In 2018, Wessex Archaeology was commissioned by the National Grid to perform archaeological works ahead of the construction of the Interconnexion France-Angleterre 2 (IFA-2), an interconnector cable to transmit electricity between France and the UK.
The discovery of a rare, extinct aircraft called a Fairey Barracuda, provided the opportunity to create an exciting recovery project with IFA2, James Fisher Marine and the Fleet Air Arm Museum (FAAM). It has generated significant interest and has been donated to the FAAM to contribute to their jigsaw project, rebuilding a complete Fairey Barracuda from the remains of this and other aircraft.
The discovery of the wreck
During survey work to clear potential unexploded ordnance and boulders, our team on site identified the wreckage as a target for investigation through our geophysical data.
The diver survey described the site as large metal debris, and further survey work revealed that the wreckage was an aircraft in need of further archaeological investigation.
Due to its location in the narrowest part of the cable corridor, a licence under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 was applied for and granted for its excavation.
A predisturbance survey was carried out by our dive team with the aim of providing enough information to be able to formulate a plan for the recovery of the plane, with advice from FAAM. We found that the remains on the seabed included the remains of the cockpit, starboard and port wings, and the remains of the propeller (the blades having broken off or been removed). Unfortunately, the aircraft’s tail structure had been lost.
A rare aircraft
With help from the team at the FAAM, the aircraft type was recognised as a Mk II Fairey Barracuda, a WWII era torpedo/dive bomber operated by the Fleet Air Arm of the type used in the raids on the German Battleship Tirpitz.
The three-seater plane, part of 810 squadron Fleet Air Arm, based at Lee-On-Solent is believed to have got into difficulty shortly after taking off for a test and training flight, with just the pilot onboard, before crashing 500m from the coast into shallow water of the Solent. From examining the wreckage, we know that he was travelling at almost stalling speed when he hit the waves, so he must have pulled off a very gentle emergency landing. The plane's pilot managed to escape the crash, and the excavation yielded some fantastic artefacts, including a boot.
The wreckage is the most complete one to have ever been found and the there are no complete examples of its kind anywhere in the world.
Recovery of the plane
After careful planning, work began in May 2019 to recover the wreckage. Alongside professional salvors James Fisher Marine and the FAAM, our team was deployed with the recovery dive team to record the site on the seabed before and after excavation, and assess material recovered from the lifts.
As part of this process, we recorded the site with a combination of photogrammetry, video and conventional photography. This model allowed us to help the contractor devise their lifting plan, with the aircraft being lifted in sections following partial disassembly on the seabed. This was decided on to protect the remains from further damage, as it was unclear how fragile the aircraft was after 76 years on the seabed.
For the FAAM’s requirements, it was most crucial that the joints and small parts were successfully recovered, so that they could understand and re-create how it all fitted together and reuse as much as possible.
The silt was excavated from around the aircraft and sieved for artefacts, before the plane was carefully divided into manageable sections for lifting. The aircraft was recovered either with strops or in recovery baskets using a crane barge, alongside the diver support vessel.
It was then delivered to FAAM, where Wessex Archaeology experts and museum engineers have been able to clean, process and record it in greater detail.
An historic project
The recovery of the Fairey Barracuda will aid an ongoing FAAM project to recreate what will be the world's only complete example of this type of aircraft.
Dave Morris, Curator at The National Museum of the Royal Navy has been working on the project for several years and visited four other Barracuda crash sites to retrieve suitable parts, although these were all heavily damaged, incomplete sites where the aircraft crashed at speed on land.
He said: "This is an incredible find and a wonderful piece of British history. There are very few blueprints of the Barracuda plane design available so this wreckage will be studied to enable us to see how the plane parts fitted together and how we can use some of the part we currently have.
"This find has been a huge step forward for our project and we can't wait to share our findings with the public."
David Luetchford, Head of IFA2 for National Grid said:
"Interconnectors are about bringing us closer to a zero-carbon future, but we must also respect the past. An important part of our job is to always have a thorough and sympathetic approach to archaeological finds, as it's not unusual for National Grid to find unexploded ordnance's (UXO) at the bottom of the seabed. Over the years, we've inspected over 1,000 potential UXO targets, however to have found a 1943 Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber is incredible and such a key piece of British history.
"It's not every day you get the chance to play a role in an operation like this and it is very lucky to have found the plane in such a small search area. We surveyed a 180-metre-wide area along the cable route and if we had chosen a slightly different route, there is a good chance the plane would never have been found."