Spitfires in Burma (Myanmar)

The background

In late 2012 and early 2013 there was a lot of press coverage and plenty of speculation about Spitfires that were said to have been buried in Burma towards the end of the war. The story - and for many the hope - was that up to 60 Spitfires, possibly in pristine condition, were buried near one or more airstrips in Burma.

The story began when aviation archaeologist Jim Pearce was talking to a group of US veterans. They told him that they had been detailed to bury Spitfires in Burma. On his return from the US, Jim shared the story with his friend; farmer, pilot and aviation enthusiast, David Cundall from Lincolnshire. Mr Cundall subsequently spent 16 years and £130,000 on a dozen visits to Burma and negotiations with the Burmese regime, hoping to locate and salvage the aircraft.

Why bury them?

Nowadays Spitfires are relatively rare and a pleasure to see and to hear but 60 years or so ago they were commonplace. The story goes that when a shipment of Mk XlV Spitfires, complete with Griffon engines, arrived in Burma in August 1945 they were regarded as surplus to requirements. By that time the war was nearing its end. The main residual task was to clear Japanese troops from various Pacific islands, a job for which the Spitfire was not best suited.

There were plenty of Spitfires and the new jets were expected to replace them, so there seemed no point bringing the Spitfires back. They didn’t want them to get into the wrong hands, either. So, according to the reports, they buried them. It was thought that these were new planes which were waxed, wrapped in greased paper and, protected from decay, buried in their transport crates.

A dozen were thought to have been buried about a fortnight before the first atom bomb was dropped at Hiroshima and another 8 in December 1945, but speculation increased the total considerably when there were stories of about 36 in one burial; 18 in another; 6 in another. Official records, however, show none of these burials. One report says RAF logbooks suggest that up to 100 Spitfires were broken up and the scrap given to local people. Another says that only 37 aircraft were delivered, in three tranches, between 1945 and 1946 and that they appear to have been re-exported in the autumn of 1946 (source - archival records researched by Wargaming Ltd).

Research amongst personnel

Mr Cundall used magazine advertisements to trace soldiers who said they had been involved in burying the Spitfires, gaining as much first-hand information as he could. He also befriended members of the Burmese (then) military government enabling him to search for the planes. News of the discovery of burial place of at least some of the Spitfires broke at a gathering at the Imperial War Museum in London in November 2012, when it was announced that work to recover the Spitfires would begin the following January (2013).

The archaeology

Map of Burma showing dig sites

The first target was Mingaladon Airport in Rangoon (now known as Yangon), where the planes were thought to be buried up to 20 feet deep. At first, ground radar appeared to show Spitfires with their wings packed alongside the fuselages but a dig had to be stopped at a depth of just 5 feet, and further digging was forbidden by the Burmese government, after the discovery of underground cables connected to Rangoon airport and a fear that further excavation might endanger the runway.

By the end of January 2013 the search had moved 920 miles to Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin State, where a pilot dig found a crate full of muddy water. The crate needed further investigation to see what else might be inside but an attempt to pump the water out was not successful. A partnership with Belarusian video games firm Wargaming.net ended about then.

In the summer of 2013 ground radar images produced by local agents Htoo Htoo identified objects at seven and 11 metres deep around 30 metres away from the international airport's main runway at the original dig site near Rangoon, which they suggested were consistent with rows of buried crates. Mr Cundall decided that he would start digging again in January 2014. Fresh excavations were subject to Burmese government approval of a civil engineering plan to proove there will be no damage to the runway. Mr Cundall drafted proposals to work with a large, but at that time unnamed, UK engineering company, subject to approval of the Burmese government, on this second dig. The company was subsequently identified as JCB.

Mr Cundall, with new sponsors, American firm Claridon Logistics, returned to Burma on December 8th 2013 to resume the search at Rangoon, announcing in advance his method: to bore holes using a machine that cuts through concrete and use a camera to photograph what might be there.

Initially they dug some boreholes but only a few scraps of metal were found. Then, early in 2014, permission to dig was withheld for a while. Mr Cundall suspected that the Burmese government were talking to rival Spitfire-seekers but there is no evidence to substantiate that fear. Then permission came through for the dig to resume and the diggers moved in on March 5th 2014. Mr Cundall had the help of JCB's hydraulic concrete breaker to bore through the concrete that covers the site. In March they discovered and broke into a concrete bunker but there was no Spitfire inside.

The third investigation site was Meikhtila in Mandalay but surveys there and in Myitkyina were stopped early in 2013 by the authorities, who cited security concerns. Part of the Mingaladon Airport (Rangoon) site was also still off limits, leaving just a part of that airport open to survey and excavation. However, the rains prevented any digging after June 2014. Mr Cundall returned to the UK when the rains started, leaving ongoing work in the hands of his current partners, a local firm called Shwe Taung Paw. Their spokesman has said that investigations will continue until October 2014. After that point, if nothing was found, all search activity would stop for the foreseeable future. Nothing was found. The Burmese Department of Civil Aviation have said that the contract to allow surveying and excavation would not be renewed beyond October 2014 and that the dig site has to be returned to its pre-survey condition. There were reports in August 2014 that new funding had been found but the source of the cash was not reported and there is no word of new dig permissions from the Burmese authorities. So at the moment it seems that October 2014 saw the end to the quest.

There are plenty of people who believe that the Spitfires really are there to be found. There is scope for further hunting at the two minor sites and the restricted part of the bigger, Rangoon site, which have hardly been touched. However, after so much time and money have been spent without gain, and whilst there are still security and authority restrictions on enlarging the search area, it is difficult to envisage a return to the dig.

There are those who say it is only red tape and cash that is prevented the discovery of these elusive warbirds. But there are those who are equally convinced that Mr Cundall has been 'chasing a rainbow' all along. It seems we may never know.

 

This feature is based on stories in the press and online, especially The Birmingham Mail, BBC Online News and The Irrawaddy. BritishAirshows has not conducted its own research outside published sources.