Divers loot 'war graves' of D-Day troops sunk off the Normandy coast

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The Independent Online

Divers are plundering and looting the remains of a huge forgotten D-Day army lying in the sea off Normandy, according to archaeologists carrying out the first study of the site.

Divers are plundering and looting the remains of a huge forgotten D-Day army lying in the sea off Normandy, according to archaeologists carrying out the first study of the site.

A team has been mapping the underwater wreckage for the first time, concentrating on the area off the beaches codenamed Utah and Omaha for the Allied landings. They have found tanks, lorries, jeeps, landing craft and troop carriers, together with the remains of 5,000 soldiers who never made it to the beaches on 6 June 1944.

But divers have been looting helmets, guns, shell cases, pieces of vehicles and boats. One team even salvaged a tank, which probably contained the remains of its crew, and hauled it on to the beach.

The survey is led by Professor Brett Phaneuf of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas University. He said: "The site is being taken apart. Charter boats are going over from Southampton, and there are divers from France and elsewhere who are going down there and getting things out - helmets, flare guns, and so on.

"These are the war graves of the largest naval action, and probably the most significant, in the history of the world, yet they have no protection. A lot of men are in tanks and landing ships that never made it to shore, and these sites should be as every bit as hallowed as the grounds of the military cemeteries on the cliffs above."

Despite the historical importance of the sites, they have not been declared war graves and remain unprotected from the actions of the looters.

Professor Phaneuf said one of the aims of the research was to get information that could be used by American and French authorities to come up with ways to police and protect the site and prevent looting. "We can't make recommendations about protecting resources that we don't know about, so we're surveying to see what's there, how much is really left and what kind of condition it is in."

Professor Phaneuf's Project Neptune 2K is attempting to discover exactly what happened to the soldiers who never made it to Normandy by surveying and identifying the wreckage lying off the coast.

He said that while all Second World War sites on land have been investigated and mapped, until now no one has tried to find out what lies in the waters off the Normandy beaches. "We need to study the battlefields, including the underwater portion, to get a handle on what happened. We don't know exactly how many ships were there, and we are not sure how many people were lost on the ships or in the water," he said.

Using hi-tech equipment, including magnetometers to plot magnetic fields and side-scanning sonar to profile the seafloor, the team have so far found enough equipment for an entire army.

"There's a phenomenal amount of material down there, every possible type of vehicle and piece of equipment. Sherman tanks, lorries, British tanks, Jeeps, bulldozers, trucks, ammunition carriers, troop carries, landing craft, landing ships, even pieces of artificial harbour," Professor Phaneuf said. The team believe they have found several of the amphibious British Double Duty Tanks, which were modified to float but sank as soon as they were released from ships, taking their crews with them.

Professor Phaneuf said that by mapping and identifying all the wreckage on the seafloor, researchers might be able to provide some information for relatives of men still officially listed as missing in action.

"We owe it to these people to mark their graves properly and to have due deference. Anyone who dives there should do so with the respect and deference due to what is an underwater cemetery.''

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