Police hunt looters who secretly stripped parts from US Flying Fortress

Detectives are hunting looters who secretly stripped fuel tanks, pipes and wires from a WWII plane that crashed in Kent.

Conservationists discovered the protected remains of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress were being plundered while it lay grounded in a bay near Ramsgate, Kent.

The US Air Force heavy bomber crashed into the beach in December 1943 due to damaged fuel tanks – but all its crew escaped unscathed.

A local metal detectorist saw a looter stripping the plane for parts before loading it into a trolley to cart it away on Saturday and quickly informed Kent Police.

Detectives are hunting looters who secretly stripped fuel tanks, pipes and wires from a WWII plane that crashed in Kent (the wreckage, pictured)

Detectives are hunting looters who secretly stripped fuel tanks, pipes and wires from a WWII plane that crashed in Kent (the wreckage, pictured)

Detectives are hunting looters who secretly stripped fuel tanks, pipes and wires from a WWII plane that crashed in Kent (the wreckage, pictured)

The US plane (the wreckage, pictured) crashed into the beach in December 1943 due to damaged fuel tanks - but all its crew escaped unscathed

The US plane (the wreckage, pictured) crashed into the beach in December 1943 due to damaged fuel tanks - but all its crew escaped unscathed

The US plane (the wreckage, pictured) crashed into the beach in December 1943 due to damaged fuel tanks – but all its crew escaped unscathed

The force has urged anyone with information to get in touch. 

It is illegal under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 to enter or tamper with wrecked military vessels or aircraft – and experts have blasted the vandal as ‘disgraceful’ and his actions ‘illegal’. 

Closer inspection by officials revealed the plane had been ‘stripped’ by an individual who ‘systematically looted’ it before wheeling away the parts in a trolley. 

Fuel tanks, pipes and wiring were all missing – and experts fear a tools were used to ‘hack away at the right wing’. 

The B-17 was primarily flown by the United States Army Air Corps in strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial, military and civilian targets.

The planes often flew out of airfields in England, piloted by captains in the United States Eighth Air Force.

The US B-17E Flying Fortress bomber (file image) crashed into the beach in December 1943 due to damaged fuel tanks - but all its crew escaped unscathed

The US B-17E Flying Fortress bomber (file image) crashed into the beach in December 1943 due to damaged fuel tanks - but all its crew escaped unscathed

The US B-17E Flying Fortress bomber (file image) crashed into the beach in December 1943 due to damaged fuel tanks – but all its crew escaped unscathed

Britain’s Royal Airforce acquired 20 B-17s – which they named Fortress I – in 1940, but they proved unsuccessful as bombers due to poor performance during raids.

The B-17 which sits off the coast of Kent was manned by members of the 303rd Bomb Group and the 427th bomb squadron both of the US Air Force.

It was piloted by Second Lieutenant Alan Eckhart of the 303rd bomb group and co-piloted by Second Lieutenant Elton Jenkins.

The bomber crashed when it ran out of fuel in December 1943. The 10-man crew escaped unscathed. They were later rescued and were all taken to RAF Manston in the north east of the county. 

Kent coastal warden and metal detectorist Tony Ovenden, 64 – who raised the alarm – said: ‘It’s just so wrong, it’s stealing our heritage. For your typical B17 collector that site is an Aladdin’s cave.

‘It’s probably one of the few sites in Europe where a B17 is accessible by foot and that’s the problem.

‘When I find things in the bay I conserve our heritage. He is stealing it, taking it for personal gratification.’

Services Archaeology and Heritage Association branded the looter ‘disgraceful and illegal’.

They added in a statement: ‘We have been contacted about the looting of a B17 Flying Fortress on the Sandwich flats. 

A local metal detectorist saw a looter stripping the plane (pictured) for parts before loading it into a trolley to cart it away on Saturday and quickly informed Kent Police

A local metal detectorist saw a looter stripping the plane (pictured) for parts before loading it into a trolley to cart it away on Saturday and quickly informed Kent Police

A local metal detectorist saw a looter stripping the plane (pictured) for parts before loading it into a trolley to cart it away on Saturday and quickly informed Kent Police

Closer inspection by officials revealed the plane (pictured) had been 'stripped' by an individual who 'systematically looted' it

Closer inspection by officials revealed the plane (pictured) had been 'stripped' by an individual who 'systematically looted' it

Closer inspection by officials revealed the plane (pictured) had been ‘stripped’ by an individual who ‘systematically looted’ it

‘Witnesses saw an individual in the water wearing a wetsuit trying to remove parts of the aircraft.

‘Closer inspection of the B17 that it has been stripped. The fuel tanks have gone, fuel pipes and wiring also missing. There was evidence of tools being used to hack away at the right wing.

‘Looks like this individual has been systematically looting the B17 using a trolley to cart pieces off.

‘It’s illegal under The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 which prohibits entering and tampering with wrecked military vessels or aircraft.’

Kent Police, Historic England, HM Coast Guard and the Ministry of Defence have since been informed.

A Kent Police spokesperson said: ‘Kent Police has received a report that items were removed from the crash site of a World War 2 plane in Sandwich Bay at some point between May 28 and 29.’

They urged anyone with information about the looting to get in touch.

The Boeing B-17 Bomber: The Flying Fortress

A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress named 'Sentimental Journey' at the 1997 Confederate Air Force airshow

A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress named 'Sentimental Journey' at the 1997 Confederate Air Force airshow

A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress named ‘Sentimental Journey’ at the 1997 Confederate Air Force airshow

The Boeing B-17 was a four-engine heavy bomber developed in the US in the 1930s that became symbolic of the country’s air power during the Second World War.

Looking to replace Martin B-10, the USAAC (United States Army Air Corps) tendered a proposal for a multi-engine bomber that could reach an altitude of 10,000 ft and reinforce the country’s air capabilities.

Competing against two other aircraft manufacturers at the time  – Douglas and Martin – to build 200 bombers, the Boeing entry outperformed both competitors.

While Boeing lost out on the initial contract to Douglas because the company’s prototype crashed, the USAAC ordered a further 13 for evaluation, before it was eventually introduced in 1938 after numerous design changes. 

Even before the war, the B-17 received recognition, with the nickname ‘Flying Fortress’ coined by a Seattle Times reporter.

In January 1938, group commander Colonel Robert Olds flew a YB-17 from the United States’s east coast to its west coast, setting a transcontinental record of 13 hours 27 minutes. 

He also broke west-to-east coast record on his return, trip in 11 hours 1 minute, averaging 245 mph. 

But the bomber was mainly used during the Second World War in precision daylight bombing campaigns against military and industrial targets to weaken Nazi Germany.

In early 1940 the RAF entered into an agreement with the US to be provided with 20 B-17Cs, which were given the service name Fortress I. But their initial missions over Germany were unsuccessful.

But they were widely used by American forces in the Pacific and in a succession of raids targeting German factories.

In February 1944, the B17s flew a vital mission to destroy the factories that kept the Luftwaffe flying, in what was termed ‘Big Week’, and helped secure air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe in preparation for the invasion of France in 1944.

The Luftwaffe found it easier to attack a Flying Fortress head on and Americans coined the phrase ‘Bandits at 12 o’clock high’ as a result. 

German studies revealed that on average 20 hits with 20mm shells were required to gun down a B17. Forty B-17s were captured by the Luftwaffe. 

In all, 3,500 B17s were involved in bombing raids on factories in Germany. 244 planes were lost in just a week but the back of the factories producing for the Luftwaffe were fatally broken.

The B-17s were also used in the War in the Pacific earlier in the Second World War where it conducted raids against Japanese shipping and airfield sites. 

Many crew members who flew in B-17s received military honours, with 17 receiving the highest military decoration awarded by the United States, the Medal of Honour.

The B-17 went on to become the third-most produced bomber of all time, behind the four-engined Consolidated B-24 Liberator and the multirole, twin-engined Junkers Ju 88, and dropped more bombs than any other aircraft in World War II.

The plane was used in every World War II combat zone and by the end of production in 1945, Boeing had built over 12,000 bombers. 

It dropped approximately 640,000 tonnes of bombs over Nazi Germany, over a third of the estimated 1.5 million tons of bombs dropped in total by US aircraft.

One of the most most famous B-17s, the Memphis Belle, was immortalised in a 1970 Hollywood movie of the same name. The bomber also featured in earlier films such as ‘Air Force’ and ‘Twelve O’Clock High’. 

As of October 2019, there are 9 B-17 aircraft that remain airworthy, although none of them have ever flown in combat. 

Dozens more remain in storage or on display is museums – the oldest being a D-series that flown in combat in the Pacific on the first day of World War II. 

Source: War History Online

B-17 Facts and figures:

  • Crew: 10
  • Engines:
  • Maximum speed: 287 mph (462 km/h, 249 kn) 
  • Length: 74 ft 4 in (22.66 m)
  • Wingspan: 103 ft 9 in (31.62 m) 
  • Empty weight: 36,135 lb (16,391 kg)
  • Gross weight: 54,000 lb (24,500 kg)
  • Guns: 13 × .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns in 9 positions

Bombs: 

  • Short range missions: (<400 mi): 8,000 lb (3,600 kg)
  • Long range missions: (≈800 mi): 4,500 lb (2,000 kg)
  • Overload: 17,600 lb (7,800 kg)

 

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