Magazine

Spitfire down: The WWII camp where Allies and Germans mixed

  • 28 June 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Bud Wolfe and Spitfires (Getty and USAAF Academy Colorado Eagle Archive)

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.

Image caption 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.

Sport was a notable feature. In one football match the Germans beat the British 8-3. There were also boxing contests.

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.

Image caption 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.

Dan Snow is following today's attempt to recover Bud Wolfe's Spitfire in Co Donegal and will be posting updates via the Twitter account @DigWW2.

Bud Wolfe and the story of Curragh Camp is part of Dig WWII a series for BBC Northern Ireland to be presented by Dan Snow and due to be shown next year.

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