Fallen Eagles & Sunken Beasts – Wreck Recovery In Britain Then And Now


There have been a number of news stories in recent months about the plundering of World War II warship wrecks in Asian waters where British and Dutch ships, in particular, appear to have received the unwelcome attention of ‘piratical’ or ‘rogue’ salvagers.

The ships were sunk at a time when the former colonial powers effectively lost their grip on lands they had previously ruled with confidence. The stripping of wrecks might be seen as a final act in the reality that the age of empires, as was, is just a chapter of history. Sadly this also means that the memory of the men who died with the ships counts for very little where different cultures and modern priorities are concerned.

But don’t let us get regional or in any way racially motivated in this discussion. Only a few years ago there were complaints that the remains of three British cruisers lost in the North Sea in 1914 had been stripped and recent surveys of wrecks from the Battle of Jutland showed some had received similar attention.

British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable sinking after being struck by shells from the German battlecruiser Von Der Tann

Consider the widespread disappointment when the recently discovered skeleton of a German soldier who died at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 became a museum piece.

I have been to the museum and admired the otherwise superb rendition of the battle and I paid my respects to Friedrich Brandt, who I think should receive a proper burial. The problem is; if a couple of Roman legionaries were discovered in my own country, they would probably end up in a similar setting. I suppose we have to question how much time it takes for the sanctity of a war grave to expire.

What has any of this got to do with the wrecks of airplanes from World War II?

The key point is it was the salvaging of Russian gold from the wreck of HMS Edinburgh that caused utter dismay for the families of the men who died with her, not helped by contemporary news reports of the remains of the men being treated with disrespect by the divers bringing up the bullion back in 1982.

HMS Edinburgh’s wrecked stern after being struck by a torpedo on 30 April 1942.

Fair to say the protected war grave status of the cruiser had been removed years earlier by a British government keen for a share of the gold. But this happened at a time when there had been a deepening sense of concern over the activities of teams digging up aircraft wrecks in the UK where remains of aircrew were said to have been disturbed. The inference being enthusiasts were only interested in the aircraft and not any human remains.

This utterly absorbing history of aircraft wreck recovery in the United Kingdom places all of the above into context as it examines how the process of researching and excavating crash sites became a regular and, at times, intensely competitive field of archaeology.

But while there was an undoubted zeal for finding artefacts from a wide range of airframes, particularly from the Battle of Britain, the fact is there was more than ample emphasis placed on consideration for the remains of airmen. In many cases wrecks were explored specifically so the men could be recovered to give them a decent burial, regardless of their nationality.

De Havilland Mosquito wreck.

That it was never a universally perfect process is evident and it easy to see why a Member of the British Parliament sought to legislate against what he and others saw as unregulated and at times irresponsible activities. Competing groups would visit a crash site more than once giving the impression the prize of cockpit sections; engines and other components often outweighed any sense of dignity for the fallen.

This book is published at a time when the discovery of aircraft wrecks from World War II in the British Isles is all but at an end. But there continue to be finds out at sea, evinced by the raising of a fairly intact Dornier Do17, the world’s only known survivor; from the Goodwin Sands. This aircraft is now in the care of the Royal Air Force Museum at Cosford, England, where it is undergoing conservation.

The rudder of a Dornier Do 17 shot down on 28 August 1940.

Author Peter J Moran has prepared a thoroughly detailed history of aircraft wreck recovery. He begins by looking back to the Great War when a number of airships and Gotha bombers came down in Britain. I drive past one crash site quite often and wonder what, if anything, remains of the Zeppelin.

The Royal Air Force was always pretty thorough in clearing up the results of air crashes between the wars but the start of renewed hostilities would place considerable demands on the service when it came to the recovery of aircraft, whether friendly or hostile. They also had to contend with bomb loads; learning to deal with dangerous fuses and anti-handling devices.

One episode of a popular TV drama from my youth had bomb disposal men dealing with German butterfly bombs – a small anti-personnel device scattered over southern England. The show sparked alarm when some people realised they had live bombs in their homes. They continue to turn up occasionally.

Batterfly bomb: SD2 – Open: wings have flipped open and screw threads at the base of arming spindle are visible: fuze is now armed.

When I bought my copy of Battle of Britain Then and Now over forty years ago I became fascinated by the world of aircraft wreck recovery and the fate of the airmen who were deemed to be missing. This new volume acts like an epilogue to that great masterpiece because it closes the book on much of the history by showing how the passage of time coupled with the introduction of bullish legislation have all but brought regular wreckology to an end.

A number of young airmen have found decent identifiable graves, while a small number of others have been less fortunate. I was struck by the efforts made by enthusiasts to get those airmen a proper burial, often in the face of the law.

But officialdom has its ways of making things difficult and while the law was made with the best of intentions its interpretation has not always been ideal. Landowners could be difficult to deal with and a story of a man refused permission to lay a wreath at the site of his brother’s grave hit hard. But there are many stories with much happier endings. All of this is explained with great clarity.

Crashed Spitfire of the RAAF

Mr Moran is a generous author who invites others to describe specific events. In this way we get to hear from Andy Saunders, Chris Goss and others giving the book further credibility. This is enhanced, in turn, with the use of the prodigious archives maintained by Winston Ramsey.

There are so many fascinating episodes here it would be an invidious task to pluck one out for the sake of my review. I would rather concentrate on the positive and remember the airmen who were lost and found again. What that must mean to their families I can only guess.

I’ve reviewed a number of After the Battle books and have never been disappointed by the commitment to accuracy and the quality and spirit of the finished products. I felt that the last two books seemed to be tying up loose ends of the European war with both titles centred on the worst that human beings can be.

Spitfire MK IX of No. 93 Squadron Crash Landed

This volume presents a wholly more optimistic window on recent history and it takes me back to the beginning of the 1980s when I first saw the AtB Battle of Britain book covered in one of the Sunday supplements. I knew then that I would never let my love of history go because there was proof that practical engagement with the past was possible for anyone, not just academics. I had to have that book. The process continues with this gem.

Whether you are a devotee of the Battle of Britain, the wider story of World War II or aviation history in general, this is a book you will enjoy and trust. What more can you ask?

Book cover

By Peter J Moran
After the Battle
Battle of Britain International Ltd
ISBN: 9 781870 067 942

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online

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