Spitfire : Wiki Commons
Global video game company, Wargaming.net announced today that they believe their team of archaeologists, historians and scientists has solved the mystery of the “buried Spitfires of Burma” which has intrigued and captivated the world since the first rumours of buried aircraft began to spread among servicemen returning from South East Asia in 1946.
CEO, Victor Kisly, said: “Wargaming has always supported military history, both in our games and in the real world. We chose to support the Spitfire project because we found the story fascinating.
We wanted to be a part of this unique archaeological investigation of an enduring mystery – whether we found planes or not. And we are delighted our team has shown how good research can help tell a great story about not just the warplanes themselves, but the people who flew, maintained and care about them to this day.”
In the Autumn of 2012, 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.
Wargaming’s research team had already undertaken an exhaustive independent desktop study of documentary sources at the United Kingdom National Archives, the Royal Air Force Museum, and other archival collections in the months prior to the departure of the expedition. That investigation failed to locate any evidence to support the arrival or the burial of crated Spitfires, but did find extensive evidence for the disposal of surplus aircraft by scrapping them in situ or passing them on to third parties such as the French and Royal Indian Air Forces.
But at the same time, witness testimony suggested that servicemen in the bars and canteens of South East Asia had heard rumours about buried Spitfires as early as 1946, although none of the surviving witnesses had actually seen the burials taking place. We had a mystery.
As the project’s Lead Archaeologist Andy Brockman explained, “We wanted to investigate the legend of the lost Spitfires which has captured the imagination of the world. Ultimately both we on the research team and Wargaming.net, who gave us a completely free rein to follow the evidence, realized that archive work, however comprehensive was not enough and we could only solve the mystery by also investigating it on the ground in Burma.”
In January 2013, the team began fieldwork at former RAF Mingaladon, now the site of Yangon International Airport.
The geophysics team led by Dr. Roger Clark of the University of Leeds and Dr. Adam Booth of Imperial College London surveyed more than 52,000 square metres of Yangon International Airport to a depth of up to ten metres.
Following the geophysical survey, the archaeology team, under the leadership of Martin Brown of the international multi-disciplinary consultancy WYG, and supported by Field Archaeologist Rod Scott, completed a detailed landscape survey of the site, using period documents, plans and air photographs to reconstruct the landscape of the airfield as it had existed in 1945/1946 down to the bomb craters caused by the allied bombers who blasted the runways and dispersal areas at Mingaladon in advance of the British assault on Rangoon in May 1945.
The team then dug four trenches at locations suggested by UK-based Spitfire hunter David Cundall. In all the trenches WW2 era archaeology was located at less than three metres depth below the modern ground surface, while below the WW2 era archaeology natural alluvial clay estimated to pre-date human occupation of the site lay undisturbed.
The Wargaming team now believes, based on clear documentary evidence, as well as the evidence from the fieldwork, that no Spitfires were delivered in crates and buried at RAF Mingaladon during 1945 and 1946.
Most significantly, the archival records show that the RAF unit that handled shipments through Rangoon docks – 41 Embarkation Unit – only received 37 aircraft in total from three transport ships between 1945 and 1946. None of the crates contained Spitfires and most appear to have been re-exported in the Autumn of 1946.
Moreover, the documents tell a story of appalling weather conditions at Mingaladon and shortages of everything from heavy equipment to timber and labour all of which we believe suggests it would be almost impossible that the Royal Air Force could have buried aircraft thirty feet deep in wooden crates even if it had wanted to do so.
Tracy Spaight, Wargaming’s Director of Special Projects, explained that “No-one would have been more delighted than our team had we found Spitfires. We knew the risks going in, as our team had spent many weeks in the archives and had not found any evidence to support the claim of buried Spitfires.
However, the team’s assessment was that even if there were no crated Spitfires, parts of Spitfires or other aircraft might well have been found, since Mingaladon was a major airfield occupied by three different Air Forces and hundreds of service people during WW2. Had Spitfires been found we were equipped to recover them using the best available technical expertise. And we would have done the work to the same high ethical and archaeological standards which we brought to the rest of the project.”
Brockman explained: “We approached the project as a CSI style police procedural looking for alleged missing persons – the Spitfires. We followed the clues in the documents, period maps, pictures and air photographs; we talked to surviving witnesses, and visited the ‘crime scene’ in order to turn our study in the archives into facts on the ground. As a result we believe that the legend of the buried Spitfires of Burma is just that: a captivating legend about a beautiful and iconic aircraft.”
Brockman added: “The documents and the ‘ground truthing’ provided by the field archaeology show, we believe, that the Royal Air Force had neither the Means, Motive nor the Opportunity to bury Spitfires at RAF Mingaladon at the end of the War.”
“But,” said Brockman, “some witnesses did see something. And we believe that, by following the story of the buried Spitfires of Burma from its apparent origins in 1945-1946, through its elaboration by word of mouth via the veterans and historic aircraft research networks in the intervening years, to its final manifestation as a full blown part of World War Two folklore in the present day, we have uncovered what lies behind the legend of the buried Spitfires. It is a fascinating and very human story and we look forward to sharing our full results shortly.”
“Our expedition to Myanmar took place at a historic moment in the country’s history,” added Tracy Spaight, “This expedition has been an unprecedented cooperative effort between an international team of experts and the people of Myanmar, facilitated by our local partners, STP, and with the background assistance of the UK and Myanmar government. Our team did good science, good history, and good archaeology – and we’re proud of what we accomplished.”
Wargaming – in association with Room 608, a New York based media production company – has finished principal photography on a feature-length documentary film about the Spitfire project, to be released early next year.
Spaight added with a smile: “The actual story of the Burma Spitfires is better than any legend, because it is by turns bizarre, fascinating and above all, it is true.”