For 67 years, a Junkers Ju 87 bomber has rested on the seabed, untouched but for a gradually accumulated crust of barnacles. Now historians want to bring the aircraft to the surface, and shed light on its secrets.
Work has already begun to recover the World War II relic. A team of divers from a German army marine batallion conducted an exploratory mission on Tuesday, and have already been able to lay to rest one of the wreck's most enduring and macabre legends.
"There are no bodies inside," Sebastian Bangert, spokesman for the Dresden Museum of Military History, told The Local while on his way to Rügen. Previous divers claimed to have spotted a boot in the vicinity, but this now appears to be unrelated. The two-man crew, whoever they were, must have bailed out before impact.
The Ju 87 was a dive-bomber plane, what the Germans call a Sturzkampfflugzeug, hence the popular abbreviation Stuka, used by both sides. It was typically used to attack point targets, usually large buildings. The fearful accuracy of these missions and the distinctive howl of the plane's shrieking siren – known as the Jericho trumpet – made the Ju 87 a symbol of terror for the Allies, and a powerful propaganda icon for the Axis powers.
Those were its strengths - the briny fate of the Rügen wreck testifies to its flaws. Although small at 11 metres from nose to tail, the Ju 87 was slow and cumbersome, with only light defensive weaponry. Unless heavily escorted, it was vulnerable to enemy fighters.
Even its own modus operandi was fraught with danger. The plane would dive at an angle approaching 90 degrees and attain speeds of up to 600 kph. At a mere 450 metres above the ground, a light on the altimeter would instruct the pilots to release their load. It was not unknown for them to black out under the gravitational stress, in which case the aircraft's automatic pull-up brakes would take over. Most of the time.
"Nowadays, the Ju 87 is extremely rare," says Bangert. Its tragic flaws have turned it into a historical curiosity. Some 5,500 were produced, but just two well-preserved examples survive.
They are in London and Chicago; the few that reside in German museums are badly damaged. What the salvage team are hoping to recover is nothing less than Germany's finest remaining example of an icon of its 20th century history.
"The plane is fundamentally in very good condition," explains Bangert. It was not badly damaged on impact, though any judgement on its state of repair should be kept in perspective. "After all, it has been under water for 67 years and clearly it will require a lot of work."
That work, methodical and painstaking, is underway. First the plane will be thoroughly cleaned under water, the molluscs prised away, before small or loose pieces are brought to the surface. Then the wings will be detached and recovered, the 100-kilo tail floated to the surface with air-bags, and, about a week after the operation began, a deck crane will raise the fuselage into the Baltic sunlight.
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Once on dry land, restorers will begin the task of readying the Ju 87 for a planned exhibition at Berlin-Gatow, the airfield branch of the Museum of Military History. That process is expected to take some months.
The plane's engine code may still be recognisable, says Bangert, in which case "we hope to use it to draw conclusions about where the crew came from and what sort of mission they were on." Then, maybe, the Ju 87's long journey from mystery to history will be complete.