THE German World War II bomber which is being painstakingly restored at a local museum may well have been shot down by a locally-built fighter, experts believe.
The Dornier 17 is the only surviving example of its type anywhere in the world, and was retrieved from its resting place at the bottom of the English Channel last summer. Since then it has been treated with the utmost care at RAF Cosford, just outside Wolverhampton. Specialist teams have begun the long, slow process of putting the priceless plane back together, but it appears more than likely it was a Wolverhampton-made Boulton Paul Defiant which destroyed it in the first place.
Research carried out by the RAF suggests that the Dornier in question was shot down on 26 August 1940 – just after lunchtime. The twin-engined light bomber, so narrow that it was known as the Flying Pencil, was already an outdated design even this early in the war, and the rescued example is thought to have been flown into the Thames Estuary as bait, one of a group luring British fighters out into a waiting swarm of Luftwaffe fighters launched from Belgium.
However the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons took the fight to the Messerschmitts, and the slower-moving bombers were left to be mopped up by the Defiants of 264 Squadron. These Wolverhampton-built planes were similarly outdated; slow and heavy, but just right for this job. Moving underneath the Dorniers, they could fire their four machine guns, housed in a top-mounted turret, and bring down the bombers from a position of relative safety.
Some Dorniers limped back to the continent. This one, while it did manage to turn towards home, lost height and plunged into the sea, where it lay for the next 73 years. It's thought that two of the crew were rescued and saw out the war as prisoners in Britain and Canada.
The salvaged Dornier is now housed, Mary Rose-style, in a specially-designed hydration tunnel, being bathed in a permanent spray of slightly acidic water which will gradually free the metal from the decades of marine life which have built up on its surface, while preventing further corrosion.
A dedicated team of young apprentices, under the expert guidance of Cosford's preservation team, have already managed to remove some of the build-up with plastic scrapers, and some components, including sprockets, chains and engine valves, have already been restored to the point where they look almost new.
Darren Priday, Deputy Conservation Centre Manager at Cosford, said:
"Any metal removed from a salt water environment is subjected to an accelerated corrosion process if it's not treated quickly. As the Dornier lay at the bottom of the sea, the currents and tides have effectively been like rubbing sand paper over the aircraft for 73 years, but she's survived remarkably well."
There is a long way to go, but the job of rebuilding this rarest of planes is underway – just a few short miles from where the Boulton Paul Defiant was made.