Browning Machine Guns work after 70 years buried in peat

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by davep67, Nov 14, 2011.

  1. davep67

    davep67 New Member

    Oct 10, 2011

    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.

    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: 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.

    [h=2]Supermarine Spitfire[/h][​IMG]
    • 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 Derry, 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.
  2. diesel44

    diesel44 NRA LE Handgun Instructor

    Sep 26, 2011
    This is one awesome achievement. Great article!

  3. GoetzTalon

    GoetzTalon Well-Known Member

    Oct 21, 2011
    Great story!!! Thanks for showing it.
  4. davep67

    davep67 New Member

    Oct 10, 2011
    Info on the pilot of the Spitfire referenced in the article above ...

    The Pilot: Curious Case of Roland “Bud” Wolfe

    THE WARTIME experiences of pilot officer Roland “Bud” Wolfe is one of those stories that wouldn’t appear out of place in a Biggles adventure.

    The young American pilot was recruited to fly Spitfires with the RAF in Northern Ireland during the autumn of 1941. He was part of 133 Eagle Squadron, a 50-man unit comprising Americans only.

    Wolfe had made common cause with the British war effort, before the US’s entry into the second World War, and as a consequence had been stripped of his US citizenship.

    Returning to base in his aircraft, following a routine sortie on a fateful November Sunday in 1941, his engine failed over Donegal, forcing him to bail out before the Spitfire ditched into bog at Moneydarragh, on the Inishowen peninsula.

    An Irish Army intelligence report noted that people coming from Mass heard the aircraft but due to fog no one saw it.

    The report stated Wolfe was later apprehended wandering around Moneydarragh by a member of the Local Defence Force, who turned him over to gardai at Moville Garda station.

    The 23-year-old wound up at the Curragh detention camp with other British and German combatants.

    Camp security was lax. Guards had blank rounds in rifles and prisoners came and went as they pleased. Fishing and fox-hunting trips were regularly laid on for German and British inmates.

    Records show British internees once filed a formal complaint when Luftwaffe pilots, detained at the camp, turned up at a nearby dance organised by the British.Wolfe decided to make his way to Dublin on December 13th, 1941, before catching a train to Belfast and reporting back for duty less than two weeks after his crash. His escape prompted a diplomatic row between the Irish and British governments. Wolfe was sent back to the camp on the instructions of the British air ministry. He remained there for two more years before escaping again in 1943. However, with the US now at war, Wolfe was not returned to the Curragh camp. He joined the US air force and served on several fronts. Wolfe also saw action as a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars before his death in 1994.
  5. davep67

    davep67 New Member

    Oct 10, 2011
    Even more info on the pilot of the Spitfire ...

    Spitfire down: The WWII camp where Allies and Germans mixed

    An attempt to recover a Spitfire from a peat bog in Donegal will highlight the peculiar story of the men - both British and German - who spent much of World War II in relative comfort in neighbouring camps in Dublin, writes historian Dan Snow.

    In Northern Ireland in 1941, a routine Sunday afternoon sortie by a pilot flying one of Britain's Spitfire fighters runs into difficulties.

    Returning to base after flying "top-cover" for maritime convoys off the coast of Donegal, the Rolls Royce Merlin engine overheats and fails.

    The pilot yells into his radio "I'm going over the side", slides back the bubble canopy, releases his seat straps and launches himself into the air.

    The Spitfire is one of the most vaunted examples of British engineering's history. The greatest ever single-seat, piston-engined fighter, it had played a vital role during the Battle of Britain the year before.

    Its design was so advanced that it served on the front line from the first to the last day of the war. Bailing out was no easy task.

    The air flow hit this particular pilot like a freight train and tore off his boots. Luckily he was able to deploy his parachute and landed in a peat bog. His aircraft smashed into the bog half a mile away.

    It sounds like a typical wartime accident but it was anything but. It was the beginning of one of the strangest incidents of WWII.

    Bud Wolfe was very keen to get back into action The pilot was 23-year-old Roland "Bud" Wolfe, an RAF officer from 133 "Eagle" Squadron, a unit entirely composed of Americans.

    Bud himself was from Nebraska, one of a number of Americans who had volunteered to take up Britain's cause. Since the US was not yet at war with Germany when the men volunteered, the American government stripped Wolfe and others of their citizenship. These pilots were a mix of idealists and thrill seekers.

    When Wolfe was found by the authorities he realised his, already unusual, situation was much more complicated than he had guessed. He had crashed over the border.

    Since the South was neutral it had been decided that all servicemen of any belligerent nation that ended up on Irish soil through navigational error, shipwreck or other accident would be interned for the duration of the war.

    Wolfe found himself heading not back to his airbase, RAF Eglinton, now City of Derry Airport, in Northern Ireland just 13 miles away, but to Curragh Camp, County Kildare, 175 miles to the south.

    Here, a huddle of corrugated iron huts housed 40 other RAF pilots and crewmen who had accidentally come down in neutral territory. They were effectively prisoners of war.

    It was an odd existence. The guards had blank rounds in their rifles, visitors were permitted (one officer shipped his wife over), and the internees were allowed to come and go. Fishing excursions, fox hunting, golf and trips to the pub in the town of Naas helped pass the time.

    But what was really odd was the proximity of the Germans.

    It was not just the British and their allies who got lost above and around Ireland. German sailors from destroyed U-boats and Luftwaffe aircrew also found themselves interned. The juxtaposition of the two sides made for surreal drama.

    It appears that the rivalry on the pitch followed the teams into the pub afterwards as well. They would drink at different bars, and the British once complained vigorously when the Luftwaffe internees turned up to a dance they had organised.

    Anything further from front-line service is hard to imagine.

    It may seem to us like a welcome chance to sit out the war with honour intact, plenty of distractions and no danger, but for Wolfe it was an unacceptable interruption to his flying activities.

    On 13 December 1941 he walked straight out of camp and after a meal in a hotel, which he did not pay for, he headed into nearby Dublin and caught the train the next day to Belfast. Within hours he was back at RAF Eglinton where he had taken off two weeks earlier in his defective Spitfire.

    He could not have expected what was to happen next. The British government decided that, in this dark hour, it would be unwise to upset a neutral nation.

    The decision was made to send Wolfe back to The Curragh and internment. Back in the camp, Wolfe made the best of it, joining the fox-hunting with relish.

    He did try to escape again but this time he was caught. Finally in 1943, with the US in the war, and the tide slowly turning, The Curragh was closed and the internees returned. Wolfe joined the US Army Air Force and served once again on the front line.

    So great was his love of flying that he also served in Korea and even Vietnam. He eventually died in 1994.

    But Wolfe's epic story did not end with his death. Thanks to the highly unusual, soft nature of the terrain in the peat bog where his Spitfire crashed, a team of archaeologists is attempting to dig up his aircraft.

    This week I will accompany them with a BBC television crew and record what we hope will be substantial pieces of wreckage emerging from the bog. The bog defeated the attempt in 1941 to gather up the wreckage, so there should be plenty of Spitfire down there, but it may well defeat us.

    The Eagle Squadrons allowed Americans to fight before the US entered the war The digger has to sit on bog mats, big railway sleepers, to spread its 20-ton weight. But even they may not be enough to stop it sinking in. There is also a danger that the hole will simply fill with water or the sides cave in.

    It is one of the most difficult excavations that an experienced team have ever faced. Whatever happens, I will be updating Twitter minute-by-minute as the excavation takes place.

    Hopefully we will find the physical evidence that will shine a light on the events of that November night 70 years ago and also provide us with a connection to one of the most bizarre moments of the war.

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