B24 Liberator : Wiki Commons
Members of the Army’s celebrated Op Nightingale archaeology team have been working alongside RAF colleagues in Wiltshire to excavate the wreckage of a downed Liberator bomber. Richard Long reports.
Having sampled overwhelming success during excavation work on Salisbury Plain, the Op Nightingale archaeological project is revelling in its winning run.
The scheme was recently honoured by leading academics for its innovative approach in helping wounded personnel and the programme has been building on these impressive foundations at its latest dig in the Wiltshire countryside.Working alongside colleagues from the Royal Air Force, Op Nightingale’s soldiers have been searching for the wreckage of a Liberator bomber that crashed into a field on the outskirts of Lyneham in November 1942.All five crew members were killed in the incident but the exact cause of the disaster remains a mystery.Acting Sergeant Graham Moore, from RAF Brize Norton, learned of the airmen’s fate through conversations with a local farmer and researched the story further while carrying out a basic search of the site. With the landowner’s consent, a detailed survey was conducted before the Op Nightingale team were invited to offer their growing expertise on a week-long excavation:
“Being an absolute novice I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” said A/Sgt Moore. “I was put in touch with Richard Osgood, of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, who was working with the soldiers on the Salisbury Plain dig.
“They were asked if this was something they might be interested in and they couldn’t wait to get involved.
“The guys are absolutely superb. They have so much information and know all the techniques of how to record different finds.
“We would not have been able to do this without their help.”
Initial searches unearthed a host of relatively minor items, such as ammunition casings and parachute buckles, before a 12-foot (3.7m) section of fuselage was recovered. But the discovery of a Royal Australian Air Force cap badge proved to be the most surprising find.
For Rifleman Rowan Kendrick of 5th Battalion The Rifles, who is studying for an archaeology degree at Leicester University, the scheme has been the perfect distraction from the problems he has faced in recent times:
“Before I deployed to Afghanistan I suffered a mental breakdown,” he explained. “I had counselling and psychiatric therapy and a friend in the education centre told me about this.
“I have always been interested in history and archaeology so this was the next step.
“It is an excellent project and there are so many discoveries to make. But it is not just military-based, we have worked on Roman villas and cemeteries and we look to do something new every time.
“It helps me take my mind off things. When I’m on a dig I concentrate on that, I’m not stressing out or feeling anxious in any way.”
Prior to arriving at Lyneham, the servicemen made a spectacular discovery at Barrow Clump, which sits on Salisbury Plain. The team unearthed a sixth-century burial site that featured 27 bodies – including Anglo-Saxon warriors – along with a range of artefacts such as shield bosses, brooches, spearheads, glass beads and a silver ring.
The exciting nature of the finds has been a real highlight for Rifleman Michael Kelly of 1st Battalion The Rifles, who joined Op Nightingale last year and formed an instant connection with the subject matter. He said:
“I got involved in a Bronze Age dig and I fell in love with archaeology. We were pulling up pottery that was 2,000 years old. I was the first person to touch it in all that time and that was really special.
“It’s not always about what you find, but what you can learn from the artefacts. They show how people lived their lives and it is a fascinating subject to study.
“All of the guys here are injured. I was partially blinded in Afghanistan; we are all in the same boat. We know how each other is feeling and we can relate to one another.
“I went through a hard time and this is therapeutic and relaxing. To know the people you are working with are going through the same thing really helps.
“I have excavated a Stirling bomber as part of a programme for the Discovery Channel and the project was completely different to anything I had done before.
“Coming to Lyneham was a chance to do that again. I will get on any dig I can – it is better than sitting at home doing nothing.”
Liberator bomber – the story
- The AL595 B-24 Liberator rolled off the production line in San Diego, California, and was delivered to Prestwick, Scotland, on 20 April 1942. The aircraft underwent a full modification upgrade on its main defensive armaments, including the fitting of new Browning-Colt machine guns and power turrets.
- On the evening of 6 November 1942, the plane took off from Prestwick en route to RAF Lyneham. In harsh winter conditions, the pilot fought for control of the Liberator as it approached its final destination but it nosedived at high speed and hit the ground before an explosion enveloped the crash site.
- All five British crew members were killed instantly.