Over the years I count myself very fortunate to have interviewed many former RAF aircrew who spent their wartime years flying out of our local aerodrome, RAF Bradwell Bay.

Sadly most of them are no longer with us, but all of them had incredibly vivid stories to tell - be they memories of everyday domestic affairs of living on the remote airfield, or of very special acts of bravery during active service.

There is one particular conversation that stands out for me and that I will never forget.

It involved a former pilot from 219 Mosquito Squadron – a typically modest, understated man who was almost nonchalant about experiences that would be regarded by us today as extremely traumatic and life-changing.

With a wry smile, he told me that he once had a swim in the Blackwater.

I didn’t quite understand until he made it clear that his aircraft had ditched in the river and he ended up, as he put it, “in the drink”.

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During the Second World War there was a great need to rescue the ever diminishing number and desperately needed airmen from the sea, not least from the Channel.

Air Sea Rescue Squadrons were formed for this purpose and one of these, number 278, was based at Bradwell from April 1944 to February 1945.

Formed in 1941, with a brief to cover the coast off East Anglia, the squadron flew a variety of aircraft.

They initially had Lysanders and Walruses, then Ansons and Spitfires (for spotting) and from May 1944 Vickers Warwicks that, among other things, were used to drop lifeboats by parachute.

The idea for an airborne lifeboat first came from Group Captain EF Waring, DFC, AFC, the deputy director of Air Sea Rescue.

Initial plans were then drawn up by Lieutenant  AC Robb, a reserve officer in the Royal Navy, and further developed by the famous boat designer and sailing enthusiast, Uffa Fox.

After a number of initial teething troubles, the perfected lifeboat consisted of a double-skin mahogany hull with water-proof calico cloth in between the planking.

There were eight watertight compartments for equipment and supplies (including an operating manual), a sail and usually two 4hp engines. (In fact it was soon discovered that the small engines that were needed were not in production and so a call went out to pleasure boat owners to voluntarily surrender their engines for reconditioning and re-use).

It had buoyancy chambers to make it self-righting, was 23.5ft long, 5.5ft wide and weighed some 1,630lbs.

More than 400 of these boats were built in small boatyards all over the country – including, we discover, here in Maldon by John Sadd & Sons Ltd, the builders and timber merchants.

Originally founded in the 18th century, at the outbreak of war this successful local business advertised bunks for air raid shelters (two-tier or three-tier, with back rest for seat) and black-out cloth – 50/52in in width.

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The company then turned to bigger and more important things.

It was granted a number of Government contracts, including the supply of army hutments, followed by orders from both the Admiralty and Air Ministry for Fairmile-type motor launches and motor torpedo boats, pontoons, small assault craft, motor fishing vessels, aircraft parts, flight cooking and messing boxes and, most relevant to this story, “air-sea rescue craft”.

Extensive use was made of their wharf and there is a lovely contemporary photograph of it with 68ft herring drifters used as harbour service craft to warships for stores and personnel when at anchor. Front right (at the stern of the boat) is that well-known, larger-than-life character Tubby Wright. 

The “air-sea rescue craft” mentioned were, of course, the airborne lifeboat and Sadd’s received the approved blueprints under cover of secrecy.

The plans covered every tiny component.

Standards were exact as the boats all had to be identical to avoid confusion and frustration when they were put to use.

Sadd’s army of joiners got to work and well and truly did their bit for the war effort.

First successfully used in May 1943, the finished products went on to be strapped under the body of coastal command aircraft, including those Warwicks at Bradwell, and were regularly dropped next to ditched aircrew, who made use of the sail and rations on board.

The boats went on to save many lives and enabled most of those who were rescued to rejoin their squadrons and to continue with the fight for freedom.

Sadd’s were clearly (and quite rightly) very proud of the part that they played in this effective rescue initiative and a photograph of their top brass sitting around a table in the boardroom shows a model of the lifeboat prominently displayed in a glass case behind them.