Pilots and Planes Lost in WW2
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Five Aircraft Crashed Daily in Early Years.
As a war baby, I obviously don't remember much about the awful conflict that was WW2. I have vague memories of being carried down into the blackness of an Anderson shelter; exciting times for me, as I got to wear my cartoon gas mask and my fluffy siren suit with the rabbit ears. But I have been left with a feeling of unease for all of my life as the air-warning and all-clear sirens are heard from the soundtrack of some war movie, or from old black-and- white footage of the Blitz.
But I cannot remember my uncle, Bobby, as he kissed me in the pram; just returning from a sortie over the grey English Channel, piloting his Spitfire against the marauding Luftwaffe in the early days of the war. Neither was I privy to the agony and grief of my grandparents and his sister, my mother, when the fateful telegram arrived to say he, too, had joined the ever-growing list of casualties from the thin line of defenders of this land.
Robert - Bobby - Mercer's plane had landed on the beach near Hawkinge as it ran out of petrol just a few miles from the safety of the airfield; running along the hard sand, it hit one of our own land-mines, destroying the plane and its pilot in a ball of fire.
Perhaps, if anything "good" can be gleaned from the destruction of this young life, he and his Spit. were lucky to go in this way: many were not so lucky; although death was the outcome for most charioteers falling from the heavens, some crashed straight into ploughed fields, forests, mountains, or bogs. Or disappeared for ever into the limitless ocean.
All our family chooses cremation, Hitler saved the crematorium a job is all.
With all the time that has passed since the Battle-of-Britain - some 68 years - one might suppose that all the returning planes crashing into the British countryside - and there were about 5 per day at the height of the Blitz - would have been located; those with dead air crews recovered and funerals arranged, as well as parts of the planes perhaps preserved in museums. Well, yes, a lot has been done and probably most have been recovered like this. But the carnage ran into thousands, there are still a lot of aircraft buried under tons of earth and rock. The nose of a plane like a Spit, with the v-six, 12 cylinder Rolls Royce engine, is extraordinarily heavy and wedge shaped. When a plane like this power dives into soft country, such as a bog, it digs into the terrain, sometimes as much as 3 meters or more. After the wooden props were replaced with metal ones, they did not strip, but in many cases, caused the howling Merlin engine to stop dead and explode with frustrated kinetic energy.
Although England is a tiny country, not all crash sites were found immediately, some not for years. And when they were discovered years after hostilities ceased, quite some procedure had to be followed before permission was obtained by the landowner, the families and the government to disinter remains of any pilot or crew still on board.
Many planes remain where the last few seconds took them, including different aircraft and lost aircrews of many nationalities, including German planes and pilots, all scattered around England, France and Germany, many being too remote to recover; they remain on and under the soil to this day.
As we know from watching programs such as Time-Team, artefacts once built on the top of the landscape are now to be found several meters under it. This is happening to war remains, too, as wind-blown dry soil and dust adds to the mantle created by the plane's speed and weight, burying it ever deeper. In the case of heavy parts, such as engines, propellers and superchargers, etc., much may be continuing to sink slowly into soft ground under the persuasion of the ever-present gravity. Occasionally, as the picture of the Lockheed Lightning shows, quirky nature can uncover again what it had once buried, and planes lost for the best part of a century are returned to us.
England's frenzied rebuilding of housing, factories and roads post war put paid to the hope of recovering many aircraft, permanently sealing them in a crypt of Ferro-concrete and tarmacadam. And time has another effect, too, people just forget, as few remain who remember the heroes and the fragile planes they piloted.
Much of an aircraft doesn't hold up the erosion: aluminium and other metal alloys turn to powder, rust changed engine blocks and steel parts into shapeless lumps of nothing. And, in reality, it seems just futile to keep recovering skeletons and ruined personal effects unless there are family members still alive and prepared to take on the saddening task of reburying their lost son or brother.
Through the late fifties and nineteen-sixties, these was a great resurgence of interest to recover whatever could be found from the hundreds of sites still listed somewhere, or being found by people trudging over dale and hillside. Many more planes were recovered and a dozen or more museums sprang-up, (one excellent museum is at Manston Aerodrome in SE Kent). Some 60 Spitfires have been restored from those which survived intact, many of which can still fly in air shows today, (for anyone who can afford the copious fuel they gulp down!).
Of many that were found, it was decided to leave them in situ, some with their pilot keeping them company perpetually until time melds them back, as it will with all of us, into the matter-bank from which we came.
Hub dedicated to my uncle, Flight Sergeant R.T.D. Mercer RIP.