Date: May 01 2012
This is a story of buried treasure, a map with X marking the spot and the race to recover untold riches. The treasure in this case is of the winged variety, some 60 Spitfires, maybe more, quite possibly in pristine condition, never flown in anger, interred in Burma at the end of the Second World War.
There are only three dozen Spits in flying condition around the world, commanding prices of £1.5 million ($A2.3 million) or more. So this is big money. And as with all tales of treasure-seeking, there is mistrust, manoeuvring and bad blood.
The story begins in August 1945 as Hiroshima and Nagasaki still smouldered. The war against the Japanese in Burma was suddenly truncated, leaving the British with vast quantities of war material too expensive to ship home. What to do, then, with some of the latest versions of the Spitfire, Griffon-engined Mark XIVs, still in their crates? Wary of leaving high-performance aircraft in a country with an uncertain future, Britain decided to bury them. As many as 120 Spitfires may have been disposed of in this way. There they have lain for 67 years, protected by tar seals and grease, steadily accumulating in value.
''Spitfires were ten a penny in 1945,'' says David Cundall. ''We built more than 20,000, and by the end of the war they were nearing obsolescence, thanks to the advent of jets.''
Cundall, 62, has devoted much of the past 16 years and a lot of money (''I stopped counting after £130,000'') to unearthing the Spitfires and restoring them to flying condition. The project has involved hundreds of hours of research and repeated visits to Burma, until recently run by a corrupt, dangerous military regime.
Cundall has endured mosquitoes and jungle heat in his search for the aeroplanes, many of which were buried around the old British airfields at Myitkyina and Mingaladon. ''There were also six non-crated Mark VIIIs,'' says Cundall. ''They are very rare and I believe were buried in a quarry.''
Then, in February, he finally struck gold. Geophysical returns combined with eyewitness testimony narrowed the search to specific points.
But to get the aircraft out Cundall needs money, about £500,000. That is where Steve Boultbee Brooks came in.
Boultbee Brooks, 47, is a self-confessed Spitfire lover. He is also very rich, the result of a career in property investing. In need of a backer, Cundall approached him. There was a meeting, an agreement in principle to proceed and a fairly rapid falling-out.
Cundall was presented with a ''memorandum of understanding'', which effectively placed his activities in Burma under the control of Boultbee Brooks's company, Spitfire Display Limited.
Boultbee Brooks then took off for Burma to lobby support from David Cameron, who was making a landmark visit to the country as part of its slow reintroduction into the international community. The Spitfire story provided Number 10 with a stirring example of future Anglo-Burmese co-operation. Cameron met Boultbee Brooks and duly climbed on the bandwagon, waxing lyrical about Spitfires gracing the skies. Cundall says he knew nothing of the trip until contacted by Boultbee Brooks from Burma. He was also appalled at the terms of the memorandum, calling them an insult.
''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 dug up Burma before, and I don't need them.''
Boultbee Brooks says he did inform Cundall of the Burma visit in advance and the memorandum did not represent a contract.
''I totally see why he [Cundall] could be rather annoyed,'' says Boultbee Brooks. ''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 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.''
Cundall has already moved on, however. He has secured new backing from an anonymous investor, who wants to buy all the Spitfires recovered from Burma. Under the deal, Cundall and the Burmese government each net 40 per cent of the sale proceeds, while Cundall's agent in the country gets 20 per cent.
''He [the backer] wants to buy all the aeroplanes,'' says Mr Cundall. ''He's putting half a million pounds into the project for me to go over, dig them up, and I will then sell them to him. The Burmese have agreed to sell their share to him. My agents have agreed to sell their share to him, at a fair and reasonable price. Between £1.25 and £1.5 million.''
Undeterred, Boultbee Brooks is proceeding with his own recovery project. ''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.''
The race is on. Cundall says he has given the millionaire detailed information about the whereabouts of aircraft so far detected, which should not be acted upon because it is his intellectual property. Boultbee Brooks says: 'He didn't pass anything across to me. He assured me that he had the information, and I've taken him at his word.''
Time is running out. The monsoon breaks at the beginning of June and the ground in Burma will be so waterlogged as to be unworkable until the end of the year. A temporary holiday on sanctions against Burma means the recovery work should soon be deemed lawful. Cundall is counting on his ties with the Burmese, cultivated over many years, to see him through. But Boultbee Brooks is obviously not a man to back down at the first fence.
''The Brits had a real chance here to get ahead,'' he laments. ''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.''
But then, the lure of treasure has always driven men mad.
The Daily Telegraph, London
This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.
[ Canberra Times | Text-only index]