WWII Spitfire makes its final ascent in Inshowen

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A remote bogland in the townland of Moneydarragh in rural Inishowen was a hive of activity this week when a documentary film crew, BBC presenter Dan Snow and a team of archaeologists led by Claudy aviation historian Johnny McNee unearthed a WWII Spitfire. IAN CULLEN was at the scene for the dig which sparked great excitement locally and culminated in the removal of the twisted wreckage of the fighter plane which plunged headlong into the peat in November 1941.

Eighty seven year-old Mick Harkin was just as excited to see archaelogists retrieve the wreckage of a World War II fighter plane from an Inishowen bog as he was the day he witnessed it plummet into the hillside.

Mick was just 17 years-old when he looked to the sky to see American fighter pilot Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe abandon his RAF Spitfire near Gleneely. He looked on with amazement this week as a team of archaeologists - being filmed for a BBC documentary - removed the 70 year-old wreckage, which was burrowed deep into the remote bog at Glenshinney Hill in Moneydarragh. Twisted pieces of fusilage, mechanical parts, armaments, a Rolls Royce Merlin Engine, propellor parts and even the pilot’s helmet were recovered during the major excavation on Tuesday.

“I was at Ballinacrae Chapel when I saw the pilot coming out of the plane and a parachute coming out of the sky - it was an exciting moment,” Mick, of nearby Fallmore, told the ‘Journal’ as he watched the dig unfold.

“It’s great to her finally coming out of the ground, he added, recalling how as a youngster he had played with ammunition recovered from the crash site. “I remember putting one of the bullets in a vice, placing a ball bearing on it and hitting it with a hammer to set it off - I never thought of the danger at the time but it was fun to see it explode.”

He recalled how the crash site was off-limits to the public as the Gardai and the Local Defence Force were quickly on the scene. “Some people got parts of the plane and carried them away,” he said.

The octogenarian was joined by a host of local people at the dig site to watch the team - which included BBC presenter Dan Snow - search for airforce artefacts.

Barney McSheffrey (84), of Tullyalley, Redcastle, has a vivid memory of the plane’s final descent. “I was eleven but I remember clearly hearing it coming down. I was at home, about a mile from the site - it was a very deep sound,” he said. “My mother wouldn’t let me go and look but my older brother did and he found her bogged to the tail in moss. He said the wings were off and she had buried herself into the moss.”

Local woman Bridget Miller recalled seeing bits of the aircraft, a MKIIA Spitfire, in various unorthodox places through the years. “I remember seeing bits of the wings in ditches as part of fencing and other bits used as troughs for feeding sheep,” she said.

As children, brother and sister Paddy and Mary McGeoghegan of Moneydarragh often played among pieces of the wreckage which were scattered by the impact. “We often played on parts of the wings and fuselage which were located about a couple of hundred yards from this dig site,” Mary said.

The excavation of the site and recovery of the Spitfire was a long held dream of aviation historian Johnny McNee. The Claudy man has spent years scouring the North West topography and beyond for evidence of downed warplanes but, for Johnny, finding a the Gleneely Spitfire was the jewel in the crown of his passionate quest.

Accompanied by his family, Johnny beamed with delight from the very moment the first piece of the find was unearthed. His excitement could be barely contained as four fairly well preserved examples of the famous and deadly WWII Browning .303 machine guns were hoisted from the peat. More than eight hours into the operation, which had seen the recovery of a host of crumpled and in tact wartime artefacts, Johnny’s team had reached the real prize - the Rolls Royce Merlin Engine. He was clearly on cloud nine.

“This is fantastic, we’re absolutely delighted. The engine is in great condition for having been in the ground for 70 years. We’ve also managed to recover the pilot’s helmet which has his initials written inside,” he beamed.

Johnny and his team were well aware that the task would be “considerable” before even taking it on. But the project was “worth every minute”, he said afterwards.

He explained that whole operation came about as a result of a “dopey” idea he had. I discovered that a Spitfire from Eglinton had crashed 3.5 miles south of Gleneely and decided to look for it. My daughter Grace (7) and I came out to Gleneely in January to start the search but I in my heart I knew it would be very difficiult.”

But Johhny’s soon found that little local knowledeg escaped the small close knit community. “As it turned out it took only a matter of minutes to find the site. I decided we’d search all the better with some food in our bellies so we stopped at McLaughlin’s Shop in Gleneely where Grace got some buttons and let slip that we were looking for a plane.

“And that was that, literally everyone I needed to speak to arrived in the shop at the same time. It was surreal, the lady in the shop said she didn’t know where it was but that she knew someone who did - that someone was Martin Kearney and just as she said his name he pulled up outside. Then someone else came along who also knew the site. From the time Grace mentioned until we were at the spot took only about five minutes, it was amazing,” he said.

Johnny returned a month later with a highly skilled team to fully investigate the site - which is located on lands still owned by the Earl of Shaftsbury - and the lost Spitfire adventure finally became a reality.

The bogged fighter plane was abandoned by Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe on November 30, 1941. The American pilot was a member of the Royal Airforce 133 (Eagle) Squadron based at RAF Eglinton - now City of Derry Airport. He had been on convoy patrol off the Inishowen coast when his engine began to rapidly overheat. As he tried to inform the Eglinton base of his predicament and get instructions, his radio malfunctioned and only he could transmit. His last received message was: “I’m going over the side”. Within minutes of landing he was apprehended by members of the Local Defence Force and was subsequently interned by the Irish Army at The Curragh Camp in Co Kildare as Ireland was neutral and in the grip of The Emergency. Taking matters into his own hands he escaped on December 13 and made his way back to RAF Eglinton only to be arrested by his own side and held for ten days while the authorities in England and Ireland debated how to handle his absconsion from custody. He was then returned to The Curragh where he was interned until his eventual release in 1943. Mr Wolfe had joined the RAF before America officially entered the war - somthing which lost him his citizenship as was the law for any US citizen who joined a foreign nation’s armed forces.

Johnny McNee explained: “He was possibly the only Allied escapee of WWII who was returned to his ‘prison’ camp because his superiors did not agree with the manner of his escape. It was seen as ‘not in keeping with the spirit of parole- - an accusation that Wolfe always bitterly contested.”

Mr Wolfe’s family have been contacted by the project organisers. “They are fully supportive of the project and making plans for a visit to Ireland in the future to see Moneydarragh and the preserved wreckage in the Tower Museum,” Johnny said.

All stages of the project - the first licenced excavation attempt of a WWII aircraft anywhere in Ireland - were licenced by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the National Museum Service of Ireland. The archaeology team was assisted by a team of surveyors from Queens University Belfast and an Irish Defence Forces ordnance unit which rendered the munitions safe on site.

The artefacts recovered are to be cleaned up and preserved for display at the Tower Museum in Derry with the support and assistance Derry City Council. The dig was filmed by Derry-based TV company 360 Production for a BBC NI three-part documentary series called Dig WW2 which will be broadcast next year