December 3, 2023
Click to Enlarge Airforce personnel from Ambala Air Force Station escavate the Spitfire airframe from the sandy bed of Markenday River. Photo: PTI

Ambala, Haryana : When some workers went a field adjoining the Markandeya River to dig the soil for planting watermelon saplings, who could have thought that they would stumble on what could be the ‘Warbird Discovery of the Year’!

This is exactly what happened on February 5th, 2002, when a group of Contract workers were working on land belonging to one Ram Singh Gujjar near the Rolanheri village. After they had dug about four to five feet, they hit something metallic and found that it was an aircraft part. They described it as ‘an aircraft wing with a window’ (the landing light/navigation light?) and soon the police were in the picture. The local Superintendent of Police, Shri Hardeep Singh Doon soon cordoned the area off, informed the IAF and also commissioned a JCB machine to carry out the escavation. The DSP of Ambala, Shri Uday Shankar was also on the scene.

The Police informed the local Air Force authorities at Ambala. And soon a team of IAF personnel visited the area and took stock of the situation. Air Cmde SK Sofat, AOC 7 Wing, Ambala AFS visited the site. A team of engineers and men from the Ambala AFS also visited the area on February 6th. It was about this time that the aircraft was confirmed to be a Spitfire.

Some IAF personnel from Missile Squadron based at Kalpi, had pressed into service a monstrous X-Auto Lo Russian vehicle assisted by a high-powered 5911 HMT tractor. A large number of ground duty technical staff had been requistioned to execute the operation undertaken by Wg Cdr JJS Panwar and Flg Offr Shareni Satani. During the intial period of escavation, the wings, cockpit, piston engine, fuselage and tail with full view of a complete plane was uncovered.

Ambala_Spit02.jpg (40256 bytes) Left: A policeman examines a portion of the Spitfire’s piece.

Right: A JCB escavator in process digging up the aircraft.

Photo by Neeraj Chopra – Tribune India

Ambala_Spit03.jpg (71034 bytes)

Day two Operations on February 7th ran into trouble as the aircraft was not able to be freed from the mud and silt of the area. It was clear that more digging and more escavation was required before the aircraft could be lifted off. The initial plan to ‘lift’ the aircraft with ropes was soon abandoned as the ropes started cutting into the airframe and damaging it. The next plan was to dig a ramp from a distance so that the wreckage could be pushed onto the tractor trailers.

On February 8th, Wg Cdr Panwar’s team made an artificial ramp with iron girders and wooden ballies to pull out the wreckage. Two auto-movers and three tractors were also pressed into service.The AF men dismantled the wreckage and separated the cockpit, piston engine and the tail from the body. The wreckage was then successfully pushed into auto movers . When the entire aircraft was finally moved to the trailer, the whole crew broke into a cheer. The people who gathered there also joined in the cheering. The wreckage bits were moved to Ambala Air Force station for further examination.

Where did it come from?

One of the immediate questions posed was on how the aircraft had come to be there. There was one witness near Rolanheri, Mr. Faqir Chand, who is 75 years old, recollected that a Spitfire did crash in that area in the year 1947. The pilot having ‘baled out’. Faqir Chand recollected that the aircraft did not catch fire or get burnt out and recollected seeing the wreck still half buried in the sand some three years later when he visited the site.

An examination of sources (Spitfire International by Helmut Terbeck, Ray Sturtivant – Pub by Air-Britain) by WarbirdsofIndia revealed that on 13th March 1947, a Spitfire Mk VIII [S No: MV-459] flown by Pilot Officer A D’Cruz encountered engine trouble. According to the records, the pilot belly landed the Spitfire in a riverbed near Mullana village. It may be recalled that Rolanheri is only about 2 km from Mullana. There is a high probability that the aircraft in question is the same one found by the Air force escavation team.

Though initially we believed that Plt Offr D’Cruz is the same officer who was a decorated war hero from the 1947-48 Kashmir war. However subsequent evidence and correspondence with the family of the decorated officer reveals that he was posted to No.1 Squadron flying the Tempests near Peshawar. So this turned out to be a dead end.

Acknowledgements: Reports from Mr. Rahul Das (Tribune India), Mr. DN Diwakar (Indian Express), Press Trust of India, Photographs by Mr. Neeraj Chopra (Tribune India)

• Wreckage found after 50 years (The Tribune, 6 Feb 03)
• Aircraft wreckage may be of a Spitfire (The Tribune, 7 Feb 03)
• Aircraft engine retrieved (The Tribune, 8 Feb 03)
• Remains of a plane found (Indian Express, 5 Feb 03)
• Wreckage may be a Spitfire (Indian Express, 6 Feb 03)
• Bid to retrieve wreckage intact comes to nought (Indian Express, 7 Feb 03)
• World War Two skybird rises from the riverbed (Indian Express, 8 Feb 03)
• Video Links at the Sify Broadband site (Satyam Infoway, 8 Feb 03) 28kbps 56kbps 128kbps
• Fighter wreckage dug out of riverbed (The Hindu, 8 Feb 03)

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