A wartime Spitfire is unearthed from an Irish bog, while divers explore sunken U-boats and merchant ships littering the seabed offshore.
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In the telling of the story of the Second World War,
Ireland is rarely mentioned.
But scattered across this landscape
and hidden in the waters of these shores
are relics and reminders
of the greatest conflict in modern history.
Here, there is an unique archaeological record
which holds the key to unlocking the forgotten story
of one of the most important battles of World War II.
As a military historian, World War II is a story I thought I knew.
But now I've come to Northern Ireland,
where I'm discovering all sorts of incredible stories -
secrets, heroism, suffering and valour.
It was here, off the coast of Northern Ireland,
that the Battle of the Atlantic was won...and lost.
In these waters, German U-boats and British merchant ships
played a deadly game of cat and mouse.
There was very heavy loss of life.
And the end game of this titanic struggle
would see the symbolic surrender of the U-boats
into a Northern Irish port.
The records alone can only tell us part of the story.
Archaeology can fill in the missing pieces.
Along the way, we'll reveal the story
of a Spitfire that never made it home...
It's still got air in the tyre.
"Instructions for use."
What we have out so far is six Browning .303 machine guns.
..and the flying boats built in Belfast's factories
return to the skies with the airmen who flew them.
What's it like flying in one of these after 65 years?
It seems like yesterday.
During the Battle of the Atlantic,
Northern Ireland found itself at the heart of this bitter struggle.
And untouched, and amazingly preserved,
the clues to this forgotten story are hidden here,
just waiting to be discovered.
The waters around Northern Ireland
are littered with shipwrecks from the Second World War.
-Hello. Good to see you.
Many are the victims of German U-boats,
sunk whilst bringing food and war materials from North America
as part of the Atlantic convoys.
Early in the war, the Allied navies
began guarding large groups of unarmed merchant ships.
The supplies they carried stopped Britain
being starved into submission
and would later fuel the Allied armies invading Europe after D-day.
In this six-year battle, over 75,000 Allied seamen lost their lives,
as well as nearly 30,000 U-boatmen.
Initially, the Atlantic convoys reached the United Kingdom
by the relative safety of the south-western approaches.
But with the fall of France in June 1940,
the Atlantic convoys were rerouted around the top of Ireland,
and so Northern Ireland and her coastal waters
were thrust into the heart of the action.
I'm heading out to some of the clearest diving waters in the world,
where World War II wrecks litter the seabed.
There's one wreck in particular here that encapsulates
these six years of bitter struggle
played out just off Northern Ireland's coast.
In the late summer of 1944,
around 100 ships that had left Halifax in Canada 10 days before
arrived here, off the north coast of Ireland.
It had been an uneventful Atlantic crossing.
Now they were in home waters, a few miles from their base at Derry
and well within range of the protective aircraft
of the RAF Coastal Command.
But convoy HXF 305
was about to feel the full might of Hitler's U-boats.
On 30th August, 1944, the Jacksonville,
an American tanker carrying 14,000 tons of petrol
from New York to London, was hit by a torpedo.
It exploded in flame.
The sea was alight,
and flames from the petroleum were leaping 300 ft into the air.
Of her crew of 73,
just two were picked up alive.
For naval rating John Cumming, it was an all-too-familiar tale.
I remember one occasion an oil tanker going up
and the sea covered in this thick black oil,
and men swimming through it.
And we couldn't stop to rescue them.
As a matter-of-fact...
It's one of the worst memories I have, ploughing your way
through men who are already swimming in this black oil,
and the ship, the destroyer, just ploughs its way through
to get back to the convoys.
So, you're leaving folk...
..to drown, there's nothing you can do about it, you know?
A bit harrowing.
36 hours later, the very near to where the Jacksonville was sunk,
the British corvette HMS Hurst Castle was torpedoed.
She'd been commissioned just two months before.
She sank in three minutes, taking 17 Royal Navy sailors with her.
Reg Mason served on corvettes like the Hurst Castle
on convoy escort duties.
I will say this, that each time,
particularly if there was any...
ships and that going down,
remembering just to say my prayers while I was in my hammock.
And I knew, each time, that if the ship was torpedoed
and probably blown up, the magazine,
I knew that there would be no pain,
you wouldn't know anything about it, so.
In the early years of the war, the Allies' convoy system
had offered safe passage for the cargo ships crossing the Atlantic.
The naval warships were there to beat off any attempted U-boat attacks.
The U-boats responded to this by attacking en masse
in big groups called wolf packs.
These wolf packs initially caused chaos,
and thousands of tons of vital supplies
were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
But, by 1944, the U-boats were forced to change their tactics,
as the Allies once again gained the upper hand through new weapons
and technologies, like sonar.
Lone German submarines now lurked in the coastal waters off Ireland,
where rocks, currents and wrecks hampered their detection.
These new tactics saw great success, as our dive is about to demonstrate.
There are a couple of pictures here - HMS Hurst Castle...
'Maritime historian Ian Wilson has brought me here
'to this U-boat killing zone.'
There you go! Big stride out!
This was the work of one U-boat using new tactics,
and the first and most successful of the skippers
employing these was the skipper from U-482,
a German count, von Matuschka.
And he was a U-boat captain of some experience?
No, this was his first patrol.
He managed to sink three ships...
And a fourth, and that's the one we're actually right above now,
a huge ship called the Empire Heritage.
Wow, she's vast, isn't she? And that's below us now?
That's below us, and her huge cargo, as well, on the seabed.
70 metres below us lies the wreck of the Empire Heritage.
As well as her 16,000 tons of fuel oil,
she was carrying nearly 2,000 tons of cargo,
most of which was military vehicles, and you can see...
Is that what I think... That looks like a...
-Is that a tank?
-It's a Sherman tank.
The closer you look at that, the more obvious it is.
These are scattered across the seabed.
You can see the tracks there and the huge numbers of wheels.
Tyres, wheels, other types of military vehicle,
and it's a little bit like a child's toy box
that has been scattered across the seabed.
I didn't imagine this existed off the British and Irish coast,
I'd never imagined it.
It's the way the Sherman tanks are scattered like that.
And notice, also, if you look carefully at the tyres,
-they seem to be in perfect condition.
-They're in great condition.
This is a huge military blow.
D-Day just happened, the battle for Normandy, the battle for France is going on -
I mean, these tanks are needed on the beaches, and beyond.
Yes, the Allies were advancing through Normandy,
so, obviously, the Empire Heritage's cargo of Sherman tanks
and other military vehicles was destined for there.
So, how did she sink?
Von Matuschka put his periscope up into the middle of a convoy.
The first ship he saw happened to be the Empire Heritage.
The torpedo struck her after 42 seconds
and she went down in about three minutes.
She was one of the 20 biggest merchant ships sunk in the war.
The Chief Officer, Mr Gibson, was the senior surviving officer
and made a statement afterwards.
He said he came on deck after two minutes after the explosion,
and by the end of the third minute, by his reckoning,
he was being swept off his feet by the water
and the funnels were disappearing.
Clearly, one of the officers survived,
how many of the others managed to get off the ship?
I'm afraid there was very heavy loss of life.
About 110 people went down with the Empire Heritage.
And how many survived?
-So the vast majority of people on board died.
-They did, indeed.
But the Empire Heritage wasn't the last of Matuschka's victims.
The SS Pinto, rescuing survivors from the Empire Heritage,
was sunk with the loss of 21 men.
In just nine days, Matuschka had sunk two freighters,
two tankers, and one Royal Navy corvette.
In doing so, U-482 had caused the death of 250 Allied sailors.
It was one of the most successful patrols of any U-boat that year.
Matuschka arrived back at his base in Norway three weeks later a hero.
He'd heard via radio signals on the journey
that he'd been awarded the Iron Cross and the German Cross in gold.
One hardened U-boat captain described Matuschka's achievements as beginner's luck.
We'll never know if this was true or not,
because whatever luck he did have was about to run out.
Eight days into his second patrol, Count Herman von Matuschka
and his crew of 47 were lost when U-482 was depth charged
and destroyed to the west of the Shetland Islands.
Matuschka's mission was almost the last hurrah of the U-boat threat
that had reigned during the Battle of the Atlantic.
It had seen Londonderry transformed from a small Irish port
to the centre of operations for this critical front.
At the height of the Battle of the Atlantic,
up to 140 naval escort vessels were moored along the banks of the River Foyle.
Alongside this naval power,
28 new military airfields would spring up,
housing the planes that would seek and destroy the U-boats in the mid-Atlantic.
Uniquely preserved, a derelict but intact Second World War airbase.
These hangars once held the sub killers of Coastal Command.
But it wasn't just U-boats that were sinking British ships.
With the fall of France, the German air force
was close enough to attack the merchant fleet at will.
Therefore, squadrons of fighter aircraft were also needed
to defend the ships off the Northern Irish coast.
In 1941, just such a plane was returning to base
when it met difficulties and crashed into a peat bog.
The pilot, a young American flying with the RAF,
had a lucky escape and bailed out just in time.
But the Spitfire he was flying was never found.
Aviation expert Johnny Macnee
has been looking for this plane for 10 years,
and now he thinks he might have found
the final resting place of this lost Spitfire.
The ground-penetrating radar survey that we did in February
showed at least ten metres of peat...
'He's enlisted the help of World War II aviation experts
'Steve Vizard and Gareth Jones.'
We think they might be the undercarriage legs.
-It's inboard of the...guns.
Nice, isn't it? It's like a blancmange!
'Because the ground is soft,
'it means that hopefully the aircraft will have survived
'much better than if it had hit hard ground.
'I'm aware that the downside is that soft ground means
'that it's extremely difficult for the 20-tonne digger to operate
'without sinking into the bog itself.'
-Right, thumbs up, then.
The pilot of our missing Spitfire
was 23-year-old Bud Wolfe from Nebraska in America.
He'd been in Northern Ireland with his squadron for just over a month.
Our pilot is out flying top cover
over the convoys that are coming from America,
bringing military supplies into the UK.
Derry Port, very important in supplies,
so they need protection.
While he was out flying,
he noticed that his engine was rapidly overheating,
temperature about to boil over and his engine seize up,
so he said, "I'm heading for home, folks."
And his last reported words were, "I'm going over the side."
And away he went.
So he managed to bail out.
He managed to pull his chute and landed there, did he?
We know that it was about half-twelve on a Sunday, a very foggy Sunday.
People coming out of Mass heard the aircraft,
you know, screeching down through the skies,
couldn't see anything, because it was very foggy,
and he landed about three-quarters of a mile away.
'But the plane itself was never recovered.'
We've got our first bit of wreckage now,
just little bits of aluminium from the airframe.
They've gone into the bucket.
Now the rest of the team are going to sift through that
and make sure that they don't miss a single piece.
That's just a piece of wing skinning there, Dan.
Is that the original paint there?
That's the original paint, yeah.
-That's the camouflage.
Every single scoop is like opening a Christmas present, it's so exciting.
You've no idea what you're going to find, no idea what it uncovers.
-Right, guys, what have we got here?
-That's a Browning.
-That's a Browning?
-That is one of how many machine guns on board?
-One of eight.
One of eight machine guns, look at that, that's extraordinary!
That is... That is the original colouring.
This was the weapon that gave the Spitfire its teeth.
Oh, well done. Now, look.
This is the recoil buffer at the back of the Browning, with the safety.
-Look at that!
-After 70 years.
-That's in working condition.
Look at the quality of that paint and that metalwork after 70 years.
That is staggering. And we've been digging for five minutes.
We have, yeah, and there should be another six of these.
Each of the Browning machine guns in Bud Wolfe's Spitfire
would have been loaded with 350 rounds of ammunition.
So rapid were the guns' rate of fire
that the pilots had just 15 seconds of ammunition to hit their target.
Oh, my goodness.
'The lack of oxygen in the peat
'means that our finds are uniquely well-preserved after 70 years.'
Extraordinary, I've never seen anything like that.
I haven't got my glasses on, Dan, what are the dates?
-I've never seen anything like this.
I mean, it's like this was put underground yesterday.
'The army has been called in
'because of the danger of uncovering live ammunition.
'With the machine guns in such good condition,
'they're taking no chances.
'Each gun will be carefully checked
'before being removed for deactivation.'
'Even though Bud Wolfe's Spitfire
'ploughed into the bog at over 300mph,
'as the wreckage is prised apart, it's still possible
'to identify individual pieces of the wartime fighter.'
-See the Dunlop?
It's still got air in the tyre.
Still got air in the tyre, that survived, that's incredible.
Here you go.
"Type... Type Spitfire."
'And there, in tiny letters,
'one of the most famous names in aviation history.'
So just between "Type" and "Serial number" here,
you can see etched "Spitfire" there.
We know we dug up the right plane!
Oh, wait, you've got documents here!
'Even in the ferocity of the crash,
'something as delicate as paper has survived.'
You can just see "period of use" there.
Easy to distinguish.
Look at this - "instructions for use".
One of the reasons today has been an exciting, celebratory event
is because this, of course, was a Spitfire crash in which no-one died.
The young Nebraskan managed to bail out of his plane,
and he landed about three-quarters of a mile away.
As he landed on his parachute,
he heard the plane crash into this hillside.
But his troubles weren't at an end,
because even though he was just a few miles from his base,
just over in Derry, he'd actually landed in a different country.
Rather than being in the UK,
he was in neutral Republic of Ireland.
It should have taken Bud Wolfe less than an hour
to drive the 26-odd miles back to his squadron at Eglinton,
but by landing on the wrong side of the border,
Wolfe was now an internee.
He was also at the start
of a 220-mile journey,
south to internment
at a place called the Curragh,
not far from Dublin,
where he joined other RAF airmen
who had accidentally come down in neutral Ireland.
These rather cosy-looking cottages
are, in fact, all that's left of the internment camp
that Bud Wolfe and his RAF compatriots were sent to.
With the corrugated-iron huts,
it was effectively a prisoner-of-war camp.
But it wasn't your average prisoner-of-war camp.
To start with, there were the fellow inmates.
Right next door to the RAF contingent were the Germans,
sailors and airmen from the German Navy and Luftwaffe
who had also strayed onto neutral Irish territory.
Then there was the security.
Now, the Irish guards did have rifles,
but they were loaded with blanks.
And the inmates were allowed to come and go as they pleased.
The town of Naas is about ten miles from the camp.
It was here that both Allied and German prisoners
often came for the day.
Some of the conditions in which the internees were kept
seem so far-fetched that it's hard to believe.
-How are you doing?
'I've come to one of the oldest pubs in Naas
'to meet Sergeant Charlie Walsh of the Irish Army.'
So what was life like in this internment camp?
The conditions inside the camp weren't too bad.
In the officers' mess they actually had their own private bar.
They would have had beer, Irish whiskies, French wine, liqueurs,
Scotch, stuff like that and port.
The Irish Guinness and Irish whiskey was actually free.
So as long as you were drinking local stuff, it was free booze?
That's correct, yes.
Quite a number of marriages between the internees and local people as well.
There was actually one wedding in the Curragh Camp itself,
in the local church there.
-Was there trouble between the Allies and the German prisoners?
The Germans would actually cycle six abreast on their bicycles
on the roads, so everyone would have to get out of their way
and the Allies, if they were out, they wouldn't wish to move off the road either,
so there were some fisticuffs on that there.
Despite the obvious comfort of being interned,
Bud Wolfe had no intention of sticking around.
As far as he was concerned
he was heading back to join his squadron and fight.
This is the old guard house at Curragh Camp and it was here
on 13th December 1941 that Bud came and signed a parole, which was basically a piece of paper
promising he was going to pop out to town but that he would come back.
Then he returned to the camp on the pretext
he'd forgotten his gloves and checked himself back in.
Later though, he snuck out without signing a parole.
Bud Wolfe had no intention of going back to Curragh Camp that night.
He was now on the run.
'He went first to Dublin, where he caught the train north to Belfast.
'And then back to the RAF airfield where he and his ill-fated Spitfire
'had taken off two weeks early.'
You could just imagine the excitement of Bud Wolfe's fellow pilots
when the 23-year-old Nebraskan arrived back here at RAF Eglinton.
But that excitement was to be short-lived.
In one of the most truly bizarre episodes of the Second World War
the British Government decided that rather than antagonise the neutral Irish,
that they would send Bud Wolfe back to the Curragh and internment.
'In the Donegal hills the final pieces of Bud's Spitfire
'are being unearthed after 70 years.'
Just when you thought it couldn't get any better,
the massive beast that is the engine is coming out.
It's actually too big for the bucket, vast.
You can put it over there.
What state is this in?
It's actually in quite good condition.
This is fuel running out of the engine down here.
Look at that.
That's fuel running out of the engine, it's been there 70 years.
This is the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine,
one of the classic bits of British engineering history.
It powered the Spitfire, it powered the Lancaster bomber.
We worried it might have shattered as it went through the bog and hit the clay
but actually it's in pretty good condition.
Almost perfect, as good as the day it went in 70 years ago.
On here you'll have...
'But some artefacts provide an even closer connection to Bud Wolfe,
'a young American pilot who flew our Spitfire.'
This is my favourite find so far.
This is one of the harnesses from the cockpit and Bud Wolfe
would have pulled this bit here seconds before he ejected.
This here, I think you'll find we've got a lovely flying helmet.
That is about as good as it gets, really.
This is something I never believed that we would find,
Bud Wolfe's original flying helmet, worn by him on that sortie,
still attached to the original oxygen mask.
It's survived underground for 70 years,
removed by him just before he bailed out -
Hey, grand slam.
Thanks very much.
It's unbelievable, that is unbelievable.
When you come to a hillside like this and dig these objects out of the ground -
the straps that held the terrified pilot into his cockpit
as his plane failed,
the engine that overheated and forced him to bail out,
those things take you back to a moment in time.
They allow you to touch the past, they allow you to smell the past,
even though that event happened 70 years ago.
'On the day he crashed, Bud Wolfe had been providing cover
'for convoys steaming along the north coast.
'But Coastal Command could also
'call upon planes that would patrol long and far into the Atlantic,
'using Northern Ireland's geography to tilt the battle
'in the Allies' favour.
'But to do this would take a particular kind of plane.'
This is Lough Erne in Fermanagh.
This is about as far west as you can get in the United Kingdom.
The Atlantic is just a few miles that way
beyond the end of the lough,
so with the Battle of the Atlantic raging out there
it was clearly vitally important to use this area as a base.
The trouble is, at the outbreak of war
there were no airfields around here,
but what there was, though, was water -
lots of water.
'In 1941, it was a very different kind of boat which was moored here.
'Perfectly adapted to the terrain
'and in some cases built here,
'a brilliant solution to the problem.'
NEWSREEL: Northern Ireland factories are making Sunderland flying boats,
those magnificent aircraft which have done
so much to prevent the U-boats being victorious.
It's not permissible to say how many flying boats have been
manufactured in Ulster, but the output has been highly creditable.
'Lough Erne was the home to the Sunderlands and Catalinas,
'operated here by airmen from RAF Coastal Command.'
'Because of a secret deal with the Irish Republic,
'the flying boats based at Castle Archdale and Killadeas on Lough Erne
'could fly a route which became known as the Donegal Corridor,
'a shortcut to the Atlantic over neutral Ireland.'
'This extended their range, enabling the aircraft to get further into the Atlantic
'to protect the convoys from marauding U-boats.'
This is a genuine Second World War Catalina flying boat,
an aircraft perfectly designed to take off and land on the water.
Actually just look at the fuselage here,
it's shaped exactly like the hull of a ship.
These wheels wouldn't actually have been there during the Second World War,
so it could only operate from the water.
For me, it's one of the most distinctive aircraft of World War II.
There's a huge bubble-shaped canopy, known as a blister at the back there.
That allowed an observer to have an unimpeded view,
and that's the job of these aircraft,
to go out and act as observers, scouring the Atlantic
for enemy ships and U-boats.
If they did spot a U-boat, there were depth charges
arrayed along the wings so they could swoop down and drop depth charges
on the U-boat and try and sink it.
Seven decades later, this wartime Catalina, one of only a few left
flying in Europe, has returned to the Fermanagh and Lough Erne.
It was about 66, 67 years ago when I last flew in a Catalina.
'On board are two veterans, Ted Jones and Chuck Singer.
'Both flew with Coastal Command from Lough Erne during the war.'
-Is it all coming back? Do you recognise it all?
What's it like flying in one of these after 65 years?
It's marvellous. It seems like yesterday.
I was made a captain of a Catalina two days after my 20th birthday,
so I was young.
Ted Jones joined RAF Coastal Command in 1942.
He flew 55 anti-U-boat patrols.
They flew like an old cow, but they were lovely aircraft.
They were built like a tank -
solid, you know, but a bit heavy on the controls.
We had a marvellous automatic pilot
because we went out for 18-hour patrols
and it wouldn't have been possible to fly one for that time.
Chuck Singer was a crew member in the much larger Sunderland flying boat,
which operated out of RAF Castle Archdale.
While Chuck flew for the RAF,
he was just one of an estimated 100,000 US and Canadian servicemen
who'd flooded into Northern Ireland
to bolster Coastal Command and the naval convoys.
I was gunner in the mid-aperture. That was my position.
Your flying boats did an extraordinary job during the war
because it was just endless patrolling and looking out.
It must have been exhausting.
It was, you're awful tired when you got back.
You had to be on the alert all that time.
How long were you up in the air for?
10 to 12 hours. It was quite a while.
You must have been exhausted because you're constantly looking at everything in the sky.
Yes, for the first five or six hours, it's very interesting,
and after that your eyes start getting sore and you're imagining things.
You say that's an aircraft,
later you find out it's just a flock of gulls or something.
But you had to... be on the ball every second.
We were really shattered. And it was basically the noise
because we had no ear protectors,
we just had the ordinary earphones and a helmet on.
But it didn't bother us, we were too young.
Nothing can happen to you when you're 19, can it? You know?
The seaplanes built and flown in Northern Ireland
played a significant role in the battle of the Atlantic.
And across Britain, the realities of total war
meant everyone ended up doing their bit, and in places like Belfast,
this happened on a vast scale.
Peacetime factories were turned over to the war effort,
producing huge numbers of parachutes as well as uniforms.
They also produced massive quantities of armaments.
14,000 gun barrels,
75 million shells
and 180 million incendiary bullets.
NEWSREEL: 'Incendiary bullets that have shot down many a Nazi plane have come from this place.'
There was one key contribution that would come to embody
the Northern Irish war effort.
In the summer of 1940, at the height of the invasion threat,
while German troops were storming their way through France, in Belfast,
shipbuilders Harland and Wolff were putting the finishing touches
to a non-maritime project.
Harland and Wolff were asked to design a tank.
They came up with one which they called the rather unglamorous name the A-20.
But this tank would go on to become
one of the most successful British tanks of the Second World War.
The A-20 would evolve into the Churchill tank.
I've come to Dunmore Park in Belfast,
the home of the North Irish Horse, a regiment which during World War II
would become closely associated
with the Churchill.
The North Irish Horse, as the name suggests,
was at cavalry regiment raised from the northern counties of Ireland.
By the Second World War, they'd swapped their horses for the Churchill tank,
and the men served with huge gallantry through North Africa and Italy.
The trouble with the Churchill tank at Dunmore Park
is that it's a bit static - a bit of a museum piece.
-What an extraordinary thing to have in your shed.
'Belfast-born Nigel Montgomery knows quite a lot about Churchills.
'Not only was his father in the North Irish Horse in World War II,
'but he actually owns the only working Churchill tank of its kind
'anywhere in the world.'
So this is the turret here.
There are scars here. Is this battle damage?
This is battle damage and we don't know for sure where it came from.
It's probably shell splinters or mortar fire that burst on the deck.
How many crew would have served in his tank?
Five in total - three in the turret and two at the front.
The three in the turret were divided between the guy here,
the loader and operator, so he did the radio
and loaded the main gun.
And in here, amazingly, two people -
front...way down there, a gunner, and in here, the commander.
Gerry Chester joined the North Irish Horse in 1942.
He was a driver/operator in Churchill tanks.
The Churchill tank was the best British tank of World War II,
no question about it.
We felt safe in it, which was important.
It was a great tank to be aboard.
My role as driver/operator was to take charge of the radio
and also to load the heavy gun.
I don't fancy getting out of here in a hurry.
I'm not sure it's designed for a tall person.
The Churchill tank was not as tight as ones
we did training in at the tank regiment.
It was more roomy, but still it was a tight fit, that's for sure.
And driving-wise, obviously a nice big window here,
but unfortunately it's facing towards the enemy,
you'd want this closed, wouldn't you?
Yes, if there's a chance of battle, that closes,
and once it closes, you're reliant
on that single periscope, that tiny letterbox of vision.
-This thing here?
So I'm in the turret now.
So this is the commander's position?
The man in charge, the man who made all the decisions.
It's a great view, but you do feel quite exposed, it's quite nice being down there.
I had my head out sometimes, but it depended on the circumstances.
If there was a lot of shelling going on,
of course you put your head down!
If you move forward a little bit,
you'll be sitting where the gunner would be,
just in front of your commander's position you were in a moment ago.
So you're really close to the commander?
Literally, by his kneecaps.
But the best thing about Nigel's tank is that it actually works.
It was in Churchill tanks like this one that men like Gerry Chester
and his comrades in the North Irish Horse
were to go into action in the Battle of the Hitler Line in Italy, in May 1944.
Being in this tank is really an assault on the senses.
The sound and smell of the engine
and being jolted around is like being at sea.
It's a strange feeling.
On the one hand, you feel very secure and protected,
but you also feel that you're in a lumbering,
slow machine that would attract lots of enemy fire.
And that day attacking the Hitler Line,
the tanks took terrible casualties.
The battle for the Hitler Line would prove the mettle of the Churchill tank
and the fighting men of Ulster, here in the fields of central Italy.
In 1943, Allied troops invaded Sicily and Italy
and began heading north towards the Italian capital of Rome.
If Rome fell, it would be a huge boost to Allied morale.
But they would become bogged down 75 miles south of the capital,
at a place called Monte Cassino.
There, at the foot of the Benedictine monastery,
in five months of bitter fighting, the Allies would try
to dislodge the Germans who controlled the higher ground.
In so doing, the monastery was reduced to a pile of rubble.
Having taken Monte Cassino, only one obstacle lay in their way -
the Hitler Line - a massive fortification
which blocked the road to Rome.
And it's here that the North Irish Horse would face the toughest battle in their history.
From up here, it's easy to see what was going on in 1944.
This is the Liri Valley.
If you want to march an army up from the south of Italy towards Rome,
just up there, you've got to bring them up this nice, flat valley.
And that's why the Germans built
what they hoped would be an impregnable line of steel and concrete,
which stretched from this side of the valley right across there,
to that great big mountain.
The Hitler Line, they had all sorts of stuff in there.
All sorts, not only dug-in Panzers,
they had machine-gun nests, mobile anti-tank guns and also Panzers running around,
so a lot of opposition,
a lot of opposition.
STRIMMER ENGINE WHIRRS
A group of Italian historians has been investigating the remains
of the bunkers and emplacements which make up the Hitler Line -
bunkers which have been swallowed up by the undergrowth
in the years following the Second World War.
The Churchill tanks of the North Irish Horse,
along with other British units,
would support the Canadian infantry, who were leading
the assault on the German bunkers and machine-gun nests.
The actual battle started off at six o'clock on May 23rd.
HEAVY ARMS FIRE
Of course, there was a constant barrage going on
but at eight o'clock a huge bang
cos the whole Canadian artillery -
a lot of Eighth Army artillery -
loading down a tremendous barrage
and we advanced in behind that.
We were working through this wood and, in there,
the Germans had snipers in trees
and we lost a few fellows - tank commanders -
who were killed by these snipers.
Va bene! >
So this group believe that, just behind all this foliage,
there is a concrete bunker built by the Germans in World War II,
and you can see the outline of it as they start to thin it all out.
And, of course, this was just one of hundreds of bunkers,
gun emplacements, concrete-and-steel structures and machine-gun pits
that spread right the way across this valley here -
the so-called Hitler Line.
The Germans built this line
intending it to be absolutely impregnable.
They'd lost Monte Cassino
but they were not going to give this up without one heck of a fight.
When we first went in to action, most of us - well, I was - dead scared.
What was going to happen, you know? 18, well, I was 19, you know?
There was so much gunfire and things that we couldn't see
because there was dust everywhere.
Now, our visibility was estimated
at no more than ten yards.
We didn't see that Panzer turret. We didn't see it.
I mean, it ran so close to us.
Walking across this fairly flat, wide open, lush Liri Valley,
the troops would have felt very, very exposed
to the German machine-gunners just there.
And they would have been cut down instantly,
were it not for the fact they weren't alone.
They had the support of their tanks.
The tanks were behind them, blasting high-explosive shells
towards those German positions,
forcing the Germans to keep their heads down.
And there's shrapnel all over these fields,
like these pieces of shell-casing here.
It allowed the infantry to get nice and close to this German bunker.
'At the time of the assault, the bunker would have been
'surrounded by minefields and barbed wire.
'Now uncovered by the team, it's possible to climb up inside it.'
Wow! That's pretty cosy.
And another bunker like this, maybe just a few hundred metres?
Yes, yes, yes. Very close.
-Very strong position.
-Very strong position.
'Excavating the ground in front of the bunker,
'what the historians are finding is evidence of a robust defence
'by its German occupants.'
-German. Yes. German.
-Yes, machine gun.
-It's German machine gun round.
-OK! Another one.
These were fired in the heat of battle,
on that one day at the end of May 1944.
RAPID MACHINE GUN FIRE
MAN SPEAKS EXCITEDLY IN ITALIAN
That was the belt on which all the bullets would have been stored.
You can not believe this was fired 70 years ago.
METAL DETECTOR BEEPS
'As tanks and infantry closed in on the prize of the Hitler Line,
'many fell in the fighting
'and the evidence is still there to be found.'
No way! Is that a German shape?
Hmm. No. From the shape, no.
Early to say but there's a jagged hole and it could be a helmet
of a Canadian Infantryman
who was killed in the assault on this bunker.
MEN CONVERSE IN ITALIAN
-All go. My God!
-It's definitely a Canadian... a Canadian helmet?
We advanced through all this smoke and dust
and then we got hit on the starboard side three times.
Skipper gave the order to bail out.
We got out. My driver was badly cut -
almost in two - and he died.
Er...a further shot hit the turret,
which shot fragments of red hot... all over,
o e of which seriously wounded the tank commander, Gordon Russell.
It was a tough day for the regiment -
the toughest we'd had in either war.
It was a...
It was the... catastrophic, as far as losses.
More than 70 men from the North Irish Horse
were killed or wounded that day.
With the dead buried here, below the monastery of Monte Cassino.
The Canadian infantry, who they'd supported,
had also suffered heavy losses.
After the battle, the dead of the Canadians
and the North Irish Horse were buried alongside each other.
This was entirely fitting for men who had fought and fallen together -
men who had broken the Hitler Line.
Was I feeling proud when I took part?
In a way, yes.
In a way, er...
Most of us thought, during the war, that the war was worthwhile.
You know? It was a war that we felt had to be won and it was a right war.
There was an inward pride that we'd fought a good battle and we'd won.
As simple as that.
Simple as that.
In our story of Northern Ireland's role in the Second World War,
I've got one last trip to make.
Back in Ireland,
there's a post-script to the story of our crashed Spitfire
and the brave, young American pilot
who was interned as a prisoner of war for over a year.
It's been six months since we dug up Bud Wolfe's Spitfire
from the bogs of Donegal.
In the meantime, something remarkable has been happening.
The machine guns from the crashed Spitfire were taken away
by the Irish Army to be stripped down before being deactivated.
'But when they were dismantled,
'they were found to be in much better condition than anyone had imagined...
'..and that raised an interesting possibility.'
How are you doing? Good to see you.
'So I've come to meet Lieutenant Dave Sexton,
'Ordinance Officer in the Irish Army,
'and hopefully, actually fire the machine gun.'
So the last time I saw that machine gun,
I was pulling it with my hands out of a bog in Donegal.
What have you done to it since?
Well, we've been doing a lot of work on them,
but basically, the work has been 95%
just cleaning up the weapons,
stripping them down,
cleaning them out, checking them, measuring them,
and adjusting them for firing.
But no repairs. No repairs at all, really.
These machine guns hit the ground at well over 300mph.
Why weren't they all bent and twisted and unusable?
Well, the short answer is, we don't really know!
We had assumed that we'd be picking up bits and pieces
and collecting up the ammunition, etc.
So when we took them out of the bog,
I got a call on that day to say
that they were actually in one piece.
And, of course, that set the cogs in motion,
as regards, "Well, how far can we go with this?"
If they're in one piece, you know, could they actually fire?
So you're telling me that every single part of that weapon
over there was recovered from that aircraft wreck?
Yes, I am, yes. Absolutely.
Every single piece.
-Ah. Protect the good bits!
I'm extremely excited.
It's been 70 years to the month
since Bud Wolfe's plane crashed into Donegal.
And now we are going to try and fire that machine gun again.
-OK? That's your charge at the front. In your own time.
OK. Here we go. 70 years on.
-Stand by! Firing!
RAPID MACHINE GUN FIRE
THAT was the sound of a Spitfire!
It's a testament to the engineers
that put that weapon together more than 70 years ago,
that, after decades under a bog,
having hit the ground at over 300mph,
that weapon is working like the day was made.
RAPID MACHINE GUN FIRE
But what happened to the RAF pilot
who flew the Spitfire where the guns had come from?
Bud Wolfe was eventually released from Curragh Camp,
and got back in the cockpit,
this time with the American Air Force,
in time to see service at the end of World War II.
To tell the final chapter of this country's role
in what was a global conflict,
we're heading back underwater, to the hunting grounds
of one of the most feared German war machines, the U-Boat.
The hidden menace that tried to starve us into submission.
Just off the north coast lies a submarine graveyard,
where over 100 of the vessels that formed Germany's backbone
during the Battle of the Atlantic,
now lie broken, and in ruin.
The Battle of the Atlantic
was the longest continuous battle of World War II.
It stretched from the earliest days of September, 1939
right up until early May, 1945,
just before the final German surrender.
Throughout this battle,
Allied convoys feared U-boats like no other weapons system.
Hunting alone, or in dreaded 'wolf packs',
they would prey on Allied shipping
and sent numerous vessels to the bottom.
But, by the spring of 1945, the Nazis were on their knees,
and as the noose tightened around Berlin,
the German High Command had no choice
but to put an end to its naval campaign.
For the U- boats, it ended here in Northern Ireland.
On May 5th, 1945,
just five days after Hitler had died in his bunker in Berlin,
Grossadmiral Karl Donitz, who was now the supreme commander
of the German Armed Forces, issued the following order.
"All U-boats cease fire immediately.
"Stop all offensive actions against Allied shipping."
This was total defeat.
The German fleet was made to surrender formally in Londonderry,
the city that had played such a huge part in the battle against them.
Able Seaman Tex Beasley was among those who were tasked
with ensuring that all enemy crews yielded without incident.
We went out in early May
to meet up with the U-boats that were surrendering.
Behind her were many, many other U-boats.
I don't know how many, but quite a few.
So the skipper said,
"Right, you're in action now. Over."
So I jumped from our boat onto the U-boat.
I said to the...who I presumed was the commander...I said,
"Guten Morgen, sprechen Sie English?"
And he said, "Yes, rather well, I think."
The other guy that came up had an American accent, but...
HE ADOPTS ACCENT: ..mit a German American accent, you know what I mean?
That sort of thing.
And he said, "What would you do if I just did a crash dive?"
I said, "I'd shoot you right between the eyes."
This remarkable structure is all that's left
of the naval escort base built at Lisahally during the war,
just a few miles north of Derry.
It was here that the U-boats were moored alongside.
And here, on 14th May, 1945,
the German Navy ceremonially signed its final surrender.
Over the next few months, more than 50 U-boats
came up the River Foyle,
where they were stripped of anything valuable still on board.
Locals came from miles around
to have a look at the world's most famous submarines.
Once the U-boats were alongside here, the crews were marched off.
They were taken along the pier and put on waiting trains
and then transferred to POW camps.
For the commanders, it must have been a terrible humiliation.
And for the locals,
watching these men as they shuffled off into captivity,
it must have been hard to believe
that this was the force that, just a few years earlier,
had almost brought the Allied navies to their knees.
For the U-boats that remained tied up in Derry,
their fate was swift and deliberate.
As part of Operation Deadlight, 116 surrendered U-boats
were towed into the North Atlantic, off Malin Head.
Some of them didn't even make it.
They were barely seaworthy after such a long war.
But those that did were then used for target practice
by Allied ships and aircraft.
The task of dragging them out to sea took three months.
One by one, 116 of these once-proud members of the wolf packs
were systematically destroyed.
The sinking of the U-boats, as part of Operation Deadlight,
marked the end of the Battle of the Atlantic.
It was a campaign which had thrust Northern Ireland
to the heart of the action,
defending the convoys at sea and from the air.
It's some 70 years
since one of the key battles of the world's greatest war
was fought and won here, off the rugged coast of Northern Ireland.
And the evidence for that struggle is still with us -
at least, for now.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
A wartime Spitfire is unearthed from an Irish bog, while divers explore sunken U-boats and merchant ships littering the seabed offshore.
Dan Snow tells how, during World War II, Northern Ireland was thrust to the heart of the Battle of the Atlantic, and how excavations in Italy reveal just how Northern Irish troops took the fight to the battlegrounds of Europe.