1. ITV Report

Buried Spitfires to be excavated

Dozens of Spitfire planes were buried by British troops in Burma dyring the Second World War Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

An operation to excavate dozens of British Spitfires buried in Burma during the Second World War is set to begin next year.

It marks the climax of a 16-year search for the lost aircraft by Lincolnshire farmer and aircraft enthusiast David Cundall.

Mr Cundall, 63, has poured tens of thousands of pounds into the venture - he says he stopped counting when the cost hit £130,000 - and hopes the recovered aircraft can be restored and eventually returned to flight.

He believes Lord Louis Mountbatten ordered the burial of 36 Spitfires in 1945 at the Mingaladon airfield, a major British base in Burma, as the Second World War was drawing to a close.

And now, following the suspension of European Union sanctions on Burma which David Cameron called for in April, a dig to find the lost planes is finally due to begin in January,.

Speaking before the announcement today, Mr Cundall said: "It is the biggest project I have ever taken on in my life. I did not realise it would take 16 years or quite a large amount of personal money. But I do not regret it.

I have always admired the Spitfire. It has a very special place in British history, from the Battle of Britain. To find one Spitfire would be a major find, let alone 36.

– David Cundall

Mr Cundall first heard of the story of the burial in 1996 and subsequently travelled to Burma to corroborate the rumours with eyewitnesses.

An electronic scan on the site in 2004 revealed some material of "high electrical conductivity" buried between 30ft and 50ft below the ground.

Mr Cundall insists he is "100% confident" that the objects detected below are the missing Spitfires. Around 17 people will fly out to Burma for the excavation, including British archaeologists, academics from Leeds University and an American film crew.

It is hoped that digging will begin in the first weeks of January and that the first evidence of the Spitfires will surface five to six days later. Yet the expedition may never have occurred if the Prime Minister had not called for the suspension of sanctions against Burma during a visit to the country in April, according to Mr Cundall.

"David Cameron was talking about releasing the sanctions in April. At the same time he asked the president of Myanmar if the Spitfires could be recovered and there was broad agreement.

"The timing was perfect. They suspended the sanctions, allowing me to negotiate the terms with the Myanmar government and also to sign the contract.

"I cannot thank the Prime Minister enough because he has opened the door for me."

Mr Cundall had been sending letters to Mr Cameron calling for the removal of sanctions before the Prime Minister's trip to Burma. Later in the year the Prime Minister sent him a letter of congratulations in which he expressed the hope that the Spitfires would fly once again in Britain, according to Mr Cundall.

Roger Clark, a Leeds University geophysicist who has been involved in the Spitfire search since April 1998, praised Mr Cundall's dedication to the project.

Dr Clark said: "He is very committed and very altruistic. He is not doing this for personal profit, this is a heritage and history exercise."

It would be epic, wouldn't it? It would be fantastic to bring up something as iconic as that.

– Dr Roger Clark, Leeds University

Dr Clark continued: "To me, any wartime aircraft that you recover tells a story and is very moving and an important thing to see. But the Spitfire obviously has a particular place in anybody's imagination and hearts."

And how would he celebrate if they were found?

"Well, I would like to think in 15 years' time somebody would give me a ride in the back seat of one. But I am not holding out my hopes."