Achtung! Spitfires

spitfire

ACHTUNG! SPITFIRES or David Cameron’s Burmese daze.

For a number of years the Kent brewer Shepherd Neame have run an advertising campaign for their eponymous real ale, which gleefully takes up the iconography of the Spitfire and those nationalistic backward looking clichés that often accompany coverage of relations with Europe and particularly Germany in the British tabloid press.  In particular after pointing out that Shepherd Neame Spitfire is “Downed all over Kent-  just like the Luftwaffe,” the campaign adds that the beer represents “the Bottle of Britain”- and “no Fokker comes close,”…

At which point I pause and apologise to anyone who finds such material a nationalistic cliché in questionable taste, playing to a stereotypical view of Germany and German people, gratuitously harking back to the Second World War.  It is just that the word “Spitfire” has a tendency to do strange things to the judgement and detachment of the English, perhaps including, as we shall see, even British Prime Ministers.

I am inclined to suspect that it is this cultural shorthand and flashbacks to black and white war films like “Reach for the Sky” and “The Dambusters,” teenage years reading “Commando” comic books and folk memories of the 1966 World Cup Final, which lie at the root of this whole strange affair of the alleged Spitfires buried on a remote airfield in Burma in 1945 and why sections of the UK media have become so excited by it.

Normally such press stories might represent simple media curio; a space filler on a slow news day.  What sets this story apart is the scale and tone of that media attention, the way the story has been picked up around the world and the way that media coverage has discussed the history and archaeology of this purported site.  It is for those reasons that I suggest the archaeological community, particularly those of us who take an interest in the Archaeology of Conflict, need to take stock of this story.  We need to ask where the story has come from and how it has captivated the media in a way which other archaeological hunts do not, however apparently important or interesting the subject and what it says about how the media and politicians view and use what we do as archaeologists.

So let’s begin by deconstructing the two “Daily Telegraph” articles which seem to have kicked all this off.  The paper published a general news report which you can find at…

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9203822/Spitfires-buried-in-Burma-during-war-to-be-returned-to-UK.html

…and the much better written background piece in the travel section here…

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/burma/9204921/British-farmers-quest-to-find-lost-Spitfires-in-Burma.html

In accordance with best archaeological practice context is all.  In this case the context for the sudden publicity for the “Burma Spitfires” is that the story came out on a slow news day, when British Prime Minister David Cameron was just back from a visit to the Far East and Burma.  Most cogently Cameron had been criticised, not just for chartering a Boeing 747 from Atlas Air, an airline owned by the Angolan State Oil Company which was once criticised by the IMF, rather than from a British airline, but also for being out of the UK during the Government’s PR disaster of…   pastytaxgate/fuelpanicgate/grannytaxgate/whatnewPRdisasterafflictsthecoalationtodaygate…you can take your pick of current government bad press.  All of which meant that seen from a Government public relations point of view there was a need to provide a positive story about the tour to accompany the photo opportunity with Aung San Suu Kyi.

As we have seen, the Telegraph carried this story in two forms; the general news report which got most attention and the more comprehensive profile piece relating to Mr David Cundall the Lincolnshire Farmer who was behind the early work on the alleged Spitfire burial site, suggesting the story had been prepared in advance and was then given a news spin to lead into the profile.  There was even a posed portrait shot of Mr Cundall which had clearly been taken for publicity purposes.

The majority of the quotes also seem to be sourced to Mr Cundall.  However, the original articles carry quotes from a new player in this story, Steve Boultbee Brooks.  Mr Brooks is a commercial property investor [one of the top twenty in Britain according to a “Daily Telegraph” list] and co-founder with his brother of Boultbee, a company with a property portfolio of over 1 million square feet of commercial property and which also retains a premier league public relations company, Edelman’s.

Mr Brooks portrays himself as something of an adventurer. He was the first man to fly a Helicopter Pole to Pole and is not above a bit of self-publicity for his adventures as we can see from his web presence and TV documentaries [http://www.poletopole.tv/main.html].  He also operates the Boultbee Flight Academy which can teach you to fly- guess what- Spitfires…

Interestingly enough, Mr Brooks lives in Oxford just up the road from Witney which is David Cameron’s constituency.

Pulling all this together it seems Mr Brooks used his financial muscle and PR company, to get the ear of the PM.   Thus giving a Lincolnshire Farmer, on a possibly quixotic quest to find lost Spitfires access he would normally only dream of-  a polite form letter from the PM’s office would be the most Mr Cundall could normally expect.

However the publicity came about the result is “Trebles all round!” as “Private Eye” would say: Cameron looks good- with the Number 10 Press Office getting a positive story coming out of the controversial Burma trip, associating the Prime Minister with saving possibly the most potent British Icon of the 20th century, the Spitfire.  Meanwhile Mr Cundall and Mr Brooks get positive publicity for their project striped across the international print and broadcast media which you could not buy.

OK, I admit that is a conspiracy theory, but we have to ask where is this drip feed of teasing non-information coming from?

Such stories often get put out for one of two main reasons.  A political operation is looking to leverage positive headlines amid a “The Thick of It” style “omni-shambles;” the PR equivalent of a magician employing misdirection to hide mechanics of the trick; or the project concerned is looking for investors or a TV documentary deal if one is not already in place.  In this case “the Daily Mail” claims Number 10 is indeed involved quoting that fabled dispenser of information [and smokescreens?] the “Downing Street Source”…

“A Downing Street source said that Mr Cameron had secured an agreement from the Burmese president to help Britain excavate the aircraft in a joint heritage project.

‘The Spitfire is arguably the most important plane in the history of aviation, playing a crucial role in the Second World War.

‘It is hoped this will be an opportunity to work with the reforming Burmese government to uncover, restore and display these fighter planes and get them gracing the skies of Britain once again,’ they said.

 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2129520/The-new-Battle-Burma-Find-20-buried-Spitfires-make-fly.html#ixzz1sIJpe0xj

Ignoring the question of just how high up the list of priorities of the Burmese Government twenty Spitfires buried in 1945 actually are compared to the prospect of EU sanctions being eased [and begging the question “If this is a “joint heritage project” where are English Heritage, The RAF Museum and the Ministry of Defence’s own archaeologists of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation in all this?”], the clearest fact in this ever changing mirage of a story is that the story changes even within the articles in one newspaper, let alone within the hearsay on the various aviation forums which are discussing this story.

For example there are three distinct reasons put forward to explain this alleged disposal…

  1. the aircraft were buried to avoid capture during a threatened invasion,
  2. they were buried as surplus to requirements and to avoid their being used by third parties such as the potentially left wing post war Burmese Government,
  3. they were buried because they were obsolete in the age of jets.

But none of these reasons stack up.

1. The Japanese Burma Area Army couldn’t invade Burma in the Summer of 1945 as it was already there! It fact it was in such a state of collapse it might as well have tried to invade Croyden, [or David Cameron’s Witney]. During the actual Japanese invasion of Burma the RAF in South East Asia did not even have Spitfires in theatre. The front line fighter was the Brewster Buffalo with a few Hurricanes and the P40’s of the Flying Tigers.

2. Yes military stuff did get buried in dumps at the end of the war [we dug a small one on our RAF Barrage Balloon site at Shooters Hill South East London], but it was not buried intact in the methodical way it is described here, unwanted material was usually bulldozed, crushed, burned or some combination of the three.  Secondly if you want to keep someone from using something you don’t bury it intact-  there are very simple ways of dealing with unwanted aeroplanes which are a lot quicker and a lot less effort that burying them.  Driving a tank or bulldozer over/into them is a good method and even if you don’t have a handy vehicle to do your own version of “Monster Truck” there are less spectacular, but just as effective, ways to do it.   The Lt Col “Paddy” Blair Mayne of the SAS famously tried to rip out the instrument panels of Luftwaffe aircraft bare handed and petrol and a match is quite effective too- see the fall of France scenes in the film “Battle of Britain.”  Beside which, as we shall see, the Burmese ended up flying Spitfires anyway.

3. The idea that Spitfires were scrapped in 1945 because they were obsolete in the age of the jet is nonsense. Spitfires flew operationally with the RAF until 1954 when a Photo Reconnaissance Mark XIX Spitfire flew the last operational sortie from Singapore.  The end of the war saw a need for a reduced quantity of the aircraft of all types, but that was about saving money and resources.

As to various cases of military vehicles or aircraft which were apparently buried and have since been recovered? As discussed above, rubbish, debris and vehicle and aircraft parts were indeed bulldozed to clear sites, but, as far as we know, not with the intention of recovery and not twenty feet down covered with planks of teak or anything else. It was a case of out of sight out of mind; except to the modern aviation collectors who are busy trying to dig all the good airfield dumps in East Anglia as I write. In that context it is no more than wishful thinking to use the odd tank on the South Downs…

[ http://www.findonvillage.com/0959_more_on_the_tank_on_our_downland.htm ]

…or even the recent and very public, burial of redundant and stripped out, Royal Australian Air force F1-11 bombers in a municipal landfill… [http://www.couriermail.com.au/questnews/ipswich/raaf-base-amberley-f-111-fighter-jets-end-up-on-swanbank-landfill-site-near-ipswich/story-fn8m0yo2-1226204896564]

… as supporting evidence for twenty plus crated Spitfires in Burma.

Indeed, in the face of countless airfields, quarries and mines all over the world suggested as the site of the burial of everything from Harley Davidsons to Jeeps, tanks and even complete Lancaster bombers- many of which find their way to the desks of the Archaeologists at the Defence Infrastructure Organisation- I am not aware of any instance where such a site has been researched, verified, excavated and published. Believe me; along with many colleagues I would love to find one.

None of this is to say aircraft were not disposed of in South East Asia.  Indeed, after World War Two tens of thousands of aircraft were broken up for recycling all over the world, some fresh from the factory.  It is just that it was normally done simply and in the open where aircraft were parked up in massed lines on airfields waiting for the scrapping crews, re-issue to units, or sale into the arms market.  Just think of the famous “Desert Boneyard” the US Air Force Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Centre [AMARC] at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, repeated from Scotland to Australia

In fact and directly pertaining to this case, the Burmese Air Force did actually end up flying ex RAF Spitfires which they bought off the Israeli’s once the Israeli Air Force had finished with them; the Israeli’s themselves having at one time been flying versions of both the Spitfire and the Me 109- you really could not make this up but that is the international arms trade for you. The serial numbers and fate of the Burmese aircraft concerned are here…

http://www.aeroflight.co.uk/waf/aa-eastasia/burma/burma-af-aircraft.htm

…most are listed “fate unknown.”

These Burmese Spitfires could even be one origin for the story of crated Spitfires- a case of “Burmese Whispers…”

Faced with such whispers we need to discuss how they gain currency.  In fact the answer is relatively simple.  We are in the realm of that staple of popular culture, the conspiracy theory and in order to work a conspiracy theory has to have just enough credibility to make the audience think it could possibly be true.  The process is well understood and it works like this.  You begin with “Facts.”

In the film version of that great conspiracy thriller [if not great piece of literature] “The Da Vinci Code” Tom Hanks escapes through London in tandem with Audrey Tautou, dodging Opus Dei assassins and albino monks insisting “I’ve got to get to a library fast!”

Like author Dan Brown, director Ron Howard recognised that to get people to believe such a nonsensical plot and dialogue like the line quoted above, you have to introduce enough [selective] “facts,” that is evidence which might turn up in an objective source such as a library, to enable an audience who want to believe anyway, to suspend their disbelief.

That is what is happening here.  If we compare the Burma Spitfires story with another buried Spitfires story, this time from the town of Oakey in Queensland, Australia [http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/aviation/fact-or-fable-hunt-is-on-for-buried-spitfires/story-e6frg95x-1225995654752] we see a number of  “facts” in common with the Burma story;

  • the genuine disposal of surplus aircraft at the end of World War Two,
  • “eyewitnesses” who can never quite tie down locations or details and…
  • a whiff of conspiracy with “the authorities” covering up what really happened.

The audience for these stories is primed to believe because we would love it to be true that a cache of pristine airworthy iconic aircraft types such as Spitfires, Lancasters, B17’s or Mustangs, exists, forgotten, somewhere off a runway in East Anglia/the mines of Queensland/the jungles of South East Asia, waiting only for our heroes to resurrect them and form a squadron fly past over Buckingham Palace on Battle of Britain day.

To accomplish the “rescue” we side with our heroes working against the odds; in this case the political situation in Burma, United Nations sanctions and the deadline of this year’s Monsoon and able to interpret the “evidence” which everyone else has of course dismissed or ignored because they don’t understand or believe it in the way only our heroes can.

For example…

  • they have evidence from a respected group “veterans” who “would not lie” and who were “eyewitnesses” and so must be believed.
  • We also have ostensibly credible historical circumstances [or rather several versions of the historical circumstances, but that does not matter it is all historical record which can be checked and spun].
  • We have visual evidence- The Daily Telegraph article includes a photograph of “A Spitfire being prepared for burial in Burma” and the camera does not lie.
  • Finally there is the hook of the on-going “mystery” and the promise of an exciting conclusion to come [albeit one without albino monks, or even Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle since 1945].

However, what is also clear is that while enough circumstantial evidence and statements purporting to be evidence have been offered to make the Number 10 Press Office and the wider media run the story, absolutely no hard evidence has been offered to verify the story.

What is conspicuously lacking is the kind of evidence to turn an entertaining plot, and expedition PR, into genuine research…

  • There are no quoted extracts from a Squadron Operational Records Book recording the disposal.
  • There are no shipping or movement orders let alone instruction from the Air Ministry or South East Asia Command [quoting Mountbatten is simply name dropping- his main concern was always ensuring his place in history, not the disposal of surplus Spitfires].
  • Neither has anyone confirmed the serial numbers of aircraft “missing” from the SE Asia inventory after August 1945 which might be candidates for burial like this [the Spitfire historians are looking].
  • Finally there are no named units or witnesses who are verifiable against RAF or US Army records and war diaries.

Meanwhile there is no hint of standard archaeological research being undertaken on the ground either…

  • there is no suggestion of the whereabouts of the spread or mound of thousands of cubic feet of displaced earth removed to bury the crates- a 3D landscape survey with Total Station and some soil cores could help sort that out.
  • Neither is there any apparent attempt to tie this alleged activity to the known topography, layout and buildings of the site including the rubbish dumps which will genuinely have existed.

Added to which the photograph published in “The Telegraph” is just that- a photograph showing what appears to be the tail of a Spitfire in some sort of frame or crate standing next to a wooden structure with some people working around it which could have been taken anywhere.  [By the way the two airfields actually involved are believed to be Myitkyina and Mingaladon.]  It is only the caption which gives it validity in the context of this story and begs the question if the Japanese are about to descend on you, or you are about to bury twenty brand new fighter aircraft, who is going to bother to take photographs of the process?  The picture needs provenance to have any credibility.  In addition the exposure and lighting seen on the frame suggests that far from disappearing into the depths of a transport crate the front of the aircraft, if present, is actually in bright daylight.

This is not simple scepticism for the sake of it, although a healthy scepticism when it comes to hype of any kind is, of course, no bad thing.  This is a potentially important story and the public whose interested is stimulated by the mention of an iconic element of our national heritage, deserves better; particularly as evidence for and against this story will be there in the real world in primary sources which can be properly evaluated.  The problem is most work on this kind of project takes place in the exotic jungle of the search room in the National Archive at Kew, or in the RAF Museum library and in the many other archive collections in the UK and abroad, all of which house the priceless, informative, but in media terms usually rather dull, collected works of wartime military and governmental bureaucracy.

Using such archives is not difficult.  You just have to be persistent in asking the right questions and know how to follow up leads.  For example, author Ben Macintyre’s work on the documents relating to “Operation Mincemeat” and the pre D-Day deception campaign has shown it is possible for a diligent popular historian to find new information about even the most secret activities of the War Office.  Which begs another question, if it is possible to find the operational details of “the Man Who Never Was” deception, an incredibly secret operation and even trace “Major Martin’s” true identity and the living model for his fictional girlfriend “Pam,” it ought to be possible to turn up information about twenty buried Spitfires, if they were ever actually buried.  After all, the fate of thousands of lives hardly depended on it and some airman clerk in the RAF’s logistics tail had to account for them.

Indeed, material from the period and location is in the public domain already. One aviation forum has published an account and photograph of an RAF Spitfire Squadron, 607 (County of Durham) Squadron, at its disbanding ceremony on the airfield at Mingaladon on 19 August 1945.  Unfortunately this undoubted fact does not aid our conspiracy plotline because the two aircraft whose serial numbers are seen in the image seem to have had a life after 1945 and were not buried or destroyed on the site.

In all this I am not knocking the use of anecdotal evidence from veterans or anyone else.  We have used it successfully on our project at Shooters Hill and it has enriched the research of many projects in the archaeology of modern conflict; but only if it is evidence from people where it can be proven they were where they said they were, when they said they were and where information is backed up by at least one additional source.   Otherwise it remains circumstantial hearsay, however evocative or beguiling.

Neither am I attacking research done by people who would not be defined as academic or professional historians, some of which is as good if not better that that done by so called professionals; often because there is a genuine passion for the subject.  It is simply that, as presented, this kind of report has the same validity in research terms as an anecdote at a party or a pub tip about the dead cert for the 2.30 at Newmarket.  More fundamentally, it ignores the golden rule of genuine research.  Discover what happened and what is there, don’t try to prove what you want to have happened and what you want to be there.

This is particularly true of tools such as archaeological geophysics.  Nowhere in the coverage of this case is there any published image from the project geophysics to back up the nonsense about the Ground Penetrating Radar showing how the aircraft are still packed in their crates. Mr Brooks appeared on the 16-April -2012 edition of the BBC 1 magazine programme, “the One Show” [BBC I-Player http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01glt6f item at 22 mins 35”[not currently available]] and in what was clearly a last minute addition to the programme, shoehorned into the running order, the poorly briefed presenters were able to elicit little more than the comment that “we haven’t seen them under the ground” and that Radar had spotted them “6 meters down.”

So is that six meters down or the six feet of the “Daily Mail” article? [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2129520/The-new-Battle-Burma-Find-20-buried-Spitfires-make-fly.html]    This discrepancy is just another of the many inconsistencies in the Burma Spitfires story as presented by the media.  However, this kind of confusion over depth takes us into “This is Spinal Tap” Stonehenge territory here [if you remember the set builder mistook feet for inches and presented the band with a Barbie and Ken sized Stonehenge stage set].  More seriously, errors in depth calculation are a potentially a serious problem for the would be excavators, their schedule and their safety.

There is in fact a company which specialises in looking for this kind of alleged burial site [as well as acting as agent for a manufacturer whose claims for what its range of equipment can achieve would put all other geophysical survey kit manufacturers out of business if they were true true]. Having worked on a UK aircraft crash site and been given one of that company’s “reports,” commissioned by the committed and well-meaning enthusiasts behind the project, I can confirm that the mass of an aero engine the survey identified was an iron service pipe.

That company may or may not be involved in this search; a separate press report on its activities says they have been working in Burma; but in this sense it does not matter who is responsible.  Once again the press is being allowed to treat Archaeological Geophysics as something which can work miracles, not as the professional tool requiring careful use and interpretation it actually is. You might get geophysics showing individual items of grave goods in the TV Drama “Bone Kickers,” of blessed memory, [or well packed and greased Mark XIV Spitfires 20 feet down in a newspaper article] but not in the real world.

In other words…

Note to Editors:  Watch archived editions of “Time Team” on 4OD.  Then ask yourself.  If the kind of geophysical survey equipment which can clearly image a Spitfire fuselage in a crate 20 feet below ground level exists why do the archaeologists spend so much time digging up geology?

There is a final media [and archaeological] failure in coverage of this story.  That is the failure to follow the money and ask who benefits?

I am sure both Mr Cundall and Mr Brooks really care about Spitfires.  Indeed when he bought the two seat Spitfire TR Mk. IX, G-ILDA for his flying school Mr Brooks went on the record saying “’I'm a great believer that things like this were built to be used, not to be museum pieces…The Spitfire is a terrific flying machine, it’s also British and should stay in Britain.’http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1172169/Spitfire-warplane-rusty-scrapyard-fetches-record-1-78m-auction.html

However, the media needs to ask why a property millionaire is investing £500,000 in this project.  Taking the “Dragons Den” view and pitching this story to a potential investor I would suggest it might be something to do with the potential return if significant Spitfire parts and particularly manufacturer’s engine plates were to be discovered.  That is because if you go to the right aviation company, such as the Isle of White based Airframe Assemblies, it is possible to clone a Spitfire.     [http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/hampshire/hi/people_and_places/newsid_8891000/8891591.stm].

You do not even need a complete aircraft, just a few original parts regardless of condition.  One case, MkIa Spitfire serial number P9374, soon to be seen at an air show near you, flys out of Duxford under a civilian registration G-MKIA having spent forty years under the sand on the beach at Calais where she crash landed in May 1940.  The cost of such a new/old Spitfire can be as much as £1.75 million, however Steve Vizzard of Airframe Assemblies told the BBC that once re-built you can sell on the aircraft for a premium of around half a million pounds. http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/hampshire/hi/people_and_places/newsid_8891000/8891591.stm

In other words, one re-built Spitfire could potentially recoup Mr Brooks’ entire investment and you do not even have to find a single complete aircraft crated or not.  That Squadron of rebuilt Spitfires flying past in review formation could represent a profit well into seven figures.

In conclusion; this story of crated and buried Spitfires is common urban myth being taken out for another trial canter by media outlets which are captivated by the portrayal of a “Wallace and Gromit” application of technology by Mr Brooks, Mr Cundall and their associates, coupled with an Indiana Jones style adventure in exotic places and above all by the magic word “Spitfire” and so are running with it.

Like all urban myths, this one fulfils a cultural need and as an urban myth the origins of this report and others like it, should be fully investigated and recorded as part of the anthropology of modern conflict.  In particular the reporting should investigate how the Prime Minister of Great Britain became publicly associated with such a shaggy dog story.

Field workers should take note, enjoy, but above all beware such stories for as Oscar Wilde might have put it- To lose one Spitfire is unfortunate.  To lose twenty Spitfires somewhere in the Burmese jungle stretches credulity.

There are however serious issues for the Archaeology of Modern Conflict in all this.

1. Strange and rare objects are found dumped or still in situ; the parts of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector excavated at Mametz on the Somme by Dr Tony Pollard and the Glasgow University Centre for Battlefield Archaeology and the subject of a “Time Team” documentary, is a case in point [The Somme’s Secret Weapon” Channel 4-14 April 2011].  However, such cases are archaeology, not material for recovery for the sake of recovery.

If the Burmese site was to prove to be genuine and a prudent archaeologist never says never, it would be archaeology of major importance; both in terms of the material culture of war in late World War Two and in demonstrating that those urban myths might contain a kernel of truth.

As such it should not be yet another subject of private excavation using JCB Limited’s “big yellow trowel” to rip aircraft or aircraft parts out of the ground without proper archaeological recording and publication, except perhaps a documentary on the History Channel.  In particular the likely subsequent disposal of finds to the private market for a potentially large profit is counter to ethics and best practice in heritage conservation and archaeology as well as the spirit and possibly the letter of various aspects of UK legislation and International conventions on the recovery and export of Government property and culturally important heritage items.

That alone suggests that were this story to prove to be even in part accurate, the expedition should be taken seriously by the mainstream conflict archaeology community which should engage with the project and assist in ensuring the work is properly recorded, reported and published.

That is the fundamental point.  As currently configured, if Mr Brooks and Mr Cundall do not find anything under their Burmese airfield except scrap and monsoon mud, they might regard their project as a failure and a waste of money.  Looked at archaeologically, properly researched, recorded and published they will have undertaken an archaeological research project which retains value, albeit by proving in this case, a negative.

2. It is because over the past forty years mainstream archaeology has not taken the desire of people in the wider world to value and excavate such aircraft related sites seriously that we are now playing catch up over such issues.  A problem highlighted by the fact that, for example, there are now probably no Mark I or Mark II, Battle of Britain period, Spitfires left in the UK mainland archaeological record. The available crash sites have all been “excavated” without recording and items from digs claiming to be pre the 1986 “Protection of Military Remains Act,” which imposed a licencing system for military aircraft excavations in the UK, are available on E-Bay.

It is ironic that the story of the “Burma Spitfires” gained media traction on the same day it was announced that a very rare, Grade 2* listed World War One Hanger at RAF Yatesbury near Calne in Wiltshire is faced with demolition because it has fallen through the gaping cracks in British heritage protection law [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-17702364].  In that context I would argue we should be taking stock of where we stand regarding aviation archaeology and resolving to bring interested parties together to expend our limited and precious resources, as well as to employ the research talent which exists in both the professional and vocational sectors, on understanding and saving what is real and what can be saved for the future in a genuine “Archaeology of Aviation.”

We should not be indulging a gloriously wild treasure hunt dazzled by the image of restoring a captivating national icon, of which many examples are still airworthy and visible to the public, not least in the Royal Air Force’s own Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.  Mr Cundall’s £150,000 and Mr Brooks’ quoted £500,000 could be far better spent on really significant aviation heritage, far rarer than a Spitfire and much closer to home.

Finally I should add I write this as someone who loves the sight and sound of Spitfires- we share an anniversary- the Spitfires first flight and my birthday [albeit some years later] and Shepherd Neame Spitfire is my pint of choice back home in east Kent-  which is more or less where we started…

…except there is now a postscript to the story

Just as I finished the final draft of this article the Daily Telegraph published a further news story regarding the Burma Spitfires under the by-line of Neil Tweedie, and Victoria Ward [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/9228910/Its-Spitfires-at-dawn-in-Burma.html  26 April 2012].

Headlined “It’s Spitfires at dawn in Burma” the article detailed a serious falling out between Mr Brooks and Mr Cundall over the conduct of the project and in particular a financial memorandum of understanding issued by Mr Brooks and tying the project to another Brooks company,  Spitfire Display Limited [Company Registration No.: 06878273].

Mr Cundall is quoted by the Telegraph as saying…

“I had an hour with him [Boultbee Brooks]. He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no. He had all the information he wanted to make up his mind. People tell me he was on television making claims that it is his project. Last Sunday he said if we didn’t come to an agreement, the Prime Minister would close the door. I can do it without Brooks, I can do it without anybody. I’ve been digging up aircraft for 35 years. I’ve pushed the boat out financially. I’ve struggled like hell to keep it going. I’ve dug up Burma before, and I don’t need them.”

For his part Mr Brooks said…

“I totally see why he [Mr Cundall] could be rather annoyed…I see that the letter could be misunderstood. We have therefore gone to some great lengths to explain that to him.

“We have got nothing against Mr Cundall. We do not want to push him off this team. We would love to be working with him, and we cannot understand how this wonderful situation is turning into such a ridiculous situation. It’s very sad.”

Meanwhile Mr Cundall is claiming intellectual property rights relating to the information gathered so far which Mr Brooks disputes to the extent he apparently denies any hard information has actually been handed over by Mr Cundall

“I would dispute that we got the information [from Mr Cundall]. He didn’t pass anything across to me. He assured me that he had the information, and I’ve taken him at his word.”

[faced with that revelation readers who have stuck with the story this far might well say “qu’elle surprise”].

It is all rather reminiscent of the plot of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” when Dr Jones is betrayed in the jungle by his old friend from MI6, “Mac” McHale, [played by Ray Winstone] who is now playing a devious Cold War game with the KGB.

Amid all this bad blood some interesting new information did come out.  Mr Cundall alleges Mr Brooks actually invoked the name of Prime Minister Cameron in an effort to pressure Mr Cundall to get onside.  It is also revealed that Brooks met Cameron at least once and…

“The millionaire was also allowed a ride home on the prime ministerial jet.”

… suggesting Prime Minister Cameron was far more closely involved in this project than first thought.

All the references to investors also makes clear that the objective of the operation is purely commercial as Mr Brooks says…

“It is a massive project, and it is between two nations that haven’t traded for 50 years. We think it is an opportunity that just can’t be passed off: to bring these machines back to England and get them flying again. We train pilots to fly Spitfires, we train engineers to build them, so yes, we would love to. We will keep this project on the road.”

While Mr Cundall has his own plans for the exploitation of the “find” which include a commercial deal with the Burmese and an agent in country on 20% commission.

We also find out the number of aircraft has risen to “60”- forget a squadron, that is enough to start your own air force!

Finally, in last echo of the Indiana Jones Movies the find is in jeopardy from rival factions.  It now seems that rather than the Nazi’s [“I hate those Guys!”] or KGB every would be Spitfire hunter in the world is about to descend on Burma, in an attempt to steal our heroes find; at least according to Mr Brooks.  It seems as if once more plucky but fated Brits will yet again discover that Prime Minister or no Prime Minister, the Union Flag no longer flies east of Suez and if the Burmeses Spitfires do ever fly again they could even be wearing US colours…

According to the Daily Telegraph Mr Brooks concludes…

  “The Brits had a real chance here to get ahead,…The Americans are really keen. The Israelis are really keen. There is talk of an Australian team that is very keen. What a terrible day this is when the Prime Minister has gone out and got a British team, we put a British team together, and then we squabble so much that we allow other nations to walk in and take the Spitfires from under our noses. We’re absolutely nuts, aren’t we?”

“Nuts?”- Yes, probably…

 

Written by Andy Brockman

Background:

Andy Brockman[ andyarchaeology@gmail.com ] is director of Operations Room Archaeology [the Op’s Room] and the Digging Dad’s Army Project and is a specialist in the Archaeology of Modern Conflict.  He has a particular interest in community based projects which involve research into archaeology within living memory and supports Operation Nightingale, a British Army initiative to use archaeology to help rehabilitate injured servicemen and women.

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