Hunt begins for British Spitfires buried in Myanmar

LONDON Fri Jan 4, 2013 7:49pm GMT

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LONDON (Reuters) - A British farmer is heading to Myanmar to lead efforts to unearth more than 30 Spitfire fighter planes, 17 years after he first heard rumours they were buried under a World War Two airfield.

Among the 21-strong team accompanying flying buff David Cundall on Saturday will be Stanley Coombe, now in his early 90s, who was stationed in Myanmar at the end of the war and saw crates of Spitfires being buried under Mingaladon airfield.

Why 36 planes, or more, were buried is a source of much speculation. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a former British colony and was briefly held by Japan during World War Two.

After four years of brutal battles against the Japanese, the victorious British buried much of their inventory in 1945.

"I've met all the eyewitnesses and I believe they are telling me the truth. I think we will find perfectly preserved aircraft" Cundall, who believes the aircraft are buried at a depth of 10 metres, said on Friday.

"Because there is no oxygen at this depth there will be no corrosion," he said.

The propeller-driven, single-seat Spitfire is one of the most iconic aircraft in British history and played a decisive role in the Battle of Britain aerial war against German forces in 1940. Few functional Spitfires remain today.

The team's chief archaeologist, Andy Brockman, likened the project to a police mystery.

"We've got a crime scene, we've got a missing person, and we've got various strands of evidence," he said.

British rule in Myanmar eventually gave way to a military junta, leading to a cooling of ties with the West. However, relations have thawed in the last year as President Thein Sein has enacted political reforms.

British Prime Minister David Cameron met Thein Sein during a visit to Myanmar last year, where Cameron announced backing for the partial suspension of European Union sanctions on Myanmar. The Spitfires were also discussed.

Cundall is expected to receive 30 percent of any Spitfires found and said he will bring the aircraft back to Britain. The rest will go to his Myanmar agents and the Myanmar government.

Firms including WarGaming.com, JCB and Jaguar Land Rover are sponsoring the trip.

(Editing by Mohammed Abbas and Jason Webb)

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