Kent Police, Historic England, the Receiver of the Wreck, HM Coastguard and a department of the Ministry of Defence have been informed following the discovery of suspected looting from a protected war wreck on the Sandwich flats.
The B17 Flying Fortress bomber ditched on the Sandwich flats during World War Two – on December 1, 1943. There were no crew losses.
The American craft has remained in situ ever since but has been subject to some looting of pieces.
Ramsgate’s Tony Ovenden, who is a coastal warden, a founder of the Sandwich Bay B17 site and a metal detecting enthusiast, was one of those to report the thefts after spotting suspicious activity on Saturday.
Tony explained the significance of the wreck, saying: “I am one of the founders and an admin of the Sandwich Bay B17 group. The purpose of the group is non disturbance monitoring of the remains of B17G 42-31243 that ditched on the Sandwich flats on the December 1, 1943, after running out of fuel due to flak damage to the fuel tanks. There were no casualties.
“The B17 remained as it was until 1999 when the site was looted before an organised excavation could take place. Many items were stolen that were later recovered by the police.
“It was then abandoned and covered by sand. About five years ago the sand uncovered the site revealing what was left of the structure. That being the wings, two remaining nacelles without the engine and a debris field in the area where the fuselage once was. In fact it resembled a demolition site.
“However, it still held an amazing example of B17 artefacts, some well preserved. The elements started to take its toll on the site with items coming ashore and also appearing in the inter tidal zone.
“With official permission I started to collect the stray items . It was found that many were scattered around the bay due to the botched demolition. I started the Sandwich Bay B17 group to get more people involved, both locally and internationally. The networking proved to be a great help, especially with identification.
“As I found items I would start the conservation process by soaking them in a light solution of citric acid. I would inform the Receiver of Wreck of my find who would issue paperwork for the reported items. Once I had the correct paperwork I would then transfer them to the RAF Manston History Museum which would complete the conservation process.
“From my finds they now have a collection that preserves some of the legacy of the B17. There are a number of members of the Sandwich Bay B17 group that carry out non-disturbance monitoring of the site and share images. This includes monitoring the shoreline for stray finds and reporting them.
“One of my more significant finds last year was a large piece of one of the elevators with a bracket attached that the RAF Manston History Museum now owns.”
But Tony says there has been noticeable pilfering from the site over recent months.
He said: “ It was noticeable that items were missing. At first I thought this was due to the tide but it was after two Covid lockdowns that I noticed something did not seem right as visits to the site were not as regular.
“Recently I noticed areas of solid structure were missing around the right wing. Two Tokyo tanks have gone along with pipes and wiring. There is evidence of tampering and disturbance of concreted items in the debris field.
“I was coming to the conclusion that someone had taken items off the site in a big way. A few days ago I saw someone out by the B17. I thought he was one of my group but he was in the water pulling at something in the fuselage area. Nearby was a small four wheel trolley. When he saw me he walked off.
“Looking in his trolley I could see B17 items and lumps of concretion he had been picking up from the debris field. I have reported this incident.
“There is now enough evidence to suggest the site is at risk, not so much from small souvenir hunters but collectors motivated by greed. The area may not look much but there are still some very significant aviation archaeological items remaining, like a perfectly preserved tyre and landing gear of the left wing.
“Some more Tokyo tanks have been revealed due to the break up of the right wing. It is at risk from looting as it probably one of the few remaining B17 sites in western Europe where someone can just walk up to and basically help themselves to a piece.
“The profile of this site really needs to be raised, not left to the mercy of the elements and looting.
“The Receiver of Wreck is taking this seriously. The local coastguard is investigating as there is more than one witness report regarding the recent incident.”
The Services Archaeology and Heritage Association has also been notified of the incident, branding the looting as “disgraceful.”
In a post the association says: “It’s illegal under The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 which prohibits entering and tampering with wrecked military vessels or aircraft.
“The designation of protected places includes the remains of any aircraft which crashed while in military service or any vessel which sank or stranded in military service after 4 August 1914 within the UK
“The police have been informed and we have notified Historic England and JCCC (part of the Ministry of Defence).”
#HeritageWatch good afternoon thank you to everyone who has expressed an interest in this report. As this is now a live investigation can we ask that any further information or intelligence is passed to the police on 101 or if you wish to remain anonymous to @CrimestoppersUK https://t.co/9Gh8CoukKD
— HE Heritage Crime (@HeritageCrime) May 30, 2021
Historic England says there is a live investigation being dealt with by police.
A Kent Police spokesperson said: “Kent Police has received a report that items were removed from the crash site of a World War Two plane in Sandwich Bay at some point between 28 and 29 May.
“Anyone with information the can assist with enquiries can call Kent Police on 01843 222289 quoting 31-0270.
“You can also contact the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously by calling 0800 555111 or using the anonymous online form at Crimestoppers-uk.org.”