Iron Annie flies again
WE WERE LOOKING for a Junkers Ju-88 bomber, but it was a Ju-52 transporter that we found in the Odessa Gulf in September 2008, as part of a diving expedition led by Vlad Tobak.
Four years have passed since then and underwater examination of the aircraft has continued each summer, with work in the archives during the winters, when Black Sea storms don’t allow diving.
Clear traces of fire could be seen on the 23m-deep wreck, and burnt objects were lifted. However, a Thermos flask, a belt bearing the inscription “Wichert” and part of a shoulder-belt marked “Kroh”, which we had hoped would enable us to identify the aircraft, failed to yield any results.
There is no such thing as a phantom plane, but we were losing hope when help arrived from an unexpected source.
I received a surprising letter from Sujoy Banerjee in India, who had been busy on Internet forums: “Dear sir, I’ve read your article on a webpage of the English magazine DIVER. I have some available details about the plane.
“The inscription ‘Kroh’ on the shoulder-belt helped me to identify it!”
I was assisted in checking and rechecking Sujoy’s data by Alex Kanfer, a professional pilot and historian from Switzerland. The Russian saying has it that “many a little makes a mickle”. For us, it was the “little” from different countries that helped to flesh out our picture of the fatal flight.
The Ju-52 belonged to the 104th Transport Group of the 4th Air Fleet, located in the Ukrainian city of Nikolaev from September 1941 to March 1942.
On 13 January, 1942, it was flying from Giulesti to the west of Bucharest
in Romania. Giulesti was the aerodrome where the DLM (German Luftwaffe Air Force Mission) was based.
The aircraft landed in Targsotul-Nou-Prahova in Romania to pick up passengers, then headed for Nikolaev.
FLYING BLIND ACROSS BESSARABIA because of heavy weather, the aircraft requested permission to land at either the Spartakovka or Vygoda aerodromes, and then disappeared.
It was officially considered to have gone off course and crashed in the Black Sea, the incident being blamed on the pilot’s disorientation while trying to find a landing site.
There were nine people on the plane. The pilot was Leutnant Horst Ringel, a flight trainer and veteran of the 1939 Polish campaign. His observer was Oberstleutnant Baron Axel Freiherr von Jena, group commander of the 104th Transport Group and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Polish campaign.
Three oberfeldwebels (staff sergeants) completed the crew – radio operator Wilhelm Möller and flight engineers Alfred Volkmann and Johann Wichert. It was Wichert’s Thermos flask and a belt that we had found while diving.
There were also four passengers: non-commissioned officer Emil Krebs; Obergefreiter Karl Kroh, a signaller (his was the shoulder-belt we had found); Hauptmann Karl Mack, commander of the Luftwaffe early warning system; and Oberwachtmeister Zinc, an anti-aircraft gunner. All but Krebs were returning from leave.
According to one archival source, there were 10 people aboard (five crew and five passengers). Who was this mysterious “number 10”
We obtained a reconstructed map showing the last trip of the Aunty Ju, or Iron Annie, both nicknames pilots gave to Ju-52s.
The route appeared strangely winding, although it makes more sense when you remember that the course would have been laid not with GPS but using compass, radio and such visual cues as cities, villages, rivers, lakes and railways.
I felt like both an archaeologist and an investigator, trying to recreate events from 70 years before. I wanted to understand the reason for the crash.
The official version was that the plane crashed into the Black Sea as a result of the heavy weather and the pilot’s disorientation. Based on where we found the wreckage, it may have been aiming to land at Spartakovka, 10 miles south of Odessa.
WE COULDN’T FIND a weather report for the day of the crash but we know that it was colder than usual in the region.
But rechecking the video evidence from our dives gave no credence to the official version of events. If an engine is running when an aircraft hits water, the propeller blades get bent and the engine is detached from the wing. Under heavy impact, the wings come off the fuselage.
There was no evidence of such a crash. The plane lay virtually intact, and with no bent components, indicating an emergency landing rather than a crash.
A barely credible theory was that the plane was attacked, either in error by German and Romanian air defences, or by the USSR Long Range Air Force, but we had to check it.
The plane lay upright with not a hole to be seen, so the air-defence theory didn’t stand up, but we had to work harder to check for signs of a Soviet attack. We had excavated the tail-section where the gunner sat, because the first aim of a fighter is to kill the gunner. We looked for cartridge cases or any other signs that there had been an aerial battle, but no such evidence was found.
Odessa was under German and Romanian occupation, and no reference to any engagement led by Soviet aviation that winter could be found.
What was most likely to have happened was an emergency landing caused by technical failure aboard the plane, even though we knew that maintenance work had been carried out shortly before the flight.
Our initial finds and later artefacts such as a burnt camera and film, and fire traces behind the pilot’s cabin and near the radio, showed that there had been a fire on board.
We couldn’t establish the cause because the aircraft lay belly-up on the seabed, with none of the artefacts or personal belongings in place.
If the crew evacuated, they would have done so without informing ground control, as the radio set was damaged.
When we found pairs of boots on the wreck we had believed that someone might have got out of the plane.
Wehrmacht standing orders were that crew had to remove boots and outerwear before leaving the aircraft, so as not to sink when falling or landing in water.
But now we knew the date of the crash. Water temperature in the Black Sea in mid-January is from -1 to 2°C, the plane was four nautical miles from shore, and to survive in this water without assistance was unthinkable. With hypothermia setting in quickly, it would seem that nobody made it ashore.
IRON ANNIE’S LAST FLIGHT was over land, as shown by the route on the map and in the flight plan. That’s why our investigation of the wreck had failed to locate any life-rafts or life-jackets. Luftwaffe rules dictated that these would not be fitted in such circumstances.
The fire was probably caused by a short-circuit in the electrical wiring, which could lead to disorientation in the flight control. The pilot would have tried to make an emergency landing in Odessa by manoeuvring above the sea but, with the weather aggravating the situation, he failed to make it.
He might have been disorientated, being unable to use his radio navigation and communication facilities.
The archives say that the Ju-52 requested landing in Spartakovka or Vygoda because of the heavy weather. That would fit with our version, as this could have occurred before the crash.
The plane then lost radio contact due to the fire, so tried to land in Odessa.
There were eight active aerodromes within a six-mile radius of the crash spot, but the pilot can have had no choice but to land on water.
Why was there a breakage if the plane had just had routine maintenance Why did no-one witness a forced landing so near the centre of occupied Odessa
Why was there no record of the crash And what of that 10th passenger
JUST AS WE THOUGHT the matter was almost closed, we found out that at least one member of the crew had survived.
The plane’s most senior occupant, the observer Lt-Col Baron Axel Freiherr von Jena, went missing, stated the archives.
But in fact he was rescued, probably by the Odessa search & rescue squadron of the Luftwaffe Navy in Odessa. Some time later, he continued on active duty.
In 1943 and 1944 he commanded two transport groups, and was killed in the line of duty in 1944 while commanding the 20th Transport Group.
The rest of the crew and passengers are still believed to have gone missing, probably killed by exposure.