Restoration: Desperate Journey

A Junkers Ju 88 is pulled from a Norwegian lake.

The frigid and oxygen-poor water of Norway's Kilsfjord preserved a rare Junkers Ju 88, which salvagers hoisted last August. Douglas Hinton

On August 31, 2000, the vertical fin of a Junkers Ju 88A-5 bomber with a swastika emblazoned on it broke the surface of the Kilsfjord, a lake near Kragerø, Norway, 60 miles southwest of Oslo. The Junkers had been ditched 58 years earlier during World War II, after its German crew stole the aircraft from the Luftwaffe’s Number Three Advanced Combat Training School at Greifswald on Germany’s Baltic coast with the intention of flying it to Great Britain.

That defection took place in the early morning of June 29, 1942. German fighter units in occupied Denmark and southern Norway were ordered to force the Junkers down or destroy it.

No explanation has been found for pilot Willi Voss’ attempt to escape that night, but it clearly was a desperate gamble. He had no charts, his aircraft wasn’t armed, and he could expect no mercy if caught. Only by skirting the German fighter bases in Denmark and coastal batteries in Sweden did he and his fellow airman have a chance. If they made it that far, they would fly across the Kattegat Strait to Norway, then southwest to the country’s tip, and finally across the North Sea to Britain.

Known as the “Star of the Luftwaffe” for its role as a fighter, bomber, and  photo reconnaissance aircraft, the Ju 88 offered the airmen a cruising speed of 243 mph and a range of up to 1,550 nautical miles—enough performance, they hoped, to see them to safety.

Luck was with the two defectors at first. The fighters in Denmark were grounded by fog, low ceilings, and light rain. Luftwaffe radar operators could only watch as the Junkers entered the Kattegat and droned northward.

But it now seems clear that by the time daylight broke, Voss was in trouble. Had he grabbed just any aircraft from Greifswald without checking the fuel tanks? Was he experiencing mechanical problems? Whatever the cause of his plight, he began circling the Kilsfjord, then jettisoned the canopy and slid the Ju 88 across the water.

Two Norwegian girls vacationing in a cottage by the fjord grabbed a skiff and rowed to the aircraft, while a third started a fire in the cottage to warm the aviators. Voss was rescued and was soon wrapped in a blanket, but his unknown companion was lost. Voss was later captured and executed before being tried.

Peace eventually returned to the fjord, and the aircraft that had almost carried Voss to freedom lay at the bottom of the Kilsfjord until it was discovered by scuba divers in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until last year that the Forsvarmuseet (Norwegian Armed Forces Museum) in Gardermoen could finance and organize a recovery operation, championed by air force major and curator Roar Glenne.

“It’s taken years to get to this point,” Glenne says. “We get no subsidies from the government or the military for our work. And all the help is provided by volunteers.” The Saastad Diving Company, which performed all the salvage work, donated its services.

Before the recovery could begin, the aircraft’s precise location and condition had to be confirmed by a remotely operated vehicle dispatched to the wreck. Then last August, using a TV camera, cutting tools, and mechanical arms, salvage workers attached cables to the aircraft with a spreader bar to distribute the weight. Finally, on August 31, workmen raised the Ju 88 from the bottom of the 185-foot-deep fjord.

Aside from having lost its engines—which fell off because of corroded mounts—the Junkers was in remarkable shape because of its anodized aluminum structure and the oxygen-poor water at the bottom of the fjord.

Bullet holes later discovered on one upper wing surface may explain why Voss ditched. Was he bounced by fighters flying from a base in Oslo?

The answer may never be known, but perhaps the aircraft will reveal more of its secrets during the three to five years that its restoration at the Armed Forces Museum is expected to take. When the work is finally completed, the craft will be one of only three restored Ju 88s in the world.

As the aircraft breached the surface of the Kilsfjord last August, two elderly women quietly watched the proceedings from a small motorboat. As young girls, Aase Heibø and Ingrid Tuft had rescued Willi Voss and were the last to see the Junkers when it slipped beneath the waters of the fjord more than 50 years ago.

—Douglas Hinton


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