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World of Tanks

The strange story of the buried Burmese Spitfires: how a farmer, the CEO of Wargaming and a team of archaeologists hope to unearth history

Mark XIV Spitfires.

There's usually a tank and a tank destroyer hulking in the foyer of the Imperial War Museum but, for reasons unknown, they're not there right now and so I find myself stood on the balcony above with Victor Kislyi, CEO of Wargaming, staring down at an empty space.

Both of us wonder where they've gone, neither of us have an answer. There's a school trip going on and as a couple of girls meander through the void below, Kislyi forlornly asks, "Why? Why are these young ladies not exposed to the beauty of tracked vehicles?"

I am not sure what to say.

Kislyi just wants to bring tanks to people. Tanks and planes. Tanks and planes and warships and military history from what he says is the most amazing war that the world has ever seen, and when he talks about any of these subjects he is a fountain of enthusiasm, overflowing with anecdotes and excitement. It's not hard to understand why he's delighted to be able to fund a dig for what is believed to be 36 Mark XIV Spitfires buried under an airfield in Myanmar (also known as Burma). It's just one more way that Kislyi can share his passion with the world.

The dig, which is scheduled to begin in January, is the result of a fortuitous confluence of coincidence and is like nothing that military archaeology has ever seen. It's the pet project of aviation enthusiast and farmer David Cundall (above), who has been digging up planes for 35 years and has spent the last 16 of those investigating a strange rumour. The story goes that, in 1945, dozens of British fighter planes were stored in waterproof crates by US personnel and then (very uncharacteristically) buried ten metres underground, somewhere at the end of an airfield near Rangoon. Cundall spent his first two years trying to verify eyewitness accounts and secure a visa to Myanmar and, after eventually managing to make a trip there in 1998, failed to find any evidence of their burial because he was searching at the wrong end of the airstrip.

He was fortunate that, two years later, an Israeli team also on the hunt were similarly unsuccessful, although that's not surprising when you consider Myanmar’s climate. The monsoon season strikes the country between late spring and late autumn, bringing rain storms of such strength that it can take another two months for the water table to lower enough to permit the kind of excavations needed. Hence the January dig, which the team hope to conclude within a few months.

He's even more fortunate to keep the right sort of company. Cundall was able to return to the site in 2004 and, with the equipment and expertise of his friend Dr Roger Clark, a geophysicist from the University of Leeds, surveyed the area with tools that are able to detect electrically conductive materials, exactly the sort of thing you need to find metal buried deep underground. Their survey data revealed what looked like an awful lot of metal about ten meters below their feet, in a position and distribution that almost exactly matched the eyewitness statements.

Getting a permit to dig would not be easy, and British relations with Myanmar had long been strained. Furthermore, EU sanctions meant that, should Cundall try to return with anything that he might happen to retrieve from the site, he could find himself in rather a lot of trouble. “I had no way of getting them out without being put in jail,” he tells me. “My lawyer said I'd probably be arrested at Heathrow airport when I got off the plane. I got a letter from the foreign office saying these sanctions are strictly enforced and if anybody breaks them, they can expect a lengthy jail sentence. I was a bit put back at that.”

But in 2010 Cundall's luck would change. Myanmar's government lifted the house arrest that it had imposed upon opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and, following political reforms, looked to be embracing more democratic way of working. Prime Minister David Cameron visited in April of that year and the Spitfires were on his agenda.

“I wrote to him and said, I can’t take this project any further because of the sanctions, but Myanmar is now democratic, I understand you’re visiting, could you possibly talk about suspending or [relaxing] the sanctions to allow me to get these Spitfires out?” Cundall says. Cameron did so. “He actually got to get the President of Myanmar to agree to let me dig at this airport. I have special permission and I signed the contract in October with the President.” The agreement stated that Cundall will have a 30% share in whatever is discovered, while his unnamed agent keeps 20% and Myanmar keeps the remaining 50%.

All that was needed now was a cool million dollars to perform final surveys and employ the kind of skilled military archaeologists and civil engineers who could make the project happen. Once again, fortune smiled on Cundall and Wargaming stepped in, Victor Kislyi bringing both his funding and his enthusiasm to the project, all with the aim of celebrating military history.

“You’re probably looking at half a dozen of the most altruistic people in the world,” Kislyi (above) said at the press conference earlier, describing Cundall and the archaeologists involved as people of passion who aren't focused on the estimated £1.5m price tag that each Spitfire carries. The archaeologists are doing it because it's their job, Cundall because it's his hobby, and Kislyi is footing the bill because it's an “adventure,” a “great story” and history buffs “all around the world will rejoice when a Spitfire is found.” Certainly, even a single find would be significant, but if 36 planes really are discovered it will be an event unprecedented in archaeology, a truly historical find.

But everyone is well aware that no Spitfires have yet been found, and the best that a camera sunk down an exploratory borehole revealed was some sort of crate with indeterminate contents that might’ve been an aircraft. It's not entirely clear why US personnel would go to the trouble of carefully burying planes to prevent their capture instead of simply destroying or evacuating them, especially at such a late stage in the war when Japan was in retreat. Nevertheless, Cundall tells me that dozens of Spitfires in that theatre remain unaccounted for, the eyewitness statements have been corroborated and, of course, the survey data confirms what those witnesses have claimed.

If there are planes to be found, they won't be intact and, even in sealed, airtight crates, may still have suffered some slight degradation. Any planes found will need to be thoroughly appraised and, though they may one day fly, the careful process of restoration could take up to three years.

“My understanding is they’re put in the box like an Airfix kit,” says Dr Adam Booth, of London's Imperial College, who then goes on to point out that that there's an awful lot of other metallic objects you might find buried under an old airfield. “Some of the eyewitness reports explicitly state that the airfield was in a real state and that the personnel were ordered to tidy the place up, so there’s a lot of military paraphernalia around there,” he continues. “The equipment we’ve got is not a Spitfire detector, it’s barely a metal detector, it’s an electrical conductivity detector.” Booth says they are as likely to find ammunition, spare parts or perhaps even corrugated iron buildings buried under the airfield, though “whatever’s down there, it will be of archaeological interest.”

So, in spite of the evidence that there is clearly something metallic down there, the team know that they may not be pulling planes out the ground come January. There is a distinct awareness that the project is a million dollar gamble, though I think for Kislyi I think it's mostly about the excitement. Speaking at the press conference, he told an assembled media that included the BBC, CNN, Reuters and The Guardian that he saw this as a chance to “Dig for the treasure,” and “tell a great story of air war in Burma in the middle of the last century... Just imagine those beautiful war machines, hidden, buried, down in the middle of nowhere, in [a] tropical jungle where it always rains! If this is fruitful we hope that we can see a squadron of Spitfires flying over London one more time.”

I put it to him later that there is still the possibility there are no planes to be found and he admits this may well be the case. “It’s something that happened approximately seventy years ago, and either they put them in the ground and put some dirt on top... or not,” he replies. “It’s a journey of discovery, that’s why they call it adventure! We’ll go, we’ll dig, we’ll try to find them, and if we don’t find them straight away we’ll regroup, try other sites, we’ll have a plan B, too.”

I ask him why he's chosen to fund a project to uncover Spitfires in Myanmar when, based on his background, it makes more sense for him to dig for tanks in the former USSR. “When it comes to Russia or Belarus, for example, it can be tricky when it comes to government regulations. At the end of the day, it’s a weapon, so you need a lot of permission, from the government, from the local authorities, so we’re not yet doing anything like this in Eastern Europe.” Is it actually easier to dig in Myanmar than in your own country, I ask. He gives a hearty laugh. Ironically, it might be.

Kislyi really does want to bring tanks, planes and every other aspect of military history to a wider audience and this is just one more avenue for this, albeit an expensive and ambitious one. Wargaming have been busy working with the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation in California, which has the largest private collection of WW2 era tanks, with the Bovington Tank Museum in England, which some 70,000 schoolchildren will visit annually as part of their history curriculum, and the Pacific Battleship Center in Los Angeles, where the developer is creating an interactive simulation to tell the story of the USS Iowa. “Nowadays, 'interactive' is the way to teach youngsters anything,” he says, and he sees even World of Tanks as educational software of sorts.

“Before [World of Tanks], how many people knew what a KV-3 is?” he asks me. “Or the difference between a Panzer III and a Panzer IV? Right now, I’m telling you, there are millions of people who’ve gone to libraries, to Wikipedia, who went to archives and they now know the differences between Panzers made in 1943 and 1944. Just the existence of this game, and millions of players enjoying it, makes you go and dig, for personal interest. The more you know about your tank or the opponent’s tank, the more skilfully you can play your shots or shape your tactics, and when you start digging into military history, especially war machines? Hey, come on, we’re all boys, We get in, we don’t get out.” I admit, I may have looked at some tanks on the internet.

“We push military history naturally,” he continues. “We don’t declare that we like military history, we do the things which encourage millions of people to dig into military history even if they did not do this before.”

I only have some fifteen minutes to talk with Kislyi, but it feels like much, much longer, perhaps because I'm carried away by his waterfall of words. Nobody else from the gaming press has attended the event and I get the impression that Kislyi is glad to talk to someone who knows and enjoys his game. Earlier, I heard one of the journalists attending refer to Wargaming as “one of those online computery-type things.”

Kislyi goes on to explain some of his preferred in-game strategies to me and, during a quiet spell, stops to look up at a Spitfire that hangs above us, genuinely rapt. “Isn't it beautiful?” he asks me. “In Great Britain, the Spitfire is an iconic thing. Of course, in Russia, it's more about tanks. Huge land masses, huge tank battles, we are a tank country. The T-34 is pretty much the equivalent of the Spitfire.” Does he know that HMS Belfast, a ship that escorted British convoys to the USSR, is moored in the Thames? Of course he does, he's already visited with his son, and my question elicits more enthusiasm. He tells me how they explored below decks, in tight rooms full of valves, levers and switches, before his son asked to leave. “He said, 'Daddy, let’s get out of here.' Why? 'There’s so many switches. I’m worried I’ll hook one of them, switch something on and the ship will start moving!'”

I think Victor Kislyi would like that.

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