Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (17 & 18 May 2016)

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Date of Auction: 17th & 18th May 2016

Sold for £13,000

Estimate: £8,000 - £10,000

The outstanding Second World War D.S.O., D.F.C., post-war O.B.E., A.F.C. group of twelve awarded to Air Commodore W. J. ‘Wilf’ Burnett, Royal Air Force, a veteran of three operational tours and 62 sorties who rose to senior command in Aden in the 1960s, via Aries Programme polar flights and squadron command in the Suez Crisis in 1956, a remarkable career preserved for posterity in the pages of his son’s biography, The Best of Lives

Awarded his D.F.C. for a gallant tour of duty in Hampdens of No. 49 Squadron in 1940, he was recommended for a Bar for his subsequent tour in No. 408 Squadron, a tour curtailed by serious injuries after his Hampden crashed in the Yorkshire Dales on returning from Hamburg one night in January 1942: the recommendation was lost in the corridors of power and he spent seven months in hospital

Determined to return to an operational footing, he managed to pull a few strings and get himself posted to R.A.F. Tempsford where, in May 1944, he took command of No. 138 Squadron: a flurry of S.O.E. sorties ensued, assorted agents and containers being delivered to Belgium, Denmark, Holland, France and Norway: he was awarded the D.S.O. and the French Croix de Guerre

Post-war he was awarded the A.F.C. in 1956 for his part in Aries Programme polar flights - in addition to “mentions” for his leadership of No. 148 Squadron during the Suez Crisis and services as Air Commodore during the handover of Aden in 1966-67: having then been placed on the Retired List after ‘the best career a man could have’, he added the O.B.E. to his accolades for services as Secretary to the Unit Trust Association in 1980

Distinguished Service Order, G.VI.R., the reverse of the suspension bar officially dated ‘1945’; The Most Excellent Order of The British Empire O.B.E. (Civil Division), Officer’s 2nd type breast badge; Distinguished Flying Cross, G.VI.R., the reverse officially dated ‘1940’; Air Force Cross, E.II.R., the reverse officially dated ‘1956’; 1939-45 Star; Air Crew Europe Star, clasp, France and Germany; Defence and War Medals 1939-45, with M.I.D. oak leaf; General Service 1918-62, 1 clasp, Palestine 1945-48, with M.I.D. oak leaf (Act. Wg. Cdr. W. J. Burnett, R.A.F.); General Service 1962-2007, 2 clasps, South Arabia, Near East, with M.I.D. oak leaf (Air Cdre. W. J. Burnett, R.A.F.), this with official corrections and the ‘Near East’ clasp should be on the G.S.M. 1918-62; Coronation 1953; French Croix de Guerre, with palm, the reverse dated ‘1939-1940’, mounted loose style as worn, generally good very fine and better (12) £8000-10000


D.S.O. London Gazette 23 March 1945. The original recommendation states:

‘This officer has commanded No. 138 Squadron with outstanding success for six months. During this period the Squadron was engaged in particularly intensive operations which were complicated by a re-arming programme which was extremely smoothly and expeditiously executed. Wing Commander Burnett is at all times keen to fly on operations, irrespective of the hazards involved. He has had combat with enemy fighters on several occasions and at all times has inspired all ranks in the Squadron by his personal example and devotion to duty. I strongly recommend him for the Distinguished Service Order.’

London Gazette 14 June 1980.

London Gazette 22 October 1940. The original recommendation states:

‘This officer has carried out a total of 32 operational flights against the enemy during which he has completed 187 hours flying as a First Pilot.

Throughout these operations Flying Officer Burnett has shown outstanding ability, determination and devotion to duty, and has always pressed home his attacks in spite of enemy opposition.

He has carried out numerous operations and bombing attacks, both from low and high level, and in spite of his aircraft being hit on many occasions all his attacks have been notable for their thoroughness, coolness and complete disregard for personal safety.

This officer is always an enthusiastic volunteer for any task that is offered to him, and he has at all times set an excellent example to other pilots in his squadron.’

Covering remarks by Air Vice-Marshal A. T. Harris:

‘Strongly recommended. This officer is a fine type of Bomber Captain who does consistently excellent work.’

London Gazette 2 January 1956.

Wilfred Jasper Burnett was born at Fredericton, New Brunswick in November 1915 and was educated at Fort Francis High School, Ontario. Subsequently finding work on a dairy farm, he otherwise occupied himself by serving as a Trooper in the New Brunswick Dragoons; as part of his farming brief, he also learned to fly ski-equipped Gypsy Moths.

Working his passage to England in the summer of 1937, he obtained a short service commission in the Royal Air Force and was trained as a pilot. Having then qualified for his ‘Wings’, he was posted to No. 49 Squadron, a Hampden unit based at Scampton, on the outbreak of hostilities.

First tour: No. 49 Squadron, 1940 - D.F.C.

When Germany invaded Holland on 15 May 1940, the R.A.F. mounted its first bombing sortie east of the Rhine, around 100 aircraft being sent to Dortmund. Among them was Burnett’s Hampden of 49 Squadron, who realised, as he passed over Rotterdam - still burning from a recent visit by the Luftwaffe - that the “Phoney War” was truly over. Indeed he flew four more sorties before the end of the month, another dozen in June, and six in July, many of them to Germany and some of them of the low-level variety. Moreover, his flying log book entries often refer to intense or heavy flak, so too resultant damage and, on one occasion, an encounter with an enemy aircraft - ’50 rounds fired’.

In August, the same month in which his fellow 49 pilot “Babe” Learoyd won the V.C. for a suicidal attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, Burnett participated in the R.A.F.’s first strike on Berlin; he returned to the “Big City” on 23 September, his final operation in No. 49 Squadron, but not before completing a long haul - nine hour - trip to Politz, near Stettin on the 5th.

Tour expired, and his aircraft having been ‘hit on many occasions’, Burnett was awarded the D.F.C.

Second tour: No. 408 Squadron, 1941-42 - recommended for a Bar to the D.F.C.

In July 1941, Burnett reported as a Flight Commander to No. 408 (R.C.A.F.) Squadron, another Hampden unit.

Thus ensued a second tour of operations, his targets over the coming months including Bremen, Hamburg, Hanover, Mannheim, in addition to a brace of perilous low-level daylight operations to Marquise and Lille. The latter was a great success, although owing to very intense flak, all of the attacking aircraft took hits.

However, on returning from his second strike on Hamburg in the early hours of 16 June 1942, he lost his way in bad weather and missed his base at Balderton. Perilously short of fuel, and in attempting to reach R.A.F. Leeming, his Hampden came to grief at Dalefoot on the Yorkshire Dales. Two of his crew were killed instantly and another died of his injuries. Burnett, himself severely injured, was taken down to a farm house and thence to Catterick Garrison Hospital.

He was recommend for a Bar to his D.F.C., the citation stating:

‘This officer has flown a total number of 44 sorties on operations involving some 264 hours flying. He has flown eight sorties involving 44 hours since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was posted to No. 408 (R.C.A.F.) Squadron in July of last year. Unfortunately this officer crashed returning from his last sortie and was injured.

On all occasions this officer has shown great determination and leadership. This has been directly responsible for the successful results he has obtained. In particular, on the 17th and 21st September 1941, he led a sub-formation of three Hampdens on daylight raids over Northern France, one on Marquise and one on Lille respectively. The raid on Lille was most successful. Although he encountered heavy flak and fighter opposition, this officer kept his section in perfect formation and returned without loss. At all times he has set a fine example by his courage and devotion to duty to the personnel of his Flight.’

The recommendation was unsuccessful.

Burnett was to remain in hospital for seven months, prior to joining the Air Staff of H.Q. No. 3 Group on his recovery in August 1942. He afterwards attended Staff College and held an appointment in No. 3 Group.

Third tour: No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron, 1944 - D.S.O.

In early May 1944, after pulling a few strings to get back on operations, Burnett - who had been advanced to Wing Commander - was appointed C.O. of No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron at Tempsford. Thus ensued a third operational tour, the whole in support of S.O.E. circuits in Occupied Europe.

His first such trip was to France on 16 June, in support of “Harry 2” and he returned to France on eleven further occasions, thus supply drops to, among other coded groups, “Ditcher 47”, “Hermit 8” and “Percy 19”; on the night of 6 July, he delivered four agents to “Donald 19”.

Burnett also made five trips to Belgium, relevant circuits numbering “Tybalt 19” on the night of 8 August, when his Halifax was attacked by an Me. 110 - the latter was claimed as a ‘damaged’ by his gunners; so, too, a brace of trips to Holland, including a supply drop to “Bertus 1”.

He was otherwise employed on missions to Scandinavia, making four trips to Denmark (e.g. “Tablejam 23”) and five to Norway to supply local Resistance groups - thus “Crupper 7”, “Saddle 10” and “Stirrup 3”; on two of these - on 4 October and 2 November - he dropped further agents.

He was awarded the D.S.O., in addition to being mentioned in despatches (
London Gazette 8 June 1944, refers); so, too, the French Croix de Guerre, which distinction he received from General Koenig at the Hotel Les Invalides, Paris in April 1945. The recommendation stated:

‘As a Squadron Commander over a period of five months, this officer has completed twelve operations of a special nature in France. His determination and skill have undoubtedly set an example which has been emulated by other members of his squadron. He has played no small part in contributing to the war effort in France, and has inspired his whole squadron by his good leadership and the fine example he has set.’

From November 1944, Burnett served on the Air Staff of H.Q. Bomber Command, but he kept his eye-in, obtaining his Glider’s Licence in December 1945.

Palestine and Greece 1947-49 - ‘Mention’

Having been seconded to B.O.A.C. after the War, when he piloted flying boats on the Far East route and was once compelled to divert to Communist-held Hainan Island, Burnett served on the Air Staff in Jerusalem at a time when terrorist attacks on R.A.F. installations were at their height. He was then posted to the R.A.F. Mission in Greece during the civil war.

He was mentioned in despatches (
London Gazette 29 June 1948, refers)

Polar flights 1953-55 - A.F.C.

Having next been appointed C.O. of the Flying Wing at the R.A.F. Flying College at Manby, Burnett was employed on the
Aries Programme and piloted aircraft on North Pole navigational flights in July 1953 and twice in May 1955. His second flight in the latter month, when he was accompanied by student navigators Lieutenant-Colonel C. A. North, U.S.A.A.F. and Squadron Leader J. E. Tipton, achieved the fastest time to date, a round trip of 2,400 miles undertaken in a little under five hours.

During the course of an earlier flight, the air speed indicator of his Hastings iced up but a resourceful Flight Engineer rectified the problem and they proceeded to the Pole, where Burnett dropped a miniature bottle of Scotch with a Union flag attached.

He was awarded the A.F.C.

Suez Crisis 1956 - “Mention”

In July 1956, Burnett took command of No. 148 Squadron, and he was still ‘working up’ his force of Valiants when ordered to Malta on the advent of the Suez Crisis. He subsequently led the first force of R.A.F. V-bombers to drop bombs in anger, namely a strike against Almaza airfield at Suez.

As C.O. Burnett had trained his aircrew to operate from a height of 40,000 feet, but on the night of the first attacks - on 31 October 1956 - he was ordered to drop to 30,000 feet. His obituary in
The Daily Telegraph takes up the story:

‘As the crews of No. 148 pressed on to Almaza they encountered a jet stream at 30,000 feet as well as problems connected with their radar bombing system, which made the attack difficult. Burnett was first to drop his 11 1,000lb. bombs, followed by the others. But the raid was only partially successful.

When he returned to Malta, he protested at the order to bomb from an inappropriate height, and was cleared to attack from 40,000 feet on subsequent raids. The following night he and his men attacked Fayid airfield. His Bomb Aimer dropped an accurate flare and, on a second approach, placed the bombs in the centre of the airfield. Three nights later Burnett bombed the barracks; the ceasefire soon followed.

He was mentioned in despatches and advanced to Group Captain in July 1957.

Senior Command - Aden - “Mention”

Appointments as O.C. R.A.F. Marham and Air Adviser to the U.K. High Commissioner in New Delhi followed, so too his promotion to Air Commodore in July 1963. He next joined Air Headquarters, Aden in October 1996, where plans were afoot for British withdrawal in the following year.

Owing to the deteriorating internal security situation, it was a difficult assignment, it being essential that the region’s infrastructure be maintained as our military presence was steadily withdrawn. In the event a secure and stable handover was effected, largely thanks to the ‘ever-dependable’ Burnett.

He was mentioned in despatches (
London Gazette 23 January 1968, refers).

Not yet done - O.B.E.

On leaving the service in January 1968, Burnett tried his hand at corporate employment but having to go ‘cap in hand to company executives’ proved a step too far.

Happily, he found more rewarding employment as Secretary of the Unit Trust Association, and it was in this capacity that he added the O.B.E. to his extensive list of accolades in 1980.

The Air Commodore, an expert fly fisherman who maintained a rod on the Itchen until his 90th year, died at Haslemere, Surrey, in September 2006.

Sold with a quantity of original documentation, including the recipient’s D.S.O. warrant and M.I.D. certificates (2), dated 8 June 1944 and 29 June 1948, and French Croix de Guerre certificate of award, dated 11 April 1945.

Together with a complete run of the recipient’s R.A.F. Pilot’s Flying Log Books (4), covering the periods July 1937 to August 1940; September 1940 to October 1949; January 1950 to October 1956, with three pasted down ‘Polar Certificates’ for flights over the North Pole in July 1953 and twice in May 1955, together with annotated maps; and October 1956 to April 1963, with a few civil entries added in the period 1990-92; together with a Civil GA Form 24 Flying Log Book for work with B.O.A.C. in the period 1946-47 and a quantity of congratulatory letters in respect of promotions, together with a copy of
The Best of Lives.