Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Could it really be a Spitfire? The Myanmar-British team hunting for the fabled Battle of Britain fighters from the 1940s believes it has found one, buried in a crate near Myitkyina.
Excavations begun there on December 12 have revealed a buried object 9 metres, or 30 feet, down. Speaking to journalists at Yangon’s Parkroyal Hotel on January 9, team leader Mr David Cundall announced: “We believe this to be a Spitfire.
“What we have found in Myitkyina is a man-made thing for sure. Because murky water gushed out from the ground while digging, we faced difficulties,” he said.
Murky waters indeed. The prospect of unearthing dozens of 70-year-old aircraft has delighted aviation enthusiasts, of which Mr Cundall, a farmer from Lincolnshire, England, is one. The possibility of such a historical treasure trove even prompted British Prime Minister David Cameron to raise the issue with President U Thein Sein during their meeting last year. But many unanswered questions remain.
Mr Cundall’s team is investigating the possibility that up to 140 Spitfires, believed to be Mark XIV models dating back to 1945, may be buried at three locations. According to Mr Cundall and U Soe Thein, a retired professor of geology department from Yangon University, who is also a member of the group, about 35 of the aircraft are at Mingalardon airport, 18 in Myitkina and six at Meiktila.
Following Prime Minister Cameron’s intervention, the Myanmar government signed a contract with Myanmar company Shwe Taung Paw and Mr Cundall to find and dig up the planes, and to split any resulting profits. Half will go to the government, 20 percent to Shwe Taung Paw and 30pc to Mr Cundall.
The aircraft were said to have been buried, in their original packing crates reinforced with local teak, on the orders of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia and later Viceroy of India. Another member of Mr Cundall’s team is 91-year-old Mr Stanley Coombe, a veteran who says he witnessed the fighters being buried. Exploration of the old runways at Mingalardon was to start on January 9, said U Htoo Htoo Zaw, managing director of Shwe Taung Paw.
“If the project is a success, friendship between Myanmar and Britain will be strengthened,” said U Htoo Htoo Zaw, who declined to estimate how much the search would cost.
Mr Cundall was quoted by news agency Associated Press as comparing the search for the fighters with the hunt for the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Amid the enthusiasm, some observers are sceptical. “It’s hard to believe Spitfires were buried here. We wonder how they buried them without anybody knowing, at a time when there was little or no heavy digging machinery, how they sealed the lips of the participants, why [the British] didn’t dig up them back after they gave us independence,” said Mizzima managing editor U Sein Win.
Nor is it clear exactly why brand-new fighters would be buried in the first place, and why so deep.
Mr Cundall said that to the best of his knowledge, the fighters were buried by American engineers on the orders of the then British colonial authorities.
“At that time, nobody wanted to take them back to the UK, they were surplus to requirements,” he said.
Funding for the quest has been provided by Belarus-based video games company Wargaming, whose planning director, Ms Tracy Spaight, is accompanying the team.
“I can’t say exactly that it was a Spitfire that was found because I wasn’t at the site when it was found. The project has just started. Now our activities are focusing on the site near Mingalardon airport but it is too early to say anything exactly,” Ms Spaight told The Myanmar Times.
In a letter published in the London Times on January 9, Mr Lionel Timmins of Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, England, cast further doubt on the story. Based at Mingalardon for much of the period in question as a flight mechanic, he said: “I neither saw anything of the burials nor did I hear any rumours, which I believe there most certainly would have been had the aircraft been buried.”
A spokesperson for the British Ministry of Defence in London told The Myanmar Times the ministry had no records relating to the issue of Spitfires in Myanmar in 1945-1946.