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Cowes inventor Uffa Fox's airborne rescue boat
The airborne lifeboat
The airborne lifeboat saved 600 lives

An ingenious airborne lifeboat helped save hundreds of lives during and after World War II.

It owes its existence to an inventor from the Isle of Wight.

Uffa Fox was born 1898 and spent most of his life working in Cowes as one of the island's most innovative and eccentric boat builders.

After his stepson ditched into the Channel, Uffa devised a lifeboat which could be dropped into the sea from an aircraft to rescue further casualties.

Rosemary Joyce, a trustee of the Classic Boat Museum in Newport said: "The idea had been talked about at the start of the war, but the project was never completed.

The boat would be dropped by parachute, as close as possible to the airmen to be rescued
Rosemary Joyce

"Uffa was the one who had the push and the drive to take this scheme forward."

The lifeboat was designed to be dropped from underneath the belly of either Hudson or Warwick aircraft.

Rosemary explained: "The boat would be dropped by parachute, as close as possible to the airmen to be rescued.

"These were trained airmen and we would do anything to get them back in one piece."

The self-righting and self-bailing boats were designed to get the men home as quickly and safely as possible, evading German capture.

Saved at sea

Uffa meets a saved crew on This Is Your Life

The first airmen to be saved by the lifeboat were the crew of a Halifax bomber which ditched into the North Sea while returning from a raid on Dortmund in 1943.

Speaking on BBC's This Is Your Life, the crew admitted they did not know the lifeboat existed
Getting the airmen into the boats was not an easy task.

Rosemary Joyce explained: "The early versions had a tendency to drift away after hitting the water, so the designers built in sea activated lifelines. Once the boat hit the water, a sea anchor was deployed.

"They were provided with two small engines and around 12 hours worth of fuel but they were encouraged to learn how to sail."

"Everything would be in the boat that the rescued airmen would need to survive including food, warm clothing, and cigarettes."

"There was even an arrow painted in the boat pointing towards the bow."

A page of the sailing manual
A manual was provided in the boat, showing the airmen how to sail.

They were quite small boats, around 23 feet (7 metres) long, and would be capable of carrying between one and five people.

As warplanes became larger, so the lifeboats were redesigned with a larger capacity. Some later models would be capable of holding up to 25 men.

Based on Uffa Fox's experiences of building light, strong racing dinghies, the airborne lifeboats were made of plywood.

Built in Cowes

Designed and built in Cowes, the lifeboats were extensively tested in The Solent.

"The prototypes were dropped flat onto the water," explained Rosemary. "They broke up into three pieces on contact with the water, so later models were designed to be dropped at an angle to minimise impact damage."

The lifeboats were deployed at overseas bases such as Malta, Aden and Egypt as well as in the UK. After the war they were used as leisure craft by the forces. But very few lifeboats survive today.

Surviving lifeboats

In 2000, while investigating the whereabouts of another boat for their collection, the trustees of the Classic Boat Museum discovered one in Colchester.

Restoration project

The lifeboat found in Colchester
A Mk1A lifeboat was discovered in an Essex garden.

The boat required some extensive restoration work before being exhibited in Newport.

Rosemary said: "Uffa did not throw much away so it was not difficult to track down the original drawings.

"Also there are a number of people in Cowes who remember working on the original lifeboats who were extremely helpful."

"Items including a radio, a kite to get height for the aerial and engines were donated."

And artefacts are still coming to the attention of the museum. In 2007 a collector in Brighton found a scale model of the lifeboat.

Lasting legacy

The lifeboat was used all over the world rescuing servicemen in the North Sea, Bay of Biscay, Norway and Pacific.

It is unknown exactly how many lives worldwide were saved by the airborne lifeboat, but in excess of 600 British servicemen were rescued, all of whom were eligible to join The Goldfish Club .

Entry to the exclusive club is restricted to airborne servicemen who have been shot down, or ditched into open water.

release chart
The air crew would calulate where to release the boat.

Although Uffa Fox achieved a great deal in his lifetime, he was always immensely proud of his airborne lifeboat.

Rosemary said: "This was one thing he could point to and say 'I did it.'"

Uffa Fox died in 1972 at the age of 74, having lived most of his life in Cowes.

His headstone in Whippingham Church is engraved with the image of an airborne lifeboat under parachutes.

Uffa Fox's airborne lifeboat can be seen at various events across the Isle of Wight through the year, and on static display at the Classic Boat Museum in Newport.

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