Last of the flying pencils: Dornier 17 bomber lifted from English Channel - Home News - UK - The Independent

Last of the flying pencils: Dornier 17 bomber lifted from English Channel

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Wreck of warplane brought to surface after 73 years on seabed

It was one of the most feared German bombers of the Battle of Britain. Hundreds were built in German aircraft factories n 1939 and 1940 – and their bombs devastated large areas of London, Coventry and Norwich.

The Dornier- 17 – known as ‘the flying pencil’ on account of its slender shape – was a key work-horse of the Luftwaffe in the early years of World War Two.

But only one example is known to have survived and that particular machine lay at the bottom of the English Channel until earlier this week, when it was lifted from the seabed in a £600,000 operation, led by the Royal Air Force Museum.

Over the next 18 to 24 months the museum’s experts will use new pioneering conservation techniques to try to turn the corroded, battered aircraft back into a semblance of what it would have looked like during the Battle of Britain.

But at the same time, the museum’s historians will be trying to piece together the missing bits of the plane’s  history: Where precisely was it built and when? Which sorties over which British cities and airfields did it participate in? What happened to its surviving crew members after the war? Can their families now be contacted?

So far, the historians have been able, bit by bit, to piece together the story of the aircraft’s final fateful hours.

On the morning of 26 August 1940, nine Dornier bombers took off from St Trond airfield  in German occupied Belgium to bomb a key RAF fighter base – Manston  in Kent. But the operation had a hidden more important strategic agenda. The Germans had set a trap for the RAF. The real purpose of the raid was to lure British fighter aircraft into the air so that German fighters,  quietly lying in wait, could move forward and shoot them down. The tactic was only partially successful – and the Luftwaffe lost three of its Dorniers, included the one which has just been lifted from the seabed.

That plane was intercepted by RAF Defiant fighter aircraft from Hornchurch airfield, in east London. Over Hurn Bay, Kent, it was hit by machine gun fire from one of the Defiants and crash-landed on the surface of the sea four miles off Ramsgate.

After hitting the water in an attempted controlled landing, it somersaulted and settled into the water on its back. All four crew managed to leave the aircraft. Two – 27 year old wireless operator Helmut Reinhardt  and 28 year old Bomb Aimer Heinz Huhn – either drowned or were already dying from injuries sustained during the aerial dogfight or the crash-landing. Their bodies were washed up on beaches, respectively, in Holland and England, where they were eventually buried in war cemeteries.

But their two colleagues - Pilot Willi Effmert , 24, and  Bomb Aimer Hermann Ritzel , 21 survived,  were rescued by the British and spent  the rest of the conflict  in prisoner-of-war camps in the UK and later in Canada. It’s thought that both survived the war – but so far the RAF Museum has not  been able to track down their relations.

For the museum – and for all those interested in the history of the Battle of Britain – the Dornier is a priceless treasure. It is not only the sole surviving example of a Dornier 17 – but is also the only surviving Luftwaffe bomber which actually fought in the skies over Britain in that desperate battle in the summer of 1940..

As well as Spitfires and Hurricanes, the museum has long held examples (all on public display) of the various types of Luftwaffe bomber used over Britain in      that early part of the war – except, that is, a Dornier-17. “This was the missing link in our collection,” said Ian Thirsk, the Museum’s Head of Collections.

The other German bombers in the museum are of various aircraft types used in the Battle of Britain – but in fact date from later in the war. This newly acquired Dornier will in fact be the only German plane in the museum’s collection to have actually participated in that epic aerial confrontation. 

Now the big challenge facing the museum is to prevent their newly acquired Luftwaffe prize from crumbling into dust. Usually, when aluminium has been exposed for a long period to salts (in this case, chloride from the sea) it fairly rapidly disintegrates when it eventually comes into contact with the air.

To prevent that happening, the Museum turned to scientists at Imperial College London. The first key step to ensure the plane’s future survival was to obtain samples of the metal it was made of. The college’s Department of Materials was then able to carry out tests on the fragments to determine their precise composition. But even more importantly, the scientists were then able to use trial and error to develop a perfect custom-made chemical mixture (a very specific balance of citric acid, water and sodium hydroxide) with which to treat the plane once it finally emerged out of the sea. As a result, effective conservation work was able to start virtually immediately the plane left its watery grave this past Monday evening. 

The museum’s conservators also developed a pioneering new system for applying the chemical mixture. They built a special custom-made spraying tunnel, made of polythene, within which the aircraft fuselage and wings will sit for the next one and a half to two years. The aircraft will be continuously sprayed from the tunnel’s ceiling and floor.

But two other major factors have also served to help guarantee the aircraft a future. Firstly, it’s been protected by sand on the seabed for most of the past 73 years. It’s only been in recent times that changing tides and currents have removed that protective cloak. As a result if has been vulnerable to increased corrosion, the attention of looters and the impact of fishing nets.

Secondly, unlike some other planes, no copper was used to make the aluminium alloy that this particular aircraft consists of. Indeed it’s composed of an alloy which is 98% aluminium and two per cent manganese, magnesium, iron and silicon. If copper had been present, salt-induced corrosion would have been much faster – and sea life would have avoided the wrecked plane because copper is a biocide. As it was, the absence of copper allowed abundant sea life (barnacles etc) to colonize the plane and therefore in effect helped protect the Dornier from destruction.

From next week, members of the public will be able to see the Dornier undergoing conservation at the Royal Air Force Museum in Cosford, in the West Midlands. Other key Battle of Britain aircraft are on display at Cosford – and at the Museum’s other base, Colindale, north- west London

Video: Veteran says WW1 has been forgotten

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week