Crashed Spitfire machine guns fired after 70 years buried in Ireland
November 10, 2011 2:27 AM   Subscribe

Machine guns still firing, 70 years later. The BBC's Dan Snow joins in an dig in Ireland to uncover a Spitfire mk2, hoping to find one o the machine guns in reasonable conditions. They find six, and then it's time to see if they still work. Okay so they stripped the six to rebuild just one good one, and used modern .303 calibre ammo as opposed to the ammo in the ground, but hey. 70 years and still spitting fire. Of course the WWII in me will point out that the mk V's Hispano cannons were far more effective, but hey, that's not romantic enough for a modern news bulletin.
posted by ewan (19 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's some background on the pilot and the odd story of what happened to him after he crashed and was "imprisoned" in an eccentric Irish "Hogan's Heroes"-style prisoner of war camp. (Some images of the camp on Flickr)
posted by taz at 3:04 AM on November 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


eccentric Irish

Being officially neutral, the Irish were forced by international law to imprison any belligerent airman that landed on Irish territory, but being Irish and sensible and generally welcoming of visitors and not really wanting to imprison foreigners for being in a fight in which they themselves have declared they aren't going to get involved in, they made the necessary accommodations.

That's only a little bit eccentric, but it is typically Irish.
posted by three blind mice at 3:25 AM on November 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, for me "eccentric" is almost always a fond term. I loved "Fishing excursions, fox hunting, golf and trips to the pub in the town of Naas helped pass the time."
posted by taz at 3:30 AM on November 10, 2011


Is there nothing a peat bog will not preserve? I'm going to put it in jars and sell it to old ladies.

Farmer MacDonnegals® Original Face Peat
posted by the noob at 3:43 AM on November 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


If preserving them is your goal, better if you put the ladies in the peat.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:56 AM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Roll over, spin round and come in behind them
Land in a peat bog and (eventually) fire again
posted by Wolfdog at 3:57 AM on November 10, 2011


Of course the WWII in me will point out that the mk V's Hispano cannons were far more effective, but hey, that's not romantic enough for a modern news bulletin.

For the Brits. Yes. For the US. Sigh, no. The US liked the weapon as much as the UK did, and licensed production of it from Hispano-Suiza, as the Automatic Cannon, 20mm, M1. We recognized that even the might .50 caliber BMG wasn't going to be an adequate anti-aircraft round, and we went big with 20mm. By the end of 1942, we had about 40 million rounds of 20mm ammo in storage.

What we didn't have were guns. Our version of the Hispano-Suiza HS.404 didn't work. Misfires were horrifically common, and without a means to recock the guns in flight, this was a disaster. The later M2 and M3 models also proved to be ineffective at actually firing rounds. The US Navy wanted to replace the M2A1 BMG from the start, but never did, because they never worked.

Why? Well, in 1942, we had a chat with the Brits, who sent us a Hispano Mk. V, the UK built version of the HS.404 that worked. The difference? Theirs had a chamber that was just a wee bit shorter, and they fired reliably. Ours had one just a bit longer, and the firing pin would often barely hit the primer, and not fire the weapon.

Simple fix, right?

Never happened. The 20mm HS.404 that we were making only flew in limited circumstances -- the P-38 And being the most notable one -- and never as the sole weapon. We finally got ours working as the Autocannon, 20mm, M24 -- yes, model 24 -- and we never did actually fix the chamber, we just switched to electrically primed rounds.

Moral of this story? Implementation is *everything*. The Hispano Mk. V was a very, very good weapon -- far better than the .303 Mark II BMG that was the other weapon commonly fitted in UK aircraft. Ours sucked.

Funny enough, the .303 Mark II was a US design -- the M1919 Browning Machine Gun, originally made for .30-06, and built-on-licenses by the Brits in .303 and modified to fire from the open bolt. It was very, very reliable, but the small round (7.62mm) meant you needed many more of them to take down another aircraft. The US, with the .50 cal (12.7mm) as the primary aircraft weapon, wanted the 20mm, but the UK needed it much more, and every Spitfire from the Mk. V and most of the Hurricane Mk IIs carried them as at least part, if not all, of the armament.

Oh, right, the topic. I'm not surprised that the weapon could be fixed to fire -- peat may not be Cosmoline, but it keeps water and oxygen away, and that's 90% of the battle, and the M1919 BMG was as, err, bulletproof as it's bigger cousin, the M2 .50 BMG.
posted by eriko at 5:01 AM on November 10, 2011 [14 favorites]


This is very interesting to me since I am (a) Irish (b) from Donegal and (c) have an interest in WWII aviation from childhood.

Anyway, to get to the question of neutrality. Yes, we were nominally neutral in WWII but in practice - not really. We sent downed Luftwaffe pilots into camps but often sneaked RAF personnel home. Many Irish men fought in the Allied armed forces, some at the highest ranks.

In aviation terms, we also had The Donegal Corridor. This was an agreement whereby reconnaissance flying boats stationed in Northern Ireland (i.e. the UK) were allowed to fly over Irish territory in a narrow corridor to get to the North Atlantic, rather than having to detour way up north first. This greatly extended their range and was instrumental in ending the the U-Boat threat.

I posted on MeFi about this a while back but some mod deleted it because I got the info from Wikipedia. Like, where the f**k else would I get it ?
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:39 AM on November 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Nothing more romantic than machine guns firing bullets, am I right?
posted by Legomancer at 5:46 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wonder how long that peat would have preserved the plane in that type of condition. Could our great-great-great grand kids read a story like this in the year 2250?

It would have been nice to hear the sound of the original rounds being fired as well.
posted by lstanley at 5:59 AM on November 10, 2011


It doesn't surprise me at all that they could still be made to work; as stated above, all the things that make peat bogs good for preserving bodies are applicable to firearms as well. Couple that with the fact that Browning's designs were amazingly good (as in: still being used today in the form of the .50 BMG M2 which sits on many ground vehicles despite the fact it was designed 90 some years ago.) and you have a recipe for success.

and we never did actually fix the chamber, we just switched to electrically primed rounds.

While it's kind of an embarrassment that we couldn't sort out this relatively simple problem, switching to electrically primed rounds conceptually paved the way for things like the modern chain gun, where it doesn't matter if a round misfires because it will simply be ejected and a new one loaded in its place. Rather than relying on the recoil or escaping gas to cycle the weapon, now electric motors are used. This made for much more reliable vehicle mounted weapons, where having a jammed weapon in a place that was inconvenient to clear, could effectively disarm someone.
posted by quin at 7:28 AM on November 10, 2011


It would have been nice to hear the sound of the original rounds being fired as well.

There's probably little reason why they couldn't have done this, but several reasons why they might not have wanted to.

I've seen WWII vintage ('42 headstamped) ammunition, stored in steel cans, fire just fine. Ammo stored outside of sealed cans might not age quite so well; it depends on the sealant around the primer and the bullet. But I can attest to the fact that the primers and powder itself will still go 'boom', at least in the case of US and Russian ammo from that period. I've never seen old UK stuff but I assume the chemistry is similar.

However, except as a novelty or out of desperation, you really don't want to shoot that stuff; it's pretty nasty and corrosive compared to modern ammo. I would certainly not want to run it through what is basically a priceless and just recently-overhauled historic firearm. It leaves hydroscopic acid salts in the chamber and barrel which will basically start eating the bore immediately if not washed out; modern propellants don't have this problem.

So using modern stuff seems like a reasonable compromise to me ... if they had wanted to test the old ammo they would probably be better-off doing it in a modern gun that could be easily torn down and hosed out afterwards.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:02 AM on November 10, 2011


We sent downed Luftwaffe pilots into camps but often sneaked RAF personnel home. Many Irish men fought in the Allied armed forces, some at the highest ranks.

This and this. My mam's dad was in the Irish Army, stationed in the Curragh, guarding Germans, while coincidentally losing quite a few Allied airmen in border counties. My dad's dad was a flight sergeant in the RAF, and saw action in Dunkirk and Africa.
posted by kersplunk at 9:13 AM on November 10, 2011


While it's kind of an embarrassment that we couldn't sort out this relatively simple problem, switching to electrically primed rounds conceptually paved the way for things like the modern chain gun, where it doesn't matter if a round misfires because it will simply be ejected and a new one loaded in its place.

I really don't think there's a connection there. Externally powered actions are different than electrical priming. Forex, both the 1860s Gatling Gun and the current M242 Bushmaster 25mm auto cannon have externally powered actions, but fire via hammer and firing pin on a percussion cap, and many tank cannons, including the M256 120mm gun in the M1A2 Abrams, are electrically primed, but do not use an electric action (indeed, the M256 is hand loaded.) The M61 Vulcan 20mm autocannon is both externally driven (by hydraulics, not electricity, but still external action) and electrically primed, and of course, there are numerous weapons that are neither. I suspect that an automatic weapon that is gas operated, but electrically primed, would be rare, but I won't say they don't exist.

I suspect the reason to go to electrical priming is that there's much less force needed on the firing pin -- you just need to make contact. I suspect this is a big advantage on a high fire rate weapon, because it's simpler to touch and charge then to strike a firing pin hard enough to detonate a percussion cap.
posted by eriko at 9:34 AM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


MKII
posted by hal_c_on at 10:07 AM on November 10, 2011


Nothing more romantic than machine guns firing bullets, am I right?

In the field of human combat, you would be hard pressed to find a more legitimately romantic weapon than the Spitfire.

A weapon intended overwhelmingly for defense rather than offense, a weapon whose greatest use was to defend a nation against bombardment by Nazi Germany at overwhelming odds and so stave off an invasion. A weapon only rarely used to oppress, or to strike at civilians, or to inflict any of the horrors of modern warfare. A weapon that was an aluminum embodiment of the Tibetan philosophy: don't start none, won't be none.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:14 AM on November 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


>>It would have been nice to hear the sound of the original rounds being fired as well.

>There's probably little reason why they couldn't have done this, but several reasons why they might not have wanted to.


I remember watching a documentary on the recovery of the 'Glacier Girl', they fired off one of the guns after pulling up out of 260' feet of ice.
posted by the_artificer at 10:36 AM on November 10, 2011


I really don't think there's a connection there.

You are absolutely right. Somehow I looked at your previous comment and despite fully understanding what you meant by "electrically primed" my mind decided I needed to write something on electric drive weapons.

They both have the end result of providing a more reliable and much faster firing system, but don't really have any relation to one another other than both exist in modern, large firearms.

All I can say is that my train of thoughts jumped the tracks.

posted by quin at 10:54 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


All I can say is that my train of thoughts jumped the tracks.

Dude, I manage to run my train of thoughts into canals on a regular basis. No problem.
posted by eriko at 6:34 AM on November 14, 2011


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