Not many weapons define a battle and symbolize the defiance and triumph of a nation. But the Supermarine Spitfire, the iconic fighter of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, is one of those weapons. Designed to carry a then-unheard of eight Browning .303 machine guns, and having a wing with an elliptical planform that was murder to manufacture but provided optimum lift over drag (not to mention, striking beauty), the Spitfire stands nearly alone in world history. It’s one of the few war machines ever to have inspired a theatrical film.
The machine was not only beautiful and historic, but pilots found it was perfectly balanced and a joy to fly. A German ace, asked what Hermann Göring could do for him, earned the fat Nazi’s lifelong enmity by flippantly asking for a squadron of Spitfires. (If anyone in the RAF ever asked for Messerschmitts, history didn’t record the quip).
But after the war, before they were “vintage,” Spitfires simply were “old,” and most of the thousands made — 21,000, in fact — wound up being melted down to become cooking pots in dreadful British kitchens, and cast pistons in dreadful British cars. While many have been restored in recent years, and more are flying today than 10 years ago, there still aren’t three dozen airworthy examples. That could change.
The Telegraph newspaper is reporting that the very obsolescence that condemned so many Spitfires to the smelters may, paradoxically, have saved up to 20 of them. What’s more, the preserved Spits are the early Mk II model — many of today’s flying Spits are later marks, less associated with the desperate days of the war’s early years. The obsolete Spits, still in their shipping crates, were buried deep in bomb craters in Burma. A recent rapproachement between Britain and Burma has made it possible for the UK to recover, and possibly restore, the fighters.
The story begins with one man — a farmer.
David Cundall, 62, spent 15 years doggedly searching for the Mk II planes, an exercise that involved 12 trips to Burma and cost him more than £130,000.
When he finally managed to locate them in February, he was told [Prime Minister David] Cameron “loved” the project and would intervene to secure their repatriation.
Mr Cundall told the Daily Telegraph: “I’m only a small farmer, I’m not a multi-millionaire and it has been a struggle. It took me more than 15 years but I finally found them.
”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 Spitfire is so associated with the Battle of Britain in the mind’s eye that most people don’t know that the rival Hawker Hurricane, built to the same RAF specification with the same engine and armament, was the numerically-predominant fighter during the Battle of Britain.
Even the Luftwaffe opposition fell under the mystique of the elegant Spitfire, with Germans shot down by Hurricanes insisting that Spits had done it — something the irritated Hurricane pilots termed “Spitfire snobbery.”
Whether Mr Cundall’s planes are in good order or not is the big question. He thinks they will be:
“They were just buried there in transport crates,” Mr Cundall said. “They were waxed, wrapped in greased paper and their joints tarred. They will be in near perfect condition.”
But that’s what the team that recovered an abandoned Lockheed P-38 from a Greenland glacier thought, too. The machine was badly crushed; the restoration took many years and millions of dollars. Given that 67 years have elapsed since the Burma Spitfires were buried, it’s quite likely that water, that relentless promoter of corrosion, has gotten inside.
Still, the machines are going to be recovered; and even though Her Majesty’s Government has been instrumental in negotiating the recovery with the Burmese junta, they are not asserting any claim on the salvaged planes. With a little luck, Mr Cundall might get the £130,000 he’s spent on the project back (an airworthy Spitfire is an expensive thing: from a low of one to a high of four million dollars).