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Underwater wrecks are‘window on our history’

Underwater World War II aircraft wrecks are being studied for the first time to determine the rate of deterioration and shed light on the potential of aircraft crash sites at sea.

The University of Malta’s Archaeology Department is working hand in hand with Southampton University on a “milestone” project with the aim of recording wreckage sites properly so they can be monitored effectively in the future.

“These are part of our cultural heritage but have not been given their deserved attention. It is high time we started giving them their due importance,” said Timmy Gambin, senior lecturer in maritime archaeology at the University.

“However, to do this we need to understand what we have and their state of preservation.”

The study kicked off with the analysis of two war planes: a Bristol Beaufighter off St Julian’s and a Blenheim light bomber off Delimara.

They are poignant memorials to a desperate, but also proud, time in Maltese and British history

“This is phase one of what hopefully will develop into a broader survey of aircraft crash sites,” said Dr Gambin.

As the bombers are at a depth of 37 to 40 metres, traditional underwater archaeological methods could not be applied, so aerial photography and 3D modelling supplemented the in situ dives.

Only a handful of wrecks have been studied in this manner in the world and if proved successful the techniques can be applied elsewhere.

Masters student Tony Burgess from Southampton, a key researcher on the project, said plane crashes are very telling on war strategies.

The wrecks show clearly that in the early years of World War II, Malta was on the defensive, but started pushing back as the Allies gained ground.

“They are poignant memorials to a desperate, but also proud, time in Maltese and British history, when Malta endured an aerial siege unmatched at that time in its ferocity and relentlessness,” Mr Burgess said.

Aeroplane crashes are concentrated in the immediate waters around Malta from 1940 to 1942, but later on they occur further afield, especially near Sicily.

“In the early stages of war Malta was very much on the defensive and more reliant on her anti-aircraft batteries,” said Mr Burgess. “As the war swung in the Allies’ favour, they were able to push back and intercept them away from the island.”

Moreover, the concentration of World War II bomber plane remains around Filfla shows that this was a navigational marker for bombers.

For Malta, underwater aviation wrecks open a window in history because planes that crashed on land were either completely destroyed or salvaged for spares.

“So the only significant aircraft remains you will find of this pivotal moment in Maltese history are underwater, making them all the more precious,” said Mr Burgess.

Preservation is of great concern. “Salt water and aircraft do not mix very well, unfortunately, as aluminium tends to corrode quite quickly underwater,” he said.

According to Mr Burgess, the Blenheim off Delimara Point is quite corroded as it is exposed and upright; the Beaufighter off St Julian’s is in a better condition.

This is probably because it lies upside down and is half buried in sand, which has prevented souvenir hunters taking items from inside, in particular the cockpit.

What is known through documentary evidence is that the crew of both aircraft got out in one piece.

Conservation of the wreckage is crucial.

“It is possible to at least stabilise the corrosion on the seabed by attaching baser metals to the wrecks, which act as a focus for the corrosion and preserve the aircraft,” Mr Burgess said.

The project will be looking at what can be done in the short and long term for the wrecks.

“We’re also demonstrating that these have a genuine archaeological value – in that they have the potential to shed light upon the past – and should therefore be protected and treated with respect,” he said.

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