A Lincolnshire farmer has told how he spent 15 years trying to find a lost squadron of Spitfires that was buried in Burma at the end of the Second World War.
The extraordinary plans to dig up the lost squadron were revealed this weekend as David Cameron visits the country. Now, David Cundall, 62, of Sandtoft, near Scunthorpe, has spoken about his quest to recover the Spitfires and get them airborne. Mr Cundall has spent £130,000 of his own money, visited Burma 12 times, persuaded the country’s notoriously secretive regime to trust him, and all the time sought testimony from a dwindling band of Far East veterans in order to locate the Spitfires.
Yet his treasure hunt was sparked by little more than a throwaway remark from a group of US veterans, made 15 years ago to his friend and fellow aviation archaeologist Jim Pearce. Mr Cundall said: “The veterans had served in a construction battalion. They told Jim: ‘We’ve done some pretty silly things in our time, but the silliest was burying Spitfires.’ And when Jim got back from the US, he told me.”
Mr Cundall realised that the Spitfires would have been buried in their transport crates. Before burial, the aeroplanes would have been waxed, wrapped in greased paper and their joints tarred, to protect them against decay. There seemed to be a chance that somewhere in Burma, there lay Spitfires that could be restored to flying condition.
He was determined to find them. The first step was to place advertisements in magazines, trying to find soldiers who buried Spitfires. “The trouble was that many of them were dying of old age.” He visited Burma over and over again, slowly building friendly relations with the military junta that have for decades held power in the capital, Rangoon. “In the end the minders trusted me so much they would let me hold their AK-47s while they ate the lunch I had bought them.”
And finally, he found the Spitfires, at a location that is being kept a closely guarded secret.Mr Cundall said: “We sent a borehole down and used a camera to look at the crates. They seemed to be in good condition.” Mr Cundall explained that in August 1945 the Mark XIV aeroplanes, which used Rolls-Royce Griffon engines instead of the Merlins of earlier models, were put in crates and transported from the factory in Castle Bromwich, in the West Midlands, to Burma.
Once they arrived at the RAF base, however, the Spitfires were deemed surplus to requirements. The war was in its final months and fighting was by now increasingly focused on ‘island-hopping’ to clear the Japanese of their remaining strongholds in the Pacific. Land-based Spitfires, as opposed to carrier-based Seafires, did not have the required range.
The order was given to bury 12 Spitfires while they were still in their transport crates. Then two weeks later, the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Japanese surrendered on September 2 1945. It is possible that a further eight Spitfires were then buried in December 1945, bringing the potential total of lost Spitfires to 20.Mr Cundall said that about 21,000 Spitfires were built, but at the end of the war very few were wanted. “In 1945, Spitfires were ten a penny. Jets were coming into service. Spitfires were struck off charge, unwanted. Lots of Spitfires were just pushed off the back of aircraft carriers into the sea.
“On land, you couldn’t leave them for the locals – they might have ended up being used against you. It was a typical British solution: ‘Let’s bury them lads.’ They might have planned to come back and dig them up again. They never did.” To meet the £500,000 cost of the excavation Mr Cundall enlisted the help of Steve Boultbee Brooks, 51, a commercial property investor who also runs the Boultbee Flight Academy, in Chichester, West Sussex, which teaches people to fly on the two-seater Spitfire that Mr Brooks bought for £1.78 million in 2009.
Ground radar images showed that inside the crates were Spitfires with their wings packed alongside the fuselages.
The Britons now want to work to restore as many of the 20 Spitfires as possible and get them flying. If the project works, it will nearly double the number of airworthy Spitfires. There are currently only about 35 flying in the world. Mr Cundall said: “We want to dig as many Spitfires up as we find. “Spitfires are beautiful aeroplanes and should not be rotting away in a foreign land. They saved our neck in the Battle of Britain and they should be preserved.”
The final obstacle to recovering the Spitfires, however, is political: international sanctions forbid the movement of military materials in and out of Burma, and it was also feared the Burmese government would not allow any foreign excavations on their territory. Because of the new, reforming stance of the Burmese government, it is likely some sanctions will be lifted after an EU review begins on April 23. With the help of David Cameron and his visit to Burma, a deal is currently being negotiated and hopes are high that it will conclude with President Thein Sein of Burma granting permission for the dig.
Mr Brooks, who returned to his Oxford home on Saturday, after helping open negotiations with the Burmese authorities, said: “Our hope is that we can be digging them out in the next three or four weeks. Then the plan is to get as many of them flying as…