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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Wreckage of RAF Spitfire dug up after 70 years in Donegal bog

Linda McGrory and Tom Brady

Published 29/06/2011 | 05:00

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IT plunged from the Donegal skies 70 years ago, but machine guns and ammunition from the RAF Spitfire dug out of a peat bog on the Inishowen peninsula yesterday still had to be made safe by the Irish Army.

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The one-day dig was the first licensed excavation of a World War Two aircraft here and was carried out by top aviation archaeologists.

The operation at Moneydarragh, Co Donegal, was the latest chapter in the story of American pilot Roland 'Bud' Wolfe, who parachuted from the fighter plane into a diplomatic row between Britain and Ireland.

The 23-year old, a member of 133 'Eagle' Squadron, was on convoy patrol when his engine overheated eight miles from his RAF base at Eglinton -- now City of Derry Airport.

Realising it would crash, he radioed back to base with a last message: "I'm going over the side."

He then slid back the plane's canopy, released his safety harnesses and launched himself into the skies above a cold and foggy Inishowen peninsula on Sunday, November 30, 1941.

Mick Harkin (88), who witnessed the plane crash as he was leaving Mass as a 17-year-old, made his way through knee-deep heather yesterday to see the dig.

"I saw the pilot bail out and thought he was going to die -- but we heard later he landed safe. We were all very surprised," he said.

Searching

The single-seat plane soared down a steep, heather-covered valley before plunging deep into the peat. Seventy years later, historian Jonny McNee began searching for the missing Spitfire, following numerous failed attempts by others.

He said the plane was the first of 20 aircraft commissioned with £100,000 donated by the 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.

But the team of archaeologists from Queen's University, Belfast also came across the plane's six Browning .303 machine guns and about a thousand rounds of ammunition buried 30 feet deep.

The Army ordnance team arrived at the scene at 8am yesterday and declared the "all clear" at 3.30pm.

The guns and ammunition were then taken to a secure military location, where they will be decommissioned and cleaned before being handed over to the Derry Museum.

While the plane was "pretty smashed up", it was remarkably well preserved in the peat, according to English aviation archaeologist, Simon Parry.

"This is a very important discovery because it is one of the very early Spitfires, made in 1941. The pilot was lucky to survive that day because if his engine had failed a few minutes earlier he would have ended up in the sea."

The RAF pilot was interned at the Curragh but escaped on December 13, 1941 and went back to Eglinton.

However he was "arrested" by his own side and held for 10 days while the authorities in England and Ireland debated how to handle his escape.

Retired English RAF colonel Martin Attwell, who visits Co Donegal regularly, has looked for the plane for the past two years.

"To see it pulled up after all these years is very exciting," he said.

The dig was filmed by Derry-based TV company 360 Productions for a BBC series on military archaeology.

The plane is to be preserved for future display at the Tower Museum in Derry.

Meanwhile, Mr McNee has tracked down the pilot's family in America.

They plan to visit Ireland in the future to see Moneydarragh and the preserved wreckage.

There were cheers from the large watching crowd when the last item, the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, was taken from the peat shortly after 5pm.

Earlier, Wolfe's leather flying helmet, the Spitfire logbook and the cockpit controls were also recovered.

"This was a historic day on the hillside in Co Donegal. Seventy years after the plane went in, it has now come out.

"We got everything and more -- more than we could ever have expected," said an exhilarated McNee.

Irish Independent

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