The sky over Belgium was witness to fierce fighting during the duration of World War 2.
Thousands of fighters, bombers, and transport aircraft were shot down in flames and crashed in the fields and forests below, many of them with their crews still inside.
Several aircraft wrecks have been found since 1945, but many still remain unaccounted for, along with the remains of the pilots who were Killed in Action and never returned to base.
British, German, American, Canadian and pilots from many other nationalities were lost for decades and thanks to the efforts, professionalism and dedication of a team of experts based in Belgium, the identities of the young men that once took to the skies and never got back home emerge.
One such story is the sad end of Luftwaffe pilot Willi Lück.
On May 1943, Willi took off from Deelen (the Netherlands, near Arnhem) to counter USAAF Flying Fortresses.
The fighter he flew, a Focke Wulf FW 190, had its own code Yellow 13 ("Gelbe 13") painted on the fuselage.
Willi was shot down by an American Thunderbolt, bailed out too late, and was killed half a mile from where Gelbe 13 hit the earth, near Kalken (Laarne - Flanders/Belgium).
In 2014 a search started to find the exact spot where the Luftwaffe fighter came down, and a year later substantial remains of Gelbe 13 were recovered during an archaeological investigation.
Besides the engine, armament and countless other parts, personal effects of Willi Lück, including photographs, emerged the first time in more than 70 years.
The results of this project led to a unique insight into the air war over Europe - and the people involved.
Cynrik De Decker is the project leader of BAHAAT, the Belgian Aviation History Association and the Archaeology Team and he provides us with info and insights on a series of project BAHAAT has undertaken, shedding light on forgotten pages of WW2.
Read what Cynrik tells about the projects BAHAAT and himself have undertaken over the years:
1/ What led you to start searching for missing WW2 aircraft?
I am fascinated by aviation since childhood, and during my study time (30 years ago…) I realized very little was known about the air war over Belgium.
So I went to the Public Records Office in London (this was the pre-internet era) and started browsing through the RAF archives and contacting and interviewing veteran airmen, who were relatively active at that time – early pensioners let’s say.
With my good friend Jean-Louis Roba, who is well known for his research and publications on the Luftwaffe, we became a team writing books on the subject.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way the magazine After the Battle conducts research on WW2, also re. battlefield archaeology: thorough archival work, and studying the then-and-now aspect.
This way recent history is being brought to a large public in an accessible way – very important or me, since I started teaching history at secondary school then.
Realizing that many thousands of aircraft crashed within the boundaries of the small country which Belgium is, I combined my other fascination, archaeology, with my passion for old aircraft.
The preliminary research is as important and enjoyable as the dig itself – interviewing eye witnesses, browsing through old documents, trying to find the surviving aircrew or their families…
That’s when with several Belgian enthusiasts we established the Belgian Aviation History Association and the Archaeology Team (BAHAAT).
The purpose is to share the knowledge about an almost forgotten war with the general public. That’s why we organize exhibitions, even a museum, and write reports, books, articles.
2/ BAHAAT has already found, excavated and identified a vast number or aircraft wrecks. Which one ou of those aircraft stands out for you personally and why?
Difficult to say, but I am still particularly proud on the project I started in 1995 on Halifax LW682.
Not so far away from where I live, this bomber came down – the whole crew perished but three of the Canadians were still in the wreckage.
So with the help of the Canadian government we organized an archaeological investigation, during which the three airmen were found, so they could be buried along their fellow crew members.
Especially for the relatives – the son who lost his dad on his first birthday, the sister who was still hoping her brother would be found, the burial was extremely moving and offered closure.
But there was a side effect on this history. Tons of material were found, and send to Canada to be used for the restoration project of Halifax NA337.
And several tons of non-identifiable aluminum scrap was melted into ingots. And these ingots were used to construct the roof of the Bomber Command Memorial, inaugurated in 2012 in Green Park Piccadily, London.
So when I go to the British capital, I can say that every pound of that roof went through my hands…
3/ The airspace over Belgium and the Netherlands has seen fierce fighting and many aircraft perished during WW2. What are your future plans, do you have any specific projects going or planned for the near future?
Well, last year we had a extremely interesting dig on a FW 190. The pilot bailed out (unfortunately too low), but we found all his personal papers (see www.gelbe13.be).
We hope the following weeks to start a huge project on the recovery of a Lancaster wreck, and we have our collection which is housed in the For Freedom Museum in Knocke.
Last year I started a Facebook Group “Aviation Archaeology”, and I guess we’ll have 3000 members by the end of this year – a great platform for sharing knowledge and contacts.
4/ When you dig up the remains of a KIA WW2 airman, what are your thoughts? How do you reat those remains and what are your actions?
Before we start such an action, we contact the official organizations and try to establish contact with the relatives.
We work under strict rules of the government re. archaeology in Belgium. We do have some “real” well known battlefield archaeologists in our team.
In Belgium remains are handed over via the police towards the Belgian MoD. They arrange the rest with the war graves commission of the country involved.
5/ What is the usual process of locating an aircraft wreck? Files, personal accounts, unofficial records?
All of them. But since we’ve published quite a few books on the air war, with information where the plane came down, it’s nice to see that local enthusiasts start their own investigation in order to find the exact spot.
We do have an experienced metal detectorists in our team. And 10 years ago, I quitted teaching history and was contacted by an UXO (unexploded ordnance)-company to share my knowledge on the bombing campaigns of Western Europe.
I am working full time in that business now, and companies like ours have state of the art detection material which we use to find out whether or not an archaeological dig might be interesting.
For the coming Lancaster-project, we produced a geophysical image of the wreckage under the ground. So we hope to find out soon whether or not our geophysical findings are correct…
6/ Why do you think it is important to keep the memory of WW2 alive today?
Last week I was in Berlin, and now I am writing this in Hamburg – two cities whose faces changed completely because of the war only 70 years ago.
I myself live in the center of a village in Belgium which was almost completely destroyed by German shell fire – the scars are still visible on our house.
People do not realize anymore what times our ancestors had to endure. “The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes” the French philosopher Simone Weill said once.
7/ You dedicated a lot of effort on Gelbe 13. Why? How did you feel when you found the personal effects of the pilot and his photo in his wallet?
|The search, identification and recovery of the crashed Luftwaffe fighter "Gelbe 13" has been documented in every detail|
|Portrait of KIA Luftwaffe pilot Willi Lück, found in his wallet during the archaeological investigation |
Search and discovery of a Focke Wulf 190 from Floris Beke on Vimeo.
|During his stay in Holland, he dated a Dutch girl (G)erry, who lived in Amsterdam - she spoke German. She wrote him a letter (free translation from German)SOURCE: http://gelbe13.weebly.com/|
ALL PHOTOS USED WITH PERMISSION