The wreckage of a missing RAF Lancaster bomber shot down 68 years ago on D-Day has been identified by a British historian – from the inscription on a crew member’s gold ring.
Eight decorated servicemen died when the MK III Lancaster was attacked by a Luftwaffe ace during a dawn raid on German gun emplacements in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
None of their bodies were found and the plane lay undiscovered for nearly 70 years until the wreckage was pinpointed by British aviation archaeologist Tony Graves.
He was first taken to the site by a group of French locals who had seen a wheel sticking out of the earth.
Mr Graves later discovered the AC referred to ‘Albert Chambers’ who wed Vera Grubb, 21, at St Giles’ Church, Normanton near Derby, in October 1943 – eight months before he died on D-Day.
He obtained permission from the farmer and the French Government to excavate the site and digging began last weekend.
A local metal detector later found a mangled ring in a nearby marsh which bore the initials ‘AC’ and the engraved inscription ‘Love Vera’.
Hundreds of twisted parts were recovered from the missing Lancaster. But it was a string of personal items which were the most poignant.
One of the RAF fliers silver plated cigarette case was found twisted by the force of the impact. A watch was torn from the wrist of an airman.
And aviation expert Mr Graves also found a forage cap, and the remains of three RAF woollen jumpers. In the remains of one tunic pocket he found a twisted Waterman pen.
Mr Graves is convinced the wreckage of the bomber is the missing Lancaster ND 739 which used the call sign Z-Zebra – piloted by Wing Commander “Jimmy” Carter which took off from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
He said: ”It is the personal effects of the courageous Lancaster crew that are the most moving.
”These are personal items which belonged to very brave men and we have treated with them with the utmost respect.
“We’ve found a couple of torn RAF woollen jumpers, with one still bearing a DFM medal ribbon.
”Lodged inside the sleeve of one jumper we discovered a single German 7.92mm bullet.
”There is an officer’s forage cap, a pocket from an RAF tunic with a Waterman pen still clipped inside and a silk flying glove.”
Wing Commander Carter’s seven-man crew were among the RAF’s most-decorated crews boasting four Distinguished Flying Crosses and three Distinguished Flying Medals for gallantry.
The crew had taken off at 02:56am on D-Day and carried out a bombing mission at Pont Du Hoc on the coast of Normandy.
But Carter’s Lancaster came under fire from legendary fighter pilot Oberleutnant Helmut Eberspacher, shortly after 5am as he shot down three RAF Lancasters in five minutes.
Earlier, as Carter took off from RAF Coningsby, his voice crackled over the radio saying “Thank God I’m still on ops and not at an OTU” (Operational Training Unit).
The aircraft’s last contact came at 5.04am acknowledging a message from a controller, before falling silent.
The Lancaster was shot down by Luftwaffe ace Oberleutnant Helmut Eberspacher.
He was scrambled to patrol the Normandy coast in his Focke-Wulf 190 fighter in the early hours of D-Day as the wave of RAF bombers headed towards their target.
Carter and his crew had successfully bombed the gun emplacements at Pont Du Hoc and turned for home when their Lancaster came under fire.
In his log the German the Luftwaffe ace said: “As soon as I took course I noticed above a row of British bombers flying below the moon lighted cloud cover.
“Similar to a shadow theatre, the bombers stood out against the clouds. However they could not see me against the dark earth (ground).
“We were at war and the enemy had to be combated, and I was in a favorable flying position.
“Within a few minutes, three British Lancaster bombers went down in flames.
“I observed several crew members descend by parachute towards France.
“Now it was high time that I landed some where, as not to become another casualty of the morning invasion.”
French farm workers watched in horror as the stricken Lancaster descended in flames but the crash site near Carentan in Normandy had remained undiscovered.
The crew members who died were led by Wing Cmdr Carter, DFC, with Sqdn Ldr Martin Bryan-Smith, DFC, Flt Lieut Albert Chambers, DFC, Flt Lieut Henry Jeffery, DFM, Acting Flt Sgt Guy Dunning, DFM, Acting Flt Sgt Frank Watson, DFM, Australian Flt Lieut Ronald Conley, DFC, and Canadian Flt Lieut Herbert Rieger.
The men are all listed on the Runnymede memorial which commemorates the 20,389 World War Two airmen with no known graves.
Mr Graves, who has excavated over 400 Battle of Britain aircraft, was informed of the discovery of the gold ring around nine months ago.
He said: ”When I got to the spot I found about 300 rounds of British .303mm ammunition still lying on the surface.
”We have found two of the inner Merlin engines, one outer engine and half a dozen propeller blades, still with their yellow painted tips.
“We’ve recovered one of the Lancaster’s huge wheel hubs with a large chunk of tyre, the back of an armour-plated crew seat, one of the bomb bay doors and all the bomb rack clamps.”
He has also found a clutch of blood-stained RAF maps, a cockpit dial, four parachutes and two red sails from the Lancaster’s emergency dinghy.
Other personal items including a crumpled silver cigarette case and a mangled Bomber Command whistle.
The Ministry of Defence has yet to officially confirm the Lancaster is Wing Cmdr’s Carter’s aircraft.
But aviation expert Mr Graves has already identified the aircraft as a Mk III Lancaster from its distinctive engine exhaust stubs.
A scrap of RAF tunic with medal ribbons and an ‘O’ denoting observer’s wings which may have belonged to Carter’s observer Warrant Officer Frank Watson has also been found.
Eberspacher shot down three RAF Lancasters in the space of four minutes – and Carter’s Lancaster is the only one to have been found.
Wing Cmdr Carter was appointed commanding officer of 97 Squadron based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire in January 1944.
He led raids on Berlin, Frankfurt, Schweinfurt, Brunswick, Leipzig, Essen, La Chapelle and Kjeller in Norway before his death.
As his Lancaster took off from Coningsby at 2.56am on D-Day bound for Pont Du Hoc, Carter’s voice crackled over the radio saying: “Thank God I’m still on ops and not at an OTU.” (operational training unit.)
Eberspacher, 28 at the time, was later awarded a coveted Knight’s Cross after he shot down seven enemy aircraft in 170 sorties.
Oberleutnant Eberspacher wrote in his log book: “As soon as I took course, I noticed above a row of British bombers flying below the moon-lighted cloud cover.
Carter had hand-picked his crew for the D-Day mission and Bomber Command lost some of its most experienced men.
Born in Derby, Flt Lieut Albert Chambers had an extraordinary career flying 58 operational sorties and had already won a DFC and Bar before his death aged just 23.
Chambers was 97 Squadron’s Signals Leader and was the wireless operator and air gunner on the D-Day flight.
He had flown Stirling bombers and as a 20-year-old he was forced to bale out over England when his aircraft ran out of fuel returning from Hanover after it was attacked by German fighters.
Another crewman aboard Lancaster ND739 with a remarkable Bomber Command record was air bomber Flt Lieut Henry ‘Hank’ Jeffery, 23, from Southall, West London.
Jeffery previously flew with Flt Sgt ‘Tiger’ Lyon in one of the Second World War’s most famous Lancasters ‘Spirit of Russia’ – one of only 35 Lancasters out of 7,700 to survive more than 100 operational missions.
Lyon’s crew bombed Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf and the German’s notorious V1 and V2 rocket development plant at Peenamunde.
In October 1943 Jeffery signed off his first tour of 30 missions with the words “TOUT FINIS!” in his logbook and in December he signed on for a second tour.
He told his mother Madeleine he had volunteered for one final flight and was on the ill-fated D-Day mission.
Sqdn Ldr Martin Bryan-Smith, 33, from Wolverley, Worcs, was also killed. He was 97 Squadron’s gunnery leader and had been awarded a DFC and Bar.
Carter’s crew also included two Commonwealth flyers – Australian navigator Flt Lieut Ronald Conley, DFC, from Annerley, Queensland, and Canadian bomb aimer Flt Lieut Herbert Rieger, from Hamilton, Ontario.
The discovery of the missing Lancaster in Normandy comes four months after the Queen dedicated the long-awaited Bomber Command memorial in London’s Green Park to commemorate the 55,573 courageous men who died in action.
Bomber Command suffered the worst casualty rate of any British unit in the Second World War. From 125,000 volunteers with an average age of 22, the death toll was 55,573 with 8,000 wounded and a further 9,838 held in prisoner of war camps.