LANCASTER OF-L – JA916
Shot down over Berlin, 31st August 1943
Pilot: W/C Kenneth Halstead Burns
PoW, repatriated due to injuries September 1944
Flight Engineer: P/O Earle George Dolby, RCAF
Killed, buried in Berlin 1939-45 Cemetery
Navigator: P/O John Kenneth McAvoy, RCAF
Bomb Aimer: P/O James Keddie
W/Op: W/O Reginald John Williams
Mid-Upper Gunner: W/O Eric Herbert Skinner
Rear Gunner: W/O Oliver Lambert
Killed, buried in Berlin 1939-45 Cemetery
Lancaster III JA916 OF – L. Op Berlin. T/O 2037 Bourn. Shot down by a night fighter, exploded and crashed in the target area. The two airmen who died are buried in the city’s 1939-1945 War Cemetery. W/C Burns, who lost a hand, and P/O McAvoy RCAF had served previously with 61 Squadron; their awards being gazetted on 16 February 1943. The others who held the DFM had their awards published on 13th July 1943, 20th March 1945 and 28th July 1944 respectively. W/C Burns was repatriated, but after being fitted with a false hand, resumed his flying career.
W/C K.H.Burns DFC(pow), P/O E.G.Dolby DFC RCAF(+), P/O J.K.McAvoy DFM RCAF(pow), P/O J.Keddie DFM(pow), W/O R.J.Williams DFM(pow), W/O E.H.Skinner(pow), W/O O.Lambert DFM(+).
Information from David Cheetham
The target was Berlin and the crew’s task was to re-centre the target with special coloured flares at Zero Plus 30. They also carried a full bomb load of a 4,000lb cookie plus some smaller bombs, making a total load of 9,000 lbs.
As they arrived at the target, illuminating fighter flares were dropped and their Lancaster was attacked by a FW 190 coming at them head-on according to the flight engineer Earle Dolby. The closing speed was so high that it was not possible to take evasive action. The aircraft was raked by cannon fire down the port side, the wing and port engine were severely damaged, and a fire started almost immediately.
Burns gave the order to bale out. The bomb aimer James Keddie wanted to release the bombs first but Burns decided to aim the crippled aircraft into the target area. According to the Bomber Command loss card, the aircraft actually blew up at 18,000 feet with the full load of bombs. The pilot, Burns, woke in a cabbage patch with the charred framents of his parachute still in its pack strapped to his back. He had lost a hand but still managed to crawl about a quarter of a mile to a house, and was then taken to hospital. Burns later stated that he found the ripcord of his parachute had never been pulled; in his opinion, the explosion of the aircraft burst open the parachute pack and allowed the canopy to escape though it had not opened properly and it must have been trees which had broken his fall.
Another miracle was that Burns had not bled to death from his amputated hand, but it is believed that the intercom cord was still attached to his helmet and had by some incredible fluke of chance acted as a tourniquet.
At the hospital it was discovered that he had broken his back. HIs injuries were so severe that he was repatriated in September 1944. Once home, he continued to work on Bennett’s staff.
Burns thought that all his crew had baled out safely, but in fact the rear gunner Oliver Lambert went down with the aircraft. Dolby made it safely to the gound, but was beaten to death by irate civilians. Both he and Oliver Lambert are buried in the 1939-1945 Berlin War Cemetery.
The picture of Lambert shows him sitting in the cockpit of Guy Gibson’s aircraft Admiral Prune. Before the crew joined 97 Squadron, they were with 61 Squadron at Syerston and also at 106 Squadron.
Some Extracts from the ORB at Bourn
23.8.43 21 aircraft and one reserve have been detailed to operate against Berlin. Early briefing and take off at 0815 hours. 21 aircraft took off, 2 aircraft abandoned their sorties, in one case the rear turret was u/s and in the other the mid upper gunner was very sick. All the remaining aircraft attacked the target at Berlin. Large area of fires seen in target area after bombing and were well concentrated. Moon was just rising – no cloud and visibility good. W/Cmdr Burns DFC was selected and acted as Master of Ceremonies over the target.
28.8.43 No flying – stand down from operations
29.8.43 Bourn aerodrome will be unserviceable on the 30th August for approximately 4 days owing to the runways being reconditioned. It is therefore necessary for the squadron to operate from other airfields during this period. Each Flight will constitute a separate detachment under the Flight Commander who will act as the detachment commander as follows:-
“A” Flight W/Cmdr Burns DFC RAF Gransden Lodge
“B” Flight W/Cmdr Nind RAF Graveley
“C” Flight W/Cmdr Alabaster RAF Oakington
Aircraft and crew took off from Bourn this morning for their respective airfields. Duty was carried out according to plan. No ops detailed.
31.8.43 Squadron detachments again detailed 20 aircraft for ops. The target was an area in Berlin. Weather was 9/10ths cloud, visibility good, no moon. Bombs were dropped as detailed but too early for many results to be seen. Incendiaries were seen burning and scattered fires started. Moderate heavy flak rather more than on previous raid, when eased off searchlight and fighter co-operation was attempted. Many enemy aircraft seen. 4 aircraft and crews returned early., 3 due to crew personnel being sick and one due to mid upper turret u/s and intercom u/s. W/C Burns DFC and crew are missing, no news since being received. The remainder all returned to their bases …
31 August/1 September 1943 Berlin – Bomb Load 4 x TI, 1 x 4000lb, 6 x 500lb unless stated
JA916L W/C K.H.Burns, P/O E.G.Dolby, P/O J.E.McAvoy, P/O J.Keddie, W/O R.J.Williams, W/O E.H.Skinner, W/O O.Lambert. Up 2037 – aircraft and crew missing.
3.11.43 NFTs and flying training in the morning. 16 aircraft detailed for operations tonight. P/O J.K.McAvoy DFM and Act W/O R.J.Williams reported POW (were missing with W/C Burns crew 31st Aug).
10.11.43 Training programme detailed. Letter has been received by the next of kin of W/C Burns DSO DFC stating that he is in hospital in Germany. He has lost his right arm from the elbow downwards. Order was given by him for the crew to bale out, the aircraft being out of control and on fire.
Some episodes in the crew’s flying career at 97 Squadron – from Kevin Bending’s ACHIEVE YOUR AIM
Extract from Chapter 8
The Squadron returned to the fray on the night of 16/17 June when thirteen crews were detailed to attack Cologne … Squadron Leader Burns had Group Captain Willetts flying with him as second pilot … conditions in the target area meant that no results of the bombing could be observed by the crew. Burns was given a course by his navigator, Pilot Officer McAvoy, and the crew began the long, anxious homeward journey that took them over Belgium as part of the briefed route. When they were about eighteen miles from Antwerp, and flying at 22,000 feet, Sergeant Lambert, the rear gunner, sighted a FW190 on the port beam, 500 feet above the Lancaster and at a range of 400 yards. Just as the observant Lambert spotted the enemy aircraft, it opened fire on the bomber, and the Lancaster was raked by cannon shells that put the hydraulics to the rear turret out of action as well as disabling the intercom. Simultaneously, Lambert had managed to fire at the fighter and his bullets appeared to enter the enemy aircraft in the cockpit region as it broke away to starboard. Having been alerted by the action, Sergeant Skinner, in the mid upper turret, signalled to Squadron Leader Burns to corkscrew to starboard, the signal being by use of the lamp system that was a back-up in the event of an intercom failure.
However, by this time the cockpit was full of smoke and flames emanating from the bomb inspection hatches, and this meant that Burns did not see Skinner’s despairing signal; it was perhaps by instinct then that Burns did throw the Lancaster into a steep diving turn to starboard just as a second FW190 opened fire from dead astern at a range of only 300 yards. Sergeant Lambert managed to fire off 100 rounds manually at the second fighter as Sergeant Skinner signalled to his captain to do a climbing turn to port; the mid upper turret of the Lancaster was totally iced up except for one side panel, and this meant that Sergeant Skinner was unable to bring his guns to bear against the attacking fighters. Lambert then spotted a third FW190 dead astern, and 600 yards away, seemingly intent on pressing home a final attack on the damaged bomber, but Skinner continued his commendable efforts, instructing Burns to do a diving turn to starboard. This had the desired effect in evading the third fighter, which was seen to break away to port without firing, and as the Lancaster continued weaving violently, it was fired upon again by one of the other two FW190s but the cannon shells fell short of the bomber. None of these three enemy fighters was seen again but as the Lancaster levelled out, Sergeant Keddie, who had manned the front turret, saw a Me110 on the starboard bow at a range of 800 yards; the enemy machine began to close in towards the Lancaster, so Keddie opened fire with short bursts of fire that caused the fighter to break away to port and disappear from view, never to be seen again.
Having managed to evade the four attacking aircraft, the crew then benefitted from a piece of luck that probably saved them; the port inner fuel tank had been badly holed and petrol was pouring into the bomb bay where it was ignited by the fire that had been started in the bomb inspection hatches. With the fire threatening to take hold, the bomb doors fell open, thus allowing the loose petrol that was floating around to fall out, and the fire soon burnt itself out; nevertheless it was another ninety minutes before Burns landed the damaged Lancaster at Bourn and the crew’s ordeal was finally over. The marvellous teamwork displayed by Burns and his crew clearly impressed Group Captain Willetts, and in due course Sergeant Lambert (who had just completed his 41st trip) was awarded the DFM, Sergeant Skinner the DFC (following promotion to Warrant Officer), and Pilot Officer Dolby (the flight engineer) also won the DFC. Sergeant Keddie had already been recommended for the DFM, and his award was promulgated in the London Gazette on 13th July.
The crew were to have another very lucky escape on the night of 12th/13th July when the target was Turin – a 75mm flak shell passed through the fuselage and the tail plane of their aircraft without exploding. However, their incredible run of escapes came to an end when Burns was almost at the end of his tour
From Chapter 11.
For Wing Commander Burns this was his 49th operation of the war, and it was also his last. As Burns began his run up over the target area at 18,000 feet, his Lancaster was attacked from dead ahead by a FW190. The fighter’s cannon shells tore into the port side of the bomber’s nose and into the port inner engine. As the fighter slipped away, a fierce fire began in the engine, spreading to the wing and taking a firm hold of the aircraft; Burns realised that the situation was hopeless, and he gave the order to the crew to bale out. The bombs had already been fused by the bomb aimer, Pilot Officer Keddie, who queried whether or not he should jettison them before baling out himself, but Burns instructed him to leave them as they were, and to get out fast. Then, as Burns unclipped his harness and was about to get up from his seat, the Lancaster exploded.
The next thing he knew was waking up a few hours later, lying on soft earth. His right arm had been severed below the elbow, and he felt considerable pain in his right ankle and foot. Looking at his parachute, the Wing Commander realised that it had not been opened, but that a few yards of silk had billowed out of one damaged section of the canopy pack. Whilst the explosion of the Lancaster had ripped off his lower right arm, it had also ripped a hole in the parachute canopy, sufficient to release part of the parachute; the reality was that Burns had survived a free-fall from 18,000 feet, and that the velocity of his descent had been only slightly reduced by those few yards of flapping silk, but that this, combined with some pine trees that broke his fall, and the soft earth that he landed on, had saved his life in the most miraculous manner.
After struggling to his feet, and unclipping his parachute pack, Burns became aware of the most intense pain in his back. Realising that he needed help quickly, he staggered towards a distant light, which turned out to be emanating from a railway signal box. As he approached it, Burns collapsed, but his shouts for help were responded to by the German signalman, who summoned help. Over the next six weeks, the gallant Burns regained his strength and made a gradual recovery, aided by the humane and skilful work of the German doctors. However, it was only when he was transferred to the Luftwaffe interrogation centre, called Dulag Luft, that it became apparent he had broken his back. From then on his recovery was a slow process at Obermassfeld Hospital, but there was some comfort for Burns, when he received the news that he had been awarded the DSO. The citation for his award reads: –
“This officer has participated in a large number of sorties involving attacks on dock installations and industrial centres in Germany, and important targets in Italy. His efforts throughout have been characterised by an inflexible determination to achieve success. On more than one occasion his aircraft has been damaged by enemy action, but each time his persistence and skill have enabled him to reach and bomb his target. Wing Commander Burns has displayed high qualities of leadership, courage and devotion to duty.”
Subsequent medical examinations indicated that Burns would never be fit to fly again, and that he should be repatriated, but it was not until September 1944 that he was eventually returned to the UK. After having a claw fitted to his right arm, Burns was able to operate the throttles of a Lancaster and managed to resume his flying career. Wing Commander Alabaster, describing Burns, recalled, ‘Bobby’ Burns was a first-rate man, of whom I cannot speak too highly. I remember he had a little joke of using his claw to rip the flies of any unwary drinker standing near him in the mess!”
Finis: It is said that after the war Burns became a transport pilot and he often left his artificial hand attached to the control column when he went back for a rest, which sometimes disconcerted passengers visiting the flight deck.