75 Years After A WWII Fighter Pilot Vanished, His Grandson Stumbled Upon A Plane Wreck

High on a remote Norwegian mountainside, Englishman Phil Richardson is trekking in search of an incredible target. In 1944, you see, his grandfather Ron’s fighter bomber had disappeared over Norway in the midst of a wartime raid. But now, thanks to a stranger’s discovery, Phil’s finally on the trail of the missing plane.

It’s perhaps not surprising that it has taken Phil so long to locate the possible remains of his grandfather’s downed plane. After all, as World War II raged across Europe, its battlefields took many forms. And while the forces of the Axis and Allied powers fought one another on land and sea, many important clashes also took place in the skies. In fact, since the turn of the 20th century, aerial combat has played an increasingly important role in warfare around the world.

It wasn’t until World War I, though, that aircraft became part of combat on a large scale. And while it was initially zeppelins that carried out the first airborne bombing raids, both sides of the conflict soon began making use of fighter planes to attack the enemy. By the time that the war was over, then, pilots had saved the day on a number of occasions – and it was clear that aerial warfare was here to stay.

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So, impressed with the ability of aerial combat to help win a war, both the Axis and the Allied powers developed military aircraft in the run up to World War II. And by the time the conflict kicked off in 1939, Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States each had a formidable air force to bring to the table.

In both Britain and the U.S., then, the military leaderships placed strong importance on strategic bombing – and so developed fleets capable of traveling long distances on raids. Yet Germany’s formidable Luftwaffe inspired terror in the hearts of its enemies with its Stuka dive bombers. It was unable, however, to maintain the level of machine production required to win a war on the scale of WWII.

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As the conflict progressed, though, the British developed a superior grasp of radar technology – an asset that allowed them to plan even more devastating raids. And with the addition of seismic bombs, the Allies were soon capable of wreaking the sort of destruction that had never been seen before.

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But in July 1940 a new theater of war erupted in full force in the skies over England. Dubbed the Battle of Britain, this campaign saw the German Luftwaffe launch a series of bombing raids while the Royal Air Force attempted to defend its home turf. Today, the conflict is considered the first entirely aerial major campaign in history.

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Yet although the Royal Air Force eventually won the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe continued to bombard the United Kingdom in a series of devastating raids known as the Blitz. And despite its campaign being of little tactical advantage, the Germans consequently destroyed large parts of London and other British cities. In fact, roughly 20,000 civilians lost their lives in the capital alone during the Blitz.

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In the end, though, aerial combat played an important part in securing the Allies’ victory over the Axis forces. It came at a great cost, however. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly 60,000 RAF Bomber Command airmen died during World War II – a fatality rate of almost 50 percent.

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Over seven decades later, however, the mortality rate of British airmen is not quite so high. And for Commander Phil Richardson, a pilot with the Royal Navy, this fact must come as something of a relief. Yet back in 1944, his own grandfather – Ron – had disappeared while on a mission in Europe. And the family has always wondered about his ultimate fate.

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When Phil was a child, in fact, his grandmother Sheila used to tell him stories about the grandfather he had never known. The commander told the BBC in January 2019, “He was in the Navy, he was a fighter pilot in World War II and did incredibly brave things. The inspiration that it gave me made me want to join the Navy and try to emulate him.”

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Yes, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Phil became a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm – a branch of the Royal Navy that flies naval aircraft. He never forgot the man who had inspired him to pursue his career, though. And 72 years after Ron had disappeared, a chance discovery brought Phil closer to his past than ever before.

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In 2017, you see, Phil discovered footage of a plane crash site that had been posted on YouTube. Apparently, the clip showed the remains of a Grumman F6F Hellcat – exactly the sort of plane that Ron had flown. The wreck had seemingly also been discovered in Norway, which had been the setting of the pilot’s final mission.

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So after making this discovery, Phil understandably did some digging. And it turned out that the crash site was apparently located on a remote mountain within the Arctic Circle. At a height of some 3,000 feet, the site had until recently been covered in ice and snow. However, a period of warm weather had revealed a view of a wreckage – which an eagle-eyed observer had filmed and posted online.

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But there was more. Soon, in fact, Phil discovered that the crash site overlooked Kåfjord – an isolated inlet on Norway’s northern coast. During the war, the Tirpitz, a German battleship which was the pride of the German navy, had been anchored in this fjord – and Ron had been one of the men tasked with destroying the important vessel.

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Using their knowledge of Ron’s final mission, Phil and his father, Alistair, were then able to reach a staggering conclusion. Phil told the Daily Mail in January 2019, “Three Hellcats were lost during the operation, and this crash site corresponds with the location, flight plan, attack route. We are certain it is my grandfather’s aircraft.”

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But how did Ron get to be there in the first place? Well, according to the family, Ron had been living and working in New Zealand as an electrical engineer when World War II broke out. And like many of his contemporaries, the soon-to-be pilot responded when the Commonwealth put out a call for volunteers. He then found himself in Britain signing up to join the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy.

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Eventually, then, Ron became a pilot and spent three years in the cockpits of Hellcat and Spitfire planes. And while he was stationed in England, Ron also met the love of his life. Apparently, though, the relationship began when the pilot received a romantic letter meant for a man who shared his name.

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Reportedly, you see, Ron opened the letter and replied – even though he knew that it wasn’t meant for him. Surprisingly, though, the writer – Sheila – responded, and the two began a correspondence that blossomed into love. Then in 1942 the couple married and set up home in Esher – a town in southern England.

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Alistair was born two years later – but the baby wouldn’t see his father for another six weeks, after the airman had been granted leave. And when Ron did return to Esher, he spent just one night with his wife and their young son. Eerily, Sheila had apparently had a strange feeling that something was about to go tragically wrong.

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“My grandmother remembered him walking off down the garden path knowing that she would never see him again,” Phil told the Daily Mail. “She had some sort of premonition.” Unaware of this, however, Ron returned to duty. And, assigned to the HMS Indefatigable, he soon joined a dangerous mission far from home.

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On August 22, 1944, the Royal Navy began its attack on the Tirpitz at its mooring in Kåfjord. A formidable target, the vessel was the heaviest battleship ever built by a European navy. In fact, it posed such a threat that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had directly ordered its destruction.

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So, determined to eliminate the Tirpitz, the Royal Navy had dispatched a fleet of air carriers to launch an attack. And that morning, the aircraft commenced the first bombing raid. The attempt failed, however, and the great battleship remained largely unharmed. The British therefore mounted a second offensive that evening – but that too had little effect.

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Two days later, British forces geared up for yet another attack on the Tirpitz. And among them was Ron Richardson, heading up his own squadron of military aircraft. So, in the cockpit of his Hellcat, Ron took to the skies over Norway, seemingly determined to do his part in taking the dangerous battleship down.

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At the time, though, the Tirpitz was cloaked in a protective smokescreen that made it difficult for Ron and his men to pinpoint the vessel. Moreover, German anti-aircraft weapons protected the anchorage. Yet the pilot pushed on through the defenses and released his cargo of bombs.

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But unfortunately, Ron’s luck ran out, and his plane was hit. The aircraft was then reportedly last spotted ascending into a bank of clouds. And after that, the brave airman was never seen or heard from again. Back in Esher, Sheila later received a telegram informing her that her husband was missing and presumed dead.

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“From what she has told me, my grandmother was devastated,” Phil told the Daily Mail. “She had lost her husband but was never sure what happened to him and lived her life with lots of unanswered questions. But she is an extremely stoic lady, and she had a responsibility to bring up their son and get on with life.”

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And that is seemingly exactly what Sheila did. She later remarried, in fact, and had two more sons with her new husband, submariner Patrick Thompson. But she never forgot Ron and even ensured that stories about him were passed down through the generations. Yet all the while the plane that had carried Ron on his fatal mission remained hidden on a remote mountaintop.

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After discovering the footage of the wreckage online, then, Phil reached out to the person who had posted the video. He told the BBC, “I emailed him, and I said, ‘Would you be willing to share the coordinates of where you found this aircraft because I am the grandson and I would just like to try and find closure.’”

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Happily, the original poster obliged, and Phil managed to plot the location of the crash site on a map. And despite the spot being terribly remote, he and his father, Alistair, resolved to go and see it for themselves. Then, after a five-hour trek through the Norwegian wilderness, they reached the place where the Hellcat had crashed.

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Located some 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the wreckage was remarkably well preserved given its age. Phil explained to the Daily Mail, “We found an almost complete but disintegrated Hellcat aircraft that had hardly weathered or perished as it has spent most of every year since covered in snow.”

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“There was virtually no rust on it, as if it had crashed last week,” Phil continued. “The rubber seals on the fuel pipes were as if they were still new.” And the pair could see that the wings had been torn from the aircraft during the crash too. In fact, debris was scattered across an area stretching 2,152 square feet.

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Some parts of the aircraft remained hauntingly complete after all these years too. They even bore stark reminders of the conflict that had taken so many young lives. Phil told the BBC, “We saw parts of the fuselage still riddled with bullet holes. And the tail was very clearly still intact.”

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Phil believes that Ron nearly managed to escape the incident with his life too. He continued, “It’s clear that he only just clipped the very top of this mountaintop here, and he was very close to getting away with it and surviving.” Yet their visit confirmed that the pilot of the plane had not made it out alive.

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According to Phil, he and his father spoke to the area’s locals about the crash. And apparently, some of them could even recall people visiting the mountainside and removing the dead pilot from the aircraft. So despite Norway being under occupation at the time, Ron’s body seems to have been treated with touching respect. It was potentially also buried by the Germans, if the locals are to be believed.

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In a secluded spot over 300 feet away from the crash site, too, Phil and Alistair discovered an empty grave. Believing that this was the place where their loved one had been laid to rest, they held a small memorial for their lost relative. Phil explained to the BBC, “We said a prayer there, we left the cross and we reflected on the area where Ron spent his last moments.”

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But what had happened to Ron’s body? Well, Phil and Alistair believe that it was eventually disinterred and reburied at a cemetery belonging to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Located in the nearby city of Tromsø, the burial ground is the final resting place of 37 soldiers who lost their lives during World War II – and three of them are unidentified.

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Currently, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is looking into Ron’s case and trying to determine whether he was one of the men buried at Tromsø. Phil and Alistair have returned home, though, finally able lay their relative’s spirit to rest. Alistair told the Daily Mail, “I am 75 now, not 25. I am satisfied and am at peace now I know what happened to my father.”

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For Phil, the experience has led him to reflect on his own career. He said to the BBC, “Seeing the extent of the wreckage really moves me. I compare it to my own flying career in the Navy and know how close to dangerous situations I have been in. But, fortunately, I have always come out the other side of them.”

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Still following in his grandfather’s footsteps, then, Phil is about to become Commander Air of the newly built HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier – which is set to enter military service in 2023. Meanwhile, Ron’s widow has been able to find peace at last too.

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Phil also explained how he revealed the news to his grandmother. He told the Daily Mail, “Sheila is still alive and was very moved when we returned and told her we had found her husband’s crashed aircraft. She wanted to find out what had happened to him to give her some closure.”

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