Spitfire excavation

Spitfire excavation by Mark Williams

A week-long excavation to unearth a Mark 1A Spitfire, which crashed at Holme Lode in the Great Fen in November, 1940, took place in October 2015, honouring the life of the young pilot who died on a training mission 75 years earlier

On 22 November, 1940, Spitfire X4593, of 266 Rhodesian Squadron Royal Air Force was based at RAF Wittering; on a routine training flight with two other Spitfires, Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh was seen to break formation entering a dive from which he failed to fully recover. Witnesses stated that his aircraft partially recovered at around 2,000ft but then re-entered a dive and struck the ground vertically.
Pilot Officer Penketh did not attempt to use his parachute and was killed in the crash, his body was recovered and returned to his home town of Brighton at the time. Investigations concluded that either a failure of the oxygen system or other physical failure had occurred.

Marking 75 years since the Battle of Britain, the Wildlife Trust and Great Fen project partners undertook to excavate the Spitfire, recruiting the services of professional archaeologists. The dig was timely to preserve a record of this important piece of fenland heritage before the rising water table – with ongoing land restoration to wetlands – would have made this impossible. A geophysical survey was conducted in August 2015, and the remains of the plane located. The excavation was carried out by Oxford Archaeology East, project managed by Stephen Macaulay. They were joined by personnel of the Defence Archaeology Group who oversee OPERATION NIGHTINGALE, a ground-breaking military initiative using aspects of field archaeology and heritage skills to aid recovery and skill development of service personnel and veterans suffering injuries due to military service, plus aviation archaeology experts from Historic England were on site. Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers from the Great Fen Archaeology Group also joined the excavation. A Battle of Britain Memorial Spitfire flypast took place 3pm, Thursday 8 October.

Harold Penketh; Aviva Group archive

Harold Penketh; Aviva Group archive

Spitfire X4593

Spitfire X4593

The dig was a highly successful and memorable time for all involved, and engaged the interest of people across the country with high levels of media attention.

Kate Carver, the Wildlife Trust's Great Fen Project Manager said: "The excavation proved fruitful, poignant and highly symbolic for our Fenland heritage. All the teams worked wonderfully well together with a strong sense of camaraderie which will stay with us for a long time - and the memory of Harold Penketh now lives on in a far more tangible way."

Stephen Macaulay, Project Director for Oxford Archaeology East, said: 'We hoped that because the Spitfire crashed in peat soil that the artefacts would be well-preserved but the condition of many the finds throughout the week including the pilot's headrest, oxygen tank and pilot’s helmet have been beyond our expectations. During the excavation we were truly honoured to mark Harold Penketh's life and contribution with a Battle of Britain memorial overflight on Thursday which was a very poignant moment in the week.

The final event of the week was lifting the engine and the final remains of the plane - much of the Merlin engine had exploded on impact, but recoverable parts were retrieved including one large piece, and the Rolls Royce engine plate - a cheer rang out as the last surviving piece of the engine was lifted.

The propeller was also uncovered and removed plus the stainless steel Smiths badge from the nose cone, the engine ignition, and the regulator voltage plate - dated to 1939. The oxygen tank was in particularly good condition with much paint still on the bodywork, including red paint on part of the tail. The presence and work of personnel of the Defence Archaeology Group was invaluable - the team worked tirelessly in the finds tent and trench. The Great Fen local archaeology group and Jigsaw team helped sort and clean finds, as well as metal detecting over the heaps of removed earth from around the crater. The crater was completely backfilled and ploughed over; with all finds processed, cleaned and sorted with a comprehensive overview of all the retrieved objects.

Material from the excavation site was removed for further sorting and cleaning: all artefacts remain the property of the Ministry of Defence; RAF Wyton Pathfinder Collection received the excavated items, have been cleaned, reconstructed where possible and are on display. A full archive report was produced within 12 months of the completion of fieldwork and deposited in the Cambridgeshire County Council Historic Environment Record. The excavation was filmed by BBC Countryfile, transmitted on Sunday 8 November, Remembrance Sunday, 2015.

During the excavation family relatives made contact with the Wildlife Trust BCN after hearing about the dig via TV news – previous searches made by the Ministry of Defence had not been able to trace any family; two first cousins of Harold Penketh, Valetta Cranmer and Sheila Morris, attended a memorial service held a year after the dig, and unveiled a memorial stone. See footage here. 

 As part of the Great Fen Education and Community programme, the Heritage Lottery (HLF) funded the excavation and also supported the post-dig land restoration. Further gallery of images here

Spitfire excavation film by Martyn Moore

Spitfire memorial service November 2016 by Martin Moore