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British flyer finds lost WWII plane on The Local

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British flyer finds lost WWII plane on The Local
14:56 CEST+02:00
An aging WWII veteran who ditched his plane off the Swedish coast in the late summer of 1943 has been able to share his harrowing tale thanks to an article on The Local about an airman who landed on a cow in a field in southern Sweden.

“I googled ‘Halifax’, ‘Sweden’ and ‘Crash’ and then I stumbled upon the article in The Local – and I thought, this is very special," UK doctor and WWII enthusiast Jeroen Pinto told The Local.

Pinto's discovery came after he'd heard a story from a World War II veteran who had parachuted out of his Halifax bomber after bad weather forced him and the other crew members to abandon the aircraft over Swedish waters.

The veteran, 90-year-old John Alwyn Phillips, had been introduced to Pinto by one of his patients with whom Pinto had shared his interest in World War II.

Upon reading the article published on The Local about the discovery of the wreckage of a Halifax bomber near Sweden's coast, Pinto realized that plane may very well be the one from which Phillips had baled on that stormy night nearly seventy years ago.

"And no one in the UK knew really, Mr Phillips certainly didn't know. And I got to be the one to tell him," Pinto said.

Pinto contacted the reporter, and then hurried over to tell his friend about the discovery as soon as he got a chance.

“I was very surprised to hear that the wreckage found off the coast by some divers could possibly be that of my aircraft which came down 69 years ago,” Phillips told The Local.

The Halifax’s crash in Sweden still lives very vivid in Phillips’ memory.

According to him, the night between the 2nd and 3rd of August 1943 will long be remembered as the ”Night of the Great Storm” because the bomber crews encountered such fierce thunderstorms on their way to Germany.

Taking off from a British airfield, one of 740 aircrafts, the Hamburg-bound Pathfinder Halifax was met with dense clouds over the German coast.

“As I flew further along our track, clouds thickened and we had extremely heavy icing on our aircraft wings, great flashes of light lit up this dense mass of cloud and the air became very turbulent,” Phillips told The Local.

Phillips found it almost impossible to control the by now bucking aircraft but continued on its way.

Sometime after 2am there was a bright flash of light, blinding all the crew in the forward section.

“There was no flak about at that time, so obviously our aircraft seemed to have been struck by lightning,” he said.

The aircraft went out of control and Phillips realized when he recovered his sight that the engines were damaged and the plane's radio and intercom systems were out of commission.

Having lost both speed and time, the chance of dropping the plane's cargo of green bomb targeting flares was completely lost.

“Flak now became rather heavy and the aircraft became increasingly difficult to control, still flying blindly in very thick clouds with flashing lightning and static electricity running along the wings,” Phillips said.

Having jettisoned the bomb load, Phillips decided to head north and after the flight engineer had assessed their chances of getting back to base as nil, they needed to think of an alternative.

“The prospect of ditching in the North Sea or being attacked by a night fighter were not worth considering, being unable to avoid with any evasive action," Phillips explained.

"So with varying degrees of enthusiasm it was generally decided to at least make an attempt at reaching Sweden.”

Reaching the Swedish coast, Phillips gave the order that the crew bale. After trimming the craft to nose down, Phillips then baled himself from a mere 900 metres.

“I made a dive through a gaping escape hatch and landed fairly quickly in a field but not before hitting an animal, which I later found out to be a cow.”

Phillips, who had landed near Esarp in Skåne County, gathered up his parachute and soon ran into a milk truck. He managed to talk the driver into taking him to Malmö, where he was handed over to police.

The farmer who owned the cow, which died after impact with the British airman, was upset and there was some discussion of who should reimburse him for his loss.

The rest of the crew had also managed to land safely and were all brought to the police for questioning.

According to aviation historian Bo Widfeldt, the police noted that the crew was unwilling to disclose much information, most likely due to RAF regulations.

However, Phillips could account for the reason they had to bale in Sweden and after the interrogation, the whole crew was sent to Falun in central Sweden to be interned.

They were subsequently repatriated in January 1944.

Phillips intention had always been to get the plane to ditch in the Baltic Sea, thus avoiding crashing into either property or people. As nothing else was heard of it, it was presumed that this is what happened to the craft.

Nearly 70 years later, however, the aircraft was discovered last summer during a routine scan of the sea bed for training purposes, carried out by the Swedish Coast Guard.

The sonar scan was part of Lund University outreach project "Havsresan" (“The Sea Trip”) - a university-funded cross-disciplinary expedition to explore the ocean environment in the region.

The coast guard registered objects on the seabed some 10 kilometres outside the Kämpinge Bay.

When the divers went in for a closer look, they discovered metal scrap parts spread over a 100-metre radius.

Not only did the researchers fear that amateur divers might tamper with the historical remains, but the site was also deemed potentially dangerous until the Swedish military has destroyed any live ammunition still contained in the plane.

The wreck was classified as a large WWII plane, most likely a Halifax.

The parts that the researchers could see were determined to be in good condition although the aircraft has broken up in several parts across the seabed.

While the aircraft has not yet been identified with 100 percent certainty, the researchers are fairly confident it is indeed Phillips' lost Halifax they have found.

“I eagerly wait for some confirmation when they bring the wreckage ashore,” Phillips told The Local.

When Pinto and Phillips found out about the discovery they soon contacted the researchers featured in The Local's article, including Peter Jonsson, a researcher in underwater technology at Lund University.

According to Jonsson, Phillips’ recollections about the night of the crash have been very helpful, as he has been able to provide them with some answers as to the bombs carried by the craft.

“Both Phillips’ account and the previous knowledge we had on what happened that night point to the bomb loads being empty when the plane crashed. Of course you can’t be 100 percent certain that it worked, but what we do know is that they did all that they could to make sure they were jettisoned,” Jonsson told The Local.

According to Jonsson, the researchers are now waiting for the Swedish navy mine clearance divers to give them the all clear to investigate the wreck.

So far, the divers have found parts of the engine, the rear wheel and parts of the tail. There is also a lot of ammunition scattered about on the seabed.

The next step, according to Jonsson, is to salvage some other parts of the debris, in order to finally identify the aircraft as that of the Halifax.

“We can do that through looking at the engine serial number, the shape of the tail and specific construction details,” Jonsson told The Local.

According to Pinto, another interesting question that may be answered when the wreckage is salvaged is if the craft is a Halifax Mark II, which the records claim, or a Mark III, which its pilot Phillips says.

“It will certainly be interesting to see who is right,” Pinto said.

Henrik Roosberg of the Swedish Coast Guard told The Local that the area is very rich in wrecks.

“We suspect it is the right plane, but just this week we found another aircraft very close by, a German plane which crashed at the end of the war,” he said.

Despite a few lingering questions about the plane, Pinto’s gut-feeling tells him that it is the Halifax that is resting on the Swedish seabed.

And the discovery, whether it turns out to be the right aircraft or not, has already begun a process of bringing people together.

Despite many years passing since the war, Phillips stayed in contact with the other members of his crew, until recently, when he found himself being the last one left.

Through the investigation sparked by the Swedish discovery, Phillips has been in contact with the daughter of one of his crew members.

“Of course there is always a possibility that it isn’t the right plane, but even if that would be the case it has already brought people together, so it’s already enough, it’s already worth it,” Pinto told The Local.

Rebecca Martin

Follow Rebecca on Twitter here.

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