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Lost + found

What do a British farmer, a Belarusian online gaming giant, scientists and a war veteran have in common? They are all in Myanmar in search of buried Spitfires. Stuart Heaver is standing by for answers to a 68-year-old mystery

 

An international team comprising scientists, archaeologists, a filmmaker, an online-gaming executive, a war veteran and an amateur avi-ation fanatic from Lincolnshire, England, make up the unlikely assembly gathered near Yangon International Airport. The project in which they are engaged is one that has captured imaginations around the world.

Operation Spitfire aims to locate and recover 36 Mk 14 Spitfire planes still in their original timber shipping crates from the site of a second-world-war airbase at Mingaladon, outside the former capital of Myanmar, and thus solve the so-called "mystery of Mingaladon".

Possibly the most famous aircraft in the history of aviation, there is something undeniably special about the Spitfire that sends the otherwise restrained British (men, in particular) all a-quiver with emotion and national pride.

Until now there were only 51 of the aircraft left in the world and any commemorative fly past over an English town still causes people to gawp skyward in awe and reverence.

No surprise then that the story has attracted attention from the world's media. The recovery project has even had British Prime Minister David Cameron cheering it on.

The adventure is being funded by Belarusian online gaming corporation Wargaming: it is picking up the bill for rooms at the plush Park Royal Hotel in Yangon for the 21-strong team, their expenses for at least three weeks, their air fares and an air freight bill for more than 1,300 pounds of hi-tech equipment.

The budget is rumoured to be US$1 million but, whatever the final sum, it is clear that Operation Spitfire is not being done on the cheap.

Wargaming has also commissioned a professional film crew - led by respected New York movie producer and director Mark Mannucci, who creates films for the National Geographic Channel.

Yet while the project may be being funded by a corporation, it has been driven by the passion of a tall, white-haired farmer who makes for the unlikeliest of film stars. David Cundall, in his early 60s, has an easy, affable style and a soft northern English accent. Gushing with boyish enthusiasm for military aircraft, he is hugely engaging and clearly acting in the finest traditions of the English eccentric.

Cundall has been devoted to solving the mystery of Mingaladon since 1996, when a colleague told him a story he had heard from former American pilots in Florida. This alerted Cundall to the possibility that Spitfires had been buried in wartime Burma and since then he has made no fewer than 18 trips to Myanmar in pursuit of the planes.

"In the early days, it was just me and my metal detector," he says, recalling his attempts to find lost Spitfires in the fields of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

So has he recovered any of the planes before?

"Oh, I've dug up a few," he says, modestly.

Cundall's approach may sound less than scientific but he believes he has amassed eight firm eye-witness accounts since placing a small advertisement in Fly Past magazine appealing for information.

Those accounts indicate that 36 Spitfires were buried about nine metres down in a dry river bed at the end of the runway at Mingaladon, in July 1945. This site is now within the perimeter of Yangon International Airport and just a few metres from the runway on which modern jets deliver tourists from Bangkok and Hong Kong clutching their copies of Lonely Planet.

"These are 100 per cent new Spitfires," says Cundall, with an air of supreme confidence but no trace of bombast. "And I know exactly where they are."

As he hastily sketches the rough location of the aircraft in my notebook, an elderly man joins us and is introduced.

Stanley Coombe is 91. As a soldier in the Royal Sussex Regiment, he remembers travelling past Mingaladon airfield in a truck, in the summer of 1945, and seeing huge crates being interred. He is Cundall's key eye witness but the passage of nearly 70 years ago raises obvious questions about the veracity of his testimony.

"It was just one of these things that stick in your mind," says Coombe. "The next day I asked some of the airmen at the base what the hell was in those big crates and they told me they were Spitfires."

Coombe is extremely cogent despite his advanced years and he makes a credible witness.

"I love Myanmar but I didn't during the war," he says with a smile. Hardly surprising, given the scenes of devastation that greeted Lieutenant General Sir William Slim's 14th army as it entered Yangon unopposed in May 1945 to reclaim the country from the Japanese.

"The Japanese had destroyed everything, from the Irish girls' school in Prome Road to the yacht club on Inya Lake," Thant Myint-U recalls in his book The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma.

The 14th army had some mopping up to do, although Coombe remembers that efforts were mainly focused on Operation Zipper, the planned invasion of Malaya.

So why on earth would the RAF bury 36 brand new Spitfires in Burma, having just reclaimed the country and at a time when the war with Japan was expected to continue for months, if not years?

"We were dumping everything rather than sending it home to the UK," says Coombe. "There was stuff being buried all over the place."

But if the RAF wrote off more than 30 warplanes and buried them in a pit surely someone would have at least made a note of it?

Cundall admits he found no evidence of the planes in the British public records archive at Kew in London, but Wargaming funded professional studies by historians and it was this research that gave the company the confidence to back the project.

"The evidence for the traditional legend of Mingaladon is elusive and often contradictory," says project archaeologist Andy Brockman. "At the same time, we have hard evidence from the archives that many aircraft were disposed of at Mingaladon in the latter half of 1945."

To secure financial backing, Cundall realised he needed hard scientific evidence and travelled to Yangon in 2004 with geophysicist Adam Booth, now of Imperial College London.

On that trip a detailed survey was made using an advanced electro-magnetic sensor called a Geonics EM3; a very expensive, high accuracy, metal detector that maps conductive materials under the ground.

The map created by Booth shows two huge metallic targets exactly where the eye-witness accounts said they should be. A quick excavation revealed some wood but the Myanmese government suddenly terminated the project and Cundall and Booth had to leave, frustrated and empty handed.

Shortly after he returned to his farm, economic sanctions imposed by the European Union closed the door on Myanmar and Cundall had no choice but to monitor news reports from the country and wait for the political climate to change.

"My solicitor told me that if I went back I could spend a long time in jail," he says.

It was 2011 before Cundall was able to obtain permission from the Myanmese authorities for another dig. As changes in Myanmar began to be reported and armed with his 2004 data, he sought financial backing to return to Myanmar and recover the planes.

He wasn't short of offers but it was Wargaming that threw in its lot. It flew Cundall first class to California to seal the deal, then took him to San Jose to fly around the bay in a USAF B-17 bomber to celebrate.

"Because that's the way we roll," says Wargaming director of special projects Tracy Spaight, a trim corporate type from San Francisco. He's the man signing the cheques and trying to keep the team on track.

In some ways Spaight is an unlikely partner for Cundall but the pair have spent most of the past seven months travelling together to and from Myanmar battling bureaucratic obstacles to secure an agreement with the country's government - one that will see Myanmar keep 50 per cent of any planes recovered.

The authorities in Myanmar are not known for their accommodating nature - so what was the secret to brokering a deal with them?

"Sheer perseverance," says Spaight.

And what is Wargaming - which has announced it will not make any money from the project it has bankrolled - looking to get out of this?

"Listen, this isn't a big financial deal," Spaight says. "Wargaming spends six-figure sums on parties six or seven times a year."

We are briefly interrupted by an immaculately groomed, well-spoken young man with exquisite manners. Fergus Eckersley is first secretary at the British Embassy; en route to the hotel gym, he has stopped by the lobby to invite the team to an embassy reception later in the week.

"Sure, that would be cool, Fergus," says Spaight, with a slight grimace at yet another distraction for the scientists.

For a moment, in the sweetly scented hotel lobby of polished marble, drinking chilled Singapore beer and receiving polite invitations to receptions with the ambassador, it is easy to forget we are in independent Myanmar - in 2013, and in the midst of democratic reforms and renewed economic growth - and not back in the colonial Burma of 1945.

Operation Spitfire is certainly an exciting project if you are, like many Europeans, fascinated by the legend of the Spitfire and its role in the second world war. But many Myanmese seem bemused.

"The Burmese had nothing to do with the war, but it destroyed their country," says Thant Myint-U.

In a country where most people earn less than US$2 per day, it might seem insensitive to spend US$1 million on such a high-risk venture.

Brockman does not agree.

"We are undertaking conflict archaeology, not searching for Spitfires per se," he says. "In that context, the legend of the Spitfire aircraft buried at Mingaladon is the lens through which the wider story of the second world war in Burma/Myanmar can be brought into focus."

The history of the war in Burma is certainly a fascinating, a bloody and a highly complicated one.

When, in December 1941, Japanese forces surged into the country (as they were doing simultaneously in Hong Kong), it was a glittering jewel of the British Empire's crown in Southeast Asia, second in importance only to Singapore. The Japanese assault started with the bombing of Rangoon (now Yangon), causing thousands of Burmese civilian deaths and a mass evacuation. Mingaladon Airfield was the hub of the city's air defences, which were largely made up not of RAF Spitfires but American Flying Tigers, a private air force retained by the Chinese Nationalists and led by the charismatic Major General Claire Chennault.

The British were unceremoniously evicted from their colony by the invaders and by the time they fought back, three years later - Wing Commander A.E. Saunders touching down on the bombed out runway at Mingaladon in his Mosquito on May 2, 1945 - the conflict had claimed a massive death toll and devastated and divided Burma. Not surprisingly, many historians trace much of modern Myanmar's recent history of internal conflict and civil war to the destructive legacy of the war.

So is Operation Spitfire an archaeology project designed to add to our knowledge of this history, a corporate PR exercise or an eccentric's pipe dream come true?

"We would not be here without David Cundall's determination to follow his dream … and Wargaming Inc's generosity in funding the project," says Brockman.

And if the Spitfires are located, what sort of condition are they likely to be in, having been buried for 68 years?

Paul Harrison is a specialist conservator who has worked for the Museum of History and the Maritime Museum in Hong Kong. He says that if the Spitfires are located, their condition will depend on a number of factors including terrain, climate, soil type, drainage and the packaging used.

"The fact that the boxes are so deep works in their favour as there will be less oxygen and less insect activity," says Harrison. "However, it is extremely unlikely that these aircraft will ever be flown again. At best, we are talking about museum exhibits after some conservation work."

At any rate, when the project team reveal their findings today at a scheduled international press conference, the eyes of the world will be focused on Yangon.

Could there really be 36 immaculate Spitfires just awaiting assembly so they can once more take to the skies; or will those large metallic objects on Booth's 2004 map turn out to be little more than a tangled mess of rusting junk?

There is certainly nothing unusual about debris being dumped in holes at the end of runways - and the interlock-ing metal flooring known as Marsden Matting was used all over the area. You can still see these interlocking perforated steel plates - in use as fencing today - in Yangon.

Cundall, though, has no doubts that he has finally solved the mystery. "I have known they are there since 1999," he says.

By the end of today, we could have a strong indication as to whether this is the most celebrated historical find in Asia since the Terracotta Warriors or no more than a 20-year wild plane chase that ends in a Myanmese airport rubbish dump.

 

 

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