The French Pyrenees is shrouded with mist most of the day and one has to go through gravelly and dirt roads just to get to its top. Add to that the forces of nature which might attack anytime and you have a recipe for disaster. However, these factors did not stop this mixed-bag team from getting to their goal – obtaining the debris of two of the most feared Second World War German bombers which collided in these mountains, the Dornier 217.ZA.
The Dornier Do 217
A more powerful upgrade of the German bombers known as Dornier Do 17 which were dubbed the Fliegender Bleistift or ‘flying pencil’, the Dornier Do 217 was used by the Third Reich’s elite air force, the Luftwaffe, in their battles during WWII.
Designed to be a heavy bomber, the Do 217 carried greater bomb loads that its counterparts, was speedier and had a wider range. On both the Eastern and Western Fronts, it was used as a reconnaissance aircraft, torpedo as well as a strategic bomber. It also did direct ground attacks and anti-shipping strikes in the battles of the Atlantic and Normandy. Additionally, it was employed as a night fighter defending the Reich until its end. Plainly speaking, the Do 217 saw much action during World War 2.
It is believed that about 1,700 Do 217 bombers were produced in WWII but none remained intact to this day.
This is why no matter how hard the climb to the French Pyrenees is, the group of about 50 archaeologists and historians risked it just so they could get a more complete and hopefully intact version of the German bomber model.
during the Second World War, the Germans stationed most of their Dorniers outside the French city of Toulouse. From here, they did bombing runs against the allied forces assigned at sea.
One fateful day in 1944, two Dorniers got lost in their return to Toulouse and collided with each other over the mountains of Pyrenees.
The bombers’ eight crew members died instantaneously. As the mountains were home to passeurs, members of the resistance who aided in smuggling allied soldiers across the mountains to the safety of Spain, the locals feared German discovery about the incident would lead to violent reprisals. So, they secretly buried the bodies of the dead crew and throw the wreckage down a cave hole nearby to hide the evidence.
And for more than six decades, an unwritten code of silence about what happened ensued within the community.
The Search and the Discovery
Driving through the mist that mostly covers the French mountains and climbing over 3, 280 feet up, the group, many of whom came from the aerospace industry and worked for aircraft companies like Airbus or ATR, the turbo top maker, braved the cold bite of the mountain weather just to get to the cave where the Do 217 are supposedly in.
One of the debris hunters was Gilles Collaveri, and he was very determined to get to what they were on the lookout for. It was through word-of-mouth and old rumors that he gained knowledge about the two WWII German war crafts in these mountains. He went trekking through the thick-forested area in search of the cave last year and basing all on eyewitness accounts, he found the cave but he also saw it was inaccessible.
With the help of a local cave scientist group, however, he was able to get to the cave’s bottom and there found the debris he was looking for.
Nevertheless, it had taken considerable time and much haggling in their part to get the necessary papers needed for the retrieval of the remains.
A lot of the parts were over 50 kg. in weight and getting them out through the 100 feet narrow shaft with the use of ropes was not at all easy. In the open, the retrieved bits looked more like ordinary metal scraps but there are pieces that allow viewers to see glimpses of that part of history – pieces which include the crafts’ wing sections, oxygen tank remains, ammunition and a cockpit part with the German manual still unscathed.
The team said the remains they found though still intact cannot be pieced together anymore because the parts are not at all complete to rebuild one plane. Their finds will be sent to museums in Berlin and France to be exhibited.
Success and Criticisms
The team rejoiced at their success and had a makeshift lunch as a way of celebration. It was provided by the owner of an aviation-themed restaurant located just nearby Toulouse’s airport control tower. He wanted to join the expedition being an avid aviation enthusiast and an amateur pilot but was too old to go through the actual action involved.
But if the group is celebrating their rare find, most of the locals within the area are not happy about it.
Yvette Campan, the mayor of the nearby village Sacouse, remembered how her grandparents used to tell her how scared they were when the German bombers collided and bodies were found scattered everywhere.
Attracting attention is the last thing they want especially since the finds were of the enemy. Even now, no local ceremony to commemorate the discovery of the wreckage was made or planned. The Dorniers were of the Germans, after all. If they would have been war crafts of the Allied forces then, it would have been a different story.
Nevertheless, one of the hunters named Georges Jauzion, ex-French Air Force pilot and test pilot for Airbus, see the discovery in a different light.
For him, the German bombers were an important part of history adding that he wants to really gain an understanding about what really happened 70 years ago over the Pyrenees mountains.