Photo: Elsie Esq via Flickr
The hunt for 36 lost RAF Spitfires at a Burmese airfield may not be completely over despite the failure to find a single rivet belonging to the aircraft.Almost two weeks ago David Cundall’s dreams were – it seemed – about to be fulfilled.
The Lincolnshire farmer and warplane hunter had finally achieved his aim of digging at precisely the spot where he believed Spitfire after Spitfire had been buried as the RAF left Burma.
For 16 years, Mr Cundall, 62, had been convinced that dozens of Spitfires were buried in their shipping crates, including 36 at Mingaladon, a former RAF base that is now Rangoon International Airport.
This week, however, his archaeologists and the delegation sent by multi-millionaire backer who had helped fund his search will be heading home, privately accepting there are no Spitfires.
Mr Cundall himself is defiant in his belief that Burma will give up the Mark XIV Spitfires he is convinced were buried there in 1945 and 1946.
Last night he declared: “I will prove to the world that there are Spitfires down there. I am more convinced now than I have ever been before.
“Of course I am not giving up. I will politely prove my critics wrong.”
He added: “My morale now is higher than it has ever been.”
This was despite the fact that when he and the archaeologists dug an exploratory trench at Mingaladon, they found nothing.
After site observations and scouring hundreds of 1940s’ documents, the independent archaeologists concluded no Spitfires had ever been buried at Mingaladon, and suggested privately that the hunter might have swayed by servicemen’s rumours.
One member of the Wargaming delegation muttered despairingly about “white man’s folly” – but Cundall simply says that the archaeologists dug in the wrong place and gave up too early.
The moment Mr Cundall had been striving towards for more than a quarter of his lifetime seemed to have arrived when he and his team flew into Burma on January 7 – in the teeth of scepticism, but with a Burmese digging permit, and financial backing from Victor Kislyi, 36, the Belarusian behind the online computer game company Wargaming.net, who fancied a real-life “Indiana Jones adventure”.
He also brought geophysicists, old soldier Stan Coombe, 86, Cundall’s star witness, and the independent archaeologists: Martin Brown, 47, Rod Scott, 49, and their leader Andy Brockman, 51.
In the tropical heat and rising tension, *The Sunday Telegraph* found a colour code for the gravity of any situation: the pallor of Tracy Spaight, the leader of the Wargaming delegation.
A former schoolteacher who had studied the 18th Century Enlightenment to postgraduate level, he seemed to struggle to comprehend the Burmese approach to business and bureaucracy.
When the JCBs rumbled through the Mingaladon airfield gate to be stopped after five yards for want of the ‘correct’ permit – Spaight’s face suggested white alert, approaching translucent.
But a ‘correct’ permit was eventually obtained. The site was blessed by a Buddhist monk.
To the frustration of Cundall, who insisted he already knew where the Spitfires were, careful geophysical surveys were also conducted to identify promising digging spots.
Last Tuesday, only about a week later than Cundall expected, digging began.
And by Wednesday morning, he was convinced it was all going wrong.
“All this trowel scraping! They’re jumping up and down when they find a nail,” he said.
The archaeologists proudly held aloft a piece of pierced steel planking, (PSP) part of a makeshift wartime runway or road: clear evidence of ‘conflict activity’.
Staying under the shade, representatives of Cundall’s Burmese agents, the Shwe Taung Por (STP) Group seemed bemused; PSP is the stuff that was recycled to make half the garden fences in Rangoon, including the row of houses bordering the dig site.
The Burmese also couldn’t understand the determination of these Westerners to concentrate on Mingaladon, when, with Mr Cundall’s help, they had already found and announced – what they believed was a crate containing a Spitfire at Myitkyina, in the north.
Mr Spaight, however, paled at the ramifications of digging at a military airfield close to an area of conflict with rebel groups.
And now, with the help of archive documents, the archaeologists were constructing a picture – which showed no records of any crated Spitfires arriving in Rangoon to be buried.
Mr Brockman insisted the buried Spitfires legend was “absolutely worthy of investigation.” He also suggested you might have better luck looking for Spitfires in Rangoon market.
The records showed old Mark VIIIs being broken up and sold for scrap.
“If you found an old wok, it might contain metal from a Mingaladon Spitfire.” Suddenly everyone was “backtracking”. “The archaeologists are backtracking,” said Mr Cundall.
“Cundall’s backtracking,” said a Wargaming executive.
Increasingly convinced there were no buried Spitfires, the Wargaming delegation had a plan.
They would dive in a nearby lake, encouraged by a local suggesting that a retreating American squadron dumped all sorts of things there when Rangoon fell to the Japanese in 1942.
They considered getting Scuba diving equipment from Thailand, and worried that the lake was overlooked by what appeared to be military barracks. The plan was shelved.
On Wednesday night Mr Spaight, now an alarming shade of pale, told Mr Cundall bad news. The Burmese authorities had revoked his digging permit.
They worried that digging so close to Rangoon’s only international runway might undermine it and cause a collapse.
Mr Cundall threw his hands in the air, exclaimed “We’ve lost it!” and sank into a chair with tears in his eyes.
The next morning there was a compromise. Digging could be done, but only by night, when no planes were using the runway.
But there was no digging, and instead a series of crisis meetings. Mr Spaight was ghostly.
Another grown man was crying, muttering “I believed him, I believed him. He’ll keep going and going.”
He added: “Saying the Spitfires are there, over the rainbow. It’s white man’s folly.”
As Wargaming and the archaeologists prepared to go home, they privately conceded that there are no Spitfires to be found.
They said shipping records suggest that in 1945 and 1946, when Cundall insists the planes were being buried, there were in fact no crated Spitfires arriving in Burma at all.
They also discounted Myitkyina, where Cundall and his Burmese partners insisted they had found a waterlogged crate that might contain a Spitfire.
Mr Brockman, 51, the lead archaeologist, said the timber structure at Myitkyina, whose murky interior was inconclusively filmed by Cundall’s Burmese partners using the Englishman’s car reversing camera, was probably an empty Japanese bunker.
Mr Cundall, however, remains convinced he can find Spitfires. Unmoved by the archaeologists’ arguments and the imminent departure of his Wargaming backers, he said he now planned to prove everyone wrong by going to Myitkyina and finding a Spitfire.
“Get me a digger and I will show you a Spitfire in a day,” he said.
“You will see it with your own eyes. There are 18 of them down there. I am 100 per cent certain of it.”
He claimed the archaeologists and Wargaming “took over” and dug in the wrong place at Mingaladon. The archaeologists vigorously dispute this, saying that they clearly agreed the location of the trench with him before they started digging.
Told that the archaeologists claimed that no crated Spitfires arrived in Burma in 1945 and 1946, and that the RAF actually kept meticulous records of their aircraft in Burma, Mr Cundall said: “Well, I disagree.
“There is overwhelming evidence, so many eyewitnesses but the archaeologists don’t trust eyewitnesses.”
He added that the lack of documentary records could be explained by paperwork going missing somewhere between Burma and London, and by the RAF wanting to bury the Spitfires quietly, rather than leave written evidence of what they had done.
Clearly stung by the fact that his Wargaming backers appear to have stopped believing him, Cundall said: “All of sudden everything I have done in 16 years is supposedly wrong.
“But they are basing their comments on archaeologists who say they can’t find anything about it in the records, so therefore it didn’t happen.”
He said many observers failed to understand the bureaucratic complications of digging on an active airfield in areas peppered with sensitive fibre optic cables.
“People sat in their armchairs saying ‘where are these Spitfires?’ don’t’ understand the difficulties.”
He added: “I believe it is better to have tried and failed than never have tried at all.”
Although the Wargaming delegation is preparing to leave Burma, the company will continue to fund Cundall, meeting the expenses of his Myitkyina dig.
Yesterday, in what appeared to be a deliberate show of unity, the excavation team returned to the site to begin preparatory digging in Cundall’s preferred area.
Mr Spaight said digging would continue until the moment they left, which would probably be Tuesday.
He said the expedition had always been about much more than just Spitfire hunting.
“We would love to pull a Spitfire out of the ground, but we have always said this is about the story, the background, the archaeological research.
“No-one has been able to come here and dig for the archaeology before. We feel so privileged to have been given the opportunity to do so.” The imminent departure of the archaeologists and his Wargaming backers seemed to please Mr Cundall.
His buoyant morale, he explained, was because he would now be able to go to Myitkyina with his Burmese partners, but without the 21-strong entourage that was the Wargaming delegation and their archaeologists.
“There is nothing worse than having 21 ‘experts’ telling me how to do things in 21 different ways.”
He would press on to Myitkyina “as soon as possible”. “I can’t wait,” he said.
The hunt for the missing squadrons is not – yet – entirely over.
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