A United States Air Force (USAF) F-15 jet crashed near Spalding in Lincolnshire this afternoon. Fortunately the pilot of the aircraft, based at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, ejected to safety. Such crashes are rare in the UK these days with highly-qualified pilots typically performing routine training exercises in state-of-the-art aircraft. A black hawk helicopter that crashed on the Cley Marshes in Norfolk in January with the loss of four lives was the last significant accident.
All this is a far cry from World War Two (WWII) when thousands of Allied and German aircraft crashed on British soil. In May, an almost complete Dornier Do 17 Luftwaffe bomber was raised from the Goodwin Sands off the Kent coast for restoration and display at the Royal Air Force (RAF) Museum. The remnants of most WWII crashes, however, are now long gone with only scatterings of debris and commemorative memorials left to testify to their occurrence.
The majority of WWII aircraft crashes occurred during the Battle of Britain between July and October 1940, when the Luftwaffe attempted to pave the way for a German invasion by knocking the RAF out of the war. Countless war films and books have recounted the skilled resistance of the RAF fighter pilots in their Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires as they downed the Dorniers, Heinkels and Junkers deployed by the Luftwaffe.
Anti-Aircraft defences were also deployed across the country and the ferocious firing of shells by these ‘ack-ack’ guns became a indelible memory of the war. Many of the German airmen shot down were killed on impact, their bodies recovered for burial in local cemeteries. Other corpses were not discovered – or due to difficult terrain could not be retrieved – and therefore some WWII crash sites retain the status of war graves. Those that survived an accident were taken as prisoners of war.
As the war progressed and the Luftwaffe threat receded, the hazard of aircraft crashes did not. After 1942 there was a huge American presence in Britain as a result of ‘Operation Bolero’ and hundreds of new airfields were constructed for the heavy American bombers.
Allied losses on home soil were extensive. Either as a result of mechanical failure, pilot error or damage sustained in combat on the European continent, hundreds of crashes and crash-landings occurred on a weekly bases. With the aircraft often armed, the crashes would scatter ammunition across a two mile radius, whilst some loaded bombers went down with a full load which did not always detonate on impact.
A WWII fighter or bomber pilot had the opportunity to write his name into the annals of history, his exploits glorified by a grateful public and the military high command. Yet the risks were immense and the prospects for survival slim, even when flying over his own land.
It is perhaps for this reason that on the rare occasions that military aircraft crash in Britain today, the media reacts with frenzied interest and the public pauses to consider what came before.