The wreck of a huge German aircraft has been found off the coast of Sardinia nearly 70 years after it was shot down by a British fighter in the Second World War, a team of Italian researchers have announced.
Employed between 1942 and 1944, the plane, known as Messerschmitt 323 "Giant," was the largest land-based transport aircraft used in World War II.
With a 181-foot wingspan and six engines, this giant of the skies - it was 33 feet tall and 92 feet long - could carry a load of up to 12 tons, or 120 fully-equipped men into battle.
The cargo was loaded through double doors that formed the curved nose of the plane.
The German airforce produced about 200 models of this massive plane. But the Me-323 was slow and difficult to manouver. Many "Giants" were intercepted by Allied fighters and shot down.
"Until now, no Me-323 had survived from the war, which makes this finding of great historical importance," said Cristina Freghieri, a diver and amateur historian who discovered the wreck at a depth of 200 feet off the coast of the island of Sardinia.
The Me-323 was shot down on July 26, 1943 by a Beaufighter fighter. It was on its way to the Tuscan city of Pistoia from its German base in Sardinia.
"The plane managed to moor before plunging into waters off the Maddalena islands. Some soldiers escaped on a raft, but most of the troop sank with the aircraft," Freghieri wrote on her website.
After spending a year searching military archives and flight path records, Freghieri identified the wreck with a wire-guided camera and then explored it with a small team of researchers.
"It was a pure emotional charge to suddenly see the airplane in the veiled blue of the sea. First we saw a piece of a sheet of metal, then another until the plane appeared, in an explosion of images, in all its beauty. My heart skipped a beat," Freghieri told the Italian news agency ANSA.
It is the second important discovery of a WW II wreck off Sardinia in just three months.
InJune, Italian researchers found the the wreckage of the Corazzata Roma, the flagship of the Italian navy. The massive battleship was sunk by the Germans in Sept 1943.
Photo: The Messerschmitt Me 323 "Gigant" in flight. Credit: Royal Air Force official photographer/Wikimedia Commons;
Video: Me-323 Gigant in action. German Wartime Newsreel.