Home thoughts from abroad

A Dornier aircraft shot down off the English coast more than 70 years ago during the Battle of Britain is being raised and restored at a cost of £343,826 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Why?

This may seem a bizarre question. The National Heritage Memorial fund was set up “to save the most outstanding parts of our heritage at risk of loss to the nation, as a memorial to those who have given their lives for the UK.” Over the past 32 years it has contributed to saving the Siegfried Sassoon Archive; the Staffordshire Hoard; the Mappa Mundi; the Mary Rose; the Flying Scotsman; the last surviving World War II destroyer, HMS Cavalier; Brecon Beacons National Park; Sir Walter Scott’s manuscripts; and Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage.

In all these there is a clear sense of the nation’s history, culture, and self-identity. Two of them relate to England’s maritime prowess in war. But the Dornier, lest we forget, was German and was part of a massive assault on this “sceptr’d isle”. What is being commemorated? And how is the Dornier a memorial to those who gave their lives during the war?

The Dornier Do 17, sometimes referred to as the “flying pencil”, was a World War II German light bomber designed to outrun defending fighter aircraft. It had two engines mounted on a “shoulder wing” structure and had a twin tail fin configuration.

On 26 August 1940 this particular Dornier was taking part in a raid on the RAF stations at Debden and Hornchurch. Flying over cloud, the aircraft became separated from the bomber formation and lost its bearings. An attack by British fighters disabled one of the Dornier’s engines and damaged the other. The wounded pilot crash-landed on the Goodwin Sands. He and another crew member survived and were taken prisoner. The other two crew members were killed.

Contrast the Dornier story with the Mary Rose, which sank on 19 July 1545 off Portsmouth in full view of Henry VIII and with the loss of hundreds of lives. The wreck of the Mary Rose was rediscovered in 1971 and salvaged in 1982 by the Mary Rose Trust in one of the most complex projects in the history of maritime archaeology.

Mary-RoseBuilt between 1509 and 1511, the Mary Rose was the pride of the Tudor fleet and one of the first warships that could fire a broadside. She was named after Princess Mary, Henry’s youngest sister. After she sank, there were attempts to salvage her, but the vessel slipped into the silt of the Solent and was forgotten. In the 1960s diver Alexander McKee began searching the Solent, but it was not until 1971 that she was found. The Mary Rose Trust was formed in 1979 to raise the ship at a cost of more than £20 million. To house the ship and its artefacts, a new museum was recently opened at a cost of a further £35 million.

The 15th and 16th centuries have pride of place in England’s historical imagination, not least through the plays of William Shakespeare and a fascination with the lives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Of course, the two World Wars have also coloured perceptions of the 20th century and in this respect the nation is still emerging from the protective cocoon it wove around the rights and wrongs of that bitter century.

The historian David Starkey has described the resurrected Mary Rose as “the English Pompeii, preserved by water, not fire… All Tudor life is there. It is like stepping inside a Holbein painting.” Or a time-capsule from a fabled era in Britain’s history. As such it has a magnificent purpose. But it’s impossible to say the same of the Dornier. And that’s why we should question the value of bringing up its largely worthless remains at a cost of £343,826 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

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