Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Reports of WW2 American warplane looted in Sandwich Bay

            Image Credit: Tony Ovenden              
The wreck of a World War 2 US Airforce B17 Flying Fortress bomber that came down on the Sandwich Flats in Kent, England, on 1st December 1943 is being looted, apparently for collectable fragments (Heritage Daily, 'Reports of WW2 American warplane looted in Sandwich Bay' May 31st 2021). This is illegal under The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, which prohibits entering and tampering with wrecked military vessels or aircraft that crashed while in military service (or any vessel that sank or was stranded in military service) after 4 August 1914 within the UK.

The heavy four-engined plane (B17G 42-31243) was one of several from different bombing squads that were returning from a bombing raid of Solingen in Germany where many civilian lives were lost (allied bombing in WW2 is estimated to have killed up to 800 000 civilians in Europe and injured and displaced many more). It was hit by anti-aircraft fire over France and the fuel tanks began leaking, which meant it could not reach its base and it crash-landed in the sea in Sandwich Bay. All ten crew survived (several of whom however lost their lives a few weeks later when they returned to active service).

The plane was left buried in the flats until it was looted in the 1990’s, resulting in an organised excavation to document the surviving remains.
Around five years ago, the plane became exposed again in the tidal sands, revealing the wings, two remaining nacelles (without the engines), and a debris field in the area where the fuselage once was, that are regularly displaced in the inter tidal zone of the shoreline.
Over the years, the Sandwich Bay B17 Group has been monitoring the remains and collected the displaced stray finds on the shoreline (with permission) for conservation. These are then reported to the Receiver of Wreck and documented, before being transferred to the RAF Manston History museum.
Tony Ovenden from the group first noticed indications of looting when he realised that areas of solid structure from the plane were missing around the right wing, including two Tokyo tanks, pipes, wiring, and evidence of tampering and disturbance of concreted items in the debris field.
Mr Ovenden recently encountered an individual at the crash site stating: “I thought he was one of my group, but he was in the water pulling at something in the fuselage area. Nearby was a small four-wheeled trolley. When he saw me he quickly walked away. Looking in his trolley, I could see B17 items and lumps of concretion he had been picking up from the debris field.”
Mr Ovended added: “There is now enough evidence that suggests the site is at risk, not so much from small souvenir hunters but collectors motivated by greed. The site is one of the few remaining B17 sites in western Europe where someone can just walk up to, and basically help themselves to a piece. The profile of this site really needs to be raised and not left to the mercy of the elements and looting.”  
There is not much one can do about the elements, the wreck is now too fragile to lift (and in any case is a heritage asset in its own right where it lies today), but Britain's selfish looting -culture, which pits the preservation of fragile and irreplaceable sites against the greed of trophy-greedy collectors with no scruples, can be challenged. Social attitudes have to change from the current tacit acceptance of  the destructive exploitation of sites like this to a more aggressive and total social disapproval of any such act.   

My timeline on Twitter for the past few days has been depressingly full of a large number of people in the heritage echo chamber 'liking' and 'tut-tutting' about this event. What they are doing is reflecting a collective ganging-up on a hated 'other', the Looter, a guy almost-caught not 'playing the game'. Boo hiss, the bounder! Absolutely not a single comment there indicates any interest in tackling the collecting-culture mentality that underlies this.

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