On 20th September 1942, Supermarine Spitfire R6992 took off from Aldergrove Airfield near Crumlin, Co. Antrim. At the controls of the "war weary" ex-fighter plane was Flight Lieutenant Gordon Hayter Proctor. The plane had seen extensive action during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Since joining R.A.F. No. 1402 Meteorological Flight, the aging Spitfire had grounded three times; either shot down or crash landing.
Proctor took the fighter up to around 20,000 feet, high above the mid-September cloud base of 300-500 feet. Over Co. Tyrone, the Spitfire’s engines failed. Controls froze leaving Proctor unable to rectify the plane’s steep descent through over 15,000 feet. At 4,000 feet, the Flight Lieutenant bailed out. His Royal Air Force silk parachute carried him safely over the south of Co. Tyrone. He landed in the border village of Crilly.
Flight Lieutenant Gordon Hayter Proctor joined the Caterpillar Club on 20th September 1942. Bailing out at 4,000 feet, his parachute deployed, and he landed safely on the northern side of the Irish border. As trained, he gathered and hid his parachute. Having watched an unknown airman descend, some locals grabbed pitchforks and made their way toward the R.A.F. pilot. No harm came to the allied airman, and some reports suggest that Proctor was back in the air at 1800hrs that day.
Among the local witnesses who made their way to where Proctor landed was William Johnston. He informed the relieved pilot that he was in Co. Tyrone, still north of the border and within Northern Ireland. Johnston was an employee of Mr. William J. Knox of Crilly House. He took the uninjured pilot to the Knox residence, where he received a hot meal and a much-appreciated use of a telephone.
Members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary from the nearby villages of Aughnacloy or Caledon departed with Proctor.
It was the morning, a Sunday morning and I remember the loud noise of it. My father was milking cows in the byre and he heard the noise and he ran into the house thinking it was on fire. We then discovered it was a plane – it took the tops off the trees and a piece of it fell down in a gooseberry bush behind the house. I remember much of the plane being removed by the Army and remember seeing it on a lorry.
Spitfire R6992 carried on, hurtling downwards through the remaining 4,000 feet before crashing across the border. The plane exploded. The fuselage burst into flames when it landed on the farmland of Patrick McKenna of Figullar near Emyvale, Co. Monaghan.
One of the first to arrive at the scene of the incident was Second Lieutenant Vincent Kenny of the Irish Army. He had received a telephone call from his command duty officer at 1315hrs. Based at Cavan Barracks in the adjoining county, Kenny served with 11th Cyclist Squadron. Not knowing the nationality of the crashed plane, he gathered an N.C.O. and half a dozen other armed men. They quickly made it to McKenna’s farmland and Kenny’s report was with Irish Army Eastern Command within 48 hours.
At Figullar, Kenny’s men met with members of the Local Defence Force and Civic Guards. These men from Emyvale and Monaghan Town were under the command of Staff Officer J.J. McGleoin, and ensured there was no interference with the wreck. They had, of course, attempted to extinguish the fire in the wreckage strewn over 300 yards across the farmland. Flames had destroyed the fuselage of the Spitfire and four hand-cocks of McKenna’s hay.
Second Lieutenant Kenny informed the Command Duty Officer at the nearby Emyvale Station of the Garda Síochána (the Irish police). Authorities gave permission for two Royal Air Force officers to inspect the wreckage for explosives. Access to the crash site was tightly restricted. The Garda took the officers’ names and car registration details for identification purposes. It was a case of look but don’t touch for the R.A.F. officers. Nothing was to be removed from the scene.
At 1615hrs, four uniformed R.A.F. officers and two members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary arrived at McKenna’s farm. Kenny refused their access as permission had only been granted to the two technicians in civilian clothing. They arrived at around 1730hrs with the required documentation and spent half an hour examining the wreckage. There was no threat from any ammunition or explosives.
After the inspection, Second Lieutenant Kenny oversaw the collection of wreckage by the Irish Army. They gathered aluminium and tin on a truck before transporting it to the nearby Cavan Barracks. McGleoin and his men remained on guard at the site throughout the night. Eventually the wreckage of Spitfire R6992 made it north of the border to a barracks at Clones, Co. Tyrone where it awaited disposal.
In May 2017, a group of surveyors from Queen’s University Belfast, aviation historians, and archaeologists dug the crash site. Pupils from two schools in Co. Monaghan and one from Co. Londonderry observed and helped with the excavation. The team was also joined by local woman Josie McCusker, then aged 80 years old. She was only 5 years old when the Supermarine Spitfire crashed on her father’s farmland, almost setting the barn alight.
While the Irish authorities cleared most of the debris of Spitfire R6992 away in 1942, there were still remnants buried. The site was first explored with ground-penetrating radar in September 2016. Metallic deposits were only 4 metres beneath the surface.
Using a toothless bucket, they removed soil inch by inch. Discolourations in the earth indicated the point of impact. Much of the soil was dark and the smell of aviation fuel and oil was still strong after all the intervening decades. Digging down, they found parts of the fuel tank and the engine remains.
The cockpit door was a bit of a surprise. The last person to use it was Flight Lieutenant Gordon Hayter Proctor who was later declared missing while serving in Burma. He has no grave and now he will be remembered in a bit of Monaghan. The display will be an homage to him.
Among the finds were parts of the 750kg Rolls Royce engine, plates inscribed with manufacturer’s details, and the cockpit door. The team cleaned up artifacts, catalogued them, and offered them to Monaghan County Museum for a permanent display.
In June 2018. Proctor’s niece Sarah Tysoe traveled from England to visit the crash site in Co. Monaghan. Monaghan County Museum meanwhile prepared a new exhibition telling the story of the Monaghan Spitfire. A life-size Spitfire replica makes up part of this exhibit. So too do parts of Flight Lieutenant Gordon Hayter Proctor’s Supermarine Spitfire R6992.