Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Percy Burton

Centre - Burton (right)
 
Percy Burton was born in 1917 in Cape Province, South Africa. He joined the South African Coast Garrison and Citizen Forces in 1935 before moving to Britain where he attended the Christ Church College in Oxford. In 1938 Burton was reserve cox for the Oxford crew in the University Boat Race. Wing Commander Tom Neil described Percy Burton as ‘the son of a prominent Government Minister and a member of a family which, although always prepared to extol the glories of their homeland, vehemently affirmed their British connection and considered themselves above all else to be King George’s loyal subjects. Small and slight in stature, amusingly off-hand, and constantly smoking the inevitable student pipe, he was at Oxford studying for his doctorate in jurisprudence when he was caught up by war.’ (Gun Button To Fire) Oxford was also the place where Burton learned to fly with the University Air Squadron.
          In October 1939 Burton was called up for service and sent to Flying Training School, Cranwell before converting to Hurricanes at No.6 Operational Training Unit at Sutton Bridge. Before the Battle of Britain began, Burton was posted to No.249 Squadron at Church Fenton.      
          After an uneventful patrol with his new Squadron on the evening of 26 August, Burton had to force-land his Hurricane (P3660) at Tangmere due to a broken tail-wheel. Fortunately he was not harmed by the untimely landing and his aircraft was later repaired.
          On 2 September 1940, things really began to get serious for Burton and his colleagues of No.249. During the morning,Burton was one of ten Hurricanes scrambled from base to intercept an oncoming Luftwaffe raid. Once airborne the Squadron was soon vectored towards Rochester to patrol at 15,000 feet, where at 0800 hours enemy bombers were sighted and engaged. On this occasion Burton was flying as Yellow 2 at the rear of the Squadron. His combat report for this sortie describes what happened next: “I turned to look at my tail and lost Yellow 1 [Flt Lt Parnall]. I singled out a straggler. I got on his tail and fired at his port engine from 300-250 yards, giving him several short bursts. He turned to port and I aimed at his cockpit, using deflection, and I could see my ammunition hitting him. I broke off as I was attacked by some ME110s from behind and above. I evaded them and fired at one which overshot me, but without visible result. I returned to the attack on the Dornier, firing again at his port engine from astern 300-250 yards with two four-second bursts. Thick, black smoke came from his port engine and he started going down slowly – by this time he was well out of formation. I do not think he could have got home. During the whole engagement I experienced intense return fire from the Dornier, coming apparently from four machine-guns simultaneously from the top rear of the cockpit. I was hit and glycol fumes filled the cockpit, followed by glycol fluid. As a result my engine cut at 10,000 feet and I had to force-land at Meopham, Kent, in a field with my undercarriage up. I do not think my aircraft was very seriously damaged.”
          The aircraft Burton was piloting on this patrol was Hurricane P3384 and the Messerschmitt Bf 110s that attacked him were from II/ZG 26.
          On 26 September Burton was flying as Red 2 with his Section when he attacked a Dornier 17 between Gravesend and Folkestone during at afternoon patrol. Flying Officer Beazley was leading Red Section when he spotted the enemy aircraft below and about three miles ahead of their position, travelling south. Flak began to thump into the air just before Beazley led Burton and Sergeant Charles ‘Tich’ Palliser into a diving attack towards the Do 17 from out of the sun. Beazley delivered a quarter attack which developed into a stern attack, from the starboard side of the bomber. He fired a five second burst from his guns and was immediately followed by Burton and Palliser who also opened fire. Burton reported that he “followed Red 1 [Beazley], giving a four-seconds burst from starboard quarter, out of the sun. I allowed e/a [enemy aircraft] to fly into my fire and saw hits scored.”
          Palliser also scored hits, firing two long bursts at the bomber. He noted that the Dornier’s starboard engine was emitting white smoke before it dived away into cloud. With inconclusive results the Dornier was claimed by Red Section as badly damaged.
          The following morning (27/11/40) No.249 Squadron was called into action. Burton took off from North Weald in Hurricane V6683 at about 0850 hours with eleven other No.249 Squadron Hurricanes. After a rendezvous with aircraft of No.46 Squadron, the Squadron began to patrol Wickford before being vectored to the Maidstone area where enemy activity had been reported. When the Squadron arrived in the area it was greeted by a defensive circle of Bf 110s over Redhill. Bf 109 fighters were sighted higher up than the 110s but for some unknown reason they did not come down, presumably they had not seen the Hurricanes. Flight Lieutenant Butch Barton led No.249 into a diving attack from out of the sun and individual combats ensued.
          When the Squadron returned to North Weald after this skirmish it claimed an impressive eight enemy aircraft destroyed and a further five probables, but it did not come without a price. Flying Officer Percy Burton, aged twenty-three, had failed to return from the patrol.
          During the engagement Burton had vigorously pursued a Bf 110 flown by Hauptmann Horst Liensberger of V/LG1 over a distance of about forty miles, often at little more than treetop height. Burton chased the Bf 110 at low level, until his guns eventually fell silent over Hailsham, Sussex. Burton’s ammunition had all been expended, but still the Bf 110 could not shake him off. At this moment Burton was flying slightly above and behind the twin-engined aircraft when suddenly, in an unprecedented manoeuvre, his Hurricane banked and collided with the Bf 110. The Messerschmitt’s tail unit dropped out of the sky into a field, followed by the remainder of the severed aircraft and Burton’s wingtip. The Bf 110 pilot and his rear-gunner, Uffz Albert Kopge, were killed outright. Flying Officer Burton’s Hurricane crashed into a huge oak tree on New Barn Farm, throwing him clear. Burton was killed and his Hurricane was left to burn out. Eye-witness reports strongly indicated that Burton had deliberately rammed the Bf 110 in his final act of valour and that his body was soon found riddled with bullets.
          Tich Palliser had also witnessed the collision from the air and later reported: “I saw his contortions, then I saw him straighten out and fly straight into the German aircraft. I was close enough to see his letters (squadron code-markings), as other pilots must have been who also confirmed the incident, which in itself caused me to realise that my young life and its future, if any, had jumped into another dimension.”
          A colleague and friend of the Bf 110 pilot, wrote at the time:  “I regarded Horst Liensberger highly as my commander and as a human being... Over the radio we heard his last message: ‘Both engines are hit ... am trying to turn ... it’s impossible ... I will try to land.’ Then nothing more.” (249 At War by Brian Cull)
           For this action at Hailsham, Percy Burton was recommended for the Victoria Cross but much to the displeasure of his fellow pilots at North Weald he was only ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.
          Percy Burton is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, Tangmere. In 1980 a road on a housing estate near the crash site was named ‘Burton Walk’ in his memory. There is also a humble memorial plaque dedicated to Burton’s memory at Hailsham near the oak tree that he hit.  
         
Burton far right with 249 Sqn

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