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In World War II thousands of planes crashed in the UK. Not all losses were combat: many were flying accidents due to factors such as bad weather, pilot error or mechanical failure. However, it was combat losses, primarily aeroplanes shot down during the Battle of Britain in 1940, that interested early aviation archaeologists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Battle of Britain film encouraged an embryonic aircraft preservation movement to salvage tangible relics of Britain’s ‘finest hour’. Among those too young to have experienced the war, but who had grown up on war stories, comics and Airfix kits, some were understandably inspired to search out such relics for themselves. Incredibly, during this period it was not too difficult to find large portions of plane wreckage strewn across rural southern England, abandoned as ‘war junk’. These wrecks were swiftly cleared, and attention turned to digging deeper for other finds.

Perhaps the first true aviation archaeologists were Peter Foote and Dennis Knight. They grew up during the war, and developed a keen interest in the history of the air war. In the 1960s they toured southern England, photographing crash sites and relics, interviewing witnesses, logging war graves, researching official archives and amassing a huge data base. In the early 1960s they excavated a crashed Messerschmitt 110 at Washington, West Sussex. They unearthed valuable information about the crew and their plane, driven deep underground by the violence of the impact. Months later a new by-pass cut through the field, sweeping away all trace of the incident.

As activity increased, in the mid 1970s the Ministry of Defence issued a Note of Guidance to aviation archaeologists, many of whom had formed cohesive societies or even established museums. Essentially, the activity was and remains privately organised, privately financed and self-regulated. Nonetheless, some legal questions arose: notably, who owned the wrecks?

In 1973 the MoD stated they had abandoned all claim to crashed planes, and that any of official interest had been recovered. Rights to surviving wrecks now fell to landowners. By the late 1970s, however, the MoD had reversed their position, issuing excavation guidelines in which they claimed title to all RAF and German wrecks (the latter regarded as Captured Enemy property surrendered to the Crown). Aviation archaeologists should now seek MoD ‘permission’ before conducting a dig. Though there was no firm legal basis for these conditions, the MoD stated that any unapproved recovery or excavation would constitute an illegal interference with Crown property.

Incidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s involving the discovery of live bombs and human remains – together with diving activities on sunken RN warships – prompted the introduction of the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. This now regulates UK aviation archaeology, requiring any excavation or recovery at a site where an aircraft crashed ‘whilst in military service’ to be formally licensed by the MoD. When human remains or live ordnance are suspected, a licence is not normally forthcoming.

The value of aviation archaeology, often questioned, depends on many varied circumstances.

Consider the case of Sgt Pilot ‘Eddie’ Egan, lost during the Battle of Britain. His Hurricane was excavated in a Kentish wood in the late 1970s. The remains of a pilot were recovered, and buried with full military honours. Unfortunately, no positive identification was found, and the assumed Egan was buried as an ‘Unknown Airman’. Dissatisfied, the archaeologists returned to the crash site. After careful sifting they discovered a brass plate the size of a matchbox top with the serial number of Egan’s plane. The mystery solved, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission provided the grave with a headstone bearing Egan’s name. The satisfaction and peace of mind afforded his family cannot be over-emphasised. Aviation archaeology served a humanitarian cause, as well as a historical one. Now go to the Battle of Britain Museum at the RAF Museum, Hendon. You will be greeted by the reconstruction of a Hurricane wreck recovered from east coast mudflats. This valuable artefact would by now have disintegrated, if not been ‘raided’ by souvenir hunters, had it not been recovered in the 1970s by private individuals. This is a striking exhibit: a fitting tribute to its pilot, and part of Britain’s aviation heritage. It also highlights another reason for aviation archaeology’s importance.

Look carefully at this Hendon exhibit. It is easy to see why wrecks of this nature are attractive to aircraft restorers and aviation museums. Where else can they source long unavailable parts? There need be no conflict of interest. Some crash sites can yield tons of material. Distribution of finds from a single excavation (after proper examination and recording) can equally benefit local history, museums and aircraft restorers.

Much can be learned about the minutiae of aircraft losses and aerial battles. The Hurricane wreck at Hendon is preserved, but not restored. However a Wellington bomber recovered from Loch Ness some years ago has now been lovingly restored at Brooklands Museum, Surrey, and is a valuable and important asset.

On the other hand, the results of aviation archaeology may yield but a few twisted fragments of metal. In the case of the crashed Hurricane flown by Flt Lt James Nicolson, however, the only RAF Fighter Pilot awarded the Victoria Cross, that tiny scrap of alloy carries huge historical interest. One pilot was able to paste into his wartime Log Book, adjacent to the relevant entry, the face from one of his aircraft’s instruments, retrieved on an aviation archaeology dig. What it meant to him is inestimable, and, to boot, a valuable historical document was considerably enhanced! Such instances are rare, but who can measure the importance to a former pilot re-united with an aeroplane he once flew, baled out of or even shot down?

Not all aircraft wrecks are buried. Many were salvaged during the war. Others remain underwater in rivers, lakes or offshore. Some are spread across mountain or moorland (High Ground Wrecks), their inaccessibility inhibiting recovery. Such in situ wrecks can be interesting and dramatic—often monuments to the airmen who perhaps died in them. Exposure, however, causes corrosion and decomposition of the remains. On well-walked locations, parts are regularly ‘looted’. The continued existence of these wrecks on site is, generally, not in their best long-term interests.

Aviation archaeology is difficult, perhaps, to fit into mainstream archaeology; practitioners are typically not trained archaeologists. Nevertheless, they share valuable knowledge and experience. Many have developed specialist skills of aeronautical engineering, recovery and preservation, researching, and recording and identification of artefacts.

Trophy hunting can inspire some, and will probably always do so irrespective of the period – Roman, Saxon, Medieval … or Battle of Britain! Yes, the artefacts recovered are of historic significance, but it would be foolish to pretend they have no monetary value. Recovered aircraft items do find their way onto the open market, but if they are the proceeds of a licensed ‘dig’, this is entirely legal. The cost of recovery can be huge. Selling is a legitimate means for the aviation archaeologist to recoup some costs.

Aviation archaeology has its place in the study of Britain’s history. Locating, recording and researching crash sites must be important. The question of excavation, or not, will always have a degree of controversy. However buried metal artefacts deteriorate. Already some sites yield little more than a mass of crystallised aluminium oxide. That may well be the fate of many wrecks: most certainly those above ground will disappear. Surely better that these artefacts from our recent past are retrieved and preserved?

See Military Aircraft Crash Sites: Archaeological Guidance on their Significance & Future Management, by V Holyoak & J Schofield (English Heritage 2002); Battles over Britain: the Archaeology of the Air War by G de la Bedoyère (Tempus 2000 ISBN 0752414852); Missing in Action: Resting in Peace? by D Sarkar (Ramrod 1998 ISBN 0951983253)