Spitfire Recovery Unearths Unique Story

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An RAF Spitfire flown by American pilot Roland "Bud" Wolfe dug itself deep into an Irish hillside on Nov. 30, 1941, after he bailed out, and now, 70 years later, that aircraft has been recovered. The recovery effort included an aviation historian, a team of archaeologists and the BBC, and will serve as the subject of a documentary. According to the Derry Journal, a newspaper from the town where the aircraft had been based, Wolfe had joined the RAF before America's official entry into the war and lost his U.S. citizenship because of it. He'd been flying on patrol near the north coast of Ireland when his engine began to rapidly overheat and he bailed out. Wolfe was detained by members of the Local Defence Force and held by the Irish Army, but escaped on Dec. 13, leading to what may be an even more unusual story.

When Wolfe made it back to RAF Eglinton, his base (now the City of Derry Airport), he was arrested. Authorities in England and Ireland determined that they did not approve of the manner of Wolfe's escape. As a result of that conclusion, Wolfe was then delivered by his own side back to his captors in then-neutral Ireland. Ireland's position of neutrality meant that it sought to prevent circumstances that could undermine its neutrality in the eyes of all non-neutral nations. Wolfe was ultimately released in 1943. Historian John McNee described Wolfe to the Derry Journal as "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." Artifacts recovered from the crash site of Wolfe's Spitfire include the aircraft's Browning .303 machine guns, its Rolls Royce Merlin Engine, propeller, and Wolfe's helmet, with his initials inside. The items will eventually be delivered for display at the Tower Museum in Derry. The story of the recovery will become a three-part series called Dig WW2, to be broadcast by the BBC NI, in 2012.