Gone for a Burton

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Gone for a Burton is a euphemistic phrase meaning to die. It was used in World War II especially in the Royal Air Force when referring to aircrew who had crashed or been killed in action.


Before WWII the Burton Brewery ran a series of advertisements for Burton's Beer. In these adverts the characters would use the phrase to explain the absence of one of the characters in the advert, implying that they had gone for a pint of Burton's. One of the adverts (at least) was football related and featured teammates asking the location of a missing player (probably the goalkeeper/referee??) and being told he had 'gone for a Burton'.[citation needed] During WWII pilots used the phrase to describe the absence of pilots who had failed to return from a mission.

A variety of origins have been suggested for the phrase. The term Burton is thought to refer either to Burton ale or to Montague Burton, the tailors. A detailed account of the latter was given by Mr Peter Sanders,[1]

My wife, who was in the WAAF during World War II, tells me that the RAF took over some billiard halls above the Montague Burton shops as medical centres and consequently the excuse "he (or she) has gone for a Burton" originally meant no more than absence for a medical inspection, inoculation, etc.

My father, Norman Geare from Bournemouth, told me his certainty of the origin. He and I often discussed the often obscure linkages that others were ascribing to the expression. He volunteered for the RAF in late 1939 or early 1940. This was before the RAF had expanded its training camps to accommodate the tens of thousands of conscripts. In those early war years, the RAF used B&Bs and small hotels in Blackpool as billets for the RAF recruits. They were marched up and down the prom, and then given technical and procedural training in cinemas and theatres. A significant element of that was radio and Morse code. Before leaving their basic training in Blackpool, the recruits were tested on their radio/Morse ability. Those that passed would be designated as radio operators - either airborne or ground based. Those that failed would go on to General Duties - including training as Air Gunners. Even in those early years, the recruits knew the life-expectancy of bomber-crew gunners was very short. The test was held in a large room above Burtons the Tailors in Blackpool. So, to go for the test and fail was almost a fate too terrible to contemplate. "He's gone for a Burton" simply meant its odds-on he'll be a tail-gunner in a Wellington, and dead in a few weeks! My father passed the test and served throughout the war as a ground-based Radio Direction Finder. His experience of the expression was very early on in the war, and he carried it with him thereafter. It is quite understandable that others, especially RAF, picked up the expression and applied it in a similar context.

More specifically, during WWII the RAF's Aircrew Reassignment Office was located above the Montague Burton shop in High Holborn and it was here that aircrew who had failed their flying training were re-assigned to a ground trade within the RAF, or transferred to the Royal Navy or, more usually, the Army. Hence anyone who had "Gone for a Burton" was a loss from the RAF's aircrew community.

Usage today[edit]

In the modern day, the phrase can mean numerous things other than death. A thing can be said to have 'gone for a Burton' if it is broken or lost. A person who has been said to have 'gone for a Burton' can also have gone missing or failed, rather than died.

Gone for a Burton, was also used by American and RAF WWII crew and pilots of RAF Burtonwood Airbase during the war, the term was referring to the local village of Burtonwood and Burtonwood Ales Brewery.


  1. ^ Eric Partridge, Paul Beale (1986-12-04), A dictionary of catch phrases, pp. 161–162, ISBN 978-0-415-05916-9