Captain Micky Burn: Soldier who led the commandos in the 'Operation Chariot' raid on Saint Nazaire in 1942

Michael "Micky" Burn led a troop of army commandos as part of what has been described as the greatest raid of all time – the daring, successful but costly Operation Chariot against the vital Nazi dry dock and submarine base at Saint Nazaire, Brittany in 1942. Half the 28 men on his motor launch were among the 169 British commandos or sailors killed while 215 men, including Burn, were captured and spent the rest of the war as POWs. They had, however, succeeded in crippling the Saint Nazaire dock and Burn received a Military Cross for gallantry for carrying out his mission despite being wounded.

Eventually transferred to Colditz, Burn continued to fight the Nazis, this time through guile. As "scribe" to the legendary radio operator Lt-Col Jimmy Yule, he monitored German and allied radio broadcasts in a hide-out in the castle's attic, boosting prisoners' morale by keeping them up to date with allied victories but also getting coded messages about German military activity back to London via prisoners' letters. Burn went on to an illustrious career as a foreign correspondent for The Times, the author of many books and a prize-winning poet who did readings around his home in Wales until shortly before he died. Having gone from Nazi sympathiser to Marxist for a period during and after the War, he became a vehement opponent of war and, latterly, an outspoken critic of Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. (At Colditz, he had driven some of his senior officers, notably Wing Commander Douglas Bader, crazy with his Marxist theories.)

Burns had been a Hitler sympathiser as a student, believing the Führer's success in creating jobs during the 1930s could be a blueprint for unemployment-rife Britain. At Oxford he bumped into, and was seduced on the party circuit by the Cambridge student Guy Burgess, who would go on to be one of Britain's most infamous double agents. Burn, according to his autobiography, thereafter accepted his bisexuality but kept it under wraps due to the norms of the time. He realised quite young that he was attractive to, and attracted by, both women and men.

It was via a female friend, Unity Mitford, a cousin of Winston Churchill but obsessed by Adolf Hitler the way most young women are by rock singers, that Burn found himself in Germany in 1935 and was photographed behind Hitler at one of his famous Nuremberg rallies. Mitford would sit for days on end in the Osteria Bavaria restaurant in Munich, waiting for Hitler to appear and, when he did, the young Burn got him to sign a copy of Hitler's book, Mein Kampf. "I greeted him with my disgusting lie about British youth admiring him," Burn admitted in an interview late in life. "I used to tell people that he ate in the restaurant 'like a peasant,' though I did not know any peasants, and that his eyes seemed to bulge and did have 'something hypnotic.' I do remember a kind of shudder running through the huge audience at Nuremberg when he referred to the day 'whose date I do not know, when I shall close my eyes in death.'"

Through Mitford, Burn also got a guided tour of a Nazi internment camp called Dachau – at the time housing German anti-Nazi dissidents and not yet a concentration camp for Jews.

Michael Clive Burn was born at 51 South Street, Mayfair, in central London in December 1912. His father Clive Burn (later knighted) was Keeper of the Records and Solicitor-General to the Duchy of Cornwall from the 1930s through much of the 1950s, a post which made him a trusted confidant of King George VI. It also gave young Michael a privileged upbringing. He attended Winchester College, Hampshire, from 1926-31 before going up to Oxford, from which he dropped out and lived for some time in Le Touquet, France, before setting out to be a journalist. His first job was as a reporter with the Gloucestershire Citizen.

The Times hired him as a trainee domestic reporter in 1936 and, thanks to his family connections, he had a brief stint as diplomatic correspondent before war loomed. By then realising Hitler's threat to England and the free world, he signed up in 1937 and become a Second-Lieutenant with the King's Royal Rifle Corps in 1938. "I am ashamed I was taken in for a short time by National Socialism," he told The Times two years ago. "What made me sympathise was that were two million unemployed in England. I had seen it in the coalfields and it sickened me. I thought anyone who cures that was a good person ... so many were taken in."

When Winston Churchill, stunned by Dunkirk, called for a special commando force to be set up to disrupt the Nazis in occupied Europe, Burn saw a sign in his barracks: "Volunteers wanted for special service." He had no idea what it was but he liked the word "special" and was one of the first to volunteer. After training first at Ayr, Scotland, then farther north at Achnacarry near Fort William – where he and his comrades went through gruelling exercises, often under live gunfire – he was put in charge of a commando unit of his own, 6 Troop, 2 Commando, given a Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife and told to prepare his men for action.

Having been kept in the dark over their mission but trained in an amphibious landing, Burn and more than 600 men – army commandos and Royal Navy sailors – set sail from Falmouth on 27 March 1942, and found themselves headed for St Nazaire. The German dry dock there was not only a key base for German U-boats but a likely stopover point for the Nazis's latest and much-feared battleship, the Tirpitz, if she headed from Norway to the Atlantic to threaten allied military and civilian shipping.

Burn's motor launch ML-192 was one of the first hit by German fire and was set alight, killing half his men. He and some others got ashore and reached their objective as the Royal Navy deliberately rammed the destroyer HMS Campbeltown into the dockside, evacuated their own men then blew it up. Burn was captured in the aftermath of a battle of only a few hours.

Immediately after his release from Colditz at the end of the war, Burn's first act was to find a telephone and file a report on his experiences to The Times. Thereafter he became their correspondent in Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade from 1947 to 1949 before settling in Wales as an author and poet along with his wife Mary, whom he had married in 1947. They became neighbours and close friends of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Burn went on to write nine books of non-fiction, four novels, six books of poetry as well as his autobiography, Turned Towards The Sun (2003). A feature-length documentary is being made about his life by Wonnderful Films, in which the Irish-Canadian military historian and author James Dorrian - one of the leading experts on Operation Chariot - is a partner. The television presenter Jeremy Clarkson featured Burn and his story in a 2007 documentary The Greatest Raid Of All Time.

Captain Michael Burn MC suffered a massive stroke in the summer. His wife Mary died in 1974 and they had no children. He died at his home, Beudy Gwyn, in the village of Minffordd on 3 September.

Michael Clive Burn, soldier and writer: born London 11 December 1912; MC 1945; Légion d'Honneur 2006; married 1947 Mary Booker (died 1974); died Minffordd, North Wales 3 September 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
Clarke Carlisle
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'