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Exploration

Surveying and Identifying a Sunken JU 88a German WWII Aircraft

Italian explorer Fabio Giuseppe Bisciotti reports on finding a sunken German WWII aircraft in the South Adriatic Sea and identifying its original airport base and crew. Shades of Deep Sea Detectives! He and his team are also part of a larger operation working with the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Mediterranean Directorate to identify U.S. military wrecks in the area. Watch this space.

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by Fabio Biscotti

InD: Fabio, how often are you and your team out looking for shipwrecks?

Fabio Biscotti: Very often, due to our partnership with the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Mediterranean Directorate, and the presence of many shipwrecks in our zone, which was the theater of some of the major battles during the two world wars.

How did you and your colleagues hear about the German sunken aircraft?

Thanks to previous expeditions of other teams that we read about in the newspaper, we decided to give our support to this history.

The planes were not very deep. What diving equipment did you use? Open circuit? Closed-circuit?

We made the dives with open circuit nitrox.  

What do you plan to do with the information and photos of the Ju88A4 

that you have obtained?

We are confident that we have correctly identified the pilot and the crew. We are simply happy to have been able to document this history, and we’re not going to stop. We have many wrecks to study to add to the big puzzle of human history and also to help the families of those lost. It is our pleasure.

You mentioned to me before that your group has partnered with DPAA to help screen and identify U.S. military wrecks in the South Adriatic Sea. Have you started any work with them yet?

We had our first contact with them thanks to Luigi Lacomino from Gruppo modellistico ricerche storiche Foggia (Foggia Historical Research Modeling Group), one of the best military historians in our area. He has written many books and publications about Italy’s military history. When DPAA  arrived to talk with him, he immediately contacted us with the objective to create an operative squad. Our first task was to create a complete map of the aircraft crash sites around our area (Gargano-southeast Italy, Adriatic side) and take photos of the various airplanes found in the area. We have much to do and the work will be long and passionate.

I also understand that you established a Project Baseline project in Tremiti Islands National Park, Italy, in 2017. Please tell me a little about the project.

We started this project with the objective to protect our rich sea life environment by monitoring the beauties in the deep. It’s a worldwide treasure that must be preserved and protected. Our diving center organizes daily dives in fabulous places, to help people understand the kind of treasure that surrounds us.

What’s your next big project?

Actually, we are organizing some recon dives on various wrecks and plan to photograph them. We will keep in touch; I am pretty sure there will be a big surprise. 


Operations Report 

Date: March-July 2019

Location: Santa Caterina di Nardò, Italy

Objective: Recovery of WWII German aircraft/crew identity information

Depth: 36.0 m/118 ft 

Wreck length: 14.40 m/47 ft 

Wingspan: 20.00 m/66 ft 

Height: 4.85 m/16 ft 

Wing area: 54.50 m2 /178 ft2

The operational plan was based on information from previous teams that had visited the aircraft wreck site. Its location is 3.3 miles, 282 degrees WNW on a sandy bottom of 36.0 meters/118 feet.

The plane rests in flight attitude and perfectly lies on the sandy bottom broken into two sections, which was certainly caused by its impact with the sea surface. The team made a perpendicular descent on the plane, which was clearly marked by the divers who discovered this aircraft.

The remaining aft part of the plane (easily traceable tail and wheel planes) lies 15 m to SSE from the main body. Its surfaces are completely covered with incrustations due to its lengthy submergence.

As a further confirmation of the origin of the plane, there are traces of swastikas on the stern. On earlier reconnaissance, the previous team found a nameplate with engine identification numbers.

All in all, the wreck appears to be in fair condition despite having been prey to predatory acts against it. What immediately stands out at first sighting is the total lack of propellers and machine guns near the plane. The former were made of wood, which were likely damaged on impact and have likely been eaten away after being submerged for more than seven decades. 

March 30, 2019:

The team of four operators conducted a survey of the wreckage and recovered a new element of study, which has been identified as an EZ6-type condenser used in German aviation during World War II.

After carefully studying the right wing, the team found that the holes discovered on the first dive were nothing but small, growing structural failures due to the salt water, demolishing the team’s original hypothesis that the plane was strafed by gunfire. Another hypothesis  was based on the lack of exit holes, suggesting that the loss of the aircraft was due to other factors. After careful studies and washes on the recovered parts, we found a total absence of bursts or burns on the condensers.

The EZ6 capacitors appear, from the moment of recovery, in good condition. They are formed by a ceramic base on which the various “elements” rest. Inside the cylinders, the plastic-copper parts appear to be in good condition and, after careful attention, they are almost like new.

June 20, 2019:

Our descent was scheduled for 2 p.m., with almost no current, and we easily reached the plane. The goal of the day was to track down and identify the color of the sunken aircraft. Despite difficulties due to corrosion, we were able to study three samples at different points on the plane. The color identification confirms that it is the classic Luftwaffe green, similar to aircraft green #74 used by various services.

July 3, 2019:

EZ 6 Fragment.

We identified and confirmed traces of the yellow letter on the right side of the fuselage that previous surveys had witnessed. With the help of various historical groups engaged with us in the operation, we were able to identify the letter R, given the angle and breadth of the semicircle found. Immediately to the right a double trace was found that was most likely the letter W. 

This thesis is supported by two factors. First, the characters used by the Luftwaffe on its appliances are unmistakable, and W is the only letter that displays the angles of the lines found. The second factor was the discovery by our historians of particular documentation attesting to the loss of three German aircraft in the Ionian, right in the area in front of Gallipoli where the Ju88A4, a World War II Luftwaffe twin-engined combat aircraft, rests. The documents provided a complete identification of two of the aircraft by their side tags, but we knew the third belonged to the KG54 12 Staffel (squad).

We understood immediately that the other aircraft could not be the Ju88 in question, given the fact that they belonged to different staffels where the coloring of the third character was not yellow, but another color. The only aircraft in the area belonging to the 12 Staffel was our object of study; further confirming the hypothesis was the perfect combination of the camouflage pattern found belonging to the KG54 and the yellow letter R.

Furthermore, the discovery of the letter W gives the total confirmation that it is a 12 Staffel, as this letter was used to identify this group.

We concluded that the plane in question is a Ju-88A4 under the KG54 12 Staffel. As a result, we were able to obtain the following information:

Airport base: Grottaglie Airport, Italy

Kampfgeschwader 54, Group IV, 10th/11th/12th Staffel

Crew: unknown

Ofw Brasas: He appears to have been mortally wounded. No other data is currently available.

Uffz Withalm: He was mortally wounded and subsequently died on May 5, 1942. Post-war memorialized in the Cassino Cemetery Block 15 Tomb 179. The same name is mentioned on the plaque of the Graz Cemetery with the degree of Fl.Lt. Flieger Leutnant (Second Lieutenant) and died on April 14, 1942. In both cases the date of birth coincides with the same person.

Gefr Eichhorn: He was mortally wounded and remembered in the gravestone of the lost at sea of ​​the German army and aviation of Kiel-Laboe. Available data: Crashed in the “Mediterranean,” near Isola della Malva. 

Gefr Stegmüller: He was mortally wounded and memorialized in the post-war period in the Cassino Cemetery Block 15 Tomb 109.

Mission: Unfortunately, it is not possible to know if it was a training flight or a war flight. Testimonies of the time attest to the presence of two bodies of German pilots in the trap adjacent to the crash site. Furthermore, the 12 Staffel of the KG54 was precisely in the Grottaglie area, thus further confirming this thesis.

Team members: Fabio Bisciotti (team leader), Alfonso De Filippo,Alessandro Aulicino (Poseidon Systems Italia), Rosy De Renzo, Michele Del Vecchio, Simona Pagano,    Giustino Riccio, Vincenzo dell’Isola, Matteo Spada

Historical research team: Luigi Iacomino. GRUPPO MODELLISTICO RICERCHE STORICHE Foggia, Elena Zauli delle Pietre (aerei perduti Polesine), Andrea Raccagni (aerei perduti Polesine), Alessandro Zannoni 


Recent law school graduate Fabio Giuseppe Bisciotti is a RAID instructor who has long been interested in natural and maritime history. Based at the Aquodiving Tremiti Diving Center in Foggia, Italy, Fabio joined Project Baseline in 2017 to help protect and monitor the underwater environment in Tremiti Islands National Park. In 2018, he partnered with the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Mediterranean Directorate, to help screen and identify U.S. military wrecks in the South Adriatic Sea. He is currently preparing for a pilgrimage to Scapa Flow for the 100thanniversary.

Exploration

Five Priceless Shipwrecks in US Waters

Metal detecting maven Alex Lemaire explores five of the most precious wrecks discovered off the American coasts.

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by Alex Lemaire

Shipwrecks are windows into the past. They help us learn more about history. And with an estimated three million shipwrecks around the world, most of them yet to be discovered, there awaits an amazing adventure for the intrepid explorer yearning to know more. Some of these shipwrecks are special because of their historical significance or because of the valuable cargo they carried. Here are brief sketches of five of the most precious shipwrecks discovered in American waters.

SS Central America Shipwreck

The SS Central America on 3 October 1857. Library of Congress, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

One such shipwreck happened during the California gold rush. The sidewheel steamer, SS Central America, loaded with 30,000 pounds/13.6 metric tons of gold, was sunk by a hurricane in September 1857 off the coast of South Carolina. The sails were shredded by the winds, and the boiler failed. The crew and passengers formed a bucket brigade and valiantly tried to keep the ship afloat, but their efforts were in vain. The Central America sank, killing 425 or the 578 passengers aboard.

After 130 years, the famous treasure hunter, Tommy Thompson, discovered the wreck at 2200 m/7200 ft of water. In an operation that lasted four years, Thompson, using a remotely-operated vehicle, recovered the gold—gold bars, freshly minted coins, gold dust, along with other valuable items totaling $2,000,000 then, and $54,000,000 today. 

H. L. Hunley

H. L. Hunley in sodium hydroxide bath. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The  H. L. Hunley, historically the first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship, was launched in July 1863 during the Civil War. The Hunley measured around 37 feet long and was designed for a crew of nine, eight of which turned a hand-cranked propeller while the ninth man steered. Built in Alabama then shipped by train to Charleston, South Carolina, she was used by the Confederates in their attack of Union ships attempting to break through the naval blockade.

Hunley sank on February 17, 1864, after torpedoing and sinking the warship USS Housatonic. She disappeared for over a century until Edward Lee Spence, an underwater archeologist and the founder of the commercial diving school, the International Diving Institute, discovered and salvaged the wreck in 2000. She was found just four miles from Charleston Harbor and relocated by Spence to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center. The value of the discovery is estimated to be more than $40,000,000 dollars. 

SS Republic Shipwreck

Maritime Digital Archive Encyclopedia.

On October 25, 1865, The SS Republic wrecked 100 miles off the coast of Georgia at 520 m/1700 ft in the Atlantic seabed. The Republic is a sidewheel steamship that sank due to the devastating force of a violent  hurricane, saving most of the passengers and crew, but losing its precious cargo of over $4,000,000 in silver and gold coins—much needed to rebuild New Orleans’s post-Civil War economy, and a fortune even in today’s money.

Nearly 140 years later, Odyssey Marine Exploration, a company specializing in locating and exploring shipwrecks, discovered the Republic using cutting-edge technologies, such as powerful sonars, magnetometers, and advanced robotics. A soft silicone limpet was used, having been specially designed to pick up one coin at a time without damaging its surface. The entire expedition was documented by National Geographic.



Whydah Gally

The bell from the pirate ship Whydah. Source: FlickrDSC_0257 by jjsala.

Whydah Gally is the only fully authenticated pirate shipwreck ever discovered in US waters, having been found by the underwater archaeologist Barry Clifford in 1984. The ship’s identity was verified a year later after the discovery of its bell, which was inscribed with the vessel’s name “THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716”.

The 100-ft-long ship was commissioned in 1715 and launched in 1716 in London. With a top speed of 13 knots, the Whydah was originally built to transport passengers, cargo, and slaves. But, in 1717, on the return leg of its maiden voyage of the triangle trade,  it was captured by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, who was one of the wealthiest pirates in history.

The pirate had modified and equipped Whydah Gally with ten additional cannons and sailed north. He used his newly acquired ship to loot and capture other vessels on the way. Months later, the ship was hit by a storm and sank off the coast of Massachusetts. Only two of the Whydah’s crew survived, along with seven others who were on a sloop captured by Bellamy earlier that day. Six of the nine survivors were hanged, two who had been forced into piracy were freed, and one Indian crewman was sold into slavery.

Whydah Gally illustration by Amanda White

The Whydah eluded discovery for over 260 years, when it was found buried under 3 m/10 ft to 15 m/50 ft of sand in depths ranging from 5 m/16 ft to 9 m/30 ft, spread over four miles parallel to Cape Cod’s easternmost coast. The site has been extensively studied for many years. More than 200,000 individual pieces have been recovered. Some of them are displayed at Whydah Sea-Lab & Learning Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Nuestra Senora de Atocha Shipwreck (Our Lady of Atocha)

The Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

The Spanish galleon, Nuestra Señora de Atocha, named after the parish of Atocha in Madrid, was the most widely known vessel of a fleet of ships. In 1622, she sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in a hurricane off the Florida Keys. At the time of her sinking, she was heavily laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, and indigo bound for Spain. Emeralds from the Muzo Mine in Columbia, renowned as the world’s finest emeralds, were among the treasures.

After an expensive and arduous search that began in 1969 with Mel Fisher, an American treasure hunter, finding silver bars in 1973, a bronze cannon in 1975—proving to be that of the Atocha. Fisher lost his son, his daughter-in-law, and another diver while pursuing the treasure, but he persevered, finally finding the wreck and its treasure in 1985.

The State of Florida claimed title to the wreck but, after eight years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fisher’s company, which granted him rights to all found treasure in 1982. Fisher died in 1998. The ship’s cargo is estimated to be worth $400,000,000. In 2014, the Senora de Atocha was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most valuable shipwreck ever discovered. Some of the items are displayed at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida.

This Spanish treasure galleon, and most widely known vessel of a fleet of ships, sank to the bottom of the Atlantic due to a hurricane in 1622. In 1985, it was discovered—loaded with 40 tons/36.2 m tons of gold and silver, plus 70 pounds/31.6 kg of emeralds—off the Florida Keys in 1985 by Mel Fisher, an American treasure hunter who died in 1998. 

Finding this precious shipwreck wasn’t an easy task. Mel Fisher  started looking for it in 1969. He spent a lot of money and effort to locate it. He lost his son, his daughter-in-law, and a diver during this expedition.

He didn’t give up, and he kept working. He found three silver bars in 1973 and five cannons in 1975. This convinced him that he was getting closer to the main hull. In July 1985, he made the great discovery. The ship’s cargo is estimated to be worth $400,000,000.

But this didn’t mean that the fight was over. He had to win a lengthy court battle against the State of Florida over the ownership of the gold. Some of the items are displayed at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West. Three years later, Congress passed the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act. In 2014, the Senora de Atocha was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most valuable shipwreck ever discovered.


Alex Lemaire is passionate about treasure hunting whether inland or underwater. He published many articles about this subject on his blog. He thinks that this hobby is an amazing way to learn more about the history of humanity.

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