Captain Micky Burn: Soldier who led the commandos in the 'Operation Chariot' raid on Saint Nazaire in 1942
Tuesday 07 September 2010
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.
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