x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Mystery over British Spitfires in Burma solved

The dream of finding a cache of Spitfires in Myanmar has been dashed, raising questions about the motivations behind the announcement of the discovery.

Illustration by Sarah Lazaovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazaovic for The National

Sometimes a piece of news makes the world feel like it has become a little worse for its arrival. Indeed, the beginning of works last month to demolish the former Hard Rock Café, Dubai's very own equivalent of a Victorian folly, is one such example. Quite why a gauche 1990s facsimile of New York City's Empire State Building should induce such feelings is another matter, but one can't help shake the sense that Dubai is a little worse off for the cafe's slow demise, even if the building in question had little architectural merit.

It was hard to suppress similar feelings earlier this week when, on the other side of the world, it was confirmed that the great "Burma Spitfire mystery" had been solved in the most definitive and least satisfactory way. There was, in fact, no mystery at all, because no British warplanes ever lay entombed in Myanmar.

For the past month, a group of archaeologists funded by Wargaming Limited (a Belarusian video gaming company), have spent their time poring over historical documents and a parcel of land inside the fences of Yangon International Airport. They were searching for what many believed were up to 36 Supermarine Spitfires, which had, according to legend and the sketchiest of eyewitness accounts, been buried at the end of the Second World War when the airport was still known as RAF Mingaladon. Reports also maintained that these planes might represent only a small fraction of a much bigger stash, like a mechanical equivalent of Xian's Terracotta Army, which resisted discovery until 1974.

The search had been made possible by an agreement struck between Thein Sein, Myanmar's president, and David Cameron, the British prime minister, during the latter's visit to the South-east Asian nation in April 2012 and was undertaken more in expectation than hope.

"It took 16 years to locate the planes buried in crates. We estimate there are at least 60 Spitfires buried and they are in good condition," a spokesperson for the search confidently told the Myanmar Ahlin newspaper last year. "This will be the largest number of Spitfires in the world and the excavation of these fighter planes will further strengthen relations between Burma and Britain."

One notes the absolute certainty of these comments and the neat segue into a discussion of improving trade links between a nation making some faltering steps towards democracy and another anxious to improve its distressed economy. This was, in other words, the perfect story delivered at the most opportune moment, both politically and historically.

Now, however, the Spitfire dream has died. Documentary evidence has confirmed that no Spitfires were imported into the country by Britain in the post-war period, meaning that none could have been buried at Myanmar's main airfield. The archaeologists will leave Myanmar empty-handed.

Close to 30 years after the "discovery" in April 1983 of the Hitler diaries, this might be the latter-day equivalent of that great literary fantasy. A ripping yarn that was, in the end, no more than that.

Echoing the journey of the fake diaries - which eventually spawned a best-selling book, a well-received TV series and an Academy Award-nominated film - an American production company is reported to have filmed a TV documentary about the failed Spitfire dig.

We know, of course, that there will be no happy ending in this production, but the journey itself might well be as delicious as the fantastic fable of those long-discredited diaries. It wouldn't seem far-fetched to suggest that a new Spitfire video game might also soon be developed by Wargaming Ltd.

The Second World War produced plenty of extraordinary tales of heroism as well as its fair share of incredible stories, which probably explains the largely unsceptical coverage of the likely success of the excavation before it began. Shame then that the Spitfire dig never took flight.

* Nick March