Air Marshal Sir Harry Burton
"THE RELUCTANT HERO"
By Carol Foreman
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 149 Squadron 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 "
only two bars of chocolate to sustain him. However, he didn’t intend to remain there for long. 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
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
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
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
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.
Above, 149 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall. Harry Burton is in the second row, second from the right. The Wellington bomber pictured is of the type in which he was shot down in 1940.
Image courtesy of Ian Burton
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
Left, Harry Burton pictured c. 1940 in his flying suit.
Image courtesy of Ian Burton
Carol Foreman is the author of Made in Scotland, Glasgow Street Names, Hidden Glasgow, Lost Glasgow, Made in Scotland and Glasgow from the Air. She is a member of Rutherglen Heritage Society and lives in Rutherglen.
Many thanks to Ian Burton for letting us use the photographs of 149 Squadron and of his father
© 2019/2023 Rutherglen Heritage Society and Carol Foreman.