Pilot of crashed Gleneely spitfire remembered

Family members gather at the site outside Gleneely were pilot Roland Wolfe's Spitfire crash landed. (0212PG37)
Family members gather at the site outside Gleneely were pilot Roland Wolfe's Spitfire crash landed. (0212PG37)

When he went AWOL American RAF Pilot Officer Roland L Wolfe, also known as ‘Bud’, caused headaches for the British and Irish Goverments, and even the German Ambassador got involved. What exactly do you do with a foreign airman who hasn’t broken any rules, but whose escape plan had the potential to ‘sink’ Britain by causing a German invasion of Ireland?

On Wednesday - 70 years to the day - the family of Pilot Officer Wolfe marked the anniversary of the day the pilot crashed as he headed out from Eglinton Airport to the Irish coast to accompany the Allied forces the final miles ‘home’.

The US airman never made it and ejected over Donegal while trying to return to base.

The War had been ongoing since 1939, but America did not get involved until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

But there were US pilots who wanted to fight and fly the Allied aircraft and Bud Wolfe was one of the men who approached the Allied Forces.

Aviation historian and enthusiast Jonny McNee - the man who found the buried Inishowen spitfire earlier this year -explained: “Behind the scenes means were adopted whereby American pilots were‘ smuggled’ through organised committees through Canada, were trained and signed up andthen they were taken over to fly with the RAF. So many of them enrolled that three separate RAF Squadrons were set up, staffed by American volunteer pilots.”

Bud became a member of the 133rd Eagle Squadron and on November 30, 1941, he took off from Eglinton

and flew out over Donegal on a routineconvoy patrol mission. His duty was to accompany the convoy ships sailing to and from Derry Port from Canada and America. “He took off with three other aircraft to fly out and they had just got out over the coast of Ireland when Bud reported back to his colleagues that his engine temperature was starting to seriously overheat.The glycol which cools the engine was leaking and if the engine seized then the propeller would cut out, and that would not be a good day in the office. So he reported back that he was going to have to go back to Eglinton. Then his radio packed up, so all he could do was transmit and his last recorded message at Eglinton was ‘I’m going over the side’ and from the notes we have that was at about 5,000 feet,” Mr McNee said.The Spitfire plummetted headlong into a rural bog in the townland of Moneydarragh near the village of Gleneely.

After the crash Bud was found wandering half a mile from the crash site, dragging his parachute with him, looking for the wreckage because he had left an expensive watch in the cockpit and wanted it back.

“He kept going up to try and get this watch, and locals told him to just keep going to the Border because Ireland was neutral and he would be interned. In the end a local Defence Force volunteer happened to find this tall, dashing American pilot in RAF dress on the side roads of Moneydarragh. So he was arrested, taken to Moneydarragh Garda Station and processed, and taken to Rockhill Army

Barracks where he spent the night, and the following day he was taken down to the Curragh Camp on December 1. At this point he was the only American interned at the Curragh Camp, and America didn’t enter the war until five days later,” said Jonny.

So, there was Bud claiming he was a mercenary of sorts and pleading to be let go promising to return to America. It did not wash, even though he wrote letters to DeValera.

“When he found out DeValera wasn’t going to let him out he chose to escape. Normally youwould sign out and sign back in again, and one of the guards would sign a slip of paper saying you had fulfilled your obligations and were now back in the camp.

“Pearl Harbour happened just after December 7, so Bud could no longer use the excuse that

America was not in the war. One of his fellow pilots came down from Eglinton to visit and bring some personal belongings. Bud signed his parole slip to say he was going out that night.

He went out, had some drinks and went back. He then signed another parole slip to say he was going out with this friend before he went back up to Eglinton, signed his form, walked out of the prison camp and then he basically exploited a loophole, went out through the gates, said it was cold, turned back and said to the guard ‘I’ve forgotten my gloves’, and the guard told him to go back in and get them. The parole slip form demands you sign out and sign in, but when Bud walked back into camp they did not ask him to sign back in.

He walked back out and nobody asked him to sign back out again, so according to Bud in coming back to get his gloves, Bud said he had fulfilled his parole. When nobody stopped him he thought ‘I’m off’,” said Jonny.

Bud made his way back to Belfast via Dublin train and got the bus to Eglinton, but when he arrived back instead of folk being delighted, they were aghast.

“The top brass said his arrival would cause a lot of trouble and he was promptly arrested by the RAF and put in custody at Eglinton for 10 days while the De Valera, Churchill, the British Air Ministry, the Senior RAF and the German Ambassador all waited to see how Ireland, which was neutral, and the British, to whom this pilot belonged, handled the situation.

“In the end the fear among the RAF and Churchill was that if they did not hand him back the Germans would believe Ireland was not neutral and they would invade, and it would give the Germans a base from which to operate their aircraft and their submarines right next door to England, Scotland and Wales, so that country would be sunk,” said Jonny.

The Irish, understandably, did not want to be invaded, so the Air Ministry under instruction from Churchill, with the wholehearted backing of Ireland, returned the American pilot to internment to protect Britain .So Bud Wolfe, possibly, became the only Allied POW in WW2 to be sent back to his prisoner of war camp. He did however, get to fight in the end, when it became apparent that Germany was not going to win the war, and he was released.

He went on to have a very distinguished flying career.

n A special exhibition showcasing artefacts from a crashed WWII Spitfire recovered from an Inishowen bog was unveiled by the pilot’s family in Derry yesterday.

BBC presenter Dan Snow and a team of archaeologists led by Claudy aviation historian Jonny McNee unearthed the RAF plane at Moneydarragh near Gleneely during the making of a tv documentary earlier this year. Pilot Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe, a US native who joined the British war effort before the Americans entered the conflict, bailed out of the doomed aircraft during a mission on November 30, 1941.

Attending the launch of the exhibition entitled ‘The story of spitfire P8074’ at the Waterside’s Workhouse Museum were the pilot’s two daughters, Barb Kucharczyk and Betty Wolfe - who flew in from America along with 12 other family member for the occasion.

On Wednesday, 70 years to the hour after US Pilot Rowland L Wolfe bailed out of his Spitfire after takeoff from Eglinton, his family members gathered at the crash site in Inishowen.

A member of the RAF’s 133 Eagle Squadron, Bud Wolfe’s job was to offer protection to a convoy of supply ships. On Wednesday at noon his two daughters, accompanied by other family members, and Galen Weston - the son of Canadian businessman Garfield Weston who sponsored a fleet of Spitfires for use during the Battle of Britain - paused to remember him in prayer.

Inishowen minister Canon Bill McNee - the father of Jonny McNee, the aviation enthusiast and historian who found the Spitfire led the reflection service.

Following the service the family travelled to Eglinton Airport, where a plaque Mr NcNee was unveiled to commemorate the Eagle Squadron. Also on display arepictures, documents and an explanation of the reason behind the dig at

. “The plane was one of eight spitfires donated by Canadian businessman Garfield Weston,

who was also British MP for Macklesfield and during the Battle of Britian 18 RAF planes

were shot down and they lost all the pilots as well on the same day.

That moved Garfield Weston and he approached the Air Minister Lord Beaverbrook, also a Canadian, and he gave Beaverbrook a cheque for £100,000,” said Mr McNee.

Some of the American and Canadian visitors arrived on Monday and the remainder of the delegation touched down on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday night, Pilot Officer Wolfe’s daughters and other family members made a poignant trip to the Tower Hotel, where they were able to view their father’s flight helmet which is in the process of being restored. Mr McNee said the find was very exciting. “It is a very rare thing to find a flying helmet at airplane crash sites, with the bulbous earphones and the black oxygen mask, but we got it all, and we even had the pilot’s initials still on it, which is very significant for the family.

“It has had to undergo a prolonged and extensive restoration to get it into a state where it can be displayed publicly, and that is still ongoing, at the National Museum in Belfast,” said Mr McNee.