Something exciting is happening among the paddy fields and jungles of distant Burma, that land of ‘On the Road to Mandalay’ and the hilarious sitcom ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ – with its bewhiskered sergeant major, played so memorably by Windsor Davis. Some say that in its own way it is as thrilling as the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb, the greatest archaeological dig since that momentous discovery of Howard Carter’s in the Egyptian desert in 1922.
Whereas the treasures of the boy Pharaoh were of unknown quantity and value, this archaeological dig promises thirty-six items, each valued at £1.5m each and there are another twenty-four between two other locations, making a potential treasure trove of £60m. We are talking about sixty, boxed and never been opened, brand new Spitfires – that legendary victor of the Battle of Britain, the Mk XIV – the very latest version of the 20,000 built with their 2,000hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
What, I hear you say, are they doing there in the sodden soil of equatorial Burma? And why, after 68 years in that steaming land, is it thought possible that they might take to the skies again rather than be rusted and corroded out and fit only for the knacker’s yard? Well, it is a tale of imperial endeavour, both heroic and resolute.
The war to expel the Japanese from Burma was entering its final phase after the bloody last effort of the Japanese to crash through the borders of India at Imphal and Kohima had failed. Sixty spanking new Spitfires had been sent to reinforce XIV Army Corps’ last push under its brilliant commander, Field Marshal Bill Slim, Britain’s finest general of WWII. The Forgotten Army’s thousand-mile slog southwards through the jungles, from the borders of India to Rangoon, the Burmese capital, was over. Now it was southwards again through more jungles for another thousand miles to Singapore for the liberation of Malaya – except it wasn’t necessary. The atom bomb brought a sudden end to the war in the Far East. The advent of this devastating weapon convinced even the fanatical Japanese that the game was up.
So what to do with the Spitfires? It might have been sensible to bring them home to face the growing Cold War threat of the communists in Europe. But the decision was taken to leave them in Burma. Why was this? And why do so strange a thing as to bury them? Planes – even small ones – take some burying. And besides, they would be useless in that climate when they were disinterred. Why not hanger them?
It all goes back to the decision to wind down the empire. But it was to be a tidy, gracious end – not like the French, Dutch Belgium and Portuguese who chose, unsuccessfully, to fight. We were determined to leave regimes in place which were well disposed to us – regimes we could bolster if the need arose. How better than to leave a stash of state-of-the-art fighters that we could come back and fly for them. But don’t tell the locals they are there or where they are located: they might be tempted to have fun with them after we are gone. The temptation would be great. Hangers are obvious; graves are not.
We were deeply worried at that time that the whole of the East would fall to communism. Chairman Mao was close to victory in his war in China and Ho Chi Minh was close to evicting the French from Indo-China. Communism, worldwide, seemed to be on a roll.
The fighters had arrived in Burma in kit form, ready for assembly. Strange as it may seem, I know a little about these crated fighters because my father, a major in The Royal West African Frontier Force based in Ghana (then the Gold Coast), was responsible for receiving crated fighters bound for Egypt and the Eighth Army – the Desert Rats – in its desperate battle to keep Rommel’s Afrika Korp from taking the Suez canal. The fighters were assembled, flown eastward to British Nigeria, refuelled and flown further east to British Sudan. There, after further refuelling, they headed north towards threatened Cairo. (The reason they were sent round the great bulge of Africa and not on the much shorter route through the Mediterranean straight to Egypt was because German and Italian submarines were inflicting heavy losses at that time.)
My father told me of his amazement when pretty girl pilots turned up to ferry the fighters on their long and hazardous route to Egypt. Britain was well ahead of her enemies in recognising the value of the fair sex in making total war possible and aiding the war effort. The process had begun twenty-one years earlier in the Great War when Britain’s womanhood – the genteel types we saw in Downton Abbey – manned the munitions factories, drove the buses and did just about everything while their men were away at the front. This, more than anything, made their case unanswerable when at war’s end they demanded equal rights.
But returning to the Burma dig, the £60 million question remains: will the extraordinary measures taken to protect the delicate aero engines and other parts from the fetid climate of that region have been sufficient? They were wrapped in special greaseproof paper and the whole lot greased up to the eyeballs. Then the crates, made from some of the toughest woods known to man (jungle hardwood) were close to hermetically sealed. Finally, it was decided to bury them at the extraordinary depth of forty-feet – beyond, it was hoped, anything that the elements could throw against them, and that included monsoon rains. Amazingly, not only was the whole operation conducted on a strictly
‘need to know’ basis of secrecy, so that not a single Burmese knew of the burials, but precious few Brits did either and all of these have died. The net result is that no one knows for sure where the precious cargo is hidden. The information – kept always on a highly restricted basis – has been lost now in the mists of time of a departing empire. But the word is that the locations are former British airfields and the firm which has secured a deal with the Burmese government to search and excavate has employed special hi-tech earth penetrating gear to pinpoint the cache. We must hope they are successful and that one day we may see a mass formation of Spitfires swoop down the Mall over Buckingham Palace and amaze the crowds. What a sight that would be.
While on the subject of digs it will not be long before we know the results of forensic tests on the ‘king under the car park’. If it proves to be Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, we will know if Shakespeare has poisoned Richard’s reputation over a five-hundred-year period. The record shows that Richard did many enlightened things during his short two-year reign, and if the skeleton shows only a mild deformity, as initial observations have indicated, then the Bard will have been shown to be a liar – a propagandist for the usurping Tudors. He has given the game away by that extraordinary and bizarre claim in his play Richard III that dogs barked when Richard passed by. A wonderful playwright, we will readily admit – arguably the world’s greatest – but a lousy historian.
We have just reached the end of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Today we enter its 71st. I believe that of all the titanic battles of WWII, this was the one which determined its outcome. Though tiny in terms of the numbers of combatants involved, it was massive in high-tech: it did not get more massive in this regard for those times. Brilliant machines and brilliant fliers – on both sides – and a ground-breaking British structure of command and control. Without this system, which was put in place during the year which the much-maligned Chamberlain gained us after the Munich Pact, we would have lost the battle.
Churchill said that upon its outcome depended the survival of Christian civilisation and, indeed, the whole world. Lose it and we would all descend into “a new dark age made more sinister and protracted by the lights of perverted science”. He was surely right.
After the fall of France, Hitler sought peace with Britain. The war which his invasion of Poland had precipitated had been the one gamble which misfired. All the others – the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss (union) with Austria and the annexation of Czechoslovakia – had all succeeded, bloodlessly. He did not realise we had, at last, rumbled him and hereon would fight him. Hitler even entertained fanciful notions that as a fellow Teutonic power – one he hugely admired – we would join him in his crusade against Bolshevik Russia.
His plan to invade us was born of the lover’s pangs of anger and frustration: unrequited love they call it. Some in the Royal Navy have said that even if we’d lost the Battle of Britain they could still have sunk Hitler’s landing barges.
But we saw time and again as the war progressed how vulnerable surface ships were to air attack. After all, we crippled the Italian fleet at Taranto as did the Japanese the American at Pearl Harbour.
Interestingly, the Japanese commander said that they would never have thought of it but for what we did at Taranto. Then there was the loss of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales off Malaysia and the Bismark in the Atlantic.
Tirpitz also succumbed to aerial assault. No one doubts that had the Wermacht been able to make a landing in force it would have been game over for Britain.
After the debacle at Dunkirk, three months earlier, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) survivors were without vehicles, heavy ordnance and even the majority of their small arms. Britain would have been forced to give in to its own powerful ‘peace party’. What then would have been the result of Britain’s withdrawal from the war? A free run for the Nazi juggernaut. Hitler would have been able to hurl his entire armed might against Soviet Russia. The many divisions locked up facing a still belligerent Britain would have been released to powerfully augment that effort in the east.
As it was he came within a whisker of success. Death would have then been guaranteed to Stalin’s regime. Master, then, of the entire Eurasian landmass, Hitler’s dream of world conquest would have been complete. Only success in the race to develop the atomic bomb could have reversed that verdict. But the US Manhattan Project would have been impossible without the help of British scientists who were well ahead of their US counterparts in their understanding of the physics involved.
These are the reasons which cause me to believe that the battle which kept Britain in the war was the one which spelt Hitler’s ultimate defeat. On the 50th Anniversary, I wrote a poem to commemorate that extraordinary feat of arms and I am greatly honoured that it has found a home in the Battle of Britain museum. I hope the reader feels that I have done justice to those wonderful, boyish heroes of “our finest hour”.
You were young and you were brave:
You a nation had to save;
Scrambled from your aerodrome,
Test those skills so freshly honed;
Whirling in your fighter high:
Fought your duels across the sky;
Like the famous knights of old,
You were fearless, keen and bold;
Never did a fate so grim
Threaten all with mortal sin:
Never did so very few
Save so great a multitude;
Spurn a deal that would have saved
All that men of empire made;
Chose the path of blood and debt:
Know that honour’s fully met;
Far beyond your nation’s shores,
All humanity took pause:
For it knew that you alone
Could for misspent time atone;
Be the first to best the Hun:
Yours a famous victory won;
Boyish banter in the sky,
Where you were so soon to die;
Almost out of school you came,
There to die in battle’s flame;
Fire and smoke and cannon’s roar,
Trapped within your cockpit door:
Feel the searing heat around;
See the fast approaching ground:
Time to dwell but fleetingly
On that love on mother’s knee;
Bought you time that others might
Join you in that fateful fight;
Lift the terror, set men free:
Save them from base tyranny!