Romney Marsh is a sparsely populated area of wetland between the rolling hills of Kent and the English Channel, and known for its outstanding natural beauty. On a brisk, chilly Saturday morning in early March, the sun climbed in the sky and began to warm the small group of men wrapped up in bomber jackets, scarfs and bobble hats standing in a large field. They stood around a small area marked out with fluttering flags as a JCB excavator broke the silence, coughing into life as the diesel engine clattered noisily and oily black smoke streamed from the exhaust.
The men, both young and old, were all volunteer members of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum’s aviation archaeology team, based at Hawkinge in Kent. All were dedicated aviation enthusiasts, intent on preserving the memories of the pilots who had valiantly fought in the Battle of Britain and they had spent the day before surveying the scene of the suspected crash site of a Hurricane fighter shot down during the Battle in 1940. Using landmarks supplied by witnesses to the crash, grid references from ordnance survey maps and GPS handhelds, they had marked out the spot carefully, satisfied that they were in the right place.
The excavator driver put the JCB in gear, drove the machine up to the edge of the markers surrounding the spot and started digging into the soft, peaty earth of the field. As work progressed during the morning, some of the volunteers placed a ladder into the bottom of the deepening hole and climbed down the rungs with spades and trowels to dig more carefully by hand. Before long, there was a shout from one when his spade struck a something solid just below the surface. The others helped to uncover it and signalled the digger driver with raised hand signals, who swung the backhoe to position it over the top of the find. They tied a canvas strop attached to the hydraulic arm around it and raised the object to the surface, assisted by one digger standing in the bucket. The others clambered up the ladder out of the hole, gathered around and started cleaning the clinging soil off the object with brushes and water. To their excitement, they found a large section of bent fuselage frame with a twisted strut and tail wheel attached, the tyre long ago deflated. They quickly identified it as the rear fuselage of a Hurricane fighter, which was now seeing the light of day, following some seventy years underground.
The digging operation continued for a short time, the men excitedly discussing the find, but the light soon became too bad as darkness fell. They packed up for the day, securing the crash site and digger before walking back to their cars and driving away. They stopped at the Star Inn, a local pub on the way back home to celebrate the success of the day’s work, which thanks to the hours of research that had been made had paid dividends in pinpointing the site of the crashed Hurricane. Arriving at the pub, they sat down around a table in front of a roaring log fire supping pints of ale from the local brewery. The main topic of conversation was whether the find was the actual Hurricane they were looking for. Spurred on by their enthusiasm, they couldn’t wait to get back to resume the dig early the next morning.
The day dawned bright as the enthusiasts returned, retracing their steps over the field, and leaving behind a trail of footprints in the heavy coating of dew covering the grass. As they untied and lifted off the tarpaulin covering the JCB Jim Clarkson, a young newcomer to the team asked the group’s leader a question.
‘How deep do you think she’s gone down, Dave?’
‘Oh, probably about three to four metres, but the engine could be a lot deeper than that.’ replied a stocky man with fiery red hair that matched his temperament. Dave Brocklehurst, a born and bred Kentish man had become interested from a very young age in local aviation digs with older enthusiasts. The trustee and main volunteer of the museum, aviation historian and one of the few acknowledged experts of the Battle of Britain period, counted many of the pilots who had taken part as good friends.
‘The peat is very soft here although the layer is quite thick. Underneath we’ll find sticky marine clay, which will have slowed things up a bit. We might find the engine not so far down. Depends on how much power was on when she went in.’
Dave and the others climbed down the ladder into the hole and started the laborious task of continuing the dig. By mid-afternoon most of the pieces of the wings and the rest of the fuselage had been dug out, in myriads of small broken aluminium pieces.
‘Here’s where it gets interesting.’ said Dave, as they dug down, entering a layer of clay and getting closer to where the remains of the cockpit rested.
‘Hey up, what have we got here, then?’ he exclaimed, digging out what appeared to be a small box with broken wires hanging out like spilled entrails from a burst gut.
‘I reckon I know what this is. Here Stan, what do you make of it?’ He handed it over to Stan Horlock, a retired RAF avionics engineer and expert on Second World War aircraft instruments and equipment.
‘Well, if I didn’t know better, Dave, I’d say it’s an early radar transponder.’ Stan turned the box over in his hands, rubbing away the accumulated dirty clay that had formed a thick crust around it. Underneath he found a stamped identity plate riveted on the side, licked his finger and started to rub the small plate clean.
‘What is it, a radar set?’ asked young Jim Clarkson in an enthusiastic voice, trying to impress the older members of the group to conceal his limited knowledge.
‘Close, Jim, but airborne radar units weren’t fitted in aircraft that early in the war. This transponder is part of the IFF system, which stands for identification friend or foe, but that was a good guess!’ replied Stan.
’Just after the war started, RAF ground control vectored Spitfires from 74 Squadron to attack an enemy raid over the River Medway near here. They shot down two Hurricanes by mistake in one of the first cases of what’s become known as ’friendly fire.″ explained Dave to the young lad.
Dave took the box back from Stan and showed it to Jim.
‘It was a fault in the early warning Chain radar system and to prevent it happening again the boffins introduced a radar transponder fitted into RAF aircraft that used and amplified the returns of the incoming signal of each specific RDF frequency from the Chain radar. It gave a distorted blip on the radar operator’s screen and made it identifiable as a friendly aircraft.’ added Stan.
‘But this one looks like a Mk. III type, which operated on its own assigned frequency.’ said Dave. ’And I know for a fact that the RAF didn’t use them operationally until after the Battle of Britain, which is when this Hurricane crashed.
‘So what’s it doing here then, unless this is a Hurricane that crashed later on during the war?’ asked Jim.
‘I don’t know.’ said Dave. ‘The witness accounts state one crashed here during the Battle and from what I’ve seen so far of the serial numbers on the bits we’ve dug up, this airframe appears to be an early production model. I’ve no idea what it’s doing fitted in this one?’ he muttered. ‘But I intend to do a bit of digging and find out!’
They put the box to one side and clambered back down into the hole. The next item discovered in the clay from the crashed Hurricane was the armour plate that protected the pilot from any bullets fired from aircraft attacking from behind. They were now very close to the cockpit area and knew they could find the human remains of a pilot in a crash site and respected that fact. If so, the digging would stop at once and they would notify the relevant authorities, including the Ministry of Defence. Arrangements would then be made to exhume the remains and hold a military funeral for pilot. Although all the information and research they had gathered on this crash site suggested the opposite, as everything pointed to the pilot having bailed out of the stricken aircraft before hitting the ground. The experienced ones among them could never be sure, having found human remains in the past on digs.
They put the sling of the digger round the fuselage frame holding the plate and lifted it out, struggling with the suction of the clay. Removing another couple of pieces of wreckage they all breathed a sigh of relief when they found the broken Bakelite plastic pilot’s empty seat. Then young Jim Clarkson dug out what appeared to be a mud covered leather briefcase. They climbed up the ladder with it to the surface but Stan stayed in the hole. He was eager to find the head of the control stick with its firing button, to find out if the pilot had moved the safety catch to the fire position, showing whether the Hurricane had fired its guns in anger before being shot down. As he dug, his sharp eye caught sight of a shiny piece of metal. Picking it up he held the artefact in the palm of his hand, studying it carefully. Many years spent in the ground had left it in remarkably good condition and Stan whistled in surprise and climbed up the ladder.
‘Aye up lads, look what I’ve just found.’
The others stopped cleaning the thick clay covering the briefcase and gathered round him.
‘This isn’t a bloody Messerschmitt we’re digging out of the ground, is it?’ he queried and held out his hand.
Everyone stared down in surprise at the Knight’s Cross, one of the highest awards of the Nazi Third Reich.
‘Strewth, what’s this doing in a Hurricane?’