74 Years After A German Fighter Fell From The Sky, Experts Made An Eerie Discovery In A Russian Lake

In a murky lake in far flung northwest Russia, a team of salvagers work to dredge an old war plane from the mud. Lodged head-down under the water, its tail pointing upwards, the aircraft must be carefully dislodged with airbags. Slowly and carefully, the salvagers raise the old war bird to the surface and then tow her to shore. Victory! Or as they say in Russia: победа!

The salvage took place in June 2018 at a lake in Murmansk oblast. Located well north of the Arctic circle, Murmansk, whose name is thought to come from the indigenous Sami term “murman,” which translates as “the edge of the Earth,” is a land of low, rambling mountains, wind-swept tundra and tranquil forests. Murmansk is home to the Kola Peninsula – a 39,000 square mile land shelf that divides the White and Barents Seas – and it has its capital in the port of Murmansk.

Leading the salvage effort was the Wings of Victory Foundation – a company specialized in the rehabilitation and exhibition of Soviet-era planes. According to its Facebook page, the organization’s mission is to preserve the memory of “the military, engineering and labor feats of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War” – the Russian term for World War Two. Its collection includes a MiG-3, a Fokker Dr.I, a Sopwith Camel and a T-6 Texan.

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Now, thanks to its hard work in Murmansk, the company can add a Messerschmitt Bf 109 to its tally. Created by Willy Messerschmitt, the Bf 109 was an essential fighter craft for the German air force, or Luftwaffe. More than 30,000 were produced in total, making it the second most manufactured combat plane of all time.

Unusually, the blueprint for the fighter was modeled on a light aircraft. The idea was to create a small, powerful, high-performance plane with the fastest engine and lightest frame possible. The result was the Bf 109 – a compact and quick fighter that proved a formidable opponent for Allied pilots.

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Work on the Bf 109 commenced soon after Adolf Hitler swept to power and tore up the Versailles Treaty. The terms of the treaty, which imposed a raft of international sanctions on Germany after World War One, had prevented the country from building an air force. Now, Hitler set about reviving Germany as an effective military power, a plan that included bolstering the nation’s aerial capacity.

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For the debut test flight of the Bf 109, engineers had to use a Rolls Royce engine produced by Germany’s enemy in the ensuing war, Great Britain. That was because Daimler-Benz hadn’t yet mass-produced the new DB 600 engines that would power the Luftwaffe’s dreaded fighter squads, although these were in the works at the time.

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The 1936 Olympic Games were a propaganda opportunity for Hitler, and his displays of German prowess included the first public flyby of the Bf 109. However, the remarkable capabilities of the Bf 109 weren’t truly recognized until a 1937 international fly meet put it through its paces in Zurich.

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As a war machine, the Bf 109 was initially deployed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. More than 20 of the fighters equipped with machine guns and pioneering radios – which were used to arrange formations during dogfights – were dispatched to Spain’s Condor Legion. They proved decisive against the Soviet monoplanes and biplanes flown by the Spanish communist forces.

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With Hitler’s plans nearing fruition, the E-series Bf 109 went into mass production. This iteration of the Messerschmitt included a 1,000 HP fuel-injected Daimler-Benz DB601 engine, a pair of 0.8-inch cannons on its wings and, in the engine coverings, two more machine guns. The Bf 109E played a defining role in Luftwaffe operations through the early years of World War Two.

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Hitler’s first objective was territorial expansion, which was based on the concept of Lebensraum, which translates as “living space”. Ultimately, Hitler planned to subjugate “racially inferior” Slavic nations in Central and Eastern Europe, enslave their populations and provide the Lebensraum for the Germanic race to flourish. He annexed Austria in 1938. Then, the following year he seized Czechoslovakia, all of which occurred without much international opposition.

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Next, in the early hours of September 1, 1939, Hitler launched his invasion of Poland. The German forces’ advance was rapid thanks to their effective battlefield strategy of blitzkrieg, which means “lightning war.” This involved piercing Polish lines with tanks and then trapping the dispersed pockets of infantry with motorized vehicles.

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Squads of Bf 109Es provided essential air support to the German ground campaign. The newly forged war planes devastated Polish airfields and infrastructure, easily overwhelming the less technologically advanced Polish aircraft. Clearly, Germany had succeeded in creating a highly effective fighter, not to mention the deadliest air force in the world.

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Nonetheless, Poland might have held out until help came from its allies, the British. On September 17, however, the Soviet Union entered the fray in support of Germany. In fact, Hitler and Stalin had signed a pact that stipulated how a defeated Poland would be shared between them. By September 28, the country had finally succumbed to its occupiers. Its territory was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, and for the time being the nation of Poland ceased to be.

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The first major test for the Bf 109E was the Battle of Britain, where it faced a dogged opponent in the Spitfire. The British fighter had more maneuverability and clocked better speeds than its German counterpart, while the Bf 109E was more effective in high altitudes. The British had the advantage of flying above home soil, but ultimately the pilots on both sides were highly adept.

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Of course, the British prime minister Winston Churchill saw the German attack coming. And he coined the term “Battle of Britain” during his landmark “Finest Hour” speech to parliament, which was intended to boost morale in the days before France surrendered to Germany. He said, “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

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Hitler’s assault on Britain commenced on July 10, 1940. Under the command of Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe conducted surveys of British terrain and attacked the country’s communication systems, docks and coastal fortifications. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) continued to put up resistance, and so by mid-August the Luftwaffe dispatched Bf 109s to disable British airfields and destroy British aircraft factories.

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After seizing Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, Hitler probably expected the United Kingdom to capitulate quickly. However, he underestimated the resolve of the British. And so the Battle of Britain, far from concluding quickly, escalated instead. It was in fact the first battle ever to play out exclusively at altitude.

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Despite having fewer craft than the Luftwaffe, Britain took the fight to Germany: the RAF bombed Berlin. Hitler retaliated by launching “the Blitz” – sustained nocturnal bombing that reduced the UK’s major cities to rubble. Germany intensified its efforts on September 15 with heavy attacks on London, but still Churchill refused to surrender.

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The Battle of Britain ended on October 31, 1940, when Hitler finally abandoned his scheduled invasion of the country. Thanks to the hard work and heroism of the RAF, the Luftwaffe had been defeated for the first time. Had the British failed, the United Kingdom would have fallen to Nazi rule and the Axis powers would have consolidated their control of the continent.

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In June 1941 Hitler made another tactical error: he invaded the Soviet Union and opened the Eastern Front. During this time, great numbers of Bf 109s were dispatched to intercept and engage Allied bombers and fighters. While Hitler slowly depleted his military resources in bitter winter sieges in the east, the skies over Western Europe filled with machine gun fire, cannon blasts, explosions and smoke.

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To keep pace with advancements in British aeronautics, the Messerschmitt Bf 109G was put into mass production around this time. Given the nickname Gustav, the Bf 109G sported an upgraded Daimler-Benz engine and, for the express purposes of downing U.S. bombers, a pair of removable rocket launchers under the wings.

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In fact, Germany produced more than 20,000 Gustavs, making the G-series the most produced of the Messerschmitt craft. As the war ground on, though, they began to struggle against their well-armed American enemies, which included B24 Liberator bombers and P51 Mustang fighters. And by 1943 the Bf 109G was being used to make risky daylight attacks.

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As the Wings of Victory Foundation discovered, the plane they dredged from a remote lake in Murmansk oblast was a G-series Messerschmitt – a Bf 109G-2, to be precise. After floating it to the surface with air bags, they examined its frame, which was corroded from decades under the water. Evidently, the plane had sustained significant damage.

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The crew then set about moving the craft to dry land. Using a truck winch, they carefully dragged the Bf 109 out of the water, exposing the faded black Luftwaffe crosses on its wings. The front of the plane, including the cockpit, was smashed up. Its tail, too, was sadly broken. Nonetheless, the wreck was spectacular.

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Speaking to the military enthusiast website World War Wings in 2018, the Wings of Victory Foundation explained that the plane had already been salvaged during the war. “The glass of the cockpit canopy on the right side is punched,” they said. “The folding part of the cockpit lantern, instrument panel, sight, as well as weapons on the plane are absent.”

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One part of the plane that did survive, though, was its engine. The brutish Daimler-Benz engine was lifted into the shallow waters near the shore, given a cursory wash with buckets and then raised by crane onto a waiting truck. Likewise, the Gustav itself was carefully hoisted onto a vehicle and whisked away.

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The plane appears to have entered combat in 1942. Initially deployed close to Leningrad on the Eastern Front, it subsequently moved to Luostari, which was then in Finland. The plane would have participated in attacks on Allied transport lines, such as shipping routes that terminated in the Soviet port of Murmansk.

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In fact, the only place in Russia that can freely access the Atlantic Ocean is Murmansk. Located 100 or so miles inside the Arctic Circle, the port was created in 1915 to supply British, American and French troops who were fighting the communist Bolsheviks. During World War Two, it reverted to a similar function, receiving Allied ships laden with vital materials.

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The plane was apparently downed in fighting late in 1944 – just nine months before Hitler’s final defeat. The plane crashed in the lake, which at the time was covered by a veneer of ice. When this melted months afterwards, the Gustav descended nose first into the lakebed, where it was discovered more than seven decades later. The fate of the pilot is unknown.

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The Murmansk Bf 109 is now based at the Technic Museum of Vadim Zadorozhny, where it’s undergone restoration work. Located near Moscow, the museum houses the biggest collection of its kind in Russia. Totaling in excess of 1,000 exhibits, the museum is a monument to the skills and ingenuity of generations of designers and engineers.

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Aside from war machines, the museum has an interesting collection of vintage vehicles used by various Soviet leaders and heroes. Those figures include former Russian premiers Leonid Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and even Joseph Stalin. One owned by the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, is on display, too, alongside numerous other fetching antique automobiles.

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What also makes the museum special is that all the vehicles on display are in working order. Thanks to the museum’s repair shop, the many tanks, rocket-launchers, artillery guns and aircraft on show have been faithfully restored to their original states. As such, they’ve found new life in military parades and in staged re-enactments of conflicts such as the 1917 October Revolution.

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Meanwhile, in 1944 – a year before the fall of Berlin – the K-series of the Bf 109 went in production. Capable of flying at a maximum altitude of more than 40,000 feet, the new Bf 109K clocked speeds of over 450 miles per hour. However, it was harder to control than previous models.

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The war in Europe concluded with Germany’s surrender in 1945, but that wasn’t the end for the Messerschmitt. Up until the 1960s, in fact, the Spanish Air Force used Bf 109s, albeit with new engines. Czechoslovakia, too, emplyed the Bf 109, which was rebranded as the Avia 199. And Israel also bought some Avia 199s when it started building its new air force in the late 1940s.

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The Messerschmitt had its last hurrah in 1969 when it played a starring role in the epic war movie Battle of Britain. In fact, the production acquired some 50 retired Bf 109s from the Spanish Air Force, although fewer than 20 were airworthy. Their co-stars included authentic Spitfires, Hurricanes, Heinkels and Junkers. And together, they constituted the 35th largest air force in the world at the time.

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In 2014 six of the Messerschmitts acquired by the filmmakers went to auction after lying neglected in a hangar for half a century. The planes had been given to oil magnate and ex-stuntman Wilson “Connie” Edwards in return for his contributions to Battle of Britain, which included piloting the lead Spitfire. Wilson, who’s now in his 80s, sold the Bf 109s for around $5 million.

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The buyer was a Swiss firm called Boschung Global Ltd. It purchased half a dozen aircraft, including the sole twin-seat Bf 109 in existence. Speaking to the British newspaper the Daily Mail in 2014, Paul Boschung said, “The deal with the former movie stunt pilot Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards was certainly no ordinary sale. It took several months and, in many respects, was an incredibly interesting project.”

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British restoration expert Tony Ditheridge told the paper that the company could make a sizeable profit. “This is a remarkable collection,” he said. “The original versions of this type of Messerschmitt were flown in the Spanish Civil War and a genuine WW2 model in restored condition would fetch more than [$4.6 million]… This version was pretty unpleasant to fly, but there will be a lot of interest in these aircraft.”

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In fact, Bf 109s interest collectors precisely because relatively few of them survived the war. Moreover, the Messerschmitt has deep historical significance as the most used fighter craft in the Luftwaffe. From Britain to Russia, the Bf 109 flew all over Europe. As such, owning one is like owning a little piece of history.

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