Remembrance Day dig for a forgotten soldier

The original coffin of pilot Dennis Noble, aged 20, was found to contain nothing but bricks to give the impression of weight


The plane had crashed on August 30, 1940, killing pilot Dennis Noble, aged 20. He had joined 43 Squadron at Tangmere in Sussex, but only 27 days later he was dead. His remains were sent to Retford, Nottinghamshire for burial.

A chance meeting one summer day at a local aviation show while I was a photography student at the University of Brighton, led me to a small group of amateur archeologists and their plan to retrieve a World War II Hurricane fighter plane from below the streets of Hove, a small town in the southeast of England. It had been shot down by a German Messerschmitt during The Battle of Britain and crashed into the pavement five metres from 59 Woodhouse Road. Every year around Remembrance Day I think about that dig 20 years ago.

A Hurricane mark 1 aircraft when fully loaded weighed 3,000 kilograms. Its wingspan was more than 12 metres. It would have been traveling at more than 600 kilometres per hour. So, just what, if anything, would be left?

A licence from the Ministry of Defence to unearth a WWII plane was relatively easy to apply for back then. And on a chilly November morning, a large excavator was brought in. Only half a metre below the surface, pieces of rust-free metal appeared and then .303 rounds of rifle ammunition still in the clips. Clearly, we were digging in the right place.

Still deeper, the pilot’s parachute was discovered, buried next to an intact oxygen tank. As the chute was laid out on the ground you could still make out the date July 1940 on the bleach white fabric. The pilot never stood a chance at using his means of escape.

That night, two of the crew took turns sleeping in their cars to secure the site. The risk of someone stealing the relics was all too real. I witnessed strangers trying to remove bullets from the ever-growing pile of clay.

The following day, the pilot’s wallet, with a ticket stub for the local cinema and address book were found, as well as the ruby red eyesight that he would have used to aim at his target, along with parts of the plane’s flight instrumentation panel and radio.

There was a feeling of excitement, but the mood changed when parts of a uniform, a cap and then a bone fragment and longer sections of bone were unearthed. The police and coroner were called and the excavation put on hold.

It became apparent that Noble’s body had not been retrieved after all. Sometime later when they buried his bones in Nottinghamshire, the original coffin was found to contain nothing but bricks to give the impression of weight. This was apparently commonplace during WWII.

After the coroner gave permission for the dig to continue, the aircraft’s engine – the words Roll Royce still visible –  was lifted out of the ground, the oil still oozing from its casing. The following day was Remembrance Day. The Royal Air Force cadets marched pass in an impromptu commemoration.

A pub around the corner from the crash site has since been renamed The Noble House, in the pilot’s honour. And the engine and artifacts are on permanent display at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, the same Sussex town Noble took off from on his fateful flight.

I sometimes wonder if it would have been better to have left the site untouched, although if it wasn’t for that small group of plane enthusiasts, Noble would have never received a proper burial.

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