Dig unearths British WWII bomber crash remains

A volunteer hands a small cardboard coffin containing bones and bone fragments to Uwe Benkel, who researches and excavates World War II plane crashes. The bones are believed to belong to British airmen whose Lancaster bomber went down outside of Laumersheim, Germany, in 1943.


By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 15, 2012

LAUMERSHEIM, Germany — Uwe Benkel was shaking as he walked over the uneven soil of a farm field and lifted a cupped hand to reveal about a half-dozen thumb-sized chips.

“Look at this,” he said, his voice trembling slightly, “bone fragments, all over the place.”

They were found at about 8:30 Saturday morning scattered on the ground where he then started digging for the wreckage and crew of a British Lancaster bomber. The plane, ED 427, crashed outside the village of Laumersheim, Germany, in April 1943, according to Benkel.

The plane’s excavation was first and foremost about recovering the remains of five of the seven airmen who went down with the Lancaster, a gesture meant to bring closure to the crew’s remaining family members. As the day started, Benkel, an amateur researcher who has been excavating World War II crash sites since 1989, was concerned he wouldn’t find much.

An e-mail he received Friday from the brother of the flight’s pilot, Flight Officer Alexander Bone, wished him luck. On his Facebook page, a relative posted a comment to a story he’d posted that talked about the upcoming dig.

“Feeling quite somber,” Liz Snedker posted, “for this is my grand-father’s plane.”

“You never know what you’re going to find,” Benkel said.

With a small backhoe and hand tools, Benkel and his team of about two dozen volunteers started digging just before 9 a.m. in a farm field some 300 yards from the edge of town. One of the homes closest to the crash site was there the day the plane went down nearly 70 years ago, and is still owned by the same family.

Raymond Enkler, whose grandfather owned the house in 1943, recounted the story of the crash as it was told him many times by his mother.

“My grandfather, he never went in the cellar when there was bomb alarm,” Enkler said. Instead, he would stand in the home’s stone doorway and watch the war planes.

He was in the doorway when the ED 427 plummeted into the ground nearby and errupted in an enormous fireball, possibly the result of a bomb explosion.

The next day, Enkel’s mother, then 15, went to inspect the crash site. As she got near, she saw what she thought was a glove in a tree. “But when she was looking nearer, she realized that it was a hand, and she was very scared,” Enkel said.

He was somewhat conflicted about Saturday’s excavation, and said he could see “both sides” of it. Allied bombers wreaked destruction on the area, especially the nearby cities of Mannheim and Ludwigshafen, which were centers of industry during the war.

But the men flying the plane, he said, didn’t have a choice.

“They had to fight for their country,” he said. “They died so young.”

Because of the violence of the crash, few expected to find much of the plane intact. By mid-afternoon, the largest parts recovered included a piece of the landing gear and shreds of rubber from a tire.

Soon after, however, Benkel’s team began unearthing wires and pieces of seats. Then a singed parachute fragment. Two minutes later, a volunteer came up with two vertebrae. Dozens of bones and bone fragments followed.

“We are in the cockpit area,” Benkel happily declared. If his guess is right, that’s where the remains of all five missing crewmembers should be found.

Two other crewmembers, though, may be forever lost, he said.

Two bodies are believed to have been removed from the wreckage soon after the crash and buried in a Mannheim cemetery. Their graves were exhumed by the British after the war; both were empty, Benkel said, citing British records.

“Nobody knows where they are,” Benkel said. “They disappeared.”

Nevertheless, he hopes the British military will bury the remains found during the excavation together, and that they’ll mark the grave with the names of all seven airmen who were aboard: Alexander Bone, Norman Foster, Cyril Yelland, Raymond White, Raymond Rooney, Ronald Cope and Bruce Watt, who was a Canadian.

“Right now, I can do something for living relatives,” Benkel said. “My wife, she always says, ‘you’re reading a book. It’s very interesting but the last page is missing.’”

“We are going to write the last page. Then we close the book for the family members.”


Twitter: @mattmillham

Volunteers hold up parts of a tire recovered Saturday during the excavation of a British Lancaster bomber that went down west of Mannheim, Germany, in mid-April 1943.