RAF Museum to raise Nazi bomber from 1940 Blitz out of English Channel

  • Side-scan sonar imaging provides a haunting look at the Nazi bomber, which the RAF museum plans to salvage in late May.

    Side-scan sonar imaging provides a haunting look at the Nazi bomber, which the RAF museum plans to salvage in late May.  (Port of London Authority/RAF museum)

  • A sonar image reveals the body of the Dornier, half buried beneath the sands of the English Channel.

    A sonar image reveals the body of the Dornier, half buried beneath the sands of the English Channel.  (Port of London Authority/RAF museum)

  • RAF Museum

     (RAF Museum)

A British museum has begun the process of lifting the only Nazi bomber to survive the World War II Blitz on London out of its shallow grave -- under 60 feet of water and shifting sands under the English Channel.

In the fall of 1940, the southeast coast of England was under heavy attack by the German Luftwaffe, as Hitler sent wave after wave of bombers to the country in his efforts to blast the country out of World War II.

In August, early in a campaign that would come to be known as “the Blitz,” a formation of German Dornier Do-17 bombers was intercepted and one was shot down. It landed on Goodwin Sands, a large sandbank off the coast of Kent County, the last bit of rolling English countryside before Britain gives way to the straits of Dover, 20 or so miles of cold sea, and ultimately France.

'It’s hugely important to British national history.'

- Peter Dye, director general of London’s RAF Museum

The aircraft touched down relatively safely, but as it sank to the sea floor it flipped upside-down. And there it stayed, buried by the English Channel, the sandbar, the tides and the decades. Until now.

“When you find these fascinating, important objects, they’re in challenging places: the Greenland ice caps, the Egyptian deserts -- or in this case, the English Channel,” explained Peter Dye, director general of London’s RAF Museum, which is spearheading a program to pull the plane from the sea.

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Sidescan sonar images taken in 2008 revealed the silhouette of the craft, Dye told, as the shifting sands exposed the perfectly preserved plane for the first time.

The Dornier’s very existence is remarkable, he said; all of the hundreds of fighters that England shot down were smelted during the war and reused, ironically turned into British aircraft to continue the battle against the Germans.

“We’ve got a Spitfire and a Hurricane and a German Messerschmidt,” Dye said. “All the other aircraft were sent to smelters and recycled, ironically enough into our aircraft.”

“You might say it’s environmentally sound,” he added wryly.

But now that it's exposed, now that the sand has shifted, every winter storm will degrade the plane, while sport divers and curious history buffs will unintentionally damage it merely by swimming by.

“The process of destruction begins with discovery,” Dye told So the RAF Museum, in conjunction with the Port of London Authority, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and Imperial College London are in the process of retrieving the plane. But that’s a challenge in itself.

The Dornier Do-17 has a 60-foot wingspan and stretches about 50 feet; it's constructed of several aluminum sections. The plane is relatively light, but chloride in the ocean as well as the life teaming there have worked on it over the 70 years since it last saw sunlight.

The RAF Museum is currently on site assembling a special lift to raise the plane from the sea floor, a process that will take a few hours at most, likely during the last week of May.

The wing section will then be removed from the body, promptly sprayed with chemicals and gels to preserve it, and driven a few hours down the highway -- likely the first time a Nazi craft has navigated England’s roads in half a century.

The preservation process involves a months -- or even years-long -- lemon-juice shower, an odd solution devised by the Imperial College’s Department of Material Science that strips away the Channel's chemicals and prevents exposure to oxygen.

By washing away the chloride with citric acid, the surface is effectively protected and a barrier to further corrosion built, Dye explained. The process is lengthy, and the entire proceeding will cost roughly half a million pounds (around $750,000). But the uniqueness of the find makes it truly worthwhile, he told

“We feel that this is a unique survivor, the only German bomber from the Blitz that’s left. And it’s hugely important to British national history,” he said.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.