Wreckage Recovery of Second World War Aircraft

Surviving relatives of lost WWII aircrews would like to be able to lay their loved ones to rest. That is why central government will be working with municipalities until 2030 to recover the physical remains of crew members from crashed WWII aircraft. The government has budgeted 15 million euros to this end.

Aircraft wreckage very likely to contain physical remains of crew

During the Second World War approximately 5,500 aircraft were lost over the Netherlands. The wreckage of some 400 aircraft may still contain the physical remains of their crews. Human remains are very likely to be found in the wreckage of 30 to 50 of these aircraft. These are the results of research by the Dutch Study Group Air War 1939-1945 (SGLO), which provides the basis for the National Programme for Aircraft Recovery. The programme began in September 2019 with the wreckage recovery of two aircraft.

Enlarge image Wreckage Recovery of Second World War Aircraft
Image: ©nee

Wreckage Recovery of a Avro Lancaster III in Zelhem-Bronckhorst.

Recovery of aircraft wreckage after 75 years

The National Programme for Aircraft Recovery began in 2019 because:

surviving relatives want to lay their loved ones to rest;

  • 2019 and 2020 mark 75 years of liberation in the Netherlands;
  • in the years immediately after the war the priority was rebuilding the country;
  • new insight has emerged regarding the likelihood of finding crew members in the wreckage of recovered aircraft – SGLO’s research shows there is a good chance human remains will be found in the wreckage of 30 to 50 aircraft.

Under the Geneva Convention war graves are to be left undisturbed. This programme, however, is an exception.

A maximum of 3 recoveries per year

Recovering the wreckage of an aircraft is costly in terms of money and manpower. Together with the relevant municipalities central government is able to recover up to 3 aircraft per year. When planning which aircraft to recover first, central government takes into consideration:

  • the surviving relatives – priority is given to recovering aircraft containing the physical remains of people with many surviving relatives;
  • the wishes of the municipalities;
  • the likelihood that the recovery operation will be successful;
  • the degree of difficulty of the recovery operation.

The teams are recovering the wreckage of British and German aircraft.

Municipalities are responsible for recovering aircraft wreckage

Municipalities themselves must take the initiative in recovering aircraft wreckage. This is laid down in the Municipalities Act. A municipality can recover the wreckage of an aircraft if there is a danger to the public, for example. Wreckages often contain undetonated explosives.

Under the national programme municipalities are reimbursed for these costs through the Municipalities Fund’s bomb disposal scheme. For example:

  • to compensate the owner of the land;
  • for on-site security during the recovery process;
  • for organising a visitors day.