Spitfire redux: The WWII guns firing after 70 years buried in peat

 
Spitfire graphic

An excavation at the site of a 1941 Spitfire crash in a bog in the Irish Republic uncovered huge, remarkably preserved chunks of plane and six Browning machine guns. After 70 years buried in peat could they be made to fire? They certainly could, writes Dan Snow.

It was June in Donegal, when we stood on a windswept hillside in hard hats and high-vis surrounded by a crowd of locals and watched by an Irish army unit while we filmed an archaeological excavation.

This was the place where, in 1941, Roland "Bud" Wolfe, an American pilot flying a British RAF Spitfire, paid for by a wealthy Canadian industrialist, had experienced engine failure while flying over the neutral Republic of Ireland.

After flying a sortie over the Atlantic, Wolfe was on his way back to his base in Northern Ireland when he was forced to bail out. He parachuted safely to the ground - his plane smashed into the boggy hillside.

Fast-forwarding 70 years and local aviation expert Johnny McNee was able to identify the wreck site. The ensuing dig was accompanied by intense anticipation.

Dan Snow test fires the machine gun

We did not have to wait long for results. Suddenly the fresh Donegal air was tainted with the tang of aviation fuel.

Minutes later the mechanical digger's bucket struck metal. We leapt into the pit to continue by hand. One by one the Spitfire's Browning machine guns were hauled out.

We had hoped for one in reasonable condition - we got six, in great shape, with belts containing hundreds of gleaming .303 rounds. The Irish soldiers then stepped in. This was a cache of heavy weapons, however historic they might be.

Next came fuselage, twisted but in huge pieces, over a metre across, still painted in wartime colours, with neat stencils of the plane's ID and the iconic RAF bullseye-style roundel.

Despite hitting the ground at well over 300mph the artefacts were incredibly well-preserved. The wheel under the Spitfire's tail emerged fully inflated, the paper service manual, a first aid kit with bandages and dressings, the instrument panel, the harness that Wolfe had torn off as he hurled himself out of the cockpit and my highlight - Wolfe's leather flying helmet.

Map of RAF Eglinton

Perhaps 20m down was the magnificent Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which the digger raised to a cheer from the crowd.

Thanks to the soft peat, the inaccessibility of the crash site and the crater rapidly filling with water, a huge number of artefacts had survived the crash with the authorities unable to clear them up.

But Wolfe's Spitfire had more surprises for us.

Thanks to a "wild idea" from Lt Colonel Dave Sexton, ordnance technical officer in the Irish army, it was decided an attempt would be made to fire one of the Browning guns that had spent 70 years in the bog.

His team painstakingly cleaned the weapons and straightened pieces bent by the impact. Finally, on Tuesday we were able to stand on an old British Army range just north of Athlone for the big day.

The machine guns looked as good as new. Soil conditions were perfect for preservation. Beneath the peat there had been a layer of clay. Clay is anaerobic, it forms an airtight seal around all the parts, so there is no oxygen, which limits corrosion.

Had they been in sandy soil, which lets in water and air, the metal would have been heavily corroded.

Rolls Royce Merlin engine, after steam cleaning Rolls Royce Merlin engine: One careful owner, slightly worn

The Irish specialists had chosen the best preserved body and added parts from all six guns, like the breech block and the spring, to assemble one that they thought would fire. They made the decision to use modern bullets, to reduce the risk of jamming.

Wearing helmet, ear protection and body armour I crouched in a trench a metre away from the Browning, which I would operate remotely.

Every part of the gun, to the tiniest pin, had been under a peat bog for 70 years, to the month.

This Spitfire had seen service during Britain's darkest days and is reliably credited with shooting down a German bomber off the Norfolk coast in early 1941. The Irish had found large amounts of carbon inside the weapon, evidence of heavy use.

I turned the handle of the remote firing mechanism. The Browning roared, the belt of ammunition disappeared, the spent shell cases were spat out and the muzzle flash stood out sharply against a grey sky. It was elating.

That was the noise that filled the air during the Battle of Britain.

Supermarine Spitfire

Two Spitfires fly in formation at an air show at Imperial War Museum Duxford
  • British single-seat fighter plane used by RAF and many Allied countries during WWII
  • Its thin, elliptical wing allowed a higher top speed than similar fighters
  • Speed was seen as essential to defend against enemy bombers
  • Continued to be used into the 1950s as a front line fighter and in secondary roles

The gun fired without a hitch. There can be no greater testament to the machinists and engineers in UK factories in the 1940s who, despite churning out guns at the rate of thousands per month, made each one of such high quality that they could survive a plane crash and 70 years underground and still fire like the day they were made.

During the course of the war, one firm, Birmingham Small Arms (BSA), produced nearly 500,000 Browning guns. All this was despite being targeted by the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, 53 employees were killed and 89 injured.

The firing was yet more evidence that the Spitfire, with its elliptical wing shape, engine and machine guns, is one of the crowning achievements in the history of British manufacturing.

The machine guns will now be made safe and join the rest of the aircraft on permanent display in Londonderry, where Wolfe was based, a city on the edge of Europe that played a pivotal role in the war.

The excavation of Bud Wolfe's plane is part of Dig WWII, a series for BBC Northern Ireland by 360 Production to be presented by Dan Snow and due to be shown next year.

 

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  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 334.

    Firing restored guns such as this for fun is wrong. Guns can be dangerous and should only be used to kill people during wars. They are not toys, and I think it is irresponsible to use them in any way other than that for which they are intended.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 333.

    If the condition of the Spitfire is so good, it should be possible to re-create it. Basically, just one piece with a decipherable number is enough, though in this case much more may be useable. Many parts of the engine could also be used. Looking forward to the programme.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 332.

    What a shame the guns had to be "made safe", spoiling their completeness as a museum piece

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 331.

    328 & 330.this_comment_was_banned
    "Not one single word of mild criticism of the BBC is allowed here on HYS."

    Incorrect, there are a few posted, please refer to your own posts.

    "OK BBC remove my posts"

    Again incorrect, or how could I respond to your posts?

  • Comment number 330.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 329.

    307.
    digbyjones
    You are talking nonsense! 22/7 is an approximation of pi.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 328.

    Not one single word of mild criticism of the BBC is allowed here on HYS.
    Not one single word
    You can criticise Germans, English, ANGLO SAXONS, but NOT one WORD of criticism, not a drop is tolerated against the Liberal mindset, nor other `special people'.
    Ultimately when the world goes into meltdown, and folks find out whos pulling the strings and why so called PERSECUTION will take place.
    !

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 327.

    Amazing durability, shame it's a weapon but then again would the heir to the Snow media dynasty have been interested in anything else? I very much doubt it. Grow up Dan!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 326.

    324.John Grist

    I would agree with the result but differ slightly in the view. I would suggest that accountants rule because the client is always (or mostly) concerened with cost & specifically capital costs rather than the long term maintenace/running costs of a project/item. If the client was more interested in the product longevity than the cost then the engineer would have the influence.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 325.

    My mother could well have made parts for the very guns. She was on the opposite shift to the one that was bombed in 1940 she lost many friends, but still had to report to work even though the works had been hit. Within 25 minutes of clocking on for the shift she was set to work on a machine that had been salvaged from the bombed wreck,that had been set up in any space that power could be provided,

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 324.

    247 Manya There are many very good young Engineers in the UK I know I've worked with them for them etc. What they lack is spine, they will will not tell management they are talking from the wrong apperature, and accountants rule KO. The accountants in this country as part of their education are required to have their common sense removed.Firms work for accounts not accountants for firms.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 323.

    Is this the plane of the pilot who was interned in the republic of Ireland only to escape back to base in Derry.He was later returned to Ireland by his CO due to the Geneva convention

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 322.

    We may need a modern spitfire soon as Chancellor Merkel is trying to achieve what Hitler couldn't without even picking up a weapon. The French have surrendered, the Italians will standby who they think will win and once again we stand alone. My Granddads who fought in Burma, India with one evacuated from Dunkirk they must be scratching at their coffin lids to get out and sort this mess out.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 321.

    @292.Charles

    "Each Bf 109 lost cost the RAF 2 fighters..."

    Absolute nonsense! Try looking here:-

    http://www.brooksart.com/BoBloss.html

    Try checking your facts before posting.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 320.

    315 continued

    The sinking of the French fleet was a military decision to prevent those materials of war being used by the Enemy. Various options were open to prevent the bombardment but (for whatever delay) were not carried out in time. To present the enemy with a fully functional fleet if it had been surrendered had to be denied.
    Self interest yes, also self preservation & later liberation..

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 319.

    #309. There is no wrong in acting in our own self interest. If we do not stand up for ourselves, no else will. The USA 'helped' our war effort by knocking the price right down on our US assets. The miners went on strike for higher pay in 1939. But there is mutual benefit. We could have devoted everything to protect Czechoslovakia but left nothing to protect ourselves, and lost. We won in the end.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 318.

    I'm sure someone has already mentioned it but some years ago an American P38 Lightning was dug up from under the icecap in Greenland and its armament was test fired on the ice including the shell firing cannon which worked perfectly.

    The plane is flying I believe under the name of glacier Girl at shows in America and is the only airworthy early model of that amazing aircraft in existence.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 317.

    309. RoyaltyinTheChampionship

    This is absolute Bulldust! We declared war the day after the Germans invaded Poland. We evacuated the BEF after the French surrendered leaving us isolated and without a port from which to supply our forces. . . the Vichy French fleet was an enemy fleet as Vichy was part of the axis . . . they were given the option of switching sides and chose not to. Bang! Bang!

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 316.

    Interesting topic.
    But not for this site.
    BBC, please stop dumbing down the HYS site.
    The world is in melt down.
    Stop trying to avoid the truth.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 315.

    309.RoyaltyinTheChampionship
    Your statements that about Czechoslovakia, Poland, France and the French fleet though correct do require some expansion.
    Political self interest could be argued for the first 2, but for France and then the sinking of the fleet the shift from Political expedience to Military necesity becomes priority. For the BEF to remain would have ment its certain destruction.

 

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