Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Myanmar’s phantom Spitfires: how a legend was born

Spitfire excavation project leader David Cundall (left) holds a model of a Spitfire aircraft as Tracy Spaight, director of special projects at Wargaming looks on at Yangon airport on January 9. Photo: AFPSpitfire excavation project leader David Cundall (left) holds a model of a Spitfire aircraft as Tracy Spaight, director of special projects at Wargaming looks on at Yangon airport on January 9. Photo: AFP

In recent weeks we have been regaled with stories about the imminent unearthing In Myanmar of literally squadrons of brand-new World War II Spitfires – that iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain in 1940 – that were supposedly buried 40 feet deep in their original shipping crates strengthened with Burmese teak. As many as 140 could be found, we were told, but the first phase would be restricted to excavating 36 Spitfires at Yangon International Airport (Mingalardon), 18 at Myitkyina in Kachin State and 6 at Meiktila in Mandalay Region. Contracts were signed, blessed by the British embassy in Yangon, and we awaited breathlessly the results of the first dig in mid-January. So far, though, there has been not a trace of these aircraft and as Men with Dark Glasses have told the excavation team to stop using JCB diggers after only two days because they were too close to the main runway, who can say what might have been found, or might still be found if digging by hand is permitted during the silent hours?

When I first heard of this story, back in 1998, the rumour was that in August 1945 a handful of newly arrived Spitfires had been placed in a shallow earthen silo as there was no vacant space around the airport buildings at Mingalardon and that these few aircraft had quietly sunk into the ground after heavy monsoon rains, so much so that within a matter of months they had disappeared from sight and were soon forgotten. The rumour supposedly came from US engineering construction veterans who had been tasked to do this by the Royal Air Force (RAF). It was a delightful story, scarcely credible, but one or two businessmen and Spitfire enthusiasts thought it worth a closer look and even investing a little time and money. In the end, a Lincolnshire farmer, David Cundall, saw off the opposition and secured the recovery contract.

What started off, though, as no more than an amateurish treasure hunt has since April 2012 been transformed into a saga of veritable fantasy. The report that so many aircraft might still exist is based on evidence of a very flimsy nature. In any case, there is simply no good reason to treat Spitfires in this way. It defies all common sense, which has been remarkably absent in all media comment on this affair.

US engineers: the source of the reports

The US military engineers were originally identified as US Navy “Seabees”, immortalised in the film The Fighting Seabees, starring John Wayne. But Seabees never came to Burma. They did their fighting and construction as they hopped from island to island in the Pacific. It was then suggested that they must have been a unit from the military construction battalions that built the Ledo Road from India and other roads and airfields in northern Burma, except that such construction units never worked south of Myitkyina. It was then thought that they were in fact a unit of engineers in transit at Rangoon on their way to Singapore at the end of World War II who, out of the goodness of their hearts, had offered their expertise to the RAF to help bury these aircraft, although they presumably had no transport or machinery of their own. The US unit has never been identified. And how did they get the crates up to Meiktila and Myitkyina? Would it not have been easier to assemble the aircraft at Mingalardon and fly them up, if they were needed there for whatever reason, overt or clandestine?

The main evidence was no fewer than eight eyewitnesses, US and British, who could testify to what they had seen, namely crates with Spitfires being buried at Mingalardon. Unfortunately one of the US eyewitnesses is no longer with us, and the other was on a life-support system some years ago and might by now have gone the way of all flesh. As for British eyewitnesses, I have no reason to disbelieve they saw what they saw, while some recounted what others had said they had seen. But no-one actually seems to have seen any Spitfires as such, only crates about to be buried. None of the actual eyewitnesses, though, was with the RAF, and some who had been permanently stationed at RAF Mingalardon between 1945 and 1947 have said that they saw nothing to confirm these accounts by transient eyewitnesses and did not for a moment believe that there was any truth in the story.

Documentary evidence: virtually non-existent

The final piece of evidence is what has been described as “a tantalising bundle of notes”and a record discovered by a researcher in the National Archives at Kew in London showing that some 124 Spitfire Mark XIVs had been “delivered Burma” in August 1945 and then Struck Off Charge (“SOC”). As The Times of January 7 put it, quoting David Cundall: “With an archival researcher’s help, he found an astonishing record. ‘On one day in August 1945, 124 Mark XIV Spitfires were struck off charge – no operational history, no mention of joining squadrons, they just disappeared.’” The record in the National Archives, however, has not been identified by file reference and searches by both official and private investigators, including myself, have failed to locate any such document.

Endeavouring to prove that something does not exist is no easy matter, but we are helped by the fact that every single Spitfire ever built has been faithfully recorded in detail in both online and printed record. (Spitfire: The History by Eric Morgan and Edward Shacklady runs to over 675 pages, took more than 35 years of research to compile and tells you everything you are ever likely to wish to know about every one of the 22,799 Spitfires ever built.) So far as Spitfire Mark XIVs are concerned, you have in this and other references details of those supplied to Air Command South-East Asia (ACSEA), the place they were built (mostly Aldermaston, Eastleigh, Keevil and Chattis Hill, but not Castle Bromwich as so many UK newspapers have reported), the date they were completed, the ship on which they were transported to ACSEA, the squadron to which they were allocated and the date on which they were “SOC” or otherwise disposed of.

I have found no discrepancies, no missing batches and no evidence that, as has been alleged, Lord Mountbatten, then Supreme Allied Commander South East-Asia, gave instructions to dispose of these aircraft. None was listed as having been sent by sea to Burma in 1945-46, and even if ships had been sent on from Bombay or Karachi, which appears the normal destination for ACSEA-bound aircraft, there were only isolated “SOCs” in 1945 and several in 1946 for operational or other reasons on particular dates.

By 1947 and 1948 Mark XIVs were beginning to be struck off in increasing numbers in the ACSEA theatre, which now included Japan, though there seem to have been only isolated cases in Myanmar itself as a result of accidents. We can rule out 36 being struck off at any time during the 20-month period 2 May 1945 (when a RAF Mosquito daringly landed at Mingalardon) to 31 December 1946, while 124 SOCs belongs to the realm of fantasy (even if a few at Meiktila were Mark VIIIs, as has recently been suggested). A Telegraph report based on information supplied by David Cundall notes that it took “months” for the aircraft at Mingalardon to be buried. What happened to them while they were waiting, I wonder, and what hard luck for the passing US military engineers who probably missed their onward flight to Singapore? We may never know.

The only other speculative explanation suggested for this entombment of commercially valuable aircraft has been that the 36 or more Mark XIVs were a special shipment, never test flown in the UK like all the other 957 Mark XIVs built, nor given published serial numbers, but shipped prepared for long-term deep burial in fulfilment of some project even more Secret than Force 136 of Special Operations Executive, Detachment 101 of the US Office of Strategic Services and other clandestine operations whose records have already been released to the public. I find this explanation though totally lacking in credibility.

Increase in air activity after the Japanese surrender

The suggestion that up to 140 Mark XIVs might be superfluous to needs in August 1945 is contradicted, in Southeast Asia alone, by the continuing sale and supply into the 1950s of Spitfires of various Marks, including Mark XIVs, to the Royal Indian Air Force and its successor the Indian Air Force, to the French Air Force for use in Indo-China until 1953, to the Dutch Air Force for use in the Netherlands East Indies, to the Royal Thai Air Force in 1950, and to the RAF itself for use at their main post-war base in Singapore, in Malaya during the Emergency and to reinforce Hong Kong in 1949 as Chinese communist forces took control of the Chinese mainland. The Burmese Air Force, created in January 1947 some 12 months before independence, took over three Spitfires from ACSEA in 1948 and constantly requested more; it received 20 refurbished units from the RAF in 1951 and 30 converted carrier-borne Seafires from the Israeli Air Force in 1954. It is simply not credible that all this time brand new, carefully preserved Spitfires would have remained buried at Mingalardon.

The increased tempo of activity is reflected in the following account in Wikipedia: “South-East Asia Command had been increased in size from the day after the surrender, taking in south French Indo-China, and much of the Dutch East Indies. The command was now half as big again in area as it had been during the war. The strain imposed by the high operations tempo that occupation duties, when combined with the downsizing of the command due to demobilisation and return of American aircraft provided under lend-lease aircraft, was very great.”

The only other “evidence” worth mentioning is that in 2004 a scan by an advanced electronic sensor Geonics EM3 mapped the presence of significant deposits of conductive materials in designated areas, but without excavation it was impossible to say what these materials might be. At one stage a trial excavation reportedly reached a buried wooden crate, but allegedly for political and contractual reasons the decision was astonishingly taken not to look inside the crate. Since then the scientific experts involved have spoken more of their interest in uncovering evidence of “conflict archaeology” in which the discovery of Spitfires would be an incidental bonus, as it were. Marsden perforated steel matting (known as PSP) was widely used by Seabees in the construction of Pacific island runways and much is to be found in Myanmar as well, not least in domestic use these days as fencing.

The political background to the myth

My own conclusion, reached three months ago, is that the original story, which I scarcely believed in any case, had now reached such mythical proportions that I decided to include the saga, discreetly, as Myth No 11 on the website of Network Myanmar (which lists 11 other political myths relating to Myanmar). However, at the time that Prime Minister David Cameron went to Myanmar in April 2012, it is only fair to say that none of this detail was known and has only emerged since. The PM also went at very short notice. On April 1, 2012, 45 by-elections were held in Myanmar and by the following day it was clear that the National League for Democracy had won a stunning victory, capturing 43 of the 45 seats contested, including the election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The elections were judged by the European Union to be reasonably free and fair, despite some irregularities during the campaigning period. The EU needed to discuss urgently whether sanctions should be lifted or not, as the annual review of EU policy on Myanmar would take place on April 23. As the PM was leaving for a trade promotion visit to Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia on April 9, it was decided at very short notice to include a leg into Myanmar on 13 April, to persuade Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to agree at least to the suspension of sanctions, which she did.

There was accordingly little or no time for the PM’s Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ask the Ministry of Defence to provide a considered assessment by the RAF Air Historical Branch at Northolt of the reliability of reports, at that stage still very sketchy, about buried Spitfires in Myanmar, though I might have expected No 10 at least to make a telephone call. I can see that it was politically very attractive to the PM to mention the matter to President U Thein Sein on April 13, 2012 as an example of future possible cooperation on an issue of common heritage at a time of reengagement, although No 10 has since been at pains to make it clear that they were not involved in any commercial negotiations and had no interest in any aircraft which might be recovered. Some might say that the PM allowed his political instincts to cloud his judgement by venturing on what has turned out to be a wild goose chase of mythical proportions. I would give him though the benefit of any doubt. For the companies supporting David Cundall there has been valuable publicity, and for David Cundall himself probably the recouping of his expenses over the years and an advance fee, since he would surely not now be operating on a “success fee” basis alone. I would find it hard though to agree though with the British embassy spokesman whose colleagues were reported in The Times as believing that there was “compelling evidence” that the aircraft were there. The evidence, in my assessment, is virtually non-existent. There is however no need to defend the Prime Minister. These days the British public well understand the foibles and motivations of politicians and are more than willing to forgive him this lapse of judgement while there was the remotest likelihood of unearthing even one Spitfire, whatever its condition.

There is one final twist to the tale. The PM invited a property developer, Steven Boultbee Brooks, to join the trade delegation that accompanied him for the Myanmar leg. Mr Brooks had claimed to be the consortium leader: “We would very much like Mr Cundall on board,” the Independent reported. In the event, the Myanmar authorities gave the recovery contract to David Cundall, not to the PM’s guest. I have wondered whether this might not be a sign from Myanmar that it would have been better if the PM had sought to lift EU sanctions entirely, as the Germans, Italians and others in the EU preferred, rather than just suspending them until April 2013, when a decision will need to be taken on whether to continue the suspension by first reinstating and then immediately suspending EU sanctions again, or to consign them finally to history.

While David Cundall and close friends dig quietly in Myitkyina, let us acknowledge that a legend has been born. It may be a myth totally lacking in credibility, but as Prospero said: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

(Derek Tonkin is chairman of non-profit Network Myanmar and on the advisory Board of Bagan Capital Limited.)