Saturday, 17 December 2011

Pat Lardner-Burke

Man and Machine
Pat Lardner-Burke
On Tuesday 2 December 1941 the London Gazette announced that ‘The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy...’ The sixth award mentioned was the Distinguished Flying Cross for a Pilot Officer by the name of Henry Patrick Lardner-Burke (87449), RAFVR, of No.126 Squadron. The citation reads as follows:

In November, 1941, this officer was the pilot of one of 4 aircraft which engaged a force of 18 hostile aircraft over Malta and destroyed 3 and seriously damaged 2 of the enemy's aircraft. During the combat Pilot Officer Lardner-Burke, who destroyed 1 of the enemy's aircraft, was wounded in the chest and his aircraft was badly damaged. Despite this, he skilfully evaded his opponents and made a safe landing on the aerodrome; he then collapsed. Throughout the engagement, this officer displayed leadership and courage of a high order. He has destroyed 5 enemy aircraft over Malta.

Pat Lardner-Burke was born on 27 June 1916 in Harrismith, Orange Free State, South Africa. He joined the Royal Air Force in spring 1940 and in June he began his training at No.4 Elementary Flying Training School, Brough. After progressing to No.57 Operational Training Unit at Hawarden, Lardner-Burke was posted to No.19 Squadron in early 1941 where he flew Spitfires. His time with the Squadron was to be brief when in May that same year he joined a Hurricane equipped squadron, No.46. In June the Squadron left the UK for Malta and at the beginning of the following month it formed the nucleus of No.126 Squadron. In the defence of Malta, Lardner-Burke would see considerable action with the Squadron in an effort to fend off the Italian Regia Aeronautica as it attempted to bomb the strategically important island into submission.
          During the morning of 19 August 1941, Pat Lardner-Burke was airborne as Yellow 1, flying with the Squadron near Cap Passero. At around 1110 hours enemy aircraft were sighted flying at 23,000 feet and the ‘Tally ho’ call was given. Lardner-Burke followed Red 1, who turned left towards Cap Passero and flew about 5 miles inland. The two Hurricane pilots caught sight of a formation of 6 Italian Macchi 200 fighters flying at the same altitude as they were. Lardner-Burke also noted 6 more Macchi 200 fighters flying about 2,000 feet above. Red 1 turned towards the lower formation which split up into two sections of 3 and Lardner-Burke went after a Macchi flying in the rear of the second formation. Lardner-Burke fired a short burst which appeared to hit the pilot. The Macchi turned over and spun towards the land. Lardner-Burke then climbed for height and turned his aircraft towards another Italian fighter, which he engaged from astern. The Macchi pilot pulled his aircraft’s nose up and Lardner-Burke opened fire. His ammunition appeared to enter the Italian’s cockpit before the enemy fighter spun downwards emitting white smoke.
          Six days later Pilot Officer Lardner-Burke would claim another Macchi 200 as destroyed when flying in combat with the Squadron near Sicily. On this occasion Lardner-Burke was flying as Black 2 in a weaving role below the Squadron. Suddenly he heard ‘Tally ho’ over the R/T and positioned himself to attack the enemy at around 1715 hours. Red 1 dived and Lardner-Burke followed. One of the Italian fighter’s broke off from the main formation so Lardner-Burke followed in pursuit. The Macchi turned away and Lardner-Burke let off a quick deflection shot which missed. Lardner-Burke climbed and then made another pass at the evading fighter. This time his effort caused the Italian’s port wheel to drop. The Macchi then went into a steep dive towards the coast of Sicily and Lardner-Burke followed it down at close range and concluded his attack with a long burst. The enemy aircraft’s tail plane broke up and it dived straight into the sea from 1,000 feet. In his combat report Lardner-Burke noted that the Macchi pilot appeared to be trying to abandon his aircraft before it went down. But the pilot did not escape the Hurricane attack.
          On the morning 4 September 1941 nine Hurricanes of No.126 Squadron met approximately 16 Macchi 200 fighters flying at 22,000 feet to the east of Malta.
          Again, Lardner-Burke was weaving as Black 2 with the Squadron until he broke off with Black 1 to engage the enemy. An extract from Lardner-Burke’s combat report describes his part of the action:

I went up [and] away from the formation. Black 1 was already attacking an E.A [Enemy Aircraft] with another on his tail. I engaged the latter and saw his wing disintegrate.

Lardner-Burke had most likely rescued Black 1 from being shot down. His burst was so effective because he was flying a Hurricane IIC equipped with cannons. As a result of Lardner-Burke’s attack the enemy aircraft turned over and its pilot was seen to bale out.
          Pilot Officer Pat Lardner-Burke became an ‘ace’ on 8 November, when the Squadron was involved in one of the biggest dogfights it had been in for some time. 18 Macchi 200s and the new Macchi 202s fighters were intercepted on an escort mission for bombers bound for Malta. Lardner-Burke was flying Hurricane BD789 when he engaged and shot down a Macchi 202 near Dingli, but he was in turn fired upon from behind and wounded when a 12.7 mm bullet from an Italian fighter penetrated his seat armour and passed through his chest. Somehow, with a punctured lung, Lardner-Burke managed to land his Hurricane on Malta. Flight Lieutenant Tom Neil of No.249 Squadron was off duty at the time, but he walked down to dispersal to watch a number of Hurricanes come in to land. Lardner-Burke’s approach in particular caught his attention:

“...I noticed the battle damage and began to run. The propeller was still turning as I pulled down the retractable step and climbed onto the wing-walk, the slipstream clutching at my face and hair. The pilot still had his face mask attached but I recognised him immediately as Pat Lardner-Burke. I heard myself shouting, ‘Are you all right?’ – then knew immediately that he wasn’t. Pat’s head was bowed and his shoulders slumped. He undid his mask, clumsily. ‘They’ve got me in the back.’ He was obviously in shock and pain. I sought to comfort him. ‘All right. Don’t worry. Just hang on and we’ll get you out.’ I shouted to those beneath. ‘Get the ambulance and a stretcher.’ After which I began to consider how best to extricate him... Aware of the need to act quickly, I tried climbing onto the rim of the cockpit myself but found nowhere to put my feet. Then I thought about sitting on top of the open hood but saw immediately that I would not be able to reach down sufficiently to heave him up bodily. A pox on the man who designed this aircraft, I thought wildly, we would have to get a crane and winch him out. But there was no crane, or none that wouldn’t take hours to find and fetch. I said urgently, ‘Pat, can you stand? Or climb out yourself? Otherwise we can’t get at you.’ He said wearily, ‘I’ll try,’ and painfully pulling himself to his feet whilst I grasped his shoulders, he croaked an entreaty which would remain with me always: ‘Don’t shake me, Ginger...’ Somehow we all reached the ground, to be faced with two airmen with a collapsible canvas stretcher.[1]

Painfully Lardner-Burke was laid onto the stretcher and then lifted in to an ambulance which took him to hospital. As the ambulance drove off in the direction of Imtafa, Neil climbed back onto the Hurricane to inspect the damage. He found several bullets that had hit the side of the aircraft behind the cockpit. He was shocked to find that one had punched a hole in the armour-plate and penetrated the back of the seat, gone right through Lardner-Burke, and carried on right through the dashboard and through the armour-plate in front. Several other pilots joined him, shaken by the sight of such powerful ammunition.
          Later in the month, Lardner-Burke learned that he had been awarded the DFC for his leadership and courage in action. In January 1942, when he had sufficiently recovered from his injury, Lardner-Burke returned to England.
          In May, the South African ace joined the Gunnery Instruction Training Wing as an instructor, where he remained until being posted to No. 222 (Natal) Squadron as a flight commander in March 1943.
          On 19 August 1943a Spitfire IXB, that was built at Vickers in Castle Bromwich and tested by famous chief test pilot Alex Henshaw, was delivered to No.222 Squadron. This particular Spitfire, serial number MH434, sporting the code letters ‘ZD-B’, would become Flight Lieutenant Lardner-Burke’s regular mount in the approaching operations.
          On the evening of 27 August the Hornchurch Wing was responsible for providing high fighter escort cover to 60 USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress bombers that were ordered to attack a target 4 miles north of St. Omer Marshalling Yards. The Wing, led by Wing Commander William Crawford-Compton, DFC and Bar, was comprised of 13 Spitfires of No.222 Squadron and 13 Spitfires of No.129 Squadron. The Wing took off at 1833 hours, climbed from base and crossed over Dungeness at 16,000 feet. When the Wing reached Berck at 22,000 feet it rendezvoused with the leading box of bombers at 1904 hours and positioned itself to port of the Fortresses. The formation reached a point north-west of St. Pol, turned left and flew north to St. Omer and then on to Mardyck. Having escorted the first box of bombers some 15 miles out to sea, the Wing turned back for St. Omer to pick up the second box of B-17s. Once again the Hornchurch Wing guided the Fortresses as far as they should go and then returned to escort the third box of bombers. But somewhere between St. Omer and Mardyck at 1939 hours the Wing saw nine Focke-Wulf 190s dive at the third box of Fortresses in small and loose formations and then climb back up towards the bellies of the B-17s. No. 129’s Red Section and No. 222’s Yellow Section remained above as cover whilst Wing Commander Crawford-Compton led the rest of the Wing down to 15,000 feet to attack the German fighters.
          Flying as Red 3 in Spitfire MH434, Lardner-Burke witnessed a FW 190 attack Wing Commanders Crawford-Compton and Davidson. Lardner-Burke shook the 190 of their tails by getting behind the enemy fighter and firing a two second burst from 350-300 yards range. His bullets struck the starboard wing and tail of the 190 which then turned sharply to starboard and dived away. The attack was seen by both Wing Commanders and the 190 was claimed as damaged.
          Lardner-Burke then latched on to another FW 190, closed to within 300 yards range and thumbed the gun button for 4 seconds from dead astern. The enemy fighter dived and Spitfire MH434 followed it down. Another burst from , this time lasting 2 seconds from astern caused the 190 to dive vertically into the ground near Audrioq. This second action was witnessed by Red 4, Yellow 2 and Yellow 3and for this reason Lardner-Burke was credited with 1 enemy aircraft destroyed.
          Red 4 was Flying Officer Otto Smik, a Czech pilot who intercepted a FW 190 that had intended to attack Lardner-Burke out of the sun. Seemingly aware of Smik’s presence, the 190 pilot put his aircraft’s nose down and dived, but Smik followed it down and opened fire at 400 yards using his cannons. The burst hit the starboard side of the 190’s fuselage and white smoke poured out into the air. The 190 pulled out of the dive, rolled on its back and the pilot baled out of the stricken aircraft.
          Another No.222 Squadron victory was scored by a New Zealander, Flying Officer Raymond Hesselyn, DFM and Bar. As Blue 3, he attacked a 190 as it broke away after it had attacked the bombers. A 4 second burst from his guns caused the enemy fighter to dive. Hesselyn followed it down and fired another 4 second burst from 300 yards astern and observed cannon strikes and large red flashes on the 190’s fuselage. He continued to close in and ended the engagement with a lengthy 6 second burst which most likely killed the pilot for the enemy aircraft went into a gentle dive and  finally crashed 10-15 miles north-east of Guines. The engagement took place from 8,000 feet and down to 6,000 feet before the FW 190 was destroyed.
          The general report written by Hornchurch’s Sector Intelligence Officer on form “F” includes some additional information regarding this sortie:

W/C Compton and Blue 4, 222 Squadron also fired but make no claim.

Blue Section 129 Squadron chased a F.W.190 but were unable to get within range.

1 F.W.190 was seen going down vertically and smoking after being hit by the guns of a Fortress.
A Fortress was seen to crash in flames 10 miles N.E. of Fruges, but the crew is believed to be safe 8/9 parachutes were seen floating down.

After the engagement, our aircraft withdrew in small formations and one landed at Gravesend, the remainder landing at Base by 2017 hours.

Bombing was not observed but much smoke was seen coming from a wood north of St. Omer.

Considerable heavy flak between St. Omer and Mardyck accurate at bombers.

On the morning of 5 September 1943, Wing Commander Crawford-Compton led the Hornchurch Wing from its base to North Foreland, where the Spitfires detailed to act as high escort, rendezvoused with 72 B-26 Marauders that were instructed to attack the Marshalling Yards at Ghent/Meirelbeke.
          The Wing met up with the bombers at 0800 hours and climbed towards Knocke, flew along the coast and crossed in at Nieuwesluis at 21,000 feet. A warning reached the Wing of enemy aircraft approaching from the north-east of its position, so the Spitfires began to orbit over Sas van Ghent and later east of Ghent. When bombs were seen to burst on the Marshalling Yards at 0829 hours the Wing turned to starboard from the target area. Approximately 10 minutes later the Wing was bounced by about 20 Focke-Wulf 190s attacking out of the sun. Four sections of the Wing engaged the 190s and various dogfights followed.
          With Yellow Section, Lardner-Burke climbed to port to head off half of the 190 fighters, one of which turned in front of his Spitfire and the South African opened fire. With a 3 second burst from 400 yards astern, Lardner-Burke scored hits on the 190’s engine and cockpit. The rest of Yellow Section watched the 190 turn over pouring smoke and then go down in flames in an uncontrollable spin.
          Another 190 fell to the guns of Wing Commander Crawford-Compton’s aircraft when later over Dunkirk he sighted 3 190s and led his section down towards them at 7,000 feet. He opened fire at one of the fighters from dead astern and followed up with another burst as the enemy turned to port. The 190 spun and crashed into the sea east of Dunkirk.
          Wing Commander Crawford-Compton then warned his wingman, Flying Officer H.L. Stuart of an enemy fighter on his tail and instructed him to break. Stuart broke to starboard; the 190 followed but overshot his Spitfire and then turned to port. Stuart’s aircraft had already sustained damage to its port flap, his port cannon was shot away and there were strikes on both the Spitfire’s wings, the engine and propeller. Nevertheless Stuart managed to get astern of the 190 and fire a 1 second burst from 400 yards. He then followed it up with another quick burst from 300 yards range and finished with a 2 second burst at 200 yards. Stuart saw strikes on the 190’s fuselage and starboard wing before it went into an uncontrollable spin. The 190 was last seen by Stuart at 2,000 feet going down vertically. Both Stuart and Crawford-Compton were of the opinion that the 190 could not recover and the enemy aircraft was claimed as a probably destroyed.
          Stuart’s damaged Spitfire was streaming glycol but he managed to safely land it at Manston.
          During this engagement, Squadron Leader E. Cassidy, DFC, and Flying Officer Daniel Thiriez of Red Section were bounced by 4 FW 190s, but the enemy fighters overshot them. Two of the 190s turned to port and Cassidy and Thiriez went after them guns blazing. One of the 190’s was struck by their ammunition and it went down vertically streaming white smoke. Both Cassidy and Thiriez were convinced that the pilot had lost control of his aircraft or was killed. This FW 190 was claimed as a shared probably destroyed.
          The tense battles had proved favourable for the pilots of No. 222 Squadron, who landed back at base at 0935 hours. But Sergeant Carmichael of No.129 Squadron failed to return. He was last seen diving with a FW 190 on his tail.
          On 8 September 1943 Lardner-Burke was airborne yet again in Spitfire MH434. The Hornchurch Wing, comprising of 25 Spitfires were flying as high cover to a formation of bombers that were detailed to attack targets in the Boulogne area between 1740 and 1817 hours. On this occasion the Wing was led by Squadron Leader H. Gonay, Croix de Guerre (Belgian) of No. 129 Squadron because Wing Commander Crawford-Compton was unable to take off at the appointed time due to engine trouble. He did however take off in another aircraft and joined the Wing over the target area shortly after it arrived.
          The Wing crossed the French coast at 22,000 feet at 1740 hours and then three patrols were carried out between Hesdin and Audricq. No.222 Squadron patrolled at 24,000 feet and No.129 Squadron flying 1,000 feet above.
          At the end of the third patrol, 12 Messerschmitt 109Fs were sighted by No.222 Squadron, which were then at 25,000 feet. The 109s climbed except for two of the fighters which dived to port. The General Report written by Hornchurch’s Intelligence Officer describes Lardner-Burke’s involvement as such:

F/Lt. H.P. Lardner-Burke D.F.C, and F/O. O. Smik (Blue 1 and 2) dived down on the leading e/a [enemy aircraft] which was diving steeply to the S.E. while Blue 3 and 4 followed, covering their attack. F/Lt. Burke opened fire from about 10° closing to dead astern at 350/300 yards range. He fired two bursts of 3 seconds and one of 2 seconds. Black smoke was seen to pour from the e/a which appeared to be in difficulties. F/Lt. Burke broke to port to enable F/O Smik to fire a 14 seconds burst from 300 yards dead astern, closing to 250 yards. He expended all his ammunition and broke off the combat at 7,000 feet. The e/a continued to dive at about 500 m.p.h. (Both Blue 1 and 2 were diving at 470/480 m.p.h.). The starboard wing tip of the e/a fell off and it dived straight in the ground 10-15 miles S.S.E. of Boulogne. The crash was also witnessed by P/O Wyllie (Blue 3). This Me.109F is claimed as destroyed.  

No.129 Squadron did not see any of the enemy fighters. There was intense heavy flak over the target area and five large fires were observed as a result of the bombing.
          Escort missions continued for the Wing and on 27 September, whilst escorting 72 Marauders that were detailed to bomb Conches aerodrome, No.129 Squadron claimed 2 FW 190s destroyed, 1 FW 190 damaged and 2 Messerschmitt 109s damaged. A single claim was made by No.222 Squadron after Flying Officer Smik shot down a Messerschmitt 109F. As Red 1, Lardner-Burke confirmed Smik’s claim.
          While turning to port Smik saw the enemy fighter attacking a Spitfire from 200 yards line astern. Smik tightened his turn to help the Spitfire pilot, who having been warned of the fighter on his tail broke away leaving Smik behind the enemy aircraft. From 180 yards range Smik opened fire with a long burst from his cannons and machine guns which raked the 109’s engine and cockpit. The starboard underside of the cockpit exploded and the starboard undercarriage leg dropped. The 109’s engine then stopped and finally after a port spin, pouring black and white smoke, the enemy aircraft crashed 20 miles south of Rouen.
          After the melee most of the Spitfires re-formed above the bombers and came out at St. Valeru-en-Caux at 1750 hours. Slight heavy flak was encountered and one Marauder received a direct hit and went down in flames. None of the crew was seen to bale out.
          On 3 October, 72 Marauders took to the air to bomb Beauvais/Tille aerodrome. The Hornchurch Wing climbed from base and crossed east Hastings at 15,000 feet to rendezvous with the bombers about 30 miles north of Dieppe at 1703 hours. The Marauders carried out their objective as accurate bombing was observed to strike the dispersals and airfield at Beauvais. Four minutes after leaving the target area the Wing was bounced out of the sun by 40 109s and 190s that dived straight towards the Marauders. Wing Commander Crawford-Compton ordered No.129 Squadron to remain above as cover while No.222 Squadron went down after the enemy fighters.
          Flight Lieutenant Hesselyn was seen to attack the rearmost aircraft, a Messerschmitt 109, which after being set on fire crashed in a wood as Blue Section pulled out at 1,000 feet. The Spitfires then climbed rapidly but were bounced by 2 FW 190s at 15,000 feet. One of the enemy fighters was seen to fire a short burst at Hesselyn’s aircraft which soon caught fire and, after turning on its back, went down in flames and then poured black smoke into the air. Flight Lieutenant Lardner-Burke saw the action from his own cockpit and reported seeing a parachute below. He was convinced that Hesselyn had baled out when turning the Spitfire on its back... and he was right. Hesselyn was able to successfully abandon his aircraft suffering burns and wounds to both legs. He was soon captured and became a prisoner of war.
          At the end of the engagement the majority of the Wing re-formed and came out behind the last box of bombers before returning to base.
          During this same month Lardner-Burke received a posting to HQ, Fighter Command, at Stanmore, where he served with Group Captain Bobby Oxspring, DFC and two Bars.
          Oxspring wrote the following of his new appointment: 

“Before my leave expired, an order arrived cancelling my return to Sicily but instead to report to Fighter Command at Stanmore. A vacant slot needed filling in the Tactics and Training branch of the illustrious headquarters, and I joined a formidable squad of fellow tour-expired veterans whose cavalier approach to their work sent spasms of horror through the dedicated Staff College graduates.  The tactics and training publications directed at the day fighter squadrons were entrusted to three of us sharing an office.
          Jackie Urwin-Mann, a pre-war vintage Canadian who had sweated through the Battle of Britain and the Western Desert, occupied one chair. The third desk was the domain of Pat Lardner-Burke, a rugged South African who, with Hornchurch sweeps and Malta behind him, displayed a refreshingly irreverent attitude to all senior officers with whom he disagreed. Facetious comments filled the minute sheets of numerous files which we solemnly circulated between ourselves, and on rare occasions to other departments. Delaying as long as possible any publication from Fighter Command on our particular subjects, our natures rebelled at the preposterous notion of issuing a training directive to the likes of Johnnie Johnson, or a tactics manual to Sailor Malan.[2]

In April 1944 Lardner-Burke took command of No.1 Squadron, which he successfully led until December.
          During this time Lardner-Burke and Oxspring would meet again when the latter was assigned as Wing Leader of the Detling Wing. The meeting was almost disastrous, when, one morning the Wing lined up on Manston’s large runway to take off for Detling, and something went wrong with Oxspring’s aircraft, as he recalled:

“I had almost gained flying speed when my engine cut dead. Holding rudder against the torque I couldn’t prevent a violent swing across the path of Pat Lardner-Burke formatting on my wing. Pat hauled back on his stick and his aircraft literally jumped over the top of me. I can still visualise every single rivet on his under fuselage as he careered over my canopy. Bouncing down off his kangaroo leap, he demanded: ‘What the hell goes on, Bobby?’ The Wing roared away as I trundled off the runway with a fuel starvation problem; I didn’t need to remove my helmet, my hair shot up so straight it just pushed it off. Pat’s lightening reactions avoided a messy pile up. Years afterwards we still chilled over the memory. Such dramas tend to play hell with the nervous system. As Pat remarked, ‘Man, we bloody near became a couple of chattering wrecks.[3]

As time moved on Lardner-Burke was later promoted to Wing Commander Flying at Coltishall and during February 1945, he was awarded a Bar to the DFC. Lardner-Burke’s citation reads as follows:

This officer continues to display a high degree of courage and resolution in his attacks on the enemy. Recently, he has led the squadron on many missions in the Ruhr area and throughout has displayed great skill and tenacity. Squadron Leader Lardner-Burke has destroyed seven enemy aircraft in air fighting. He has also most effectively attacked enemy targets on the ground.

          By the end of the year Pat Lardner-Burke had attended a course at No. 1 OATS, Cranwell, and taken command of Horsham St Faith airfield. Then for three months Pat served as Wing Commander Flying at Church Fenton.
          After fulfilling a number of varying appointments in the service for a number of years, Lardner-Burke applied to remain in the RAF, but was not granted a Permanent Commission, so he left.
          The South African fighter ace eventually settled on the Isle of Man with his wife, Mylcraine, where for several years he ran a public house.
           After a period of ill-health, Wing Commander Pat Lardner-Burke, DFC and Bar died of renal failure on 4 February 1970.
          Today Spitfire MH434, which Lardner-Burke christened ‘Mylcraine’ in August 1943, can be found at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, in Cambridgeshire. MH434 is arguably the most famous and iconic airworthy Spitfire still flying today. The aircraft is painted in No.222 Squadron markings bearing the code letters ‘ZD-B’. The name ‘Mylcraine’ and Lardner-Burke’s personal ‘scoreboard’ have been painted on the port side of the cockpit to replicate the South African’s markings in 1943. 

In July 2011 I had the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of Spitfire MH434 at Duxford.
Spitfire MH434, Duxford 2011

Copyright Christopher Yeoman 2011

[1] Neil, Tom, Onward To Malta, Airlife Publishing Ltd, 1992, page 162-163.
[2] Oxspring, Bobby, Spitfire Command, Grafton Books, 1987, page 178.
[3] Oxspring, Bobby, Spitfire Command, Grafton Books, 1987, page 197-198.

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