Spitfire redux: The WWII guns firing after 70 years buried in peat

From the BBC’s news site:

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.

There’s a video on site of the excavation work and more details about what was recovered.  But the highlight (also seen in the video) was the recovery of six Browning .303-inch machine guns.  However, to say the guns “still fired” may cross a fine point for us purists:

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…..

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.

But I do agree with the reporter’s assessment:

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.

The article concludes with a note that the Spitfire and its guns will go on display at the nearby town of Derry.

– Craig.

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