Air Marshal Sir Harry Burton
"THE RELUCTANT HERO"
By Carol Foreman

© Rutherglen Heritage Society

Sir-Harry-Burton.jpg

Above, Air Marshal Sir Harry Burton. Photograph by Walter Bird, 1967

 

Image credit: National Portrait Gallery

Countless books have been written and countless films made about escapes from

German prisoner of war camps. Strangely though, the most historic of the Second World

War was never publicised - that of the late Air Marshal Sir Harry Burton, the first British

POW to make "the home run" (made it back to the UK from a German Stalag).

Harry Burton was born in Rutherglen on May 2nd 1919 and educated at Glasgow High

School. He joined the RAF in 1937 and after learning to fly at No 10 Flying Training

School was posted to bomber Squadron 215 and then to the 149 at Mildenhall, Suffolk,

shortly before he was shot down.

On September 6th 1940, Burton’s Wellington bomber was returning from dropping

incendiaries on targets in the Black Forest when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire. As it began

to lose height he ordered his crew to bale out but stayed on board to destroy secret

equipment, escaping just in time.

In the middle of the night he landed in a Belgian swamp where he hid his parachute.

At dawn, aided by a magnetic trouser button, Burton headed for the River Authie which he

remembered from his briefing and outward flight led to the coast where, possibly, he could

join up with a Belgian trying to get to Britain to fight. With his flying insignia hidden by

a scarf and his brass uniform buttons darkened with mud he hoped to pass for a worker.

He didn’t. A keen-eyed German sentry beckoned him over for questioning and dissatisfied

with the brief answers alerted his comrades.

Harry was escorted to Fort St. Mahon near

Berck and later to Luftwaffe Headquarters, St. Omer, where he saw numerous

Messerschmitts 110s and vast amounts of transport ready for the invasion of Britain.

Then he was moved to Brussels where he was reunited with his second pilot who told him

the rest of the crew were also in the prison.

Within days he was in Dulag Luft (aircrew transit camp) at Frankfurt-am-Main where all

RAF prisoners were "processed". There he was interrogated using all the tricks he had been

warned about - phoney red cross forms and bogus Luftwaffe pilots offering the "old boy "

treatment.

On 16th September, Burton, his crew, and about 60 others, were sent by closely guarded

troop train to Berlin, en-route to Stalag Luft 1 at Barth on the Baltic. 

At Barth, the escape committee put him in charge of maps, an assortment removed by

prisoners from trains, newspapers and magazines during transit. Compasses were made

from camp loudspeakers, and files, saws, etc "acquired" from tool bags of workmen called in

to repair "accidental" damage to barracks.

During that winter nearly 50 escape attempts were made, one man managing to get as far as Demnark only to be handed over to the Nazis by a pro-German Dane.

Harry had joined a tunnelling group but was caught installing air-pumping gear. His

punishment was 10 days solitary confinement for the duration of which he had only two bars of chocolate to sustain him. However, he didn’t intend to remain there for long. He

planned to escape using a table knife he had concealed in his battledress blouse.

By the fifth night he had loosened his cell bars. Wrapping a map, shaving kit, a pack of

cards (presented by a kindly guard) and his two bars of chocolate in a blanket, he climbed

out of the window and made for the main gates.

Burrowing under the first gate with a piece of metal carelessly left nearby, he crawled on

all fours to the second then scrambled over 10 feet high barbed wire having avoided the

Alsatians by memorising their patrol times.

Harry walked until he found the railway line and then rested in the woods until nightfall

when he began walking again getting drenched in a rainstorm - which at least relieved his

thirst. Following the line into Stralsund he suddenly found himself on the station

platform nodding "Guten Morgen" to rail workers and half-a-dozen German guards.

Although pleased that his "civvies", battledress blouse and trousers dyed black with ink at

the camp had not aroused suspicion, he was so relieved to get away without questioning

that he spent the rest of the day in a wood. At night he continued towards Sassnitz

where he was confronted by a belt of coastal guns.

Before entering town he discarded his jacket hoping to pass for a holiday visitor in his

open neck shirt. For good measure he affected a limp so that people would think he had

been wounded in action which would account for him being out of uniform.

Harry found out the ferry to neutral Sweden left at 4.30 pm and impatiently passed the

time on the beach bathing and sunbathing. An hour before sailing time, washed and

shaved, he walked boldy past the sentries to find the vessel surrounded by barbed wire

which was a bit of a problem as, having no money for the fare, he had hoped to sneak

aboard.

He got his chance. Noticing some baggage trucks nearby awaiting loading on to the ferry,

he crawled beneath a mail van and lay with his back on an axle, feet and shoulders thrust

against supporting bars. Unfortunately when shunting began both wheels and axle rotated

and he had to heave himself up to take his weight off the axle until the van stopped. When

it did he could see the sentries’ feet just inches away. Fortunately no-one searched

underneath the trucks.

When the ship left port, he disentangled himself but returned to his uncomfortable hiding

place as the van moved off the ferry at Trelleborg. This time the physical effort was too

much and he fell to the ground exhausted. A policeman accosted him and without thinking

Harry answered in English. He was put in prison until the British Embassy in Stockholm

contacted the Air Ministry who confirmed his identity. Soon he was in the capital enjoying

good food, decent clothes, baths and all the luxuries of a country not at war.

It was two months before he was fit to make the last leg of his "home run".

When his Lockheed Lodestar touched down at RAF Leuchars, Harry Burton was the first

serviceman to return from a German POW camp in the Second World War.

For his courageous escape he was awarded the DSO and promoted to Squadron Leader.

He had been able to give all three armed forces intelligence departments a wealth of

information - Luftwaffe interrogation techniques, layouts of Dulag Luft and Stalag Luft 1

and vital transport movements. More than that, he had left "markers" for others to

follow like Flt. Lt. John Shore of the 9th Squadron who broke out of Barth shortly after

Burton and arrived in Scotland via what became known as the "Stockholm-Leuchars air

ferry ".

After spending time lecturing aircrews throughout Britain on escape and evasion, Burton

became an MBE. He returned to flying in 1945 and commanded a Dakota squadron in

Burma.

Post the war he had many top appointments and in 1962 was deputy commander of a

force of three Vulcans which flew to Australia to stage fly-pasts for the opening and

closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games held at Perth.

Burton was appointed CBE in 1963, CB in 1970 and became Sir Harry in 1971. He

retired in 1973.

In retirement he was a member of the governing council of the RAF Benevolent Fund and

Chairman of the Board of Management of Princess Marina House, the RAF’s residential

and convalescent home in Sussex. A gentleman who arrived in a wheelchair asked if a

bomber chap called "Burton" was around. He was Duncan McFarlane, Burton’s

navigator when his Wellington was shot down. They had not seen each other for 47

years.

Air Marshal Sir Harry Burton, died on November 29th 1994, aged 74. He never got

 

the publicity deserved for his heroic escape and the boost he gave to aircrew morale.

 

However, to be fair he was a reluctant hero who always changed the conversation if it

 

veered back to 1941 when he made history as being the first of any serviceman to return to

 

the UK from a German Stalag.

Carol Foreman is the author of Made in ScotlandGlasgow Street Names, Hidden Glasgow, Lost Glasgow, Made in Scotland and Glasgow from the Air. She is a noted local historian and lives in Rutherglen.

© 2019 by Rutherglen Heritage Society.