oil which appeared and spread over the area marked the
destruction of the enemy. When the destroyer carried out a sweep with
the Asdic, she signalled: "No contact. Sub destroyed."
That evening the Queen of the Air landed at her base at
6 o'clock with a very happy crew. If anyone had cause for complaint it
was the rear-gunner who had another large bump on the top of his head
to prove how the explosion had flicked the tail and jolted him hard
against the top of the turret. But he was in no mood to grouse. He was
quite willing to stand any number of bumps providing they got the
U-boats. So, with due ceremony, the second white star was painted on
the hull of the flying-boat.
The third white star was earned on October 17th, about
300 miles away from Cape Wrath, that bleak headland in the north of
Scotland, where the Atlantic pours through the Pentland Firth into the
North Sea, often with such fury
under the lash of the gales that the English Channel at its
worst bears no comparison. Getting away in the dark about 5.30 in the
morning, the crew of the flying-boat watched the dawn gradually light
up the sea beneath them. For several hundred miles they cruised on
their normal routine of guarding a convoy when, about 9.30, the
warning Klaxon blared through the aircraft.
The front gunner sighted the submarine on the starboard
side and at once signalled and opened fire. It was on the surface and
travelling towards the convoy, but a smart look-out was being kept on
the submarine, for it immediately did a crash dive. Quickly as it
tried to escape, however, it
was seconds too slow for the Sunderland, whose captain sent her diving
down to attack. Round came the flying-boat,
throwing her crew about, to attack again. Just before this attack,
all on board felt the flying-boat stagger as a great blow hit the
tail. "There was a most colossal crack on the tail plane," explained
Flight Lieutenant Baker later. "It gave us a big shaking."
The rear-gunner who received his usual bump on the head
when the first attack was made, got a nastier bump still the second
time round, for there was a big explosion inside the submarine and he
saw pieces of wreckage flying up out of the sea and felt them hitting
the tail plane. "The tail plane has been damaged by wreckage from the
sub," he reported to the captain.
They watched the surface of the sea belching great air
bubbles, saw the oil gushing up and spreading wider and wider, and as
the sea quietened down the captain turned the flying-boat for home.
"Are you all right?" he inquired of the rear-gunner through the
"intercom." this is the service way of describing the
intercommunication system between
the members of an aircraft.
The rear-gunner felt his bumps. There is no need for
you to press the buzzer in future," he replied, "as every time I get a
crack on the head I shall know you've got a sub."
They landed safely at base, to find their tail plane
fabric badly cut about in dozens of places by the wreckage hurled up
from the exploding submarine. In due course the third star made its
appearance on the hull of the Queen of the Air.
They were a happy crew who manned the Queen of the
Air; they came to know each other so well during those long and, for
the most part, monotonous patrols that in an emergency they knew
exactly what to do and did it
automatically. If the skipper got a laugh at the bumps of the
rear-gunner, the rear-gunner and the rest of the crew got many a laugh
at the expense of the skipper. Often the Klaxon blared out to send
them to action stations where they waited tensely to attack, only to
find that the skipper had dived down on some innocent basking sharks
or a whale which he had mistaken for submarines;
"They used to laugh themselves silly," the skipper
once remarked. So at his appointed times the captain of the Queen of
the Air continued to take her across hundreds of miles of ocean to
help to bring the tall ships, the food ships and ammunition ships and
tank ships and aeroplane ships, safely to the shores of England.
And throughout those long patrols, keen eyes on the
flying-boat searched for a sight of submarine or periscope, while the
captain was ready to let loose death and destruction upon the German
outlaws of the sea.
The weeks passed uneventfully until the beginning
of December. At dawn on December 6, 1940, he took the Queen of the Air
off the water and flew north to shepherd a convoy. The weather was
unspeakable. The cloud base was down to 300 feet and visibility was
nil. It was raining and snowing hard and the temperature was at zero.
They thrashed along for hour after hour, peering out and seeing
nothing, wondering where their convoy was and if the rain and flurries
of snow would ever hold up.
Then the miracle happened. Quite suddenly about 1
o'clock the weather broke in a perfectly straight line across the sky.
"It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life. We stuck
the nose of the aircraft out into clear weather while the tail was
still enveloped in clouds the captain said afterwards when he came to
explain this phenomenon "It took us a few seconds to grow accustomed
to this bright light after flying in gloom for so long. As the second
pilot and I blinked and looked ahead, we both sighted a sub at the
identical moment, turned our faces to each other, opened our mouths
together and howled in unison `Sub!' It was rather funny."
In that clear area, about a mile away, a large
submarine of about 1,000 tons was travelling
at ten knots on the surface.
The aircraft which had been flying at cruising speed suddenly
accelerated as her captain went after his quarry. He could see men on
the conning tower and recognized her as an Italian submarine of the
Ballilla class. The men on the conning tower saw their doom
approaching. Quick as they were to close the conning tower and open
the valves to flood the tanks that would take them down to safety,
they were too late
As the Queen of the Air dived, her skipper saw
part of the stem of the
submarine still showing. He struck home on each side with depth
charges and there was a big explosion as he climbed to renew the
The rear-gunner; rubbing the usual bump on his head,
looked down excitedly. "There's a sheet of metal about six feet by
four just been hurled out of the sea. It was all torn and twisted," he
reported to the captain.
The crew of the flying-boat, circling round, gazed on
the waters. There was no doubt about the destruction of the Italian
submarine. The air released from the shattered craft shot up like
fountains for six feet above
the surface. The oil gushed up and spread until an area of about a
square mile was covered with it.
"These Italians seem to be having a hell of a fine time
in this war!" commented the wireless operator. "They're getting it
where the chink got the chopper."
It was indeed amazing the way the weather cleared to
enable them to sight
and sink the submarine; it was no less amazing the way it
closed down again as soon
as their task was completed. The weather In fact grew so bad that the
flying-boat could not make contact with her convoy, so she was obliged
to return to base, where her skipper reported his fourth success and
the crew duly painted the fourth star above her name.
Thus by sinking four enemy submarines before the end of
1940, Flight Lieutenant E. R. Baker, D.F.C., made ample amends for
missing those four U-boats in September, 1939, while patrolling with
his friend, the late Flight Lieutenant Ainslie, D.F.C.
1. From 'So Few' by David Masters, Published by
Eyre & Spottiswoode (1941)
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page last updated:Sunday 22 July 2007