The first phase of digging by a British archaeological team in Burma, where as many as 140 Spitfires were hoped to be found in the culmination of a hotly-anticipated mission, has ended in disappointment for aviation enthusiasts and a difference of opinion within the investigating team.
Video game company Wargaming, who had provided significant financial backing for Lincolnshire farmer David Cundall’s dig at an airfield suspected to have held crates of dismantled planes, said they no longer believed any Spitfires had been left at RAF Mingaladon in 1945 and 1946.
© Gavin Longhurst / Wargaming
They concluded that appalling weather condition and scarcities of equipment would have made the burial of aircraft 30 feet below the ground “almost impossible”.
“No-one would have been more delighted than our team had we found Spitfires,” said Tracy Spaight, the company’s Director of Special Projects.
“We knew the risks going in, as our team had spent many weeks in the archives and had not found any evidence to support the claim of buried Spitfires
“However, the team’s assessment was that even if there were no crated Spitfires, parts of Spitfires or other aircraft might well have been found."
Project archaeologist Andy Brockman said the quest had been treated as “a CSI-style police procedural” in which the planes were considered missing persons.
“We followed the clues in the documents, period maps, pictures and air photographs; we talked to surviving witnesses and visited the ‘crime scene’ in order to turn our study in the archives into facts on the ground,” he added.
“As a result we believe that the legend of the buried Spitfires of Burma is just that: a captivating legend about a beautiful and iconic aircraft.
“It is a fascinating and very human story and we look forward to sharing our full results shortly.”
Having spent 15 years travelling between Britain and Burma, Cundall remains hopeful of finding Spitfires. He said the project had ample resources to continue, with two further sites – at Rangoon and the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, where a mystery crate was found last month – on his radar.
“I’m saying that there are Spitfires,” he insisted.
“I told Wargaming it will be another month or five weeks before we actually dig up a spitifire.
“But they couldn’t wait that long and they are out of the project.”
Defiance and debate greeted the announcements on the Facebook page dedicated to the investigation.
“Until David throws in the towel I won’t stop believing,” pledged one supporter.
“I still have faith in his years of research.”
The granddaughter of Stanley Coombe, a war veteran who travelled with the team, revealed that he had seen the crates being buried during his time as a serviceman.
“He only returned a day after they started digging, and yet two days later newspapers are reporting that the mission has failed,” she observed.
“It’s very, very strange when they had only been digging for two days.
“He has the same views as David – that they are digging in the wrong area.
“I truly believe that these Spitfires are buried and have never doubted it.
“Stanley may be 86, but he definitely still has all his marbles.
“My only hope is that David proves everyone wrong, these Spitfires are found and my granddad will still be here the day that happens."
© Gavin Longhurst / Wargaming