|IT WAS DARK AND COLD. All I could see were tiny flakes of what looked like snow bouncing off my dive light as I moved down the line. We hit 12m, but still there was nothing. Where exactly was this wreck |
It appeared suddenly, the remains of a Grumman Avenger TBF-1B torpedo-bomber. The sight stirred vivid emotions. I had dived on planes in warm water with clear visibility all over the world, but this felt different. It was lying in just 14m, less than a mile from shore and a 20 minute drive from home!
Visibility was barely a metre, but I was determined to get a shot. Spreading my strobes as wide as I could to feather the light into my subject, I blasted the scene and in doing so was able to see the Avengers propellers.
It was my buddies, Mark Blyth and Carl Galfsky, who had found the aircraft - with some help from the Navy - three years ago.
HMS Roebuck had been surveying the degaussing range off Burntisland when it came across a couple of anomalies on the seabed. Aware that the Heritage Trust was searching for the ferry of King Charles I, sunk in 1631, the crew gave the positions to project leader Ian Archibald. He in turn alerted Carl, one of the trusts main divers.
Carl and Mark, who runs the local dive shop, set off to explore the anomalies. Mark went down the line first to check the shot - and couldnt believe where it had landed. Excitedly returning to the surface, he pulled out his regulator and shouted to Carl: Its a plane, its a plane!
How do you know Carl shouted back.
Because our shots gone and landed in the middle of the cockpit! Mark told him.
More than 400 of the US-made Avenger three-seaters were used by the Royal Navy from 1943 under Lend-Lease, mostly designated TBF-1B. Known as Tarpons until 1944, they were used aboard escort carriers on anti-submarine patrol in the Channel and North Sea.
By the time I caught the others up, they were above the cockpit. Carl turned to show me what was left of the controls and gauges. Most had rotted away. He had earlier found cut wires, where military divers had presumably removed sensitive equipment.
Carl pointed out the radar, then moved to the rear of the cockpit, waving his hand slowly over his head to indicate where the rear gunners canopy used to be. He and Mark had removed it on their second dive here to recover the machine-gun, though there are now plans to restore it.
They had hoped its serial number would identify the plane, but it was eventually IDd through a book on Scottish wrecks.
Carl had also recovered the compass and restored it to glory for display at the Burntisland Heritage Museum. Both gun and compass were declared to the Receiver of Wreck, and the gun is expected to go to the Scottish Aircraft Museum at East Fortune.
The tail had keeled over into the silt and the canvas had rotted away, but I was amazed at how intact the plane was. Like all Forth wrecks, it was covered in marine life, particularly large plumose anemones. Spider crabs and velvet swimmers sat like little armed guards, waving as we passed, and cheeky tompot blennies peered from holes in the wreckage.
On many sites in the Forth the sand shifts back and forth, and this is the case on the Avenger. Some days you can fin beneath the wings (the port wing is in its recovery position), while on others the wings rest on the silt. Whichever way you find it, the Grumman Avenger is a cracking little dive.
Few planes are found this complete in Britain. Wherever there was an active coastal airfield you might find wrecks, either from accidents or shootings-down, but most planes that crashed into the sea disintegrated on impact. Those still in good condition were usually involved in a controlled ditching.
This was what happened with the Avenger, which ditched after engine failure during a training flight on 17 December, 1945. An early TBF-1B model, it belonged to 785 Squadron based at Crail, where pilots trained to fly torpedo-bombers.
Crail was also a base for Fairey Swordfish, Albacore and Barracuda aircraft. More than a dozen of its Faireys are reported as crashing or ditching into the sea, though none has yet been discovered in reasonable condition.
However, another aircraft found during the Burntisland ferry search was a Hawker Hurricane, originally located in 1994 by US divers assisting the original team.
The fighter featured in a Tomorrows World programme which explained the new technology being used in the search, and showed views of the plane shot from an ROV and fed to a diver through a screen mounted on his helmet.
When I dived it a couple of months ago, I could have wished I had such technology to hand. At 33m, the light had all but gone. It felt like 60m, definitely an unfriendly environment.
At first we couldnt find a thing in the silt. Only gradually did we start finding pieces of wreckage, parts of the wing-frame supports and then, at the end of a thick rope, the propeller blades.
Much of a Hurricanes superstructure was made of wood, and this had all but rotted away, but what remained was an impressive sight and we were pleased to have found it.
On Tomorrows World we had seen the engine with one propeller blade sticking up, but now all three blades lay flat. Something had disturbed the wreckage. Had someone tried to lift the engine, or had something large dragged its anchor over the site
A Hurricane was known to have ditched near Burntisland on 8 December, 1941. Could this be it
A local recently told the Heritage Trust that she saw the aircraft come down in the sea, and later saw the pilot sitting on the wing waiting to be rescued. Further research revealed that it was a 1939-1940 Mk1 Hurricane P3101 from anti-aircraft co-operation squadron 289.
The Firth of Forth and the sea around it are home to an amazing concentration of aircraft wrecks. Off Burntisland alone there are records of three more planes, a Spitfire, a Wildcat and, from WWI, a Sopwith which fell off HMS Pegasus.
There was also supposedly at least one aircraft aboard the carrier Campania when it sank. I have dived this huge wreck, just a mile or so off Burntisland, but have yet to find aircraft remains.
One plane I would like to find here is the Junkers 88a bomber that crashed several miles south of the firth near Aberlady Bay. This was the first aircraft ever shot down by a Spitfire, and the first enemy plane downed on British territory during WWII.
Twelve Junkers 88as were involved in the Forth Bridge Raid on 16 October 1939, its purpose to sink HMS Hood. Hitler had ordered that the bridge should not be bombed, and that if the Hood was in dock at Rosyth, it should be spared, as civilian casualties would result.
Only seven weeks in, this was still a gentlemans war.
The Hood was indeed at Rosyth, so the Junkers went for the cruisers Edinburgh and Southampton, anchored not far from the bridge. Luckily they were intercepted by a group of Spitfires, and only moderate damage was inflicted, though the destroyer Mohawk, steaming towards Rosyth, was also attacked and 16 sailors died, including its captain.
The two lead Junkers were shot down, one off Fife Ness three miles from Crail, the other probably crashing in Aberlady Bay, about four miles from Port Seaton.
Local historian Bob Brydon was a small boy when it happened. Part of the wing from one of the planes washed up in Peffer Sands soon after the attack and his aunties boyfriend, the local bomb-disposal expert, supervised burying the wreckage on the beach.
Fifty-five years later, amateur aircraft historian Willie Henderson persuaded Bob to take him to the burial site. Amazingly they found an exposed part of the plane and dug up the rest. In 1999 it was displayed as part of the 60th anniversary of the Forth Bridge raid.
In Aberlady Bay, Bob and Willy have also recovered small pieces of a Handley-Page Hampden bomber. They think they come from L4090, one of two Flying Panhandles shot down by mistake on 21 December, 1939. The planes were off course in poor visibility and failed to give correct recognition signals. Spitfire pilots from 602 Squadron mistook them for the similar Dornier bombers.
L4090 went down over Hummel Point at Gullane Bay with the loss of one crew-member, while L4089 sank at North Berwick.
Its thought that a propeller trawled up years ago belonged to this Hampden. It has been restored and can be seen at East Fortune, next to another prop thought to belong to a Beaufort torpedo-bomber which crashed somewhere in the Forth.
Perhaps one day divers will find more of these aircraft that went missing in the Firth of Forth.
|Visibility is rather less favourable in the Firth of Forth than in the Pacific or Med - this is a Grumman Avenger |
|By blasting the area with light, the propellers of this Grumman Avenger in the Firth of Forth became visible |
|compass taken from the Avenger and restored |
|the aircraft as it was in wartime |