Dornier 17: Salvaging a rare WWII plane from the seabed

Last flight of the Dornier 17 bomber, shot down over the Kent coast in 1940

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Archive footage courtesy of British Pathe

Work begins on Friday to raise a unique World War II aircraft from the floor of the English Channel just off the Kent coast. The Dornier 17 aircraft is the last of its kind, and lies in 50ft of water on the Goodwin Sands. The salvage is just the start of a two-year restoration project by the RAF Museum in Hendon.

Summer 1940 and Britain stands alone in Europe against seemingly unstoppable German military success.

For weeks on end, wave after wave of German aircraft cross the English coast, under orders to destroy the RAF and pave the way for a Nazi invasion.

The Dornier 17 is one of the mainstays of those German bomber fleets waging what the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, soon christened the Battle of Britain.

Originally designed as a fast reconnaissance aircraft, slim and manoeuvrable, it had been converted by the Luftwaffe in the mid-1930s into a medium bomber.

Former pilot Gerhard Krems on the "flying pencil"

Today Gerhard Krems is one of the last men alive to have flown a Dornier. He was a much-decorated pilot who flew 250 bombing missions between 1940 and 1944 - 39 of them during the Battle of Britain.

Most of his service was in Heinkels, but he started out flying Dorniers. "Part of the far-reconnaissance training was low-altitude flying," he told me as we leafed through his photographs of the war in his flat in Berlin.

"And the Dornier 17 was the best plane for low flying. You could fly really close to the ground. That's me flying one. You can see how low I am. The tree-tops are above me."

He remembers the Dornier as a very fine plane.

"It made a fantastic impression on me in comparison to the other planes. It looked somehow different, and I only later realised why. It was agile, it was very slender and it was elegant, really elegant. But you only realised quite how elegant when you saw it in the sky. It quickly got a very suitable nickname, der fliegende bleistift - the flying pencil."

Rare colour photo of Dornier in flight The planes first saw service with the Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War...
Flying over treetops ... and were often used for low-altitude flights.
In the snow The planes were noted for their elegant silhouette...
Under camouflage ... and were nicknamed the flying pencil.

Flight Lieutenant William Walker was another veteran of the battle. He died last year at the age of 99.

The first time he saw a Dornier, he told me, he'd only just joined his squadron and was still in training.

Start Quote

William Walker

We suddenly received a message that there was a bandit - a Dornier - in the area”

End Quote Spitfire pilot William Walker

"There was myself and another trainee being led by an operational pilot. And we suddenly received a message on the radio that there was a bandit in the area and we were vectored on to this.

"And I had only flown a Spitfire for five hours. Anyway, we shot it down, and I saw it crash into the North Sea."

But more than 70 years on from the great air battles that saved Britain, not a single Dornier 17 was thought to have survived.

Then five years ago, a diver discovered the wreck of a plane, lying on its back in 50ft of water on the Goodwin Sands. Subsequent surveys confirmed it was a Dornier 17, and almost complete.

The RAF Museum resolved to salvage it and put it on display at its Hendon base. To do so it has raised half a million pounds, including £345,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Chris Goss, a military aircraft historian, says the find is "fantastic historically".

"This aircraft is going to be the only one of its type in existence in the world. There are little bits and pieces - the RAF Museum have a tail section, for one. But this aircraft is complete and therefore its price from a historical viewpoint is invaluable."

Dornier Do-17 Z-2

Dorniers in formation in WWII
  • Wingspan: 59ft (18m)
  • Length: 52ft (15.8m)
  • Crew: Four
  • Engines: Two supercharged Bramo "Fafnir" 323P (1,000hp each)
  • Maximum bomb load: 2,000lbs
  • Guns: Six 7.92mm MG-15 machine guns

The plane in question is believed to have crashed on 26 August 1940, brought down by an RAF fighter called the Boulton-Paul Defiant.

The stricken bomber flew south, rapidly losing power and height. The pilot tried to bring his plane down on the water. But when his wingtip touched the surface, he lost control and the plane apparently flipped, coming to rest on its back. The pilot and observer survived; the other two crew members died.

The plane - call sign Five Konrad-Anton-Richard - sank to the bottom where it was soon covered by the shifting sands.

Underwater footage of the wreck shows it largely intact. Some parts are missing - the bomb bay doors, the cockpit glazing, the undercarriage doors. Probably these were torn off during the forced landing. But the fuselage, the wings, the engines and propellers are still there. And so is the landing gear, complete with fully inflated tyres.

But Bob Peacock, the local diver and marine archaeologist who first found the wreck and shot the footage, says it's in a delicate condition. Lifting and conserving it won't be easy.

At the German Technical Museum in Berlin, they have considerable experience of raising WWII planes from water. The museum's Prof Holger Steinle showed me the aluminium tail section of a Focke Wulf Condor. It was unrecognisable, badly eaten away, and held together largely by the limpets and barnacles attached to it.

Dorniers too, he says, were made of aluminium, which corrodes badly in sea water. He warns his colleagues in Britain not to expect too much. "In 20, 30 years you will find nothing from that Dornier. So try it. But you should not be highly optimistic. Do it, but don't start dreaming too early."

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How the bomber will be salvaged

The salvage operation will require a bespoke lifting frame to be constructed under the plane as it lies on the seabed.

But Prof Mary Ryan at Imperial College London is more optimistic. She's the scientist drafted in by the RAF Museum to find a way of halting the plane's corrosion, and stabilising it for the long-term. Working with one small fragment already salvaged, her team have found that soaking it in a mixture of fresh water and citric acid - lemon juice - cleans the metal and stops the corrosion.

So the museum has built two polytunnels at its conservation centre at Cosford in the West Midlands, and equipped them with a system of spray nozzles. For the next 18 months the two halves of the aircraft - wings and fuselage - will be drenched in citric acid for 10 minutes out of every 30.

But first they have to get the plane out of the water in one piece. To do that, the museum turned to a marine salvage company, Seatech. They've designed a special frame or cradle which they'll build around the aircraft underwater. With divers able to work for just 45 minutes four times a day at slack water - when the tides change and the strong current on the Goodwin Sands temporarily slows - it will take them up to four weeks.

Then they'll lift the frame with the plane inside, lay it on a barge alongside and take it ashore to go by road to Cosford and its long lemon juice bath.

If all goes well, it could be on display at Hendon in two years' time.

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