Burma Spitfires and Carrier Pigeons

Two World War II mysteries have been revealed in the last two weeks, one involving the burial of as many as 140 World War II Spitfire fighter planes in Burma, and the other involving a message on the leg of a dead carrier pigeon found in a chimney in England that is in a secret code used during that war.

Neither of these events has anything to do with the Hamptons. But my reporter’s instincts have been whetted. I want to know why anyone would bury 140 fighter planes halfway around the world. And I want to know what that message on the carrier pigeon’s leg said.

As for the buried Spitfires, I think I have figured it out. First of all, here are the facts. Apparently, about 10 years ago, it came to the attention of a World War II buff in England that there had been an order given by General Montbatten in the summer of 1945 to wrap up these fighter planes in greased paper, put them in wooden crates measuring 40 feet by 9 feet by 12 feet, and bury them.

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I might note that the Spitfires were in Burma to help England’s successful attempt to wrest control of that country from the Japanese in 1945. But Spitfires had also played a central role earlier in the war. These were the fighters that won “The Battle of Britain,” when they badly defeated German Messerschmitts in the air battle over Britain in 1940, thus keeping control of the skies. They are stunningly beautiful planes, as you can see. And as Winston Churchill said, referring to the young men who flew them as they outfought the Messerschmidts, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The man searching for the Spitfires, David J. Cundall, the war buff, spent 10 years and $200,000 going to Burma (now Myanmar) and traveling the country with devices like magnetometers and ground radar to try to locate buried airplanes. He found some of them, approximately 20, last month. And he has made a deal with the government of Myanmar and with the British government to exhume them and give one to a museum in Myanmar and some to the Myanmar government while keeping others for himself. Although 21,000 Spitfires were built, there are fewer than 35 Spitfires still flying in the world. These will be worth a fortune.

So why the heck were these fighter planes buried?

Around early August, 1945 when this order was given, the war was NOT over. More than half a million American troops were amassed in ships in a great arc in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan, waiting for the order to assault that country. They never did do that though. Soon thereafter, the Atomic Bomb was dropped and the Japanese unconditionally surrendered.

After doing some research, I have come up with my own theory. I believe that Montbatten, at the request of Prime Minister Clement Atlee, ordered the fighters buried in early August of that year because the British did not want these state-of-the-art fighter planes to fall into Burmese rebel hands. Britain, halfway around the world, though victorious against Germany, had been devastated and was in no condition to defend the south Asian colonies of India and Burma they had occupied for almost 100 years. Indeed, spurred on by actions of local rebels, Britain would be negotiating with both those countries to grant them their independence within three years.

Of course, you might say, why didn’t the British just destroy the Spitfires? You could run them over with bulldozers, or set them on fire. But how could you do that to planes that had saved the Empire? Also, there was the possibility that the British would come back to fight again. They’d know where they were buried. Except after the war, they apparently forgot where they were buried.

So that takes care of the Spitfires.

Well, now we turn to the carrier pigeon. The New York Times reported on this situation on November 1.

A man named David Martin in Surry, taking down an old chimney at his house, found this dead pigeon in it with the message on a little paper rolled up inside a maroon capsule strapped to its leg. A photograph of the message is in the Times. It says 40TW 194 and it says NURP 37 OK 76 and several dozen other things.

Because Mr. Martin’s house is in a direct line between the 1944 Invasion of Normandy landing site in France and what was then the top-secret British listening post and decoding department north of London in Bletchley Park, it is speculated that this message had been sent by pigeon from either French patriots or British soldiers on the ground driving the Germans back through the hedgerows of northern France. How it came into this chimney on the way remains a mystery. Perhaps, the Times speculated, he got tired, landed on top of it to rest, got dizzy from the smoke coming out of it and fell in. Who knows.

The “name” of the pigeon is on the message. It is 40TW194, and the first two numbers, 40, indicate the year the pigeon was born, so this gives credence to the possibility that the flight took place four years later.

(Nearly 250,000 carrier pigeons were enlisted in the allied armed services during World War II. They played an important role in the war. In England, 32 of them were awarded decorations for valor—the Dickin Medal, as it is called—which was also awarded to 32 other animals, both feathered and four-legged, who performed services above and beyond the call of duty during the war. There’s even a memorial in London’s Park Lane to these brave animals. So says The New York Times.)

As for the message, Mr. Martin has given it to the GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters in London to try to find out what it says.

“We cannot comment until the code is broken,” said a spokesman for that organization. “And then we can determine whether it’s secret or not.”

First they have to find and dust off an old code book. Or else break the code.

Perhaps it’s an order reversing an earlier order to bury the Spitfires in Burma.






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