Recovering a WWII bomber hidden in a French cave

Finding bits of plane in the cave

For historians, wreckage from a World War II German bomber in the French Pyrenees is an exceptional find, but some local residents are less keen on digging up the past.

It is a long drive over gravel and dirt roads in the Pyrenees through the mist.

Finally, more than 1,000m (3,280ft) up, I reach my destination and I feel I have either joined the flickering embers of an all-night rave party or a group of hardcore forest environmentalists.

The men look haggard, bundled up against the early morning cold.

There are shabby tents bunched on the rare patches of dry earth and lots of heavy machinery on the ground, while coffee brews on a makeshift stove. The remains of a cassoulet sit on the bottom of a large pan.

This is the select French world of WWII plane wreckage investigators.

About 50 of them are here retrieving the remains of a German bomber - the dreaded Dornier 217.ZA. Some 1,700 were built, but none remains intact to this day.

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This particular salvage operation is intriguing.

The Germans had stationed many of the Dorniers outside the French city of Toulouse from where they conducted bombing runs on allied forces at sea.

However, in July 1944 two of these bombers got lost on their return to base and collided over the Pyrenees mountains.

The eight crew members were killed instantly but the mountains were also home to "passeurs" - members of the resistance - who helped smuggle allied troops over the peaks and into relative safety in Spain.

Local people feared reprisals from the Germans who would come looking for the bodies, so they decided to throw the wreckage down a nearby 100m (328ft) cave hole to hide the evidence.

And then, for decades to come, a collective unofficial silence descended on the community.

Today's plane wreckage hunters are a mixed bag, including archaeologists and historians.

The 100m-deep cave hole where the wreckage was hidden

Many, though, come from the aerospace industry, working for manufacturers like Airbus or the turboprop maker ATR. You could say they have aviation in their blood.

Gilles Collaveri is one of the most determined members of the group. It was word of mouth and long-forgotten rumours that sent him trekking through the forest last year in search of this remote cave.

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Much of the wreckage looks like mundane scrap metal, but some pieces bring the history back to life”

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Its location matched eyewitness accounts of the crash but it was inaccessible.

So he asked a local speleologist group to help him discover what might be at the bottom of the cave and sure enough they stumbled on large charred metal sections of one of the lost Dorniers.

Like most things in France, it took months of haggling and bureaucratic paperwork to get the official permission they needed to start retrieving the wreckage - it proved a complex affair requiring makeshift cranes, harnesses and muscle power.

Many of the parts weigh more than 50kg each and pulling them up a narrow 100m shaft was far from easy.

Out in the open much of the wreckage looks like mundane scrap metal, but some pieces bring the history back to life.

These include the wing sections, remains of an oxygen tank, ammunition and one cockpit part with German instructions still intact.

Investigators salvage wreckage from the Dornier 217

The team say that what they have found is relatively well preserved.

There is not enough to consider rebuilding the plane, so it will all end up in museums in Berlin and southern France.

In fact, one reason why there are no complete Dorniers today is because after the war, their metal fuselages were recycled for other industrial needs.

This team celebrated its success with a makeshift lunch provided by the owner of an aviation-themed restaurant near the airport control tower in Toulouse.

A bit of wreckage

He is an amateur pilot but too old to go down a cave on ropes.

Instead he rustled up a beef stew with mustard sauce followed by chocolate brownies, all washed down with local strong red wine.

Yet not everyone is happy to see this history brought to light.

The last Dornier bomber

Dornier bomber

When the aircraft lying on the Goodwin Sands was salvaged, the extent of the corrosion could be seen as it was lifted from the water.

The twisted fuselage was held in place only by a strut inserted by the salvage team. The engines had come adrift and will be recovered separately.

In the nearby village of Sacoue is the mayor, Yvette Campan, who has lived there all her life. She remembers her grandparents talking about how scared they were when the two bombers crashed and seeing the crews' bodies scattered over a wide area.

The last thing they wanted was to attract attention.

And even now, there was no local ceremony to mark the recovery of the wreckage - in her words the Germans were the enemy after all. She said if it had been a British plane that was being salvaged it would be a different story.

The local hunters out searching for wild boar also seemed uncomfortable at the sight of these outsiders digging up the past.

But one of the elderly plane hunters, Georges Jauzion, a former pilot in the French air force and test pilot for Airbus, sees it differently.

He says he wants to put himself in the place of the German pilots and to understand what really happened in the skies over this mountain range nearly 70 years ago.

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