Raising a World War II Bomber From the English Channel

Being in London and driving its streets, you’re simply struck by the city’s deep history. Wars were fought over the course of centuries in Northern Europe. And one of the primary reasons London still exists in such a similar form is because of the way Britain repeatedly defended its land.

That’s the premise behind a project taking place off the eastern shore of England this week to raise a Nazi bomber that threatened London during World War II. The bomber, a Dornier 17 aircraft, was shot down by British air defenses during the Blitz in 1940, and it’s been sitting on the floor of the English Channel covered by sand and water ever since.

Now it’ll see sunlight again—and eventually find a new home in a British museum somewhere. We asked Peter Dye, the man spearheading the project with the Royal Air Force (RAF) Museum to tell us about the process of raising a drowned aircraft, and especially the challenges of doing it after the plane had undergone more than half a century of corrosion.

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The frame being built around the underwater aircraft will help lift it in one piece. Then it will be partially dismantled to be transported on land. Sketch courtesy RAF Museum.

Dye’s team is building a rig at the bottom of the channel, 60 feet down. Fortunately the bomber is made mostly of aluminum, which makes it lighter. But sitting under water for so long has allowed chloride to build up, and sea life has turned the aircraft into an makeshift reef. When it’s out of the water, the plane will be partially dismantled and taken to shore. Then it’ll sit in an acidic bath of lemon juice for months or even years, Dye said, to prevent exposure to more oxygen and remove the corrosive chemicals from the Channel’s waters.

Unearthing a Nazi plane obviously comes with some emotional implications. In England, and many countries around the world, there are certainly people who’d like to close the door forever on the Nazi chapter of history. Yet Dye explained that the bomber tells a bigger story. “More than 40,000 Londoners died in the blitz,” he said. “The battle of Britain was a complex story with many participants from around the world. It was an international struggle. Although this one plane didn’t win the war, we could have lost it in 1940. This project really encapsulates that whole period.”

To my ears, it sounds like he’s right. History, even ugly history, is worth preserving for the sake of navigating the future. The cost of the bomber project is a steep $750,000. But when you consider that it’s the only captured Nazi bomber that still exists—all of the others were burned in a smelter and turned into new British planes to help finish the war—it seems quite worth the price.