Luftwaffe Dornier 17 at Goodwin Sands 'still intact'

Ian Thirsk, RAF Museum at Hendon, on how the plane was found and identified - photos courtesy Port of London/Reson

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The discovery of a unique German warplane off the Kent coast left experts "incredulous". New images suggest the Dornier 17 is still intact and there are hopes that it will go on show.

They called it "the flying pencil": a slim, elegant aircraft originally designed in 1934 to carry passengers, which by the start of World War II had been converted into a deadly weapon of war.

The Dornier 17 was one of the mainstays of the Luftwaffe bombing fleets which began their assault on British cities and RAF airfields in the summer of 1940, in what became known as the Battle of Britain.

A total of 1,700 Dorniers were built, but the plane discovered in Goodwin Sands is thought to be the last remaining one.

Dornier 17 Z-2, serial number 1160, of number 7 squadron, 3 Group, third Bomber Wing, was shot down on 26 August 1940 and made an emergency landing in the sea just off the Kent coast.

Two of the four crew members died, two - including the pilot - survived to become prisoners of war.

'Still intact'

Start Quote

It's one of the most significant aeronautical finds of the century”

End Quote Ian Thirsk RAF Museum

The wreck of the plane sank some 50 ft (15.24m) to the bottom, turning turtle as it did so, and came to rest on its back on the notoriously shifting Goodwin Sands, which soon covered it.

Last month, a team on board the Port of London Authority (PLA) vessel, Yantlet, set out from Ramsgate to survey the wreck using the latest high-tech sonar equipment.

The survey confirmed an earlier finding that the plane has now been uncovered by the sand, as 70 years of time and tide have done their work.

"The really good news today is that we've got some very clear imagery," said John Dillon-Leetch, the PLA's deputy port hydrographer.

"The wreck is there. It seems to be still intact, and we'll find out more information over the next few days as we process and look down deeper into the data we have."

The BBC has been given exclusive access to the resulting 3D images, which are startling in their clarity.

 Dornier 17 The Dornier 17, known as the flying pencil, were employed by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain

The most important thing they show is that the aircraft's structure suffered no catastrophic damage during its final landing. The Dornier is largely intact, except for damage to the forward cockpit and observation windows.

The survey was carried out for the RAF Museum at Hendon in North London. The museum's head of collections, Ian Thirsk, was on board the Yantlet.

When he first learnt of the plane's existence he was, he says, "incredulous".

"This aircraft is a unique aeroplane and it's linked to an iconic event in British history, so its importance cannot be overemphasised, nationally and internationally. It's one of the most significant aeronautical finds of the century."

Very few Dorniers survived the war.

"They were either all shot down or they were scrapped. After the war the German people didn't want to remember, so aircraft like that were destroyed," he says.

New display

Some continued to fly with the Finnish airforce until the early 1950s, but they too were eventually scrapped.

The plan now is to raise the aircraft and put it on show at Hendon.

Dornier 17

  • Known as 'The Flying Pencil'
  • Originally designed in 1934 to carry passengers
  • Became a mainstay of the Luftwaffe bombing fleets
  • About 1,700 were built
  • Twin engine, twin fin configuration
  • Most numerous model was the Dornier 17 Z
  • Dornier 17 Z had a wingspan of 59ft (18m), and a length of 52ft (15.8m)
  • The maximum bomb load of the Dornier 17 Z-2 was slightly over 2,000lbs

The museum, which is funded by the Ministry of Defence, is bidding for cash from heritage organisations to cover the costs.

The work has become urgent because recreational divers have now discovered the wreck and already souvenir hunters have started taking bits of it to the surface. In doing so they risk prosecution, since the wreck is MoD property.

Though the museum has complete examples of the other German bombers that took part in the Blitz, including a Heinkel 111 and a Junkers 88 - as well as fighter aircraft like the Spitfire, Hurricane and Messerschmitt 109 - it has only a few Dornier fragments salvaged from wrecked aircraft.

The salvaged plane will form part of a new Battle of Britain Beacon display which will replace the museum's present gallery devoted to the battle.

But though the wreck will be conserved it will not be restored to its original appearance.

That, says Mr Thirsk, would involve so much work and replacement of damaged parts that the result would be nothing more than a replica.

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