One last Spitfire mission takes off from Britain on Saturday, flying over the English coastline soon after dawn. This time the crew will leave Heathrow on board a Qatari jet, bound for Burma where they believe treasure is buried – a cache of the warplanes, shining and perfect as the day they went into the ground almost 70 years ago.
For mission leader David Cundall, a Lincolnshire farmer and aircraft hunter, what happens next is simple. By late January he is convinced he will have the fairytale ending to a 17-year quest since he first heard the story of redundant Spitfires buried as the war in the east collapsed after the bombing of Hiroshima. They were buried in crates the size of double-decker buses, according to one witness.
“We will have a box on the surface, you can open the doors, and you will see the aircraft inside,” Cundall said. “These are 100% original Spitfires that have been buried for 67 years, and they will still be shining.” His team of archaeologists will carry out surveys near the perimeter of Mingaladon airfield, now part of Yangon’s international airport and once a second world war British base taken by the Japanese, then the British and Americans. They will attempt to confirm the evidence of wartime aerial photographs, earlier surveys, probes, and eyewitness accounts, and then the mechanical diggers will move in, followed by the experts with trowels and toothbrushes to do the last delicate hand digging, in temperatures in the 90s.
Cundall – who has spent years battling with official intransigence and patchy records, trade sanctions, other treasure hunters and tense international politics, visiting the country 16 times and even persuading David Cameron to raise the issue on his visit to Burma last year – will tolerate no doubts about the outcome.
His lead archaeologist, Andy Brockman, is more circumspect. He has extensive experience of battlefield archaeology, and knows what climate and time can do to the relics of history.
Even if they find the planes, he says, if the condition is very poor, professional ethics may demand leaving them in the ground until a conservation protocol is agreed.
Cundall believes the planes are buried up to 10m deep, on a platform of teak logs, in thick Canadian pine crates, possibly waterlogged but too far down for oxygen to spark the process of decay.
Brockman says: “The worst case is all we find is something we call Daz, the green soap powder like substance that aluminium alloys can crumble away into.”
The last survivor among the eight witnesses Cundall interviewed, Stanley Coombe from Eastbourne, now 91 but with vivid memories of his time in Burma as a young soldier, will be flying out with them. He recalls being in a lorry driving past the end of the runway and, curious about the massive trench and the huge wooden boxes, he asked what was going on: the Americans were using their diggers and tractors to bury Spitfires for the British, he was told.
Cundall has recruited the Belarus-based online gaming company Wargaming.net to bankroll the project: it has already put up $500,000 (£307,000),”and there is no bottom in that bucket if more is needed”, a company spokesman said.
If the planes exist, all sides agree they are the legal property of the Burmese government. Cundall’s contract states that half goes to them, 20% to his Burmese business partners, and 30% to him. He believes there are 36 Spitfires at Mingaladon, and more than 100 at two other sites.
He has pledged to bring all of his share back to the UK, and to get them back into the air. “They are a part of our history, and they should be preserved instead of rotting away. We should bring them back to where they belong.”
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