Archaeologists discover Spitfire engine and personal effects during week-long dig

Spitfire dig, at Holme Fen, oxygen bottle,

Spitfire dig, at Holme Fen, oxygen bottle, - Credit: Archant

Work to recover a Spitfire which crashed in Great Fen in 1940 has come to a close.

Archaeologists completed work on the site, between Huntingdon and Peterborough, on Saturday following a week-long dig that turned up a wealth of finds, including the plane’s engine and a number of personal effects.

The mark 1 fighter plane came down on November 22 in what is now part of the Great Fen habitat restoration project.

Spitfire X4593, of 266 Rhodesian Squadron Royal Air Force, was based at RAF Wittering and was on a routine training flight with two other Spitfires.

Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh was seen to break formation entering a dive from which he failed to recover.

Witnesses at the time said that his aircraft partially recovered at around 2,000ft but then re-entered a dive and struck the ground vertically.

Mr Penketh did not attempt to use his parachute and was killed in the crash, his body was recovered and returned to his home town of Brighton. Investigations concluded that either a failure of the oxygen system or a physical failure had occurred.

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Stephen Macaulay, project director for Oxford Archaeology East, said: “We hoped that because the Spitfire crashed in peat soil that the artefacts would be well-preserved but the condition of many the finds throughout the week including the pilot’s headrest, oxygen tank and pilot’s helmet have been beyond our expectations.

“During the excavation we were truly honoured to mark Harold Penketh’s life and contribution with a Battle of Britain memorial overflight on Thursday which was a very poignant moment in the week.”

The final event of the week was lifting the engine and the final remains of the plane - much of the Merlin engine had exploded on impact, but recoverable parts were retrieved including one large piece, and the Rolls Royce engine plate.

The propeller was also uncovered and removed plus the stainless steel Smiths badge from the nose cone, the engine ignition, and the regulator voltage plate - dated to 1939. The oxygen tank was in particularly good condition with much paint still on the bodywork, including red paint on part of the tail.

The crater has now been completely backfilled and ploughed over; processing, cleaning and sorting finds continues and there will be a comprehensive overview of all the retrieved objects once everything has been logged.

Photographs from the dig, along with some of the Oxford Archaeology East team will be at the Great Fen Discovery Day at Holmewood Hall on Saturday.