Out of the Blue: Assessing Military Aircraft Crash Sites in England, 1912-45

By Holyoak, Vince | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Out of the Blue: Assessing Military Aircraft Crash Sites in England, 1912-45


Holyoak, Vince, Antiquity


This paper provides a review of English Heritage's developing interest in and approach towards military aircraft crash sites of 1912-45 in and around the UK, with specific reference to the conservation of those within England (see Dobinson et al. 1997 and English Heritage 2000 for summaries of the wider project of which this study forms a part). It asks wily these sites are important, what archaeological interest remains in them, and what are their conservation needs. It is English Heritage's view that these are significant archaeological sites, and as such merit greater recognition and more careful treatment by archaeologists and those engaged with their management.

Since the late 1960s military aircraft crash sites have been intensively targeted for amateur excavations, to such an extent that it is often suggested that few accessible sites now remain undisturbed (Llewelyn pers.comm.). As an example, of the 576 aircraft known to have been lost over land by RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, by 1982 at least 250 had been the subject of archaeological interventions (representing 43.4% of the total--figures based on Cornwell 1982). In parallel with excavation, a thriving market in the sale of artefacts removed from crash sites has emerged, either to provide spares or patterns for the restoration of aircraft, or more usually, as souvenirs. Yet many aircraft crashes involved aircrew fatalities and, taking place as they did within living memory, excavation can be highly emotive; as a consequence the issue has generated a great deal of debate (see for instance Sarkar 1998). Concern about the extent to which crash site excavations were routinely unearthing ordnance, and in some cases the remains of previously unaccounted-for aircrew, led in 1986 to the Protection of Military Remains Act, making it illegal within the UK to disturb military aircraft crash sites of any nationality or period without first obtaining a licence from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Licensing offers a mechanism through which the MoD can consult contemporary records relating to both aircraft and service personnel to assess the likelihood of human remains or ordnance being present, which if established normally results in the refusal of permission to excavate. However, unlike other archaeological sites, no attempt is made to assess the rarity or importance of the remains and no restrictions or archaeological conditions are imposed on the manner of excavation, primarily because it is often argued that the material recovered will have little intrinsic merit other than for its role as a memorial (e.g. see Ellis 2000). This aspect is discussed more fully below and in Holyoak (2001), but research undertaken for English Heritage's Monuments Protection Programme (MPP--a national review of England's archaeological resources (English Heritage 2000)) challenges this perception and argues that, in addition to their acknowledged value as a tangible, highly evocative reminder of the immediate past, in many cases the aircraft remains encountered within the context of crash sites are both rare and have clear potential for research and education.

In summary, the point of English Heritage's work is not therefore to prevent excavations in the future. Rather, it aims to encourage interventions of an acceptable standard, to ensure that the results of such work are adequately recorded for the benefit of future researchers, and that they should be carried out in an ethical manner befitting the unusual historical context of this class of remains.

Crash site resources

In all, 226 military aircraft types of all nationalities were in use in the UK from 1912 to 1945. For the purposes of discussion, `type' refers to the basic aircraft model (such as Spitfire, B17, Junkers 88) and not the sub-variants in which they were produced (for example Spitfire XIV, B17G, Junkers 88C-1). Across the three main phases of activity (WWI, Inter-war years and WWII) there are major variations in the quality and extent of survival at crash sites, and these are likely to be conditioned by several factors, including the aircraft type (primarily its size and the materials utilized in its construction), the circumstances of its loss and the location of the crash. …

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