In the warm and dry summer of 2018, Tim W., then 39, got the idea to dig up the downed Spitfire. Finding the British fighter jet was like finding the holy grail. From an early age, W., born and raised in Meerlo in North Limburg near Venray, had been told that a Spitfire had crashed near his parental home during the Second World War. He also said he had developed a real passion for the Second World War through other war stories. He now belonged to the army of amateurs who use a metal detector to search for weapons, ammunition and helmets left behind in the soil.
In mid-November, W. stood trial with two co-defendants for digging for the plane. The case revolved around the question of whether the three were violating the Heritage Act.
In itself, that law, from 2016, allows searching the soil for militaria. At least, if the landowner has agreed, and if finds are reported to the competent authority, for example the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. The finds may also not have been made more than 30 centimeters below ground level. Unauthorized persons are prohibited from digging deeper, because then the still intact soil with archaeological information can be disturbed.
The Spitfire crashed near Meerlo on May 28, 1944, with 26-year-old Neville Clark on board. The Australian Royal Air Force pilot had taken off earlier that day from Benson military airfield, southeast of Oxford. He belonged to the 542 Squadron that carried out reconnaissance flights over Germany with unarmed Spitfires. After taking pictures of German airfields near Dortmund and Bochum, his plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire on the way back. At a quarter past eight in the evening, his plane crashed just outside Meerlo, at the intersection of Keuter and De Ham. The Germans salvaged his remains and buried them in Venlo. After the war he was buried at the Jonkerbos military cemetery in Nijmegen, more than 16,000 kilometers from his wife, who had remained behind in Leichhardt, New South Wales.
The fragments of Clark’s Spitfire, which ended up in the swampy ground of an old course of the Meuse, had already sunk by then. Later a small forest with coppice and blackberry bushes grew over it. The spot was never marked, nor was there a monument, as was the case in 2008 for the five crew members of a Lancaster that also crashed nearby sixteen days after Clark’s crash.
Looking for the Spitfire, Tim W. hacked his way through the brambles with a machete. The forest was too large to dig at random; presumably he had a metal detector with him. About thirty meters from the road he encountered the crash site. With a shovel, according to W’s story, he dug a deep hole. The groundwater was so high that he needed a pump to empty the pit. And then he hit the engine block. The main prize, but much too heavy to get out on his own.
He immediately knew who to ask for help: Jordie G., from a nearby village on the other side of the Maas. Also someone with a ‘passion’ for the war and metal detection. He had been working on it since he was fifteen, the sturdy man (38) later told the court.
An Instagram account in his name with seventy search messages between January 2019 and February 2020 shows what that means. On a photo of February 9, 2019 shows that next to a deep pit are seventeen corroded German helmets, excavated on one of the battlefields of Market Garden. The photos from March 4, 2019 show a Market Garden site with a parachute in a pit, a wheelbarrow and a ladder in the background. hashtag: #deepdig.
Engine block in three pieces
Jordie G. was happy to lend Tim W. a helping hand with the Spitfire. He in turn asked the then 46-year-old Harm G. (not the same surname), a member of an official association of ammunition collectors, because he could arrange a ‘crane’, a small excavator.
The operation at the beginning of August 2018 attracted the attention of many villagers. Photos were taken as the engine block was taken out of the ground in three pieces. Afterwards, all the finds – oxygen tanks, an inflatable boat for emergency situations, a life jacket, aluminum fragments and fragments of maps – were loaded onto Tim W.’s trailer, who would store the items with his mother.
An amateur archaeologist heard about the excavation work through the village tam-tam. Concerned, he alerted an archaeologist friend. He went to look and based on the caterpillar tracks and the size of the pit, which had filled up with water again, determined that mechanical digging had taken place. Reason for him to report the illegal excavation in March 2019 to the Government Information and Heritage Inspectorate, which falls under the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.
There they have been concerned for some time about metal detector amateurs looking for militaria from the war, says heritage inspector Nico Aten. He doesn’t know exactly how big the problem is. A 2017 report on Metal Detection and World War II estimates there are 10,000 to 15,000 metal detector amateurs. Since 2016, they have been able to report their metal finds from all periods of history to the PAN (Portable Antiquities Netherlands) database. This happens a lot for finds from other periods, but the number of finds from the Second World War in the public database is remarkably small – which may indicate many hidden war finds.
In October 2019, Jordie G. offered a Spitfire oxygen tank for sale via Marktplaats
There are more indications of a “massive encroachment” on World War II heritage by metal detectorists, says Nico Aten. On internet forums, finders show their finds under pseudonyms, he says. And forest rangers note that digging has taken place in many places, especially in the Nijmegen region, where metal detectors are prohibited by regulation. Aten: “We see that certain groups are using small excavators. And deep seekers, detectors that can detect metal up to five meters in the ground, are widely available to hobby seekers.” Traders who offer deep searchers – at prices of around 1,000 euros – explicitly target “militaria seekers” on their websites.
Jordie G. in particular would not take the Heritage Act very seriously, say professional archaeologists. Three archaeologists report anonymously NRC (names known to the editors) that G. seeks out, if not exceeds, the edges of the law. He does not ask landowners for permission, he uses machines to dig deeper pits, he pushes mortal remains aside, he does not report finds, but sells them, and, to put it mildly, he does not like people who call him to account for his actions. The archaeologists say they are apprehensive, even afraid of him and other metal detector amateurs with whom he works.
One of the archaeologists says that G. under the name ‘Ghosts of the Western Front‘ posted photos and videos of his searches on Facebook and YouTube. According to him, they clearly show that G. and fellow seekers violated the Heritage Act on several occasions. A bone of a leg was also rumored to have been found during the excavation of the Spitfire. Given the heavy crash, it would not surprise him if the Germans did not salvage the entire body at the time. G. has since removed the Facebook page and the videos.
Nico Aten and his colleagues from the heritage inspectorate had never succeeded in bringing perpetrators to justice. The Spitfire case offered an opportunity to do just that. Inspectorate and police started working together when it turned out that the land owner had also filed a report: he had not given permission. “With Defense we also tried to have the British government, the rightful owner of the Spitfire, report theft,” says Frank Assendelft, charged with art and antiques crime at the Limburg police. “We’ve come a long way, but it didn’t happen because of Brexit.”
When Jordie G. offered an oxygen tank from the Spitfire for sale via Marktplaats in October 2019, a detective team went to work at Assendelft’s instigation. Permission was given for a pseudo-purchase and house searches of the suspects. At Jordie G. not only the oxygen tank was confiscated. He also turned out to have a lot of war ammunition in his house. Part was so unstable that the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Service immediately detonated it.
Partly due to corona, it took more than two years, until November 15 this year, before the Spitfire case came to court. During the hearing, Tim W. did not deny his part, but Jordie G. and Harm G. both stated that they had only been present during the excavation: they would not have dug themselves. Jordie G. was shocked because of the trio in The Limburger had been portrayed as “treasure diggers”. He did not recognize himself in that, it had caused a knot in his stomach, he said. The public prosecutor demanded community service against the trio. Their lawyer pleaded for an acquittal.
Read also: The war hobbyist dug out of ‘passion for history’ but broke the law
On Tuesday, November 29, the judge ruled that the three suspects had cooperated “closely” and “consciously”. He found them guilty of theft and willful violation of the Heritage Act. He called “unbridled hunting” for historical heritage “reprehensible”. “Especially when the lost and found […] be removed from the site, distributed and even monetized.” As a deterrent and ‘in the interests of the protection of historical heritage’, the judge imposed higher sentences than the public prosecutor had demanded. Harm G. and Tim W. both received a community service sentence of 80 hours, W., as the initiator, also received a one-month suspended prison sentence. Jordie G, who had already been convicted in 2018 for an offense with serious illegal fireworks, and who therefore still had a suspended sentence, received the heaviest sentence: 100 hours of community service and a month’s probation (plus 180 hours of community service for the suspended sentence that was he still had standing).
Frank Assendelft said: “We have achieved what we wanted: a unique ruling for violation of the Heritage Act. It is also very important that theft is proven.” Nico Aten is pleased that the court considers WWII material, including the non-technical parts of the aircraft, as heritage. “This ruling gives us more options to act.” Both are also pleased that the illegally excavated parts of the Spitfire are now being given a good destination: they are going to Overloon War Museum.
A version of this article also appeared in the December 3, 2022 newspaper