Like many American military aircraft of the period the Consolidated Catalina actually gained its first combat experience in British hands. The Air Ministry purchased a single example of the PBY-4 (as the commercial Model 28-5) in 1939, and in July 1939 the aircraft flew across the Atlantic to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe, Suffolk to undergo tests. Even though these tests were cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War, the RAF still decided to place an order for the Catalina. The first of around 700 Catalinas to enter RAF service arrived early in 1941, and entered service with Nos.209 and 240 Squadrons of Coastal Command.
Sources differ on who was responsible for the use of the name Catalina, with both the RAF and Consolidated being given the credit. Catalina Island is off the coast of California, close to Los Angeles, and not too distant from Consolidated at San Diego. The RAF did prefer to give American aircraft names that reflected their country of origin, while Consolidated also named their aircraft. In either case the RAF knew the aircraft as the Catalina from 1939, while the US Navy did not adopt the name until 1 October 1941, when the vast majority of existing types of service aircraft were given names.
Coastal Command in Home Waters
The Catalina first saw active war service with RAF Coastal Command, before the United States entered the Second World War, but it was never present in British waters in large numbers. Seven squadrons operated the Catalina from Britain and two briefly from Iceland, giving the often quoted total of nine Coastal Command squadrons. However of these squadrons six used the Catalina with Coastal Command for less than a year, and only No.210 Squadron retained the Catalina in British from its introduction in 1941 until the end of the war. At no point were there more than three squadrons operating the Catalina from Britain.
Despite this limited level of use, the Catalina squadrons did produce some noteworthy achievements with Coastal Command. On 26 May 1941 it was a Catalina from No.209 Squadron that located the Bismarck, after the Navy lost radar contact with the German battleship, and Catalinas of No.240 Squadron shadowed her until surface ships regained contact. This was a rare example of the Catalina acting as the “eyes of the fleet” for the Royal Navy, a role that was normally performed by land based aircraft. Towards the end of the war, on 7 May 1945, a Catalina of No.210 squadron sank the 196th and last U-boat claimed by Coastal Command.
India and the Far East
The Catalina was far more important on overseas stations, where its ability to operate from any suitable stretch of water was much more important than in Britain. Nine squadrons would operate the Catalina from bases in India and Sri Lanka, flying anti-submarine patrols, convoy escort and air sea rescue missions over the Indian Ocean, as well as dropping agents on the coasts of occupied Burma and Malaya.
No.205 Squadron was equipped with the Catalina early in 1941, and at the time of the Japanese attack was operating from Singapore and Sri Lanka. The squadron was then sucked into the fighting in the Dutch East Indies, suffering heavy losses before eventually reaching Australia in March 1942 with only two aircraft remaining. The squadron was then moved back to India to reform, and spent the rest of the war involved in the same routine as the newer Catalina squadrons.
Six Catalina squadrons operated from bases around the coast of Africa, four in East Africa and two in West Africa. These squadrons performed the same mix of anti-submarine, convoy escort and air-sea rescue missions as the Indian based squadrons, but in an area where there was relatively little enemy activity. As a result the routine for the crews in these squadrons was one of long periods of dull routine patrols over vast expanses of empty ocean, interrupted with sudden bursts of activity.
The designation Catalina I was given to 100 PBY-5s purchased directly by the RAF. The Catalina I was given British equipment, including six Vickers machine guns – one in the nose, one in the rear tunnel and a twin gun on a manual mounting in each of the blister windows.
The Catalina IA was the RAF designation for fourteen Model 28-5 AMCs produced in November-December 1941 for the RCAF.
The Catalina IB was the designation given to 225 aircraft built by Consolidated as the PBY-5B. Of these aircraft 60 were retained by the US Navy, leaving 165 for the RAF. The change of designation from Catalina I or PBY-5 was probably due to the start of lend-lease –the Catalina Is purchased directly by the RAF had not needed a US Navy designation, but all lend-lease equipment had to have an official American designation
The designation Catalina II was given to 7 PBY-5s purchased directly by the RAF. They carried slightly different equipment to the Catalina I, although of three squadrons to operate the Catalina II only one did not use it alongside the Mk.I.
The designation Catalina IIA was given to 36 PBV-1s built by Canadian Vickers, and identical to the PBY-5.
The designation Catalina IIIA was given to eleven PBY-5As, the only examples of the Amphibian version of the Catalina to enter RAF service. They came from a batch of PBY-5As delivered between December 1941 and March 1942, and spent most of their RAF career operating as part of a trans-Atlantic ferry service.
The designation Catalina IVA was given to 97 PBY-5s.
The designation Catalina IVB was given to 194 (193 in some sources) Boeing of Canada PB2B-1 Catalinas purchased by the RAF. The PB2B-1 was identical to the PBY-5. Boeing actually built 240 examples of this aircraft between July 1943 and October 1944, of which 34 went to New Zealand, 7 to Australia and 5 to the US Navy.
The designation Catalina V was reserved for the PBN-1 Nomad, but none of that aircraft entered RAF service, and so the designation was never used.
The Catalina VI was the RAF designation for the Boeing of Canada produced PB2B-2, which was effectively a PBY-6A but without the landing gear.Sources differ on the number of Catalina VIs produced, ranging between 59 and 67, with the biggest part of the difference being accounted for by disagreement on one block of serial numbers. All sources agree that 47 of these aircraft were used by the RAAF.