Who Owns Our Dead?
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Who Owns Our Dead?
Archaeologists value human remains for all they can tell about the past, but the issues now provoke strong debate. In the UK this mostly concerns ancient bones or recent people from far away. World War II fatalities are different, raising awkward questions for archaeologists, collectors and government. In the first of two provocative pieces, Vince Holyoak looks back to the last war fought in British skies
Breakfast, Friday 6 September 1940. Cathode ray displays at RAF radar stations on England’s south coast begin to fill with returns as Luftwaffe aircraft jockey into position over northern France. By 8.40 Observer Corps posts can actually see the enemy formations approaching. Six squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes are scrambled. Taking off from Middle Wallop in Hampshire, bucking and weaving as they climb furiously with throttles wide open, the Spitfires of 234 Squadron are guided south-east. Inside the aircraft, sweating despite the chill of altitude, pilots scan the horizon. Over the Sussex coast, the Spitfires suddenly find themselves engaged by Messerschmitt 109s. For the next 30 minutes a desperate struggle takes place, eventually stretching from Beachy Head to Romney in Kent, that ends only when ammunition and fuel are expended.
Pilot Officer William ‘Scotty’ Gordon of Banffshire, aged 20, never returned to Middle Wallop. His Spitfire X4036 was hit almost immediately, burying itself in Hadlow Down, East Sussex. An RAF recovery team probed the smoking crater, collected any salvage, made the area good and recovered Gordon’s remains.
On the same day a further 17 British fighters and six aircrew were lost: almost 3,000 British and German aircraft were destroyed over and around the UK in the Battle of Britain alone. By the end of the war, after the arrival of the US Army Air Forces in 1942, the total had risen to over 11,000 . Some 100,000 aircrew had been killed.
The death of Scotty Gordon, then, was unremarkable for the time. What did excite the press, however, 63 years after Gordon was buried in Mortlach churchyard watched by his parents and two sisters, was the discovery of more human remains.
Having searched unsuccessfully in 1974, on 31 May 2003 aviation archaeologists found not only the plane, but also tattered pieces of uniform and human bone. Few familiar with the air war were surprised. Recovery teams—often civilian contractors, lacking equipment and time—worked under intense pressure in the face of unrelenting aircraft losses. High speed crashes, often accompanied by fire or explosions, hindered identification of bodies.
The law stipulated that 7 lb (3 kg) was needed to establish a body. The common belief that coffins were weighted to appear full may have been all too true. Though not widely reported, small pieces of bone can be found today at plane crash sites, even when aircrew have graves. Take the Spitfire excavated for Time Team in France. Pilot Flight Sergeant Klipsch had been buried nearby: but it was euphemistically remarked in a magazine article about the dig that it was obvious somebody had died.
Behind such unfortunate incidents, however, lurks a much more disturbing story: that of the missing.
By 1950 the RAF’s Missing Research and Enquiry Service had located almost half the 40,000 aircrew posted missing over north-west Europe during World War II (1939-45). In 1953 Her Majesty the Queen inaugurated the memorial to the missing at Runnymede, on which the names of 20,466 aircrew of the British Commonwealth and Empire were commemorated. They have no known graves.
For the British Government, this ended the matter. In 1969, however, the film The Battle of Britain fuelled growing nostalgia. Relics of the air war, the remains of wrecks that had littered the countryside, could still be found.
Like 19th century barrow diggers, throughout the 1970s loose affiliations of enthusiasts competed in a mad scramble for the best artefacts. Virtually every accessible Battle of Britain site was picked over, many being investigated two or even three times. Attention then turned to sites from later in the war, and recently has concentrated on using more modern survey and recovery techniques to re-examine some which had previously defied excavation.
Inevitably human remains were found. Enthusiasts often relied on local knowledge, with little idea as to what type of aircraft a site contained, let alone its identity. In 1972 Pilot Officer George Drake became the first missing Battle of Britain casualty to be recovered. Leutnant Werner Knittel followed in 1973, then Gefrieter Richard Riedel and Flying Officer Franciszek Gruszka (1974), Oberfeldwebel Karl Herzog, Obergefrieter Herbert Schilling and Sgt Edward Egan (1976) and Oberltnt Ekkehard Schelcher (1979).
Each find was greeted by an outraged press. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued revised guidance, but a further three aircrew were discovered in 1979, and two in 1980. The only answer, it seemed, was legislation. The Protection of Military Remains Act came into force in September 1986.
Meanwhile six more bodies had come to light. Ltnt Helmut Strobl was found just days before the new legislation, from a site already excavated twice before. Earlier finds had included Strobl’s parachute harness buckle and Iron Cross, but reportedly, no human remains. However, at the third investigation bones and Strobl’s identity disk were recovered: underlining the need for control, they had been buried in a plastic carrier bag. Since 1986 eleven more missing aircrew have been recovered. Three were excavated accidentally, when licences were issued for the wrong aircraft. The most disturbing cases are two found by an enthusiast – angered by the MoD’s refusal to grant licences.
His first dig was at a crash site at Chilham, Kent, long suspected to have been that of Sgt Gilders, missing in action in 1941. It was common knowledge locally that the aircraft contained a body; the landowner had vetoed excavation. When ownership changed, the enthusiast, with the consent of both the new owner and the Gilders family, asked the MoD to excavate. They declined, saying there was no proof that the crash was Sgt Gilders’, nor certainty of recovering remains. Yet when the enthusiast applied to excavate the site himself, he was refused on the grounds that the site might contain human remains. Exasperated, he conducted an excavation. He found Gilders’ remains, and proof of identity. He was then tried under the Military Remains Act, receiving an absolute discharge.
In the second case the same man excavated a crash site near Lydd, Kent, from which the pilot had not been recovered in 1940. A small excavation in 1973 was thought to have found human remains. The landowner and the pilot’s family gave their consent, and the enthusiast excavated without even applying for a licence. Curiously, it seemed that the aircraft had already been fully excavated. Soon the enthusiast was again charged under the Military Remains Act. However, it was discovered that an RAF team had re-excavated the site shortly after the original 1973 recovery, and had found human remains. With the identity of the wreck unproven, these had been buried as ‘unknown’. When this came to light the MoD dropped charges.
This enthusiast had previously excavated a third site without permission, so the MoD may have felt compelled to take action. However, their apparent intransigence concerning the missing should also be considered. In 1998 war historian Dilip Sarkar identified seven Battle of Britain crash sites thought to contain missing crew. One, beneath a disused warehouse in Gravesend, Kent had already been the subject of an illegal recovery attempt. Sarkar reported that only once, in 1990, had the MoD acted on the wishes of a pilot’s family and carried out a recovery: this appeared to be due solely to the intervention of the Prince of Wales.
Why then, even when requested to do so by relatives, has the MoD declined to recover the remains of missing aircrew? It points out that the Protection of Military Remains Act does not provide for relatives’ wishes. It cites historical precedence, saying that the ‘battlefield grave’ is an honourable British tradition.
After the Great War (1914-18), despite families’ entreaties, the Empire’s dead were left where they were, for reasons of cost and equality. Repatriating only identified remains, it was argued, would discriminate against the families of the hundreds of thousands in graves marked only ‘Known unto God’ or listed as missing. During WWII this policy continued, except for service personnel killed within the UK, whose relatives could have their loved ones returned. Flag-draped coffins awaiting collection at provincial railway stations became all too common. However time, confusion over wreck identities and salvage difficulties sometimes led to sites being abandoned, and connections between missing casualties and wrecks were lost.
It was different elsewhere. In 1920 the French government caved in to pressure and allowed relatives to reclaim their war dead, at state expense. Within two years, in a remarkable exercise in logistics, some 300,000 fallen had been exhumed and returned to their home towns.
The British Government’s attitude contrasts even more sharply with that of the United States, which from World War I has been committed to repatriating its war dead. The RAF’s Missing Research and Enquiry Unit ceased work in the 1950s. The US Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii is searching now. Consider this recent case.
In March 1945, B17 Flying Fortress Tondalayo of the 858th Bombardment Squadron, VIIIth US Army Air Forces was shot at while returning to base at Cheddington, Suffolk. Some official records note Tondalayo was caught by a night intruder, but investigation showed this was what we would call a ‘blue on blue’ incident: nervous British anti-aircraft gunners thought it was Luftwaffe. Pilot Lieutenant Colonel Earle J Aber and co-pilot 2nd Lt Maurice J Harper signalled the emergency, and held Tondalayo long enough for nine crew to bail out. She then cartwheeled into the sea off the River Stour, Essex. Salvage recovered nothing of Harper, and of Aber, only an arm and hand.
In 1990, for reasons that are not clear, the MoD approved an excavation at which, it was reported, flying clothing was recovered and human remains were exposed on a sand bank at low tide. Concerned, the Midlands Aircraft Recovery Group, amateur but highly experienced aviation archaeologists, asked the MoD to effect a recovery or allow them to do it themselves. The Ministry refused both.
The US Mortuary Affairs team, prompted by lobbying, visited in 1998. Two years later, with the help of the East Essex Aviation Museum and a local marine contractor, they made a full recovery, finding bones and Aber and Harper’s wallets. Those remains not identified by DNA testing were buried with full military honours in a joint grave at Arlington national cemetery. Aber’s bones were deposited in his existing grave at Maddingley US military cemetery, Cambridge, and Harper’s returned home to Birmingham, Alabama.
Aber and Harper would still be in the sea, but for the intervention of the US military. The United States is not alone in its enlightened approach. Having signed the 1949 Geneva Convention on Humanitarian War Legislation, the Netherlands committed itself to recovering, identifying and, where requested by relatives, repatriating aircrew remains. Gerrit Zwanenberg, a senior officer of the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Aircraft Evacuation Unit, was awarded an MBE. The wishes of the families of missing British and Commonwealth air crews have greater recognition in the Netherlands than they have ever found in Westminster.
Perhaps less surprisingly, the MoD’s policy of non-interference extends to ordnance. As recently as October 2002 an area of Sunderland had to be evacuated when workmen uncovered an unexploded Luftwaffe 453 kg bomb. Disturbance had set the fuse, and it took an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team almost two days to make the bomb safe. The MoD states it has no obligations to seek out and clear those crash sites known still to contain unexploded bombs, and that the safest policy is to leave them alone. This is perhaps fine so long as landowners and developers are aware of their presence.
Families, veterans, enthusiasts and the public have widely differing views on what should be done about air wrecks. Nobody could disagree that the MoD has had an extremely difficult task. Despite an honourable attempt at control, there are clearly problems. The wishes of the families of the deceased should take precedence: whatever the legal obligations, the case for doing nothing in the face of heartfelt pleas appears less and less convincing.
Holyoak is a professional archaeologist
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005