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How chocolate buttons led to the discovery of a Spitfire that crashed in Donegal

Ahead of the Air Waves festival in Portush this weekend, Ivan Little meets historian Jonny McNee, who spent two years recovering a World War Two aircraft from a peat bog... with a little help from his daughter, Grace.

Published 02/09/2016

Jonny with various other parts of the plane
Jonny with various other parts of the plane
Jonny McNee, here with a model Spitfire, has had a long interest in wartime aviation and was used as a consultant for BBC’s Dig WW2 show in 2010
Jonny with various other parts of the plane
Jonny holds part of the machine gun recovered from the Spitfire

Thousands of high-flying aviation enthusiasts can thank a six-year-old girl's love of chocolate buttons for enabling them to see the remarkable remains of an iconic World War Two Spitfire fighter plane recovered from a remote bog in Donegal after it crashed there nearly 75 years ago.

For if Grace McNee hadn't cajoled her dad Jonny into buying her a packet of her favourite sweets in a filling station near the village of Gleneely, the mountains of Glenshinny might never have given up the secret of what had lain undiscovered in the peat since 1941.

And the Air Waves festival in Portrush tomorrow and Sunday would not have been able to put the remnants of the Spitfire, including machine gun, fuselage parts, cockpit controls and tyres, on display.

"It will give people the chance to get close and touch bits of a Spitfire - a plane whose very name still resonates with so many folk," says Jonny, an aviation historian whose interest in planes took flight as a youngster building Airfix models.

"I was always glueing myself to the kitchen table, but my fascination with real planes grew as I went to remembrance services with my clergyman father and met RAF veterans."

Hearing about their wartime experiences intrigued the youthful Jonny and his love of aviation has taken off to such an extent that he now has a library of more than 1,200 books on planes, especially those from World War Two.

And the 48-year-old is still constantly rummaging in second-hand book shops for hundreds of other volumes that have so far eluded him.

Indeed, his knowledge is so extensive that he was a natural choice for the producers of the BBC's Dig WW2 archaeology series to appoint him as a consultant in 2010.

Jonny, who lives in Claudy, says: "They told me they wanted to show Northern Ireland's pivotal role in the war and to find out what had been left behind in terms of military and aviation archaeology.

"They were directed to me in the hope that I could find them a good site to excavate."

Jonny says upwards of 350 British, American, Canadian and German planes crashed in the north-west of Ireland during the war.

"The weather, the terrain and the inexperience of pilots caused a lot of accidents," he adds. "The hilltops were strewn with wreckage and they became a graveyard to many young airmen.

The first attempt to find a plane by the TV team was centred at the City of Derry airport - the former RAF base at Eglinton - where it was known that a Spitfire from 152 Squadron had crashed, though claims that it had been sabotaged by nationalists from Donegal were dismissed out of hand.

The hunt for the plane was abandoned, however, because records about where it had come down proved to be inaccurate and because virtually everything that remained had been salvaged by scrap merchants.

It was then that Jonny made his fateful journey to Donegal with the chocolate-loving Grace in tow.

"I knew that a Spitfire - P8074 - had crashed somewhere over the Inishowen peninsula on November 30, 1941, en route to a sortie over the Atlantic," he says. "I also knew the pilot, Roland 'Bud' Wolfe, bailed out a short time earlier."

Any hopes that Jonny had of finding the aircraft were shattered as he arrived in Gleneely, which was at the tome being battered by rain and high winds.

"I looked up at the cloud-covered mountain and I said to Grace that we were wasting our expensive diesel.

"She said that chocolate buttons might help us find the plane and I stopped at a filling station to buy her a packet.

"After telling the lady behind the counter why we were there, she told us that a chap called Kieran Faulkner might be able to help us.

"And just at that Kieran appeared at the door and he said that Martin Kearney was actually the man to talk to about the Spitfire, although he hadn't seen him in ages.

"Spookily, however, the woman in the shop let out a scream and said that Martin was filling up his car outside, and he told us his father had been at the crash site and he offered to take me and Grace to it."

Even more bizarrely, the next customer was the son of the landowner into whose field the Spitfire's pilot had parachuted. The upshot of the chance encounters - which took no longer than five minutes to unfold - was that the Spitfire was eventually found in a spot which had been unwittingly identified after a TV technician tripped towards the end of a day's search for the plane.

Jonny, who is a senior council planning officer, recalls: "We had been working on solid peat all day with no joy, but the ground where the engineer fell rippled and we reckoned its soft texture was significant.

"We parted the heather and found that we were standing in a 15-foot oval shaped crater that sat about a foot-and-a-half down from the surrounding peat.

"We used some detection equipment and carried out 3D scans and we established there were parts of an aircraft down there."

After mechanical diggers dug down 30 foot they hit the jackpot and one by one the Spitfire's Browning machine guns were pulled up to the surface.

Other wreckage was compacted into huge cubes and the various bits and pieces had to be picked apart. However, quite astonishingly, Wolfe's leather flying helmet was also recovered along with sensitive papers.

They and sections of the fuselage with squadron markings or paint on them, were sent away for specialist care, while Jonny preserved the rest of the plane and its engine, a Rolls Royce Merlin, in his own garage.

The Rolls Royce engine and the pilot's helmet were put on show at the Tower Museum in Londonderry, and the hope is that everything that was retrieved from the Spitfire will eventually form part of a permanent exhibition at a maritime museum envisaged for the city's Ebrington Square.

But of all the gems that were unearthed in the townland of Moneydarragh, the condition of the Spitfire's machine guns were a particular surprise.

Jonny, who has published a book, The Story of the Donegal Spitfire, says: "One Irish Army officer told me they looked as if they'd been buried only the week before.

"Some people put that down to the peat, but after the Spitfire crashed at 400 miles an hour it punched its and way through the peat into glacial clay.

"This took the oxygen out of the equation, and there was no bacterial activity because the plane was cocooned in a ball of aviation fuel."

Experts who examined the machine guns said that one of the weapons could still be fired, and the presenter of the Dig WW2 programme, Dan Snow, went to a range in Athlone to prove the claim was no idle boast.

Jonny was given the honour of firing the Browning for the final time.

The same machine guns had been shot in anger seven months before the Donegal accident when they downed a Luftwaffe Junkers JU88 off the coast of Norfolk.

But the saga of the Glenshinny Spitfire was to take more twists and turns long after it surfaced from the bog, and research showed that there had actually been a diplomatic incident after its crash in 1941.

The UK and America were furious that colourful US pilot Wolfe (left), from the US 133 (Eagle) Squadron, was arrested in Donegal after he parachuted out of the Spitfire realising that he could not nurse his overheating engine back into Eglinton.

Irish officials interned the Nebraskan-born Wolfe at a camp at the Curragh in Kildare to keep him out of the war and uphold their country's neutrality, even though they had given permission for the British to operate in two secret corridors over the Republic.

Wolfe wrote letters to Eamon de Valera, but the Irish President rejected his pleas to free him. The pilot later escaped, but he was returned to the Curragh by authorities in Northern Ireland who did not want to alienate the neutral Republic.

After his eventual release, Wolfe flew with the Americans during the rest of the war and later came out of retirement to see action in Korea and Vietnam, but he never talked to his family about what he saw or did in any of the three conflicts.

Wolfe died in 1994, and 70 years to the day after the Spitfire crash his two daughters, Betty and Barbara, and 14 members of his extended family were brought to Ireland to see some of the artefacts from the aircraft, including their relative's flying helmet.

There were a series of emotional services of reflection, and among those present was Galen Weston, the son of millionaire Canadian businessman Garfield Weston, who had sponsored the doomed Spitfire - the first of a fleet of aircraft with his name on them.

Weston, who was a Conservative MP in Macclesfield, had given the British Air Ministry £100,000 to buy new aircraft after heavy losses were sustained in the Battle of Britain.

His philanthropy led to the establishment of the Spitfire Fighter Fund appeal, and readers of the Belfast Telegraph responded like no other region in the UK, donating over £88,000, which was enough to buy 17 planes. They were all given Ulster names including City of Derry and Londonderry.

The feelings of affection for the Spitfires still run just as deep today, says Jonny. "Everyone loves the Spitfires," he adds. "Yes, the Hurricanes shot down more planes during the Battle of Britain, but the Spitfires were the thoroughbreds who went after the fighters, while the Hurricanes were seen as the carthorses that pursued the bombers."

Jonny is looking forward to watching the reactions of people when they see the Spitfire artefacts at the Air Waves extravaganza which is expected to attract upwards of 200,000 enthusiasts to Portrush, where the Red Arrows will be among the stars of the show along with American and Soviet fighter jets.

Jonny's daughter Grace, who is now 12, will also be at Portrush with her 14-year-old brother, Dylan, and they will be selling memorabilia on behalf of the RAF Benevolent Fund.

Meanwhile Grace's chocolate buttons will never be forgotten - for Jonny has framed the empty packet as a keepsake of their amazing voyage of discovery in the peat bogs of Donegal.

  • The Air Waves festival takes place in Portrush tomorrow and Sunday. For more details, visit

Belfast Telegraph

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