Excavation of World War 2 crashed Dornier Bomber

On the 9th October 1976, members of the Essex Aviation Group entered the land behind Runwell Hospital, then owned by a West German National, whose name was Mr. K.U.G Bartelt.  We had obtained permission earlier in the year to excavate the crash site of a twin-engined German Bomber, a Dornier DO217M1, Werks Nummer 56017, U5+CK, formally of 2 KG2 or Kampgeswader 2 Holtzhammer.  The entire crew of four were killed when the aircraft crashed on the night of 21/22 January 1944, between the Power House and workshops at Runwell Hospital, to impact in the field immediately behind the Powerhouse, beside the Incinerator.  The exact location could be seen in a deep depression beside a blackberry bush.
In an earlier visit with colleague Joe Mack, we had located a small label which bore the legend AUF ZUM, roughly translated ‘onto’ and another which bore the legend DORNIER 217.  We also found a First Class Iron Cross, a bomber pilot’s merit wings in Gold, as well as the pilot’s badge.  These would have belonged to the pilot, Erich Reiser.
I remember arriving on site very early in the morning and the digger driver was already there waiting to start.  When the other members of our group were present we gave the go ahead to open the site, and as the digger’s bucket began to bite into the thick Essex clay there was a group of very excited aviation archaeologists awaiting the first find.  At first a few twisted and tangled pieces of duralium some bearing heavy black paint or dunkel grun (dark green).  If you have ever dug on the site of a German aircraft there is always a distinct pungent smell that’s associated with German aircraft.  The digger dug deeper and parts of an MG81 machine gun emerged, a vast selection of items from the aircrafts internals, one of the aircraft’s main tyres, a propeller blade, oxygen bottles, an extinguisher, another MG81 Zwilling machine gun, hundreds of 7.92 mm rounds of ammunition as well as cannon shells, complete parachutes, a dingy with survival pouch, a huge amount of flying clothing some of which bore rank insignia, a  wallet complete with contents – Dutch gilders which automatically told us our aircraft had been based in Holland, the navigator’s brief case complete with the navigation maps, compasses, dividers, and a complete Daimler Benz DB605 inline engine.  This  really was a fantastic site which yielded some fantastic finds.  When we finished loading our lorry to transport the remains of the Dornier to our museum at Duxford in Cambridge, we were looking at wreckage weighing in the region of six/seven tons.
To many of our members who had travelled from different locations within Essex, this was a fantastic site, but to me and my colleague Alan Jasper, both born and bred in Wickford, this was a magnificent find and was part of our own town’s history.  We both began to research this site thoroughly and research is still an on-going task to complete the story.  I have attended many crash sites in and around Essex, but nothing brings more excitement and interest than a local site.  

On closing I would like to say that there were human remains found on site, even though these four young Germans had known graves at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.  The second human remains were located, digging ceased and both the Police and local Coroner were notified.  The Police and Coroner attended the site and the remains removed to Chelmsford.  We were then allowed to carry on with our excavation with full Police approval, and the human remains accorded the fullest respect we could give them.  My own father witnessed the demise of this aircraft as he saw it caught in a searchlight beam, one engine and wing was engulfed in flames as the aircraft was hit by a radar predicted gun site stationed in the Pitsea area.  

Our group excavated this site in October 1976, but it was also excavated on two other separate occasions by other groups, who found items where we had placed our soil pile, another Daimler Benz DB 605 engine, undercarriage legs and a  complete wheel, more maps and another three propeller blades, one of which you can see in the picture.

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  • I was wondering if anyone has the exact location of the crash site on a modern map, grid ref etc, as my daughter has a house on the new estate now built there and it sounds like it could be very near to the crash site.

    By Michael Goodman (16/08/2020)
  • Thank you Trevor, both for the information about the Dornier that was shot down, and also about yourself and Alan Jasper. If you were in Alan’s class, then we were all in the same class!

    By Lyn Humphrey (22/03/2015)
  • For Lyn Humphrey: Alan was born and bred in Wickford, like myself, and we both attended Wickford Junior School, in Market Road, then up Southend Road to Beauchamps.  At the time Alan lived with his parents and brother Terry at Highcliffe.

    For Dennis Smith: we are told that the Dornier was shot down by guns from the radar predicted gun battery at Pitsea, but, it was illuminated by the searchlight battery behind the hospital. I’m told the searchlight ring still exists. Once the searchlight was illuminated the Hospital Manager, Mr. Fitzroy Kelly, clearly heard the searchlight crew shout, “Douse, Douse” as the bomber opened fire on it, but no record of any gun fire, the bomber had already been fatally damaged and was in its final moments. I now have photographs from the pilot’s son and a full dosier of his life, something I never thought we could achieve. This site is now fully documented and is of very important historical significance to ‘Operation Steinbock’, the code name for the whole offensive which was Hitler’s last attempt to bomb our capital cities. It began in January 1944 and reached its fruition around April/May of the same year. When the Germans opened their bombing campaign in September 1940 this country had very little in the way of accurate anti aircraft or purpose built night fighters, and radar, although effective, was still in its earliest form. But by 1944 we had gained air superiority, with radar and predicted gun sites which could track the target and produce a concentrated fire. We had purpose built night fighters like the De Havilland Mosquito which carried on board radar which directed it straight to its target, so Operation Steinbock was doomed to failure from the start. The Germans had lost so many of the most experienced crews already and were practically at this period of the war a sacrifice to our guns or the RAF. So what makes this particular Dornier important?  Operation Steinbock opened on the night of 21/22 January 1944, the Dornier that crashed at Runwell was on its second sortie and was officially according to the records shot down on the 22nd January 1944, so was one of the very first losses from the campaign with a total loss of its crew.

    By Trevor A. Williams. (16/02/2014)
  • I was a very small boy at the time of this aircraft being shot down. I was born at Poplars Farm close to this site, and I do recall my mother telling me that this bomber had been shot down, and all that was found at the time was a human foot, still in a boot. I wonder if the plane was shot down by an anti-aircraft gun, after being caught in the searchlight, both of which were on an army camp one field away from the farm house, rather than the gun sited at Pitsea.

    By dennis smith (14/01/2014)
  • What a fascinating article, about an incident close to where I grew up in Runwell staff houses. I wonder if the Alan Jasper mentioned in the article is the same lad from my schooldays at Wickford Junior School in the early ’60s?

    By Lyn Humphrey (30/09/2013)

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