A boggy hillside in Donegal and the dry plains of Kildare are linked in the extraordinary story of an American airman and his wartime adventures.
The tale of ex-Curragh internee, Pilot Officer Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe, has came into focus recently with the archaeological excavation of his Spitfire from an Inishowen bog. The team, which included a BBC documentary crew, was led by Claudy aviation historian Jonny McNee - the man who tracked down the resting place of the fighter plane after many others had failed to do so.
An Irish Army bomb disposal team supervised the long awaited dig on June 28, a necessary precaution as hundreds of bullets were unearthed among the wreckage. Items of a more personal nature were found too including the leather helmet which ‘Bud’ Wolfe had discarded as he bailed out of the plane.
‘Bud’ Wolfe was one of many Americans to make common cause with the British war effort and join the Royal Air Force, before the US’s entry into the second World War. The determined young man was undeterred that, as a consequence of joining the defence forces of a foreign power, he would be stripped of his US citizenship.
The 23 year-old was flying a routine Sunday afternoon sortie as “top-cover” for a maritime convoy off the coast of Donegal when his plane’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine overheated and failed just eight miles from his RAF base at Eglinton - now City of Derry Airport.
The pilot yelled into his radio: “I’m going over the side” before sliding back the bubble canopy, releasing his seat straps and launching himself into the air.
Bailing out of the Spitfire would was no easy task. The air flow hit the pilot like a freight train - such was the ferocity that it tore his boots from his feet. Despite the conditions, he managed to deploy his parachute and landed safely in the peat bog. The aircraft smashed into bog half a mile away as churchgoers in Gleneely looked on in amazement.
It sounds like a typical wartime accident but it was anything but. It was the beginning of one of the strangest incidents of World War II.
‘Bud Wolfe’ was a member of 133 Eagle Squadron one of the famous RAF Eagle Squadrons which consisted wholly of American volunteers. These pilots were a mix of idealists and thrill seekers.
Unfortunately, the Nebraska native had touched down southern side of the border, therefore becoming a guest of the neutral Irish Free State at the height of what was known in Ireland as ‘The Emergency’. His dramatic arrival was something of a headache for the Irish authorities - as although he was flying for Britain’s air force he was an American and this added another complication to the delicate nuances of the 1939-45 neutrality policy presided over by the then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera.
‘Bud’ Wolfe was despatched to the Curragh interment camp where German and Allied servicemen who had come down in neutral Ireland were accommodated in separate but adjacent camps.
The status of the British and Germans detained in the Curragh was an exceptional one and was not readily covered by Irish law. They were not internees under the Offences Against the State Act – an emergency code of law which applied to many IRA men who were picked up by the Gardaí from 1939. Their peculiar status has been described by historian T Ryle Dwyer as being “guests of the nation”.
The first of these quaintly titled “guests” were German airmen whose planes crash-landed on Mount Brandon in Kerry in August 1940. They were taken first to Cork barracks and then moved to a camp at what is known as the ‘K lines’ on the eastern side of the Curragh camp proper. At first their conditions were poor and the Germans complained about the food which they said had too much meat and not enough vegetables. However their lot improved - ironically when the Irish Government was faced with detaining a British pilot who landed in Wexford thinking he was over Wales. The Government was under pressure from the British representative in Dublin to ensure that international law was respected and that their man should be afforded all reasonable amenities. The Irish Dept of External Affairs was very aware of the need to be seen to be even-handed and as a result the conditions of the German internees were improved.
Despite the adequate conditions, ‘Bud’ Wolfe promptly escaped on December 13, 1941 and made his way back to RAF Eglinton. However, he was arrested by his own side in the North and held for ten days while the authorities in England and Eire debated how to handle the matter. In the end they decided to return him to the Curragh where he remained until his eventual release in 1943.
‘Bud’ Wolfe has his place in the folklore of the Curragh internees. Among the freedoms allowed to the interned British officers was to go hunting with the Kildare Hunt. They were joined on one such hunt by ‘Bud’ who apparently shocked the Kildare Hunt traditionalists as he galloped cowboy-style across the fields with just one hand on the saddle.
The story of ‘Bud’ Wolfe and the exciting excavation of his plane is to feature next year in a BBC television series to be titled ‘WW2 Dig’ presented by broadcaster and historian Dan Snow.