One morning last January, amateur aviation historian Jonny McNee embarked on what he suspected was a doomed mission: to find the wreckage of a Second World War Royal Air Force Spitfire that had crashed in the peat bogs of County Donegal in northwest Ireland in November, 1941.
For two decades, other historians had sought it – in vain.
Amazingly, five minutes after he stopped to seek information from knowledgeable locals, he found a man who knew the precise location of the crash.
In June, Mr. McNee, 43, and a team of aviation archaeologists from Queen’s University in Belfast returned to the site to excavate.
Buried nine metres down in the Glenshinney bog, near Moneydarragh, they found the plane’s remains – in pieces, but otherwise, he says, “remarkably well preserved.”
Among their finds: six Browning .303 machine guns (still in working order), about 700 rounds of ammunition, and the leather flying helmet won by its daredevil American pilot, 23-year-old Roland (Bud) Wolfe.
And stencilled in two-inch, sea-grey letters on the side of the cockpit were the words: Garfield Weston No. 1.
The single-seat fighter was the first of eight Spitfires that Mr. Weston, a Canadian businessman and British MP then living in London, had purchased for the RAF at a cost of $450,000 – the equivalent of many millions in today’s money.
As British aircraft losses mounted during the Battle of Britain – on a single night in August, 1940, 16 RAF planes were shot down over the English Channel – Mr. Weston approached another Canadian expatriate, Lord Beaverbrook, then Britain's minister of aircraft production, and offered to underwrite the cost of restocking the hangars.
In fact, Mr. Weston signed a blank cheque, telling Lord Beaverbrook, “I can’t replace the men you have lost, but I can replace the planes.”
The Weston gift, which also included six Hawker Hurricanes, was the catalyst for a wave of donations that enabled the RAF to rebuild its arsenal.
“This is the Holy Grail of Spitfires,” Mr. McNee said after finding the plane, “because of the tremendous history involved in it and the fact that it was the first Garfield Weston presentation plane.”
Mr. Wolfe, stripped of American citizenship for joining the British war effort – Washington did not enter the war until December, 1941 – was a member of 133 Eagle Squadron, a unit formed by American volunteers.
He’d been on convoy patrol over the Inishowen Peninsula when the Spitfire’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine overheated, and then failed. Thirteen kilometres from his base at RAF Eglinton, he radioed his decision to jump.
He parachuted into neutral Irish territory, and was soon captured and detained at Curragh – what was surely the world’s most unusual prisoner-of-war camp. There, under loose security, Allied servicemen and captured Nazi U-boat sailors and Luftwaffe airmen were allowed to sign themselves out of the camp and spend the day as they pleased, as long as they returned at night.
Anxious to rejoin his unit, Mr. Wolfe signed himself out after 10 days and “escaped” to Northern Ireland. Fearful of offending the Germans, the Republic of Ireland demanded his return. Mr. Wolfe spent the following 18 months in custody. Finally released in 1943, he flew missions with the U.S. air force and served in Korea and Vietnam. He died in 1994.
The recovered Spitfire is being donated to the town of Derry by Britain’s Ministry of Defence, where it will be restored and mounted for exhibition. The cost of the display will be borne by Galen Weston, chairman and president of George Weston Ltd., in honour of his father.
Michael Posner, Globe and Mail
Wed, Sep 28 2011 11:36 PM
| Report Abuse