4 February 1921 |
East Dulwich, London
|Service/branch||Royal Air Force|
|Years of service||1941-1945|
|Unit||No. 85 Squadron RAF
No. 141 Squadron RAF
No. 157 Squadron RAF
No. 100 Squadron RAF
|Awards||Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
|Other work||Scripture Union|
Wing Commander Bransome Arthur "Branse" Burbridge DSO* DFC* (born 4 February 1921) is a former RAF night fighter pilot and flying ace who holds the Allied record of 21 confirmed 'kills' during World War II.
Born in East Dulwich the son of a Wesleyan preacher, Burbridge lived in Knebworth and was educated at Alleyne's School in Stevenage. At the outbreak of Second World War in September 1939, he was working as an insurance clerk. Although he had initially indicated that he would register as a conscientious objector, he came to the view that the war was a just cause, and joined the Royal Air Force in February 1941, shortly after his 20th birthday, preempting his registration under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, due on 22 February 1941. His brother, Jarvis, was already serving in Bomber Command but was shot down and was a prisoner of war.
After pilot training at No. 54 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Church Fenton, he was posted to No. 85 Squadron RAF at RAF Hunsdon in October 1941, flying Douglas Havocs - the night fighter variant of the Boston. Burbridge claimed his first successes - a probable Junkers 88 over Ipswich on 1 June 1942 and a Dornier 217 damaged over Canterbury two nights later. Tour-expired, in late 1942 he was posted as an instructor to 62 OTU at RAF Unsworth and then briefly to 141 and 157 Squadrons.
Teaming up with Bill Skelton
He returned to 85 Squadron at RAF West Malling in July 1943 as a Flight Lieutenant. 85 Squadron was commanded by John "Cat’s Eyes" Cunningham, and it was here that Burbridge teamed up with Flying Officer Bill Skelton as his Navigator/Radar Operator (they had met at RAF Unsworth).
Fellow navigator at 85 Squadron, Jimmy Rawnsley, described the pair thusly in his post war book Night Fighters:
Of all the crew I knew during the war, the most interesting, to my mind, was made up of Branse Burbridge and Bill Skelton ... not only were these two the most interesting and capable young men, but they also flew what was probably the most extraordinary of all long-range escort patrols ever accomplished ... from the moment they crewed up together for their second tour of flying, Branse and Bill hit it off together both on the ground and in the air. They had the perfect and all too rare understanding that characterised the best crews, and which enabled them to work together almost as one man.
It was not only that Branse was an excellent pilot, and that Bill was a first-rate navigator: they had also developed the ability to anticipate each other’s moves, to work with a minimum of chatter and without friction and argument, and almost to read one another’s thoughts; and the months of gruelling work flying from West Malling against fighter-bombers in the raids on London had put the final polish on their individual skill and on their work as a team. In the far more exacting conditions of offensive operations, where only the master craftsman could hope for consistent success, they climbed the individual score-board in a meteoric fashion, and established a record night bag for any one crew.
Burbridge had far more success flying Mosquitoes with this squadron, initially on home defence duties prior to June 1944, than on bomber support operations with No. 100 Group RAF against the Luftwaffe's Nachtgeschwaders. With radar operator Flight Lieutenant Bill Skelton alongside him, he claimed 21 kills over the next ten months, 16 over occupied Europe.
They opened their account on the night of 22–23 February 1944, destroying a Messerschmitt Me 410 south-east of Beachy Head. During the night of 24–25 March, they claimed a Dornier 217 damaged (later confirmed destroyed) and then after encountering more enemy aircraft off Dover, they downed a Junkers 88.
Their next confirmed 'kill came during the evening of 18–19 April, south of Sandgate, Kent, when a three second burst from 300 feet destroyed a Junkers 188, it crashing into the sea. Burbridge reached flying ace status on the 25–26 April, after shooting down a Messerschmitt Me 410 south of Selsey Bill. For this act, Burbridge was recommended for the immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
Bar to the DFC
Burbridge and Skelton then flew missions supporting the D-Day landings, and on the night of 15 June 1944, shot down "a Ju 188" (incorrectly identified by the crew) of Major Wilhelm Herget of I/NJG 4. Herget and his crew bailed out and the Junkers 88G-1 (Work Number 710833) crashed south-west of Nivelles. The crash site was initially excavated in the summer of 2008. On the 23 June they suffered engine damage from the debris of their next victim, another Junkers 88.
For the growing tally of 'kills', Burbridge was recommended for a Bar to his DFC. In the late summer of 1944 he also managed to shot down three V-1 flying bombs. In September, Burbridge started more offensive sorties and on the 12th downed Junkers 188 over the Baltic Sea and added two further Junkers 88s over Gutersloh airfield on the 14–15 October,and four days later another Junkers 188 over Metz.
DSO and Bar
It was in November that Burbridge an Skelton, now becoming well known as the Night Hawks, claimed their best single night tally. On the 5th, over Bonn, they shot down four enemy aircraft (with just 200 of 700 rounds of ammunition expended) - three Junkers 88s and a Messerschmitt 110. This night's actions earned Burbridge his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
More enemy aircraft fell to the Night Hawks; over Mannheimon 22 November 1944 they claimed a Messerschmitt 110 and a Junkers 88 near Bonn. On the night of 12–13 December they shot down another Messerschmitt 110 and Junkers 88 outside Essen and ten days later one more Messerschmitt 110 near Koblenz.
Burbridge's and Skeltons 21st and final confirmed 'kill' came shortly into January 1945 when south-west of Ludwigshafen they downed a Junkers 88. This confirmed victory made them the highest scoring British and Commonwealth night fighter partnership of the War. For this action Burbridge received a Bar to his DSO.
Burbridge left No. 85 Squadron in March 1945 to become commanding officer of the Night Fighter Leader’s School. He was later awarded the American DFC.
Burbridge is quoted as saying "I always tried to aim for the wings of enemy aircraft and not the cockpit. I never wanted to kill anyone."
List of air victories
Burbridge ended the war the RAF's highest ranking night fighter ace, claiming 21 confirmed destroyed.
|Victory No.||Date||Squadron||Enemy aircraft||Notes|
|1.||22 Feb 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Messerschmitt Me 410||Beachy Head|
|2 & 3||25 March 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Dorner 217 and Junkers 88||Dover|
|4||19 April 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 188||Sandgate|
|5||26 April 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Messerschmitt Me 410||Selsey Bill|
|6||15 June 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 188||Nivelles|
|7||23 June 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 88|
|8||12 September 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 188||Baltic Sea|
|9 & 10||15 October 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Two Junkers 88s||Gutersloh airfield|
|11||19 October 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 188||Metz|
|12, 13, 14 & 15||5 November 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Three Junkers 88s and one Messerschmitt Me 110||Emmrich on Rhine|
|16 & 17||22 November 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 88 and Messerschmitt Me 110||Mannheimon|
|18 & 19||13 December 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 88 and Messerschmitt Me 110||Essen|
|20||23 December 1944||No. 85 Squadron||Messerschmitt Me 110||Koblenz|
|21||5 January 1945||No. 85 Squadron||Junkers 88||Ludwigshafen|
A committed evangelical Anglican, Burbridge studied theology at the University of Oxford after the war, before becoming a full-time worker and lay preacher for the Scripture Union. In the 1970s he was a member of the pastoral team at St Aldate's Church, Oxford.
Sale of medals
In February 2013 Burbridge's family reported that he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and they were considering selling his medals and wartime memorabilia to fund his private care home. On 25 March 2013, Burbridge's medals fetched £155,000 at auction
Honours and awards
|Distinguished Service Order (DSO)||Jan 1945 with Bars Mar 1945|
|Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)||Jun 1944 with Bar Nov 1944|
|War Medal 1939–1945|
|Air Crew Europe Star|
|Distinguished Flying Cross (United States)||1946|
- John Cunningham - another British night fighter ace.
- Jimmy Rawnsley - Cunninghams's navigator/radar operator.
- Bob Braham - another British night fighter ace.
- "In Britain's hour of need, he shot down 21 Nazi planes. Now, in HIS hour of need, World War II hero has to sell his medals to pay for care". The Daily Mail. 26 February 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
- "Bransome Burbridge's World War II medals sold to pay for care". The BBC. 28 February 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
- "Lot 1187". Dix Noonan Webb Auctioneers. 25 March 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013.