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To Dig or Not to Dig?

John Crossland on the ethical dilemmas facing those who wish to dig out Battle of Britain planes and pilots.

This summer the last of the few moved around the air fairs and flying shows held for the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, signing books in aid of a £20 million appeal for their ailing comrades and for the families of those 544 who did not return. The survivors were patient with an eager public well aware that these men were, as a. publicist put it, 'living history.' Yet privately they admitted that often it was pure luck that they survived and another pilot did not.

Few of those who enjoyed the aerobatics of the Spitfires and Hurricanes in the flying displays realised that the fields and chalk downland around the airfields still constitute one vast graveyard for wartime aircraft – and occasionally for their pilots.

The aura still attached to those pilots' deeds of half a century ago ensures an open season on the aircraft they flew by a certain breed of buff – the aircraft recovery enthusiast. Where bodies are even suspected, wrecks are accorded the status of war graves by law. But in at least one case, the wave-like action of the farmer's plough churns up airmen's bones each spring, tossing them back in its wake on to the remains of a badly excavated aircraft wreck.

Pericles spoke of the whole earth as the tomb of famous men, and most airmen’s families would now accept that it is better if kin and aircraft are left undisturbed where they fell. But they reckon without the buffs' obsession in getting their hands on what they term a 'good wreck', Aircraft wreck recovery can he regarded either as a legitimate branch of archaeology or as a mawkish obsession with the relics of a mythic era.

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