PICTURES: Wreckage of flight W3998 found 70 years after crash
The final resting place of a lost Second World War allied warplane has been revealed – thanks to a chance discovery by a former Royal Navy clearance diver.
Dive charter boat skipper Danny Daniels, a former Joint Services chief diving instructor – who taught Prince Harry to dive – found the twisted remains of the Sunderland bomber off Plymouth Sound, Devon, during a routine drift dive.
And now the fascinating story of flight W3998 that ended in disaster in December 1941 with the loss of eleven lives will be told for the first time when it features on BBC documentary series Inside Out tonight.
During the Second World War, Plymouth Sound's Mount Batten airbase was home to a squadron of Sunderland aircraft using the sheltered waters for frequent forays over the Atlantic on seek and destroy missions against the menace of German of U-boats.
Buy one get one free on main course and specials excludes fillet steaks and beef wellingtons
Must book to qualify and present voucher on arrival 01209860332
Contact: 01209 700617
Valid until: Wednesday, December 11 2013
Nicknamed 'flying boats'the Sunderland bombers were under constant threat of aerial attack from the enemy's long-range Condor reconnaissance planes. But it wasn't just the Luftwaffe that posed an ever-present danger.
Take-off and landing could prove equally as hazardous and over the course of the war many aircraft fell victim to accidental losses – with positions for all but one of these flying boats accounted for.
Mr Daniels, 52, who was awarded an MBE in 2005 for Services to Diving, explained how he was able to identify the wreckage of flight W3998.
"One of our boats was quiet the week after the initial finding, so I decided to investigate further and just two minutes into the dive I found myself alongside a large radial aero engine complete with a huge propeller."
Making his way through a thick band of kelp, Mr Daniels continued his search and soon found a growth-encrusted piece of aircraft cowling, concealing a bank of what initially appeared to be eight pistons.
He came to the conclusion that the remains marked the resting place of a German fighter plane.
It wasn't until a subsequent dive when a colleague spotted a second propeller and then Mr Daniels discovered a ninth piston that he began to have doubts.
"Using ground markers and a compass I carried out a painstaking box system search technique that revealed an AMK12 anti-shipping exercise mine, a fair amount of British .303 ammunition, another engine and two more props."
Further investigation of the site also uncovered the cockpit steering gear and a pair of machine guns but it was a small piece of a broken dinner plate bearing the RAF's insignia that was to prove pivotal to Mr Daniels' identification of the aircraft.
After poring over Royal Air Force records and files held by the National Archives at Kew the mystery deepened as they failed to mention of any RAF losses at wreck site's coordinates.
Mr Daniels enlisted the help of local historian Darell Jago and using a process of elimination the pair were able to now establish that the wreck was actually that of a Short Sunderland Mark II flying boat, flight number W3998, reported lost at 4.20am on the morning of December 21st, 1941.
"The simple reason this Sunderland was never located," said Mr Daniels, "was that it came down more than twice the distance as stated in its RAF accident report."
Piloted by RAF Flight Lieutenant David 'Digger' Fletcher, a 28-year-old Australian national from 201 Squadron based in Northern Ireland, W3998's crew had enjoyed a two-day stopover at Mount Batten before they were due to fly on to Gibraltar for a Christmas break prior to their new posting to train new Sunderland flight crews.
Loaded with extra equipment and fifteen men – eight more than was normal – the Sunderland approached the calm sea runway in pitch darkness.
Thundering along its flare-lit runway the four powerful Bristol Pegasus engines struggled to lift the heavily laden aircraft airborne and Fletcher was forced to abort his approach, fearful of striking the semi-submerged breakwater and taxied into position for a second attempt little-knowing that impending disaster was only moments away.
Lifting clear of the anti-submarine boom and rising above the breakwater the Sunderland's engines – unable to cope with its extra payload – suddenly stalled and the plane dropped from the sky bursting into flame on impact with the water below.
Pilot Digger Fletcher was killed instantly, the entry in RAF Mount Batten's Operational Record book for the day stating: '0421 W3998 Fl/Lt Fletcher crashed on take off. Four survivors. Eleven missing presumed dead.'
Fletcher's niece, Lois Porters, 75, of Brisbane, Australia, said: "We're grateful that a positive identification has finally been made."