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A belt buckle bearing swastika insignia, a shaving brush and a pair of boots were among items found within a sunken World War Two war plane which have helped to solve the mystery of its disappearance.

The Luftwaffe plane was found at the bottom of the Black Sea by a team of divers nearly 70 years after it vanished mid-flight.

The fate of the aircraft and its nine crew members had remained a mystery since it was reported missing in 1942.

Underwater photographer Andrey Nekrasov, 42, was part of the team which found the wreckage 23 metres beneath the surface off the Ukrainian coast, near Odessa. The divers made the discovery while searching for a different plane. Instead of finding the JU 88 they were expecting, they found a JU 52 'Iron Annie', a type used extensively as a transporter aircraft by the Luftwaffe during the war.

Since the discovery, researchers have attempted to piece together the fate of the plane and its crew.

Mr Nekrasov said: "There were no records of a crashed plane of this type in this area. The wreckage was very deep down so visibility was poor. We could only see three metres in front of us at any time. A plane on the seabed always looks very strange. It turned out the story behind this one was even stranger."

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Inside the rusting fuselage divers found objects which had stayed underwater for 67 years. Divers recovered a pair of boots, which suggested that some of the crew survived the crash-landing.

Standing orders demanded all crew members remove their shoes and overclothes in case of a water landing. A shaving brush, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a torch, part of a pair of goggles, a briefcase and some colourful maps were also recovered. The team of divers also found a thermos flask signed 'Wichert', as well as a belt buckle signed 'Wich'. It was later discovered that one of the crew was called Wichert. Nearby the team found part of a sword belt bearing the name 'Kroh'.

They also found a distinctive cap which indicated one of the German soldiers on board had served in the Spanish Civil War. Using these items, Mr Nekrasov and his team determined the wreck was a transport flight carrying nine passengers which had been reported missing in early 1942, at a time when the Soviet Army had been on the offensive on the Eastern Front. Mr Nekrasov said: "We have tried to recreate the whole picture of the events using just a couple of artefacts which were 70 years old and found at the bottom of the sea."

Records from the time showed that the plane was carrying a flight engineer called Johann Wichert - the owner of the thermos and belt. A signaller called Karl Kroch was also on board, returning to the Russian front after a period of leave. Also aboard was an observer, Oberstleutnant Baron Axel Freiherr von Jena, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a possible owner of the cap. Flight records found inside the cockpit reveal the JU 52 was en-route to Nikolaev in Ukraine, having flown from Romania.

The flight path was overland so the plane was not equipped with life rafts or buoyancy aids.

Records show the plane belonged to the 104th Transport Group, 4th Air Fleet, based at Nikolaev, Ukraine. On January 13, 1942, the JU 52 landed in Prahova, Romania, to pick up passengers. On the onward journey to Ukraine, weather conditions turned bad and the pilot, Leutnant Horst Ringel, was flying blind. After requesting permission to land in Spartakovka, Russia or Vygoda, Ukraine, the plane vanished.

Researchers now believe the pilot, disorientated by the weather, steered his plane off-course and crashed into the Black Sea, possibly performing a controlled emergency landing due to a technical failure. The sunken plane, which was discovered in 2009, is in almost perfect condition - the propeller and wings are still intact which makes it likely that the pilot did not crash, but landed purposefully on the water.

The crew members probably tried to swim for safety. Their ultimate fate is still unknown.

Mr Nekrasov said: 'Why did nobody see the emergency landing of the German plane? Why was there no record of the crash at all?

"Perhaps there was zero visibility and nobody noticed that there was an accident."

 

 

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