Date of Auction: 25th March 2013
Sold for £155,000
Estimate: £100,000 - £120,000
‘In ten months from March 1944, these two fearless fliers carried out over a hundred operational sorties and shot down twenty enemy planes. Each of them in the same period won the D.S.O. and Bar, and the D.F.C. and Bar. Sixteen of their victories were scored the hard way, during thirty missions deep into the heart of enemy territory. Five times they had to fly back to base on one engine, and on one occasion their Mosquito was hit and caught fire over Hamburg, but Burbridge, by means of some expert flying skill and a little luck, managed to put out the fire and limp home across the North Sea. Four times they returned to their airfield to report the destruction of two enemy planes during a single patrol. On one occasion they claimed four victories during one patrol.’
The Fighter Aces of the R.A.F., by E. C. R. Baker, referring to the remarkable night fighter partnership of “Branse” Burbridge and “Bill” Skelton
‘The year was 1945. The scene was the throne room at Buckingham Palace, filled to capacity for an investiture. Without looking round, the King reached behind to pick up some medals which his aide Group Captain Peter Townsend had placed on a velvet cushion: in front of him, rigid to attention, stood Branse Burbridge. Strange how at the most solemn moments of life the mind sometimes wanders: Branse, as he was known to everyone, remembered how Peter Townsend, at one time his C.O., had said he would put a kipper on the cushion instead of the medals! But of course it was no kipper that the King pinned on his tunic, but a D.S.O., with Bar, and a D.F.C. with Bar.’
Branse Burbridge describes a memorable day at the Palace
The highly important Second World War ace’s D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar group of six awarded to Wing Commander B. A. “Branse” Burbridge, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, the highest scoring British and Commonwealth night fighter pilot of the War, who surpassed “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham’s score with a final total of 21 confirmed victories, all bar one of them in partnership with his friend and navigator Flight Lieutenant “Bill” Skelton: known as the “Night Hawk Partners”, both studied for the Church immediately after the War - for flying at 300 m.p.h above the clouds ‘was the perfect place for theological discussion’
Distinguished Service Order, G.VI.R., 1st issue, with Second Award Bar, the reverse of the suspension bar officially dated ‘1945’ and the reverse of the Bar officially dated ‘1945’, in its Garrard & Co. case of issue; Distinguished Flying Cross, G.VI.R., 1st issue, with Second Award Bar, the reverse officially dated ‘1944’ and the reverse of the Bar officially dated ‘1944’, in its Royal Mint case of issue; 1939-45 Star; Air Crew Europe Star, clasp, France and Germany; War Medal 1939-45; United States of America, Distinguished Flying Cross, in its case of issue with lapel badge, generally good very fine and better (7) £100000-120000
D.S.O. London Gazette 2 January 1945: The original recommendation states:
‘Squadron Leader Burbridge commenced operational flying in October 1941, when he was posted to No. 85 Squadron. After completing his tour he was sent to 62 O.T.U. for a period of seven months as an instructor.
In July 1943, he was posted back to No. 85 (Night Fighter) Squadron and up to the time when the Squadron was posted to 100 Group he had destroyed four enemy aircraft and probably destroyed a fifth. Involving over 100 defensive sorties and 254 operational hours. For this meritorious service he was awarded the D.F.C.
Squadron Leader Burbridge was awarded a Bar to his D.F.C. in October 1944 after destroying a further three enemy aircraft and three flying bombs on 10 offensive and 17 defensive sorties.
Since the award of a Bar to his D.F.C., Squadron Leader Burbridge has completed a further 10 bomber support sorties and has destroyed a further six enemy aircraft and probably a seventh.
On 14 October 1944, while on a high level bomber support sortie to Brunswick, he had nearly finished his patrol line when he noticed some enemy signals being fired from an airfield underneath him. He immediately dived to investigate and soon obtained a contact and finally a visual on a Ju. 88 circling the airfield. This he destroyed. Shortly afterwards he had a further combat with another Ju. 88 and destroyed this also.
On 19 October 1944, while on a high level bomber support sortie to Nurnberg, he had just set course for his base at 5,000 feet when his Operator reported a contact well above. Squadron Leader Burbridge immediately climbed up to 10,000 feet and saw a Ju. 88 about 3,000 feet behind a Lancaster bomber which it was presumably about to attack. Squadron Leader Burbridge prevented that attack from taking place by destroying the Ju. 88.
On 4 November 1944, while on a high level bomber support sortie to Bochum he intercepted and destroyed three Ju. 88s and one Me. 110.
Squadron Leader Burbridge has now completed 20 bomber support sorties, both high level and low level, and also a great many defensive sorties. He has destroyed 14 enemy aircraft and probably destroyed one more.
This officer is an outstanding example to the Flight which he commands and the rest of the Squadron. His keenness to engage the enemy can be gauged by the success he has enjoyed and he richly deserves the immediate award of the D.S.O.’
Bar to D.S.O. London Gazette 13 March 1945. The original recommendation states:
‘On the night of 2 January 1945, this pilot destroyed a Ju. 88 south of Ludwigshaven, thereby securing his 20th enemy aircraft destroyed by night in just over 10 months, and beating the night-fighting record held by his former C.O., Group Captain J. Cunningham, D.S.O., D.F.C.
Just previously on 22 December 1944, he had destroyed an Me. 110. On 12 December 1944, whilst shooting down an Me. 110 his A.I. became partially unserviceable and he was in turn attacked by another enemy aircraft which scored a hit in the port wing. Nothing daunted, Squadron Leader Burbridge continued his patrol and shot down a Ju. 88 over Bonn airfield.
This officer was awarded the D.S.O. after destroying four enemy aircraft in one sortie on 4 November 1944. Since that award, he has completed a further 11 sorties and has destroyed six more enemy aircraft. In all, he has carried out 31 offensive patrols in support of bomber operations; on four separate occasions he has destroyed two or more enemy aircraft during one sortie. His marksmanship is exceptional; he has no probables or damaged in his score with 100 Group. What is perhaps equally creditable is the fact that on five different occasions he has had to return from his patrol line on one engine and each time he has made a safe landing at base.
Squadron Leader Burbridge has set an inspiring example not only on operations but in every other sphere, and in recognition of his devotion to duty and magnificent fighting spirit, I recommend him for the immediate award of a Bar to his D.S.O.’
D.F.C. London Gazette 2 June 1944. The original recommendations states:
‘Flight Lieutenant Burbridge has carried out a very great deal of operational flying on night fighters.
On the night of 22-23 February 1944, he shot down an Me. 410 into the sea in flames; on the night of 24-25 March 1944, he destroyed a Ju. 88 and very probably destroyed a Do. 217 which was last seen diving into cloud apparently on fire; on the night of 18-19 April 1944, he shot down a Ju. 188 into the sea off Dymchurch.
Flight Lieutenant Burbridge has thus destroyed three enemy aircraft and very probably a fourth. He has shown the greatest keenness to engage the enemy on both his operational tours on night fighters and has lost no opportunity of improving his standard of night interception work.’
Bar to D.F.C. London Gazette 10 November 1944. The original recommendation states:
‘Since the award of the D.F.C., Squadron Leader Burbridge has assumed command of ‘A’ Flight. He has worked very hard as a Flight Commander and has carried out a large amount of operational flying including 10 bomber support sorties resulting in three enemy aircraft destroyed and 17 flying bomb patrols resulting in three flying bombs destroyed.
On 14 June 1944, he destroyed a Ju. 188 near Charleroi. On 24 June 1944, he destroyed a Ju. 88 near Coulommiers. Wreckage from the enemy aircraft struck his radiator which necessitated a single-engined return journey.
On 11 September 1944, he destroyed a Ju. 188 over Denmark, and again pressed home the attack to close range, resulting in wreckage hitting his radiators and yet another single-engine return journey over some 400 miles of sea.
This officer has now destroyed seven enemy aircraft and probably an eighth. He has lost no opportunity in seeking out and engaging the enemy where ever he might be and has been a splendid example to the rest of the Squadron.’
United States of America D.F.C. London Gazette 14 June 1946.
Bransome Arthur “Branse” Burbridge was born in East Dulwich, London, in February 1921, the son of a Wesleyan preacher, and was educated at Alleyne’s School in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where he enjoyed music and fostered an ambition to study art. Duly entering Camberwell Art College, the theft of a term’s fees placed sufficient strain on family finances for young Branse to find alternative employment in the City of London, where he was working in an insurance company on the outbreak of hostilities.
As a committed Christian and pacifist, however, he initially registered himself as a Conscientious Objector - a courageous decision in light of the treatment of C.Os in the Great War. But with the passage of time he felt increasing unease at his predicament, so much so that in February 1941, shortly after his 20th birthday, he joined the Royal Air Force, in which a brother, Jarvis, was already serving in Bomber Command - Jarvis was to be shot down and taken P.O.W.
Selected for pilot training, he qualified for his Flying Badge in July 1941 and, having honed his skills at an Operational Training Unit at Church Fenton where he gained an ‘above average’ pilot rating, the newly commissioned Burbridge was posted to No. 85 Squadron that October - commanded by ex-Battle of Britain fighter ace Peter Townsend, the Squadron had recently taken delivery of Havocs.
Early days - Havocs
Operating out of Hunsdon in Hertfordshire, No. 85 had served with mixed results as a night fighter unit for several months, originally in Hurricanes and Defiants. The arrival of the American Havoc - a night fighter variant of the Boston - was greeted with some optimism, though as described by Peter Townsend in Duel in the Dark, it did not live up to expectations, the replacement of the nose compartment with heavy radar equipment and a dozen machine-guns causing the aircraft to be slow and tricky to handle, while the later Turbinlite version with a searchlight fitted in place of the nose compartment made an excellent target for enemy gunners. Moreover, as Townsend wrote: ‘The tips of the propeller blades whirled round within a few inches of the pilot’s ears. Climbing into an aeroplane cockpit was one thing; getting out - in a hurry - was quite another problem. I did not fancy the prospect of baling out of a Havoc.’
An early casualty was the popular ace “Sammy” Allard, who was killed while delivering the second Havoc to Hunsdon, when the gun inspection panel became detached and struck the aircraft’s tail plane. And Burbridge had his own close shave when coming in to land in the Mk. I variant - the entire nose section falling on to the runway. Notwithstanding such perils, 85’s pilots persevered and for his own part, after numerous sorties, Burbridge claimed his first successes - a probable Ju. 88 over Ipswich on 1 June 1942 and a Do. 217 damaged over Canterbury two nights later.
“The Night Hawk Partners”, Burbridge right
In September 1942, No. 85 re-equipped with Mosquito IIs, though Burbridge was rested a month or two later with an appointment as an O.T.U. instructor at R.A.F. Unsworth, where he remained employed until returning to operations with No. 85 Squadron at West Malling in July 1943 - albeit with two very brief attachments to 141 and 157 Squadrons. Here, under the command of John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham, he teamed up with Flying Officer F. S. “Bill” Skelton as his Navigator / Operator, whom he had met and befriended at Unsworth, the commencement of the most successful British and Commonwealth night fighter partnership of the War.
In Night Fighter, C. F. “Jimmy” Rawnsley, John “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham’s much decorated navigator, describes at length the extraordinary achievements of the Burbridge-Skelton partnership:
‘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 ... ’
And it was in the latter stages of the aforementioned defensive operations from West Malling that they ‘opened their account’ with a confirmed Me. 410 south-east of Beachy Head on the night of 22-23 February 1944:
‘Pilot drew in dead astern at 400 feet range and opened fire with a long burst. The port engine on the enemy aircraft immediately burst into flames, and one parachute was seen by the Operator to leave the aircraft and pass over the top of the Mosquito. The flames spread to the fuselage of the enemy aircraft, followed by an explosion, and burning pieces fell off. The enemy aircraft turned slowly to starboard on to its back and dived vertically into the sea in flames’.
The same report also records an expenditure of 200 rounds of ammunition; a figure not without interest in view of forthcoming events.
On the night of 24-25 March, Burbridge and Skelton claimed a Do. 217 damaged after gaining numerous strikes during a spectacular combat fought from 19,000 down to 3,000 feet, debris from the enemy aircraft hitting their Mosquito; shortly afterwards vectored on to further enemy aircraft off Dover, they added a confirmed Ju. 88 to their tally, the latter crashing into the sea as Burbridge pulled his aircraft up from 1,000 feet. Better still, Intelligence later confirmed the Do. 217 as destroyed.
A little under a month later, on the night of 18-19 April, south of Sandgate, Burbridge delivered a three second burst from 300 feet against a Ju. 188 - it plunged like a stone and exploded on hitting the sea.
Ace status - D.F.C.
On the 25-26 April, the rapidly emerging “Night Hawks” attained ace status, bringing down an Me. 410 south of Selsey Bill. Their combat report states:
‘I closed in to 500 feet and identified the bandit as an Me. 410. I then drew astern and fired a long burst of about seven seconds from 150 yards range: the time was 0507 hours. There were strikes and two very bright flashes in the starboard engine of the enemy aircraft, which engine burst into flames and continued to burn steadily. Oil which streamed back over our windscreen made observation difficult, but the enemy aircraft seemed to be flying on, weaving erratically and losing height gently in spite of the bonfire in its starboard engine. I positioned myself astern again and tried to fire another burst, but the guns would not respond: this was probably due to overheating.
I flew alongside for a few moments and observed the top hatch was apparently open. The fuselage and tail plane were well illuminated by the increasing flames, so I drew away to starboard and turned in to expose several feet of cine film independently of the guns ... but further shooting was rendered unnecessary by the sudden steep dive to port of the enemy aircraft. It went straight down. I dived down after it through a layer of cloud and Flight Lieutenant Skelton and myself saw it hit the sea with a big explosion at 0509 hours ... ’
Burbridge was recommended for an immediate award of the D.F.C.
Nearing double figures - Bar to D.F.C.
Having then flown in support of the D-Day landings, Burbridge and Skelton commenced a flurry of operations over Occupied France, one such, on the night of 14-15 June, resulting in the destruction of a Ju. 188, piloted by Luftwaffe “Experte” Major Wilhelm Herget, south-west of Nivelles - the latter managed to take to his parachute before the Junkers hit the ground with a terrific explosion, though not before flying debris had reduced the “Night Hawks” to one engine. A little over a week later, on the night of the 23rd, they were once more compelled to return to base on one engine - having been hit by the debris from their next victim, a Ju. 88.
Burbridge was recommended for a Bar to his D.F.C. and advanced to Squadron Leader, and now turned his attention to the V-1 menace, downing three such weapons over the south coast in July-August.
Back on regular night fighter sorties by September, and now very much in support of Bomber Command’s offensive, pilot and operator added a Ju. 188 over the Baltic Sea on the night of the 11th-12th, the latter succumbing to two bursts of fire from 600 yards range; followed by a brace of Ju. 88s over Gutersloh airfield on the 14-15 October, from one of which a parachute was deployed, and a Ju. 188 over Metz on the 19th-20th.
Four down in a night - ‘the most extraordinary of all long-range escort patrols ever accomplished’ - D.S.O.
But it was in the following month on the night of the 4-5 November that the “Night Hawks” claimed their greatest success - four enemy aircraft confirmed over the Bonn area for the price of just 200 rounds of ammunition, an accomplishment which “Jimmy” Rawnsley considered one of the most remarkable of the War:
‘The show that Branse and Bill put up on the night of 4 November 1944, I liked to think, was something that really spoke for all the men who reversed the order of things, who broke into the customer’s premises and cheerfully assaulted his assistants, who ruined his trade, and who finally wrecked the shop.’
‘That night Branse and Bill set out from Swannington as part of a mighty bomber effort. The main force of over seven hundred aircraft was to raid Bochum, in the Ruhr, and there were to be other smaller raids on the Dortmund-Ems Canal and on Hanover. Nearly four years had passed since that first successful A.I. combat of John Cunningham's; and what a difference those years had made. Those early night fighters of ours had fought back like stubborn full-backs defending a packed goalmouth. Now their successors were going out like an eager forward line thrusting aggressively into the enemy's penalty area.
At twenty thousand feet above the cold waters of the North Sea, Branse and Bill set course eastward for the Rhine. In the darkness with them the Pathfinders were dog-legging their way to the targets inside Germany, and then came the heavies, shaking the windows of the East Coast towns with the deep thunder of their engines as they streamed out in their hundreds. The night fighters were in their appointed places along the flanks, forming a cordon through which the German night fighters would have to pierce before they could get at the bombers. And in carefully-planned positions there were all the other aircraft of 100 Group, special aircraft loaded to the gills with all sorts of fanciful radio and radar equipment, all designed to mislead and jam the German radar screens and radio communications.
For a while, until they reached a pre-arranged position, and in order not to betray by their transmissions their presence to the enemy's monitor stations, they had, in common with everybody else, kept radio and radar silence. But as soon as they were past five degrees east Bill reached forward to the control panel of his A.I. set and switched on, his fingers ranging over the mass of controls and buttons, finding them automatically in the darkness. The Mosquito was no longer blind and groping, a helpless target; it had become a questing and deadly hunter.
They were over the enemy coast, and keeping a sharp lookout for anything that might come their way. The German fighters were probably all off the ground by now, but their radio and radar must have been hopelessly bedevilled by interference. Bill was getting plenty of German interference on his own Gee set, making it difficult to fix his position; but the A.I. was quite free of it as the Germans had not yet caught on to a means of jamming our later types of radar such as Mark X.
Suddenly Bill stiffened, and his right hand slid along the control panel. Something had come into the radar vision of the Mosquito, and he warned Branse that he thought he had a contact. Branse instinctively switched on the gun-sight, carefully and deliberately adjusting its brilliance. Bill was watching the little blob of light of the blip on the cathode ray tube as it smeared its glowing, snail track across the face. He was shrewdly weighing things up, waiting for the right moment to act. Then he gave a few instructions, and the Mosquito went curving down after its target. They began to close in with suspicious ease, which caused Branse to comment that it might be a new boy they were after. When they were fifteen hundred feet behind their target they started to slow down; and when they were in to twelve hundred feet Branse caught sight of it, identifying it as hostile.
As with all good crews, Branse and Bill always made a point of each of them identifying separately the aircraft they were intercepting and then making up their minds about it. With this one Bill needed only a quick glance through his night binoculars to decide that it was a Ju. 88G.
Neither of them said a word as they pulled up behind the still unsuspecting German and Branse opened fire. Flames leapt from the engine cowlings as the Junkers was hit, and it began to wilt. But it still flew on, wallowing and undecided, and the flames dwindled. Branse hit the Junkers again in the same place, the port engine, and the fire broke out afresh. The enemy aircraft sagged and went into an ever-steepening dive, and then it exploded into the ground.
Only the glowing wreckage of their victim, scattered across the fields, disturbed the darkness below them. Branse banked the Mosquito around, and started to climb back towards their patrol line. They reached their beat and settled down to wait, keeping station in that wide arc of unseen fighters ringing the target. Inside, the Pathfinders were lining themselves up, making sure of their aiming points, and then the target indicators went down.
The German fighters would now come heading in from miles around and, after a while, their flares began to stab the darkness. Branse and Bill went off to search around one or two that were fairly close. But they did not pick up any contacts, so they went on waiting and watching, curbing their impatience and resisting the temptation to rush off in the direction of the fireworks. They knew that they must not leave a dangerous gap in the ring of night fighters which was standing guard out there in the darkness.
Nearly three-quarters of an hour passed after their first combat, and the bombers were already heading for home before Bill got another contact. They turned off in pursuit, and as soon as they straightened out behind their target Bill realised that this one was not going to be so easy. The blip showed from its position that the other aircraft was four miles away, and it was swinging about the tube in a way that suggested that regular, routine evasive action was being taken. But there was nothing half-hearted about the evasion, and even at long range Bill had to start taking quite severe counter-action in order to follow it. The closer they got the harder they had to work. This one was an old hand, taking no chances. Branse had scarcely got the Mosquito twisting into one manoeuvre than Bill was pouring out instructions for another.
And all through Bill's commentary, woven into the constant stream of instructions, there were clear-cut word pictures which told Branse where to look for the target, and how it was behaving.
The occasional acknowledgements Branse made were scarcely noticed by Bill. The tubes told him far better than any words how short the time lag was between his calling an order and its execution by Branse, and slowly they closed in. Bill was getting dry in the mouth, but at twelve hundred feet Branse raised his voice to stem the torrent of words and said that he could see their target.
Bill was longing to have a look, but there was a note of warning in Branse's voice, and he kept his head down on the set. The blip had locked itself in that fixed position that it always did when the pilot could see and follow the target; but even then the Mosquito was being thrown about in the heat of the chase, and Bill was being lifted out of his seat at one moment and having his face jammed down on the visor the next.
Branse was having difficulty seeing the other aircraft against the ground when it went below the horizon, but he was closing in, and just as Bill reported that they were only six hundred feet behind Branse called on him to identify it. They agreed that it was another Ju. 88. It was twisting, climbing and diving in a regular, corkscrew motion. Branse timed his final approach carefully, diving a little as the German levelled off at the top of the next swoop so as to bring the target above his horizon. Quickly he brought the sight on to his favourite aiming point - the port engine - and pressed the button. But instead of a roar from the cannon all he got was the mocking buzz of the camera-gun. By mistake he had pressed the camera-gun button. He adjusted his grip on the stick and pressed the second one. The cannon crashed into life, and the deadly burst struck home. But the target showed no signs of blowing up or even of hesitating in its course. Instead it instantly dived out of sight below the horizon. But it could not escape from the vision of the A.I. set. Although the German pilot had reacted quickly, Bill was even quicker in getting back on to the set. They twisted and dived with the frantic urgency of the hunted and the hunter. But Bill held on, and five minutes later, when they had lost a lot of height and were down to three thousand feet, Branse again had the other aircraft in sight.
Opening fire, Branse scored more hits; but again the Junkers dived away out of sight. This time Bill could not hold it: they were getting close enough to the ground to be handicapped by the ground returns. His voice was becoming hoarse, and despondently he remarked that they could claim that one as nothing more than damaged. But even as he spoke the darkness was broken by the familiar splash of red along the ground as something went in a mile or so ahead of them.
Bill made another brief entry about it in his log. The bombers must have been on their way home by that time, and they should have been thinking about it too. But Branse had other views. There was an established plan used by all night fighters in this situation. They would turn on to the homeward route followed by our bombers and fly back in towards the target area with the object of trying to intercept any head-on contacts, hoping that these would turn out to be German night fighters looking for stragglers from the bomber force. They continued on the new heading for about two minutes, and then Branse saw, far to the eastward, the twinkling lights of an airfield. Then a cluster of red and white stars dropped from the sky. The German fighters, finding that our bombers were all well on the way back, were themselves returning home to roost. Branse pushed the stick forward, and the Mosquito went howling down towards the distant lights, quickly losing all the height they had only just gained. Bill identified it as the aerodrome at Bonn-Hangelar. And then they saw an aircraft touching down.
Freelancing at a height of less than a thousand feet, even with the best radar set made, was a bit of a gamble, although all our crews were well practised at that game. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that they lost the snap contact and very fleeting visual which caught them on the wrong foot a few minutes later. But again they had a plan to meet the situation, a plan that had been worked out and practised with the other crews of the squadron. Branse turned and began to orbit the airfield in a right-hand circuit, flying into the stream of returning traffic. They kept below a thousand feet, scanning upwards to try and pick out a head-on contact from the swamping ground echoes.
Their chance came a few minutes later. Bill seized on the contact, and Branse hauled the Mosquito around into the left-hand circuit, turning as hard as he dared so close to the ground. Glancing shrewdly at the airfield ahead, he saw that there was certainly no time to lose, and he hesitated about slowing down as they closed in. But a rising note in Bill's voice carried its own warning, and Branse started pulling back the throttles. Immediately afterwards there was an almost panic urgency in Bill's voice, and Branse quickly dropped the wheels and put on a few degrees of flap; and the Mosquito came slithering in with the engine speed warning horn blaring away and the exhaust stubs crackling.
Bill kept his head down on the set, watching the blip as it slid down the trace. He went on reporting its position until finally, at minimum range, it disappeared from view. Then, instinctively, he looked up. Just above the windscreen, and still creeping back towards them, there was the ominous black shape of an Me. 110, the most efficient of the German night fighters, known to the Luftwaffe as the Destroyer. Even without his night binoculars he could see all too clearly the black crosses and the bristling array of radar aerials; and the wheels and the flaps of the 110 were already down in preparation for landing.
The German crew were far too absorbed in their approach towards the runway to notice the menace beneath their tail, and, hanging precariously on its flaps, the Mosquito slowly dropped away behind it. Branse began to breathe more easily. He pulled up behind his target. There was no time to spare for any fancy shooting, and his shells riddled the Messerschmitt. Blazing from end to end, it plunged into the river just short of the aerodrome.
Although time was running short, Branse decided that there was too much trade about to leave unattended, so they flew away from the aerodrome for a while to let the consternation on the ground die down. Then they turned back; and the radar scanner swept once more across the countryside of the approaches to the airfield, picking up and flooding the tube with an assortment of echoes from the ground. Then, as it swept the sky above, yet another contact appeared. On Bill's instructions, Branse opened up and they followed it around the circuit, cutting the corners as they got the measure of things. They closed in quickly, and as they came around on the final leg Branse throttled back and lowered his flaps a little so as to make sure that he would not overshoot. But when he did finally see the other aircraft there was no sign of its wheels being down ready for a landing. Patiently he stalked it while Bill checked its identity. Even at this late hour they could take no chances; there was always the possibility of another Mosquito joining in the same game. The seconds that were ticking by were precious enough; but they had to be sure of what they were attacking. Then Bill confirmed that it was another Ju. 88.
The Junkers was nearing the airfield when Branse got his sight on and fired straight into the fuselage. The whole cockpit cover broke away. Branse set his teeth, and pulled up through the scattering debris. Almost on the perimeter, he banked the Mosquito steeply away from their fourth victim as it smacked down in a mass of blazing wreckage just outside the wire and in full sight of the waiting ground crews.
After that they realized that time was running short so they turned away and set course for England. Bill settled down to some navigation, juggling with fuel consumption and cruising speeds and times, and Branse followed the course he gave him.
Many years later Bob Wright described to me the way Branse came into the crew-room after they landed, quietly, almost unobserved. Bob saw him at the door and went across to him and asked him what luck they had had. Branse smiled and gently polished his nails on the lapel of his jacket, and then he held up three fingers. "Three," he said; "possibly four."
And from the evidence of what other crews had seen that night it was confirmed that they had indeed destroyed four in that one patrol. Moreover, in doing it Branse had fired only two hundred rounds out of the total of seven hundred rounds of ammunition carried by the Mosquito night fighter.’
The most successful British and Commonwealth night fighter pilot of the War - Bar to D.S.O.
And the partnership’s score continued to climb, an Me. 110 being downed east of Mannheim on the night of 21-22 November - which damaged their cockpit with return fire - and a Ju. 88 back over Bonn, while in a newly delivered Mosquito Mk. XXX they downed another Me. 110 and Ju. 88 east of Essen on the night of 12-13 December, and an Me. 110 near Koblenz on the 22nd-23rd.
New Year 1945 witnessed their final - and 21st - confirmed victory, a Ju. 88 south-west of Ludwigshaven on the night of 2nd-3rd January, bringing their tally of confirmed victories to one beyond “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham’s total and establishing them as the highest scoring British and Commonwealth night fighter partnership of the War: Burbridge, who was gazetted for a Bar to his D.S.O., was surprised to receive a telephone call early on the following morning:
‘We landed at 10.20 p.m. and snoozed in the crew room until about 7 a.m., and then went across to our quarters where we ignored the telephone ringing in the hall. But the operator caught up with me, saying “Phone for you, sir.” Whoever could that be at this early hour, I wondered:
“It’s John Cunningham here. Warm congratulations to you and Bill Skelton on achieving the highest score of night victories.”
I was stunned. “But surely you ... “
He cut in: “No, Jimmy and I scored twenty, so you’re one up on us. Go and get some rest and we can talk later in the day.”
“Well what can I say? You’re the boss and you must know. And remember we wouldn’t have got far without you and Jimmy ... ”
But Cunningham had already rung off.’
Having finally departed No. 85 Squadron in March 1945, and added the American D.F.C. to his accolades, Burbridge ended the War as Wing Commander and C.O. of the Night Fighter Leader’s School, in which capacity he was able to take his brother Jarvis, recently returned as a P.O.W., for a flight in a Mosquito over Cherbourg: so, too, his old adversary of 14 June 1944, Major Herget, though in the latter’s case for a 20-minute local flight after he had given an address to aircrew attending the School.
As stated earlier, Burbridge had been a dedicated Christian from an early age, and as the War progressed he decided his future lay in Ministry - when he received his multiple decorations from the King at Buckingham Palace, the latter asked him whether he would be staying on in the R.A.F., to which Burbridge swiftly replied, “Oh no, sir, I’m going into full time Christian ministry.” And so it proved, though he was not alone in his decision, for on the gallant “Bill” Skelton stepping forward to receive his D.S.O. and Bar and D.F.C. and Bar, the King asked him the same question - and received the same reply.
A newspaper report takes up the story:
‘Two of the R.A.F’s greatest night fighters, Wing Commander B. A. Burbridge, a double D.S.O. and double D.F.C., and his navigator, Flight Lieutenant F. S. Skelton - they were known as the Night Hawk Partners of 85 Squadron - will be at rival universities next term, studying for the Church. Wing Commander Burbridge, who has 22 German “kills” to his credit, says he had just finished one mission in life - “to remove the ungodly regime of the Nazis.” His second mission begins at Oxford - “to help in the recall to God.” He was demobilised from the R.A.F. last night [in December 1945]. Flight Lieutenant Skelton will be at Cambridge with the same determination. They reached their decision after several hours’ intercom. chats together in their patrolling fighter-bomber flying at more than 300 m.p.h. above the clouds. “It was the ideal place for theological discussion,” Burbridge said last night. “We were very much detached from the world up there; in fact thousands of feet above it in thought and distance. Everything seemed clear up there ... mind you, theology went by the board when we were on operations. Life was apt to become rather violent.” ’
On completing his theological studies at Cambridge, and with the support of his wife Barbara, Burbridge dedicated the coming decades to working as the Schools Secretary for the Scripture Union, in addition to service as a Lay Preacher at home and abroad. He recently celebrated his 92nd birthday.
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