The World War 2 fighter aircraft had remained unremarked for 70 years in a remote part of the Western Desert, the wings burnished by the desert wind, the markings on the fuselage still clear, the glass of the cockpit unbroken, the instrument panel still intact. Even the ammunition could be salvaged. The story it had to tell provides a moving insight into the life of one man tragically buffeted by the storm of war.
Britain, in its battle against the Axis powers in North Africa, was at its most desperate in 1942 when Rommel smashed through the British 8th Army in Libya on the 14th June, occupied Tobruk on the 21st, swept round Mersa Matrouh on the 28th and reached Alamein on the 30th, a bare 60 miles from Alexandria. The British had been thrown into a headlong flight, their only repost an unremitting pounding of Axis troops by the Desert Air Force. Bombers and fighters were making as many as six sorties a day, twice as many as during the Battle of Britain.
The Boston and Baltimore bombers were escorted by Kitty Hawk fighters, strong in ground attacks but outclassed by Messerschmitts in high altitude dog fights, while the brilliant skies, blinding sun and shimmering heat haze made it difficult to locate movement from above or on the ground. The airmen were exhausted, physically and mentally, nerves were frayed.
One airman, Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping, damaged his Kitty Hawk on the 27th June and was ordered to fly to the repair units near Cairo the following day. Because his radio was not functioning and his undercarriage was locked in the down position, he was accompanied by another plane from his squadron (620 squadron). Once in the air, Copping veered away from the correct coastal route and headed south-east. The accompanying aircraft signaled desperately and pursued Copping beyond the Qattara Depression but was finally forced to abandon him as Copping flew on heedless into the pitiless wastes of the Western Desert. Something must have snapped. Perhaps he was disorientated by the emptiness of the sky and featureless haze of the ground, maybe depressed by some harsh words he had received from his squadron commander the previous day. Copping flew on till he ran out of fuel and was forced to crash land his craft.
The damage to the aircraft was minimal. Only the front propeller had snapped off and bounced across the desert sand. Copping would have jumped out and surveyed a scene of utter desolation. Afternoon temperatures would have been hitting 45 degrees centigrade. He stumbled across the gravel and stone slabs to find a tiny patch of shadow around a rock and sank to his knees.
We don’t know exactly what became of him. A few bones have been discovered. The wind has swept away his tracks. Only the plane has remained.
ARIDO, Association of Independent Researchers Western Desert, the Italian team led by Andrea Mariotti, which made the discovery, has been scouring the desert since 2011 for the graves of service-men overlooked in previous surveys or forgotten since, anxious to protect or record ground threatened by oil exploration or urban development. They have already identified 18 sites.
In February of this year, they were surveying routes of the Long Range Desert Group through the Great Sand Sea when they decided to extend their investigation to follow up rumours picked up from a Bedouin contact that a war plane lay abandoned on the escarpments towards Farafra. They split into three groups, each with two cars and systematically surveyed the terrain, finally locating the plane on a plateau impassable to wheeled vehicles.
The British Embassy was informed and they contacted the Egyptian military and all parties pledged to keep the find a secret until the site could be protected from looters. The Egyptian military were the first to visit the site and they removed the munitions and guns. Following this visit, rumours began to spread and some images taken with a mobile phone appeared on the internet. Then a Polish worker from an oil prospecting company followed up the clues and took some high resolution photos which soon bounced round the internet and alerted the world to the extraordinary find. Unscrupulous desert tour companies were soon offering trips out and then the damage started. The cockpit was broken, the instrument panel cracked, souvenirs snatched.
Exasperated by the failure of the authorities to protect the site, Andrea Mariotti returned with his team on two visits in May and June to survey the ground carefully for any trace of Copping’s movements before they were obliterated by the actions of thoughtless visitors. Under the broiling June sun, almost 70 years to the day that Copping strayed to his death, the team found a shirt button, and then, under the only piece of shade within hundreds of meters of the plane, a shred of parachute material and a few human bones.
It was an emotional moment for a team dedicated to respecting the memory of those who had fought and died in the desolate wastes of North Africa.
The plane has now been boxed into a container and transferred to the El Alamein war museum where it awaits reassembly as one of the most potent tokens of a battle now fading from collective memory in a landscape slowly being cleared for industrial and urban development.