1 July 2013
WYG Principal Archaeologist, Martin Brown and the team investigating the case of the “buried Spitfires of Burma”, presented their findings at an event on 19 June 2013 at RAF Museum Hendon.
In the autumn of 2012, global video game company Wargaming.net, engaged a world-class team of geophysicists, historical researchers, and archaeologists to travel to Yangon International Airport, the former RAF Mingaladon, to “ground-truth” the legend of the lost Spitfires. The team were clear from the outset that this was not a treasure hunt and that the historical, archaeological and landscape context of the project and of any buried Spitfires was a vital part of the final story; as their Director of Special Projects said ‘History is in the DNA of our company’.
WYG’s Martin Brown’s role was to monitor ground investigations and to ensure whatever was found, whether Spitfires or bricks, was recorded to an accepted industry standard. This meant that the findings are on record and any claims made can be tested against them. Martin was lucky to have a very skilled JCB driver, some excellent colleagues and enormously helpful local partners in Shwe Taung Por Holdings and the Myanmar airport authorities.
Martin Brown said: ‘Despite the limitations of working on the edge of an international airfield and in tropical conditions, it was possible to test the results of both the geophysical surveys and the historical research against the legends of the buried Spitfires. The results were fascinating.’
He added: ‘While no Spitfires were found, the excavated trenches showed areas of minimal disturbance in some cases but elsewhere there had been significant earthmoving, consistent with either post-War reconstruction or previous local attempts to investigate the stories.’
The findings reported that this area had major structural timbers, bricks and fragments of wartime pierced steel plank that were used as temporary road on the airfield following its recapture in 1945.
The trenches also showed that the underlying blue clay was at between 1.5m to 2m depth and that it had not been disturbed. However, a final trench included remains of the old road running north from Yangon (Rangoon), which features in at least one veteran’s account of seeing crated aeroplanes at RAF Mingaladon (the modern airport).
Those aircraft are now understood to be Auster reconnaissance planes, delivered to the country in 1946, rather than the Spitfires of legend. As these aircraft were shipped on around the Far East, their disappearance from Mingaladon, at a time when there was major earthmoving to rebuild the airfield, may have helped give birth to the legends of burials.
The soils around the road had metal fragments that were probably bomb splinters and this is consistent with the regular Allied raids on the airfield when it was in Japanese hands. Next to the road was a ditch that had remains of sandbags in it. This suggests that the roadside ditch was converted into a trench by building up sandbagged parapets. This would have offered some protection during an air-raid but could also have been used for airfield close defence.
The results of the archaeological work support the historical analysis that strongly suggests the legend of the buried Spitfires to be exactly that, a legend.
Whilst the team didn’t discover aircraft, the archaeological evidence provided an evaluation of the ground at Mingaladon. Perhaps more importantly the work undertaken provided hard evidence of the story of landscape change and of men doing dull, back-breaking but potentially life-saving tasks like digging trenches. These have both served to enhance the final analysis of the expedition and to add a human dimension to the stories of beautiful, iconic aircraft and of a hellish, jungle conflict.
A video of the evening’s expert presentations can be found online here titled ‘Warbirds into Woks’. The video enables viewers to follow in detail the reasons why experts concluded that the story of buried Spitfires in Burma is a captivating urban myth because the Royal Air Force had neither the Means, nor the Motive to undertake the burial.