Spitfires to rise from the grave?

Spitfire MkIIA of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Red tape covers the ports from which the eight .303 Brownings would fire. Image source: unknown, sorry.

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.”

via Spitfires buried in Burma during war to be returned to UK – Telegraph.

Spitfire MkIIA. One of the greatest and most historically significant war machines in all recorded history. Image: ©2006 Military-Aircraft.org.UK. Used by permission.

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).

5 thoughts on “Spitfires to rise from the grave?

  1. Mick Kirkland

    If it possible to receive updates on this project, I would like to be on the mailing list.
    Mick Kirkland Newport Shropshire

  2. matthew troy iii

    Funny, about 38 years ago I was working for NYC Parks.
    An employee told me that large quantities of P-51’s were buried overseas after the war.
    He actually told me their location.
    At first I thought how cool, now I realize these warbirds might one day be found.
    Let’s hope so.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks for commenting! Since this article, a British Tomahawk (their name for the American-made Curtiss P-40) turned up still nearly in the condition it was left in, when the pilot bellied it in in the Western Desert 70 years ago.

      This is a fact that blows people away: more Spitfires and Mustangs are flying today than in 1970. Occasionally one is lost in a mishap (they’re a handful to fly, I guess) but every year a few more come out of decades-long rebuilds. Indeed, in 1970 there were no Jap Zeros or Me-109s with their original engines flying, and now there are. We live in amazing times.

  3. Geoff (1BATFASTARD)

    Hi All,
    Like you I would love more info but from what I can read between the lines from all the webb reports up untill 27-28/04/2012 is that Mr Cundall has done all the leg work (Over 15 Yrs) spent a considerable amount of money, even held consultation with the new goverment in Myanmar (Used to be BURMA) his backer (Allegedly) has basicly claimed it for himself with Mr Cameron. Not bothering to involve him in further negosiation on a higher level is disgusting.
    peole like Mr Cundall should be backed by our goverment not trod on and scraped off the bottom of their shoe,I think a petition should be got up to allow him first refusal as he already states he has an agreement in place already so he could of gone solo but instead used his head and it looks like greed has got in the way of a commonsense aproach (Allegedly) Or am I to cynical ?

    1. Hognose Post author

      I was reading some of those stories last night and couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. Now it’s 120 aircraft? There a billionaire involved? The UK and Burmese governments have signed off on some kind of dope deal that cuts Mr Cundall out? It just gets stranger and stranger. I fear it will end in disappointment for all. Our experience with the survival or buried treasures (or even the weapons caches that were buried in Europe to support a possible Resistance against Soviet invasion) hasn’t been good. If you just tell a bunch of low ranking soldiers to bury some crates in a hole you will not get crates buried with care in the first place.

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