Guns firing again after 70yrs in a peat bog

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by brettarider, Nov 10, 2011.

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  1. 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.

    Dan Snow test fires the machine gun

    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.

    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.
    Map of RAF Eglinton

    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, after steam cleaning 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.
    Continue reading the main story
    Supermarine Spitfire
    Two Spitfires fly in formation at an air show at Imperial War Museum Duxford

    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

    Watch Spitfires in action on BBC History site

    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.

    • Like Like x 1
  2. get em cleaned up and send em to 'ganners. We could do with the fire power.
    • Like Like x 1
  3. There would be something rather poetic in doing that. 70 years on and still delivering the good news!
  4. Just read this on the Beeb, would of loved to have been there for that.
  5. Brotherton Lad

    Brotherton Lad LE Reviewer

    Gun fires a few more rounds and stops again?
  6. Marty and Gerry must be feeling relieved considering where they have burried their stash.
    • Like Like x 4
  7. No, that's not a "wild idea" from DS..!

    Irish + ATO - wtf do you expect? - perfectly "normal idea"

    Nice one mate!
  8. jim24

    jim24 Book Reviewer

    In 1971 a Fairy Barracuda was recovered in the Enaugh lough area of Maydown with the three man crew still in it ,

    29/08/1944 - took off from Maydown for Easthaven, spun into bog five miles from airfield - Blackhead Moss near Enagh Lough, Waterside, Londonderry. (S/Lt DH Oxby RN, S/Lt FR Dobbie RN and LA DAJ Mew all killed)
    1971 - combined team from RNAS Yeovilton and 63 HQ Sqdn RE recovered aircraft and crews remains; wreckage removed to FAAM store at Wroughton; nose section restored by Hampshire Aircraft Services (Viv Bellamy) and put on show in museum

    The jigsaw bomber: Aircraft enthusiasts rebuilding 'extinct' WWII plane from decades worth of scrap metal | Mail Online

    believe it or not but there is a Spitfire smashed into a cleft of the rock on the North face of Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons

    Where to walk — Brecon Beacons National Park Authority
    • Like Like x 1
  9. Is that one of the ones where they've had problems with people taking parts of the wreckage (presumably for scrap)?
  10. Brotherton Lad

    Brotherton Lad LE Reviewer

    The High Peak has its fair share of wrecks:

  11. Ravers

    Ravers LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    It's amazing how peat can preserve stuff like this. Some of the things they have dug up in Russia are amazing, anyone see the Russian Hurricane they dug up, complete with intact pilot inside?

    Google Boris Lazarev.
  12. Reduce, reuse and recycle? Possibly an answer to the MOD cut backs? There must be a wealth of weapons out there like this not used, who needs a shiny new mastiff when there are plenty of Saxons kicking about lol
  13. jim24

    jim24 Book Reviewer

  14. There must be plenty of aircraft in RAF Dogger Bank, however a bath in salt water will not have improved their serviceability.