World War II Spitfires buried in Burma to be excavated by British team

By Ben Miller | 28 November 2012
A photo of a group of man in suits standing in front of a historic plane inside a museum
David Cundall, Dr Roger Clark and Dr Adam Booth announce their expedition to Burma at the Imperial War Museum. The trip is likely to result in the excavation of dozens of Spitfire planes from World War II© Simon Turnbull

A team of academics and archaeologists will help David Cundall – the Lincolnshire farmer who has pinpointed a site thought to contain dozens of World War II Spitfires in Burma – on a final trip to the grounds before excavation work begins.

Dr Roger Clark, a Senior Lecturer in Geophysics at the University of Leeds, and Dr Adam Booth, a former pupil of Clark’s who is now a Research Associate at Imperial College London, will lead a geophysical investigation which is expected to reveal up to 36 planes at the Mingaladon site.

Both experts have previously assisted the aviation enthusiast – Dr Clark has advised Cundall during more than 20 years of attempts to detect military relics domestically and abroad, and Dr Booth accompanied Cundall on one of his 16 trips to Myanmar, drilling an exploratory hole under the supervision of the local military in 2004.

“I’m glad to see David’s venture progressing this far,” he said, speaking at a press conference to announce the expedition at the Imperial War Museum in London.

“I look forward to the final stage. [The 2004 investigation] was a unique and exciting opportunity at a time when I was still young, but it gave me valuable experience in managing the acquisition side of a geophysical project.”

Dr Clark called the latest phase of the hotly-followed project “a fantastic opportunity”.

“This is an enormously interesting project, particularly for a geophysicist going into a country that is likely to be investing heavily in its infrastructure in the near future,” he said.

“Burma needs its own people to be skilled in understanding the geophysics side of resource exploration and environmental management in order to work with the companies that will go into its markets.

“In this way, I believe there are opportunities here to help Myanmar get back on its feet.”

A series of surveys, carried out by the trio in the area during the past decade, have revealed swathes of electrically conductive material beneath the soil.

Cundall believes the location and depth of the material matches eyewitness testimonies collected during years of research.

Spitfires buried in crates

The aircraft are thought to have been shipped to RAF bases before being buried, un-assembled, in their crates.

Having signed an agreement with the Myanmar government permitting him to survey and excavate the site last month, he hopes a final round of negotiations will allow the dig to take place in January 2013.

Since 1974, Cundall has tracked down and excavated Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster Bomber across Britain.

“Finding the right people to support me has been one of the most important aspects of this project,” he reflected.

“The help that Roger and Adam have given me has been invaluable and has helped bring me close to writing the final chapter in this 20-year search.

“I am looking forward to returning to Mynamar and hope to bring these legendary warbirds back to the UK.”

UK Foreign Office officials have offered to meet the group when they arrive in Burma as part of a team of conflict archaeologists, funded by production company Wargaming.

“When we learned of David’s long quest to track down the Spitfires, we reached out to support him,” said Victor Kislyi, of the company.

“We want to not only recover the planes if they are there, but also help tell the story of the air war in Burma.”

Tracy Spaight, the Director of Special Projects for Wargaming and a frequent companion on Cundall’s trips to Burma, will recount the inside story of the project on a blog aimed at giving greater exposure to the Burma Campaign, which claimed more than 200,000 lives between 1942 and 1945.

The project has been at the centre of some controversy this year. In April, Prime Minister David Cameron discussed repatriating the planes during diplomatic discussions with Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Enthusiasts subsequently voiced concerns that outside parties would take ownership of the planes, which are thought to be worth around £1.5 million each.

A dedicated Facebook page, called David Cundall Should get to Keep the Spitfire HE Spent Time Finding, was swiftly created. It has been inundated with offers of support for the project.

A photo of a geophysic graph showing electrical conductivity through various colours
Results of an electromagnetic survey at the site in Burma, led by Dr Clark and Dr Booth in 2004, Red areas indicate the highest conductivities, suggestive of buried metal located up to 10-15 metres underground
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