Kiwi WWII pilot's grave, plane wreckage found in Norway

The wreckage of a plane flown by a Kiwi pilot in the Second World War has been discovered in a remote area of Norway.

It's believed to be a Hellcat aircraft, flown by Lieutenant Commander Ronald Archibald Richardson, 27, of Gisborne, who went missing in 1944 during a bombing raid on the German battleship Tirpitz.

Lt Cdr Richardson in his military uniform (L) and in his aircraft (R).
Lt Cdr Richardson in his military uniform (L) and in his aircraft (R). Photo credit: Supplied

For 74 years, his family had no idea what had happened to him - other than being classified as 'missing, presumed killed' by military brass.

That was until someone came across plane wreckage at the top of a ridge near the remote town of Alta, Norway. Footage of the wreckage made it to YouTube, and by a stroke of fate it was seen by Lt Cdr Richardson's grandson Philip.

"I got in touch with the person who uploaded the video and asked if he could give me the coordinates of the crash site, and he did," says Philip.

The telegram received by Lt Cdr Richardson's wife Sheila informing her that her husband is 'missing presumed killed'.
The telegram received by Lt Cdr Richardson's wife Sheila informing her that her husband is 'missing presumed killed'. Photo credit: Supplied

Like his grandfather, Philip is a military man - a Naval Commander to be exact - and works in Defence Engagement Strategy at the Ministry of Defence in London.

He donned a detective hat and began piecing together the mystery surrounding the location of his grandfather's plane and remains. Once he'd cracked it, he took the whole family to Norway.

"We trekked for five hours under the midnight sun to the site. It was incredibly emotional and moving when we found it," he says.

Philip (L) examines the crash site debris.
Philip (L) examines the crash site debris. Photo credit: Supplied

"It's been riddled with bullet holes but the main components are all still there, and you can understand what happened in Ron's last few moments".

Those final moments were heroic by all accounts: he was tasked with sinking the Tirpitz, the German Navy's only remaining warship that was moored in the Norwegian fjords.  

"To take out the Tirpitz was a really key, central part of Churchill's strategy at that time to ensure the war continued on both fronts," says Philip.

An aerial view of a fjord near where Tirpitz was moored.
An aerial view of a fjord near where Tirpitz was moored. Photo credit: Supplied

Lt Cdr Richardson was part of the newly formed 1840 Naval Air Squadron, and was based on the aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable, which was home to Hellcats and Seafires.

On August 24, 1944, he was the mission leader of an extraordinary bombing assault on the Tirpitz by his fleet of Hellcats, but he didn't return to the ship afterwards.  

"By looking at the flight plan, we think he made a steep dive through the smokescreen the German's had created, and bombed the Tirpitz. We then think he climbed steeply to escape but clipped the top of a hill and crashed," says Philip.

Lt Cdr Richardson, the Kiwi hero.
Lt Cdr Richardson, the Kiwi hero. Photo credit: Supplied

Newspapers at the time hailed Lt Cdr Richardson as a hero, with one headline reading "N.Z. Hero Led Low Level Assault".

At the crash site, Philip and his family looked through the debris, which had been perfectly preserved for 74 years by the snow and ice that had covered it.

Next to the wreckage they found a shallow grave - the local understanding is that German soldiers initially buried him there

"We are fairly certain that's where he lay for a while, but his current location now, we still don't know," he says.

Philip and his family erect a wooden cross at the grave site.
Philip and his family erect a wooden cross at the grave site. Photo credit: Supplied

Philip believes his grandfather's remains were exhumed after the war and buried elsewhere, possibly at a cemetery near the Tirpitz, where a lot of German soldiers are buried.

"There's a gravestone there with a New Zealand fern on it but with no name, so we think that might be him," says Philip.

His three kids took turns carrying a special memorial cross to the crash site, and they all helped to erect it where they found the original grave.

"We said a prayer, we put it in the ground where Ron's body was, and we've left it there for the future," Philip says, as he holds back the tears.

Kiwi WWII pilot's grave, plane wreckage found in Norway

Even though Lt Cdr Richardson's remains are still yet to be officially located, Philip has organised a memorial service this weekend. New Zealand Defence Force attache David Crossman will be there.

Lt Cmndr Richardson's wife Sheila is still alive. She's 95 and lives in Worcestershire. She'll speak at this weekend's memorial service, and unveil a memorial bench in her husband's honour.

Newshub. 

Footage courtesy of Allan Klo, NRK.

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