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The Luftwaffe Seenotdienst (Air Sea Rescue Service) of World War II

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Founded in 1935, the German Seenotdienst or "Sea-Air Rescue Service" was an innovative emergency response organization tasked with rescuing the personnel of downed airplanes and foundering ships at sea. Combining aircraft, fast ships, shore-based aid-stations and even rescue buoys moored at permanent locations far out to sea, it solved a number of organizational, operational and technical challenges to create an effective rescue force that became a model for all such entities. British and American air leaders, observing Germany's achievements in this regard, patterned their own rescue forces after the Seenotdienst.

In 1935, Lieutenant Colonel Konrad Goltz of the Luftwaffe - a supply officer based at the port of Kiel - was tasked with organizing rescue units to provide emergency coverage in the German coastal areas of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The Seenotdienst was born as a civil organization manned by both military- and civilian personnel, with a fleet of aircraft flying under civilian registration. Goltz augmented the effectiveness of this force by arranging for cooperation and coordination with Kriegsmarine air-units as well as with civilian lifeboat societies such as the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (DGzRS, or "Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger"). He also assumed administrative command over the "Ships and Boats Group" which was organized at Kiel by the Luftwaffe.

He-59 Float Plane

Early in 1939, in consideration of the increasing likelihood of war with Britain, the Luftwaffe carried out large-scale rescue drills that extended far out to sea. It was determined that German bombers operating from inland bases were hampered by their limited range, so airfields were constructed in coastal areas to extend the Seenotdienst's reach over the open waters of the Baltic- and North Seas. Additionally, as a result of these exercises, the Luftwaffe undertook to procure a fleet of purpose-built air-sea rescue seaplanes, finally opting for the Heinkel He 59, a twin-engine biplane with Dornier Do 18s previously used for naval reconnaissance was assigned to air-sea rescue, and two new bases were set up in Norway at Stavanger and Bergen, and one at Aalborg in Denmark. When the Netherlands and France fell to the German advance in May and June 1940, more rescue bases were put into operation. The Hague and Schellingwoude became rescue bases in the Netherlands, and Boulogne and Cherbourg in France hosted rescue units that were soon to be active during the Battle of Britain. In many cases, local rescue societies cooperated with the Seenotdienst. The Seenotdienst was officially absorbed into the Luftwaffe in July 1940, becoming Luftwaffeninspektion 16 (German Air Force Inspectorate 16) under the direction of Generalleutnant Hans-Georg von Seidel, the Quartermaster General of the Luftwaffe, and thus indirectly under General der Flieger Hans Jeschonnek, the Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff.

In July 1940, a white-painted He 59 operating near Deal, Kent was shot down and the crew taken captive because it was sharing the air with 12 Bf 109 fighters and because the British were wary of Luftwaffe aircraft dropping spies and saboteurs. The German pilot's log showed that he had noted the position and direction of British convoys—British officials determined that this constituted military reconnaissance, not rescue work. The British Air Ministry issued Bulletin 1254 indicating that all enemy air-sea rescue aircraft were to be destroyed wherever they were encountered. Revealingly, Winston Churchill later wrote "We did not recognize this means of rescuing enemy pilots who had been shot down in action, in order that they might come and bomb our civil population again." Germany protested this order on the grounds that rescue aircraft were part of the Geneva Convention agreement stipulating that belligerents must respect all "mobile sanitary formations" such as field ambulances and hospital ships. Churchill argued that rescue aircraft were not anticipated by the treaty, and were therefore not covered. British attacks on He 59s increased. The Seenotdienst ordered the rescue aircraft armed as well as painted in the camouflage scheme of their area of operation. The use of civil registration and red cross markings was abandoned. A Seenotdienst gunner shot down an attacking No. 43 Squadron RAF Hurricane fighter on July 20 Rescue flights were to be protected by fighter aircraft when possible.

In August, a few captured French and Dutch seaplanes were modified for rescue and attached to the organization. Some three-engined Dornier Do 24 flying boats that were built in the Netherlands, and eight French Breguet Br.521 Bizerte models were refitted with standard Seenotdienst rescue supplies. Further bases set up at Le Havre, Brest, St. Nazaire and Royan. More aircraft were brought under Seenotdienst command on an ad hoc basis, depending on the urgency. On May 22, 1941 in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Crete, a squadron of Do 24s was called upon to rescue survivors of the sinking of the Malta, some 1,000 rescue missions were flown by Do 24s, with many shot down. In saving Italian sailors from the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the Luftwaffe pulled bases back to keep them from being overrun. Units of the Seenotdienst whose areas of operation were threatened by Allied activity were disbanded or reorganized into other groups with safer locations. For instance, in July 1944, while surrounded by the gathering to attack Brest, Seenotstaffel 1 that had been operating there since June 1940, with a southern detachment at Hourtin, was sent to Pillau on Baltic, and then redesignated Seenotstaffel 60 in August. In November 1944, the German leadership decided that the flying boat manufacturing resources could be put to better use elsewhere, and it ordered the Dornier factory to cease building Do 24s.

Aircraft used by this organization were:

The Seenotdienst aircraft rescued 99 children and 14 adults in a single Sortie, carried by a Do 24, saved from orphanages threatened by the Soviet advance into Pomerania at the beginning of March 1945. The load was so great that the aircraft was unable to take off — instead, using the surface effect, wave-hopped back to base. During the same battle, six boats working with the Seenotdienst made repeated trips March 17–18 to a pier in Kolberg and evacuated 2,356 people. Thus ended the amazing history of the Luftwaffe Seenotdienst. This organization became the model for all postwar Air Sea Rescue organizations, and the Dornier 24 remained in service well into the early 1970's!

Do-24 Seaplane

Dutch rescue aircraft belonging to the Noord- en zuid-Hollandsche Redding Maatschappij (NZHRM, translated North and South Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution) and the Zuid-Hollandsche Maatschappij tot Redding van Schipbreukelingen (ZHMRS) were incorporated into the Seenotdienst during the occupation of the Netherlands. Their fast rescue boats were painted white and marked plainly with red crosses, but on at least two occasions they were strafed by Allied aircraft. Dutch civilian boatmen enjoyed good relations with the German authorities, and between 1940 and 1945, the they saved some 1,100 seamen and airmen.


Uniforms of the Seenotdienst were a mixture of civilian, military, Red Cross and even foreign clothing. Prior to the war a Merchant Marine style jacket, Jumper and cap were authorized with special insignia. After the war began in 1939 the organization was placed under military command and Luftwaffe and Naval Style uniforms were adopted. Consequently we see unusual variations of clothing such as Kriegsmarine (Naval) style middies being worn with Luftwaffe insignia!

By 1945 the Luftwaffe had nearly a thousand Nautical vessels in service ranging from crash boats, weather ships, Flak Barges to Motor Vessels. It's well documented that many Kriegsmarine garments were issued to Luftwaffe crews on Flak barges (like the flak sleeve qualification badge in gold on navy blue) as it was more economic for the Luftwaffe to purchase and reissue the correct garments through Kriegsmarine stores rather than develop its own models for such a small number of personnel.

Left, we see a very rare picture of such a Luftwaffe Soldier wearing a Kriegsmarine Sommeranzug white Naval jumper and trousers without the customary breast eagle, showing a Luftwaffe style rank chevron for an Unteroffizier embroidered in light blue thread on white being worn! The Airman / Sailor appears to be clutching a standard Luftwaffe style overseas cap known as a Schifftchen (little boat) in his left hand, but they were also known to have been issued from Kriegsmarine stores in matching white cotton cloth with Luftwaffe Eagle and cockade.