Donegal bog gives up the secrets of Spitfire that crashed 70 years ago
THE WRECKAGE of a Spitfire fighter aircraft, including its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, has been dug from a peat bog 70 years after it crashed in neutral Irish territory during the second World War.
The excavation, at Moneydarragh, Co Donegal, yesterday was the latest chapter in the story of American pilot Roland “Bud” Wolfe, who parachuted from the aircraft into a diplomatic row between Britain and Ireland.
The 23-year-old, a member of 133 Eagle Squadron, was on convoy patrol when the engine overheated eight miles from his RAF base at Eglinton – now City of Derry Airport. Realising it would crash, he radioed base with a last message: “I’m going over the side.” He then launched himself into the skies above a cold and foggy Inishowen peninsula on Sunday, November 30th, 1941.
The single-seat fighter soared down a steep, heather-covered valley before plunging into the peat.
The one-day dig was the first licensed excavation of a second World War aircraft in Ireland and involved some of Britain’s top aviation archaeologists.
It was organised by Northern Ireland aviation historian Jonny McNee, who began searching for the Spitfire six months ago, following numerous failed attempts by others. He said the fighter was the first of 20 aircraft commissioned with £100,000 donated by Canadian millionaire Willard Garfield Weston during the Battle of Britain.
“This is the Holy Grail of Spitfires because of the tremendous history involved in it and the fact that it was the first Garfield Weston presentation plane,” said Mr McNee. “It has ‘Garfield Weston No 1’ written in 4in yellow letters down the side of the cockpit.”
The discovery is also prized because of the wreckage’s relatively good condition, the story of Wolfe’s two-year internment at the Curragh detention camp and the fact he survived the second World War to fly in Korea and Vietnam. Wolfe died in Florida in 1994 aged 76.
While the Spitfire was “pretty smashed up”, it was remarkably well preserved in the peat, according to English aviation archaeologist Simon Parry.
The operation began shortly after 8am with the fighter’s muddied remains beginning to emerge at six metres (20ft), at about 11am. Part of the fuselage was recovered along with six Browning .303 machine guns, two magazines, hydraulic controls, 450 bullets, a propeller, tyres, landing gear and seat belts.
Wolfe’s leather flying helmet, log book and the cockpit controls were also recovered. A strong smell of aviation fuel hung in the air as the dig progressed.
Mick Harkin (88), who witnessed the drama as he left Mass as a 17-year-old, made his way through knee-deep heather to see the dig. “The plane was . . . in trouble but we were miles away. I saw the pilot bail out and thought he was going to die . . . it was the talk of the time.”
Retired English RAF colonel Martin Attwell, a regular visitor to Co Donegal, has looked for the Spitfire for the last two years.
“To see it pulled up after all these years is very exciting. I was told that when the plane first went down, a farmer made buckets out of the scrap metal. I would love one of those buckets to give to the RAF museum in London.”
The dig was filmed by Derry TV company 360 Productions for Dig WW2, a BBC series on second World War military archaeology. The aircraft is to be preserved for display at the Tower Museum in Derry.
THE SPITFIRE: FAST AND MANOEUVRABLE RAF MAINSTAY
THE SPITFIRE has been credited with winning the Battle of Britain, although in 1941 the Hurricane was more numerous and bore the brunt of the fighting and casualties.
The Merlin engine-powered Spitfire was a more efficient fighter aircraft, with a lower loss rate and higher kill rate than the Hurricane.
More than 20,000 were produced and it eventually eclipsed the 15,500 Hurricanes which it loosely resembled.
Appropriately, in light of the dig in Donegal, the last Spitfires in military service were flown by the Irish Air Corps until 1961. The design, which had been started in 1931, was twice rejected by the RAF before acceptance in 1936. But it did not go into full production until 1938.
On the eve of the second World War the mainstay of the RAF was still first World War-era biplanes, often built of timber. The Spitfire was Britain’s first all-metal fighter, but the Germans had a technological edge with metal aircraft which first appeared in action with the infamous Condor legion during the Spanish Civil War. However, the Germans erred in “freezing” aircraft design in favour of production for the first part of the war.
The RAF had sought advanced fighter designs as early as 1930 but was not impressed by early proposals, including those of Reginald Mitchell, an ailing consumptive with a permanent stoop. The breakthrough came in 1936 when Rolls Royce delivered its V-12 engine, which proved an ideal power plant for the Spitfire and Hurricane.
The Supermarine aircraft factory was producing hundreds of Spitfires monthly during the Battle of Britain in 1941, helped in no small measure by German failure to bomb the Southampton plant.But the Spitfire was not without problems. The engine was notorious for cooling system failures and this probably caused the loss of Bud Wolfe’s aircraft in a Donegal bog in 1941. GERRY BYRNE
THE PILOT: CURIOUS CASE OF ROLAND 'BUD' WOLFE
THE WARTIME experiences of pilot officer Roland “Bud” Wolfe is one of those stories that wouldn’t appear out of place in a Biggles adventure.
The young American pilot was recruited to fly Spitfires with the RAF in Northern Ireland during the autumn of 1941. He was part of 133 Eagle Squadron, a 50-man unit comprising Americans only.
Wolfe had made common cause with the British war effort, before the US’s entry into the second World War, and as a consequence had been stripped of his US citizenship.
Returning to base in his aircraft, following a routine sortie on a fateful November Sunday in 1941, his engine failed over Donegal, forcing him to bail out before the Spitfire ditched into bog at Moneydarragh, on the Inishowen peninsula.
An Irish Army intelligence report noted that people coming from Mass heard the aircraft but due to fog no one saw it.
The report stated Wolfe was later apprehended wandering around Moneydarragh by a member of the Local Defence Force, who turned him over to gardaí at Moville Garda station.
The 23-year-old wound up at the Curragh detention camp with other British and German combatants.
Camp security was lax. Guards had blank rounds in rifles and prisoners came and went as they pleased. Fishing and fox-hunting trips were regularly laid on for German and British inmates.
Records show British internees once filed a formal complaint when Luftwaffe pilots, detained at the camp, turned up at a nearby dance organised by the British.Wolfe decided to make his way to Dublin on December 13th, 1941, before catching a train to Belfast and reporting back for duty less than two weeks after his crash. His escape prompted a diplomatic row between the Irish and British governments. Wolfe was sent back to the camp on the instructions of the British air ministry. He remained there for two more years before escaping again in 1943. However, with the US now at war, Wolfe was not returned to the Curragh camp. He joined the US air force and served on several fronts. Wolfe also saw action as a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars before his death in 1994. EOIN BURKE-KENNEDY