Today we highlight an act of bravery by a South African during the Battle of Britain which could have earned him the Victoria Cross but unfortunately did not – heralded and remembered in the United Kingdom, his act is hardly known of in South Africa.
So let’s have a look at this remarkable South African and his action, and lets remember what ‘sacrifice’ actually meant to the small group of South African airmen defending the last bastion European modern democracy and liberty against the invasion of a Nazi totalitarian tyranny.
There is truth in the words of Sir Winston Churchill when he said “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” – and in truth Percy Burton’s death epitomises exactly the type of sacrifice made by these ‘few’. His action is astounding and it’s one which reflects the desperate nature of the fight between young men on both sides and in so it is as deeply tragic as it is liberating – this is the true ‘Price’ paid.
Percival (Percy) Ross-Frames Burton was born in 1917 in Cape Province, South Africa. A military man from the outset, during peacetime he initially joined the South African Coast Garrison and Citizen Force in 1935.
Before the start of the Second World War, Percy decided to read Jurisprudence at Oxford University attending Christ Church College in 1938. An active sportsman’ he took part in the University’s rowing team and boat races and was the reserve cox for the Oxford crew.
Whilst at Oxford, Percy Burton also learned to fly with the University’s Air Squadron. At the onset of war in October 1939 he volunteered and took up a commission in Royal Air Force Reserve (Service Number 74348), and after completing his training at Flight Training School Cranwell he arrived at 6 OTU, Sutton Bridge on the 22nd June 1940 to convert to Hawker Hurricanes.
After one month of training on hurricanes Flight Officer (F/O) Percival Ross-Frames Burton found himelf in RAF No. 249 Squadron. Just in time to walk straight into The Battle of Britain which kicked off in earnest from the 10th July 1940, and he was to fly alongside another great South African hero in the Battle of Britain – Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis DFC and Bar.
A ‘successful’ days’ action
On the morning of 27th September 1940, No.249 Squadron was scrambled into action. Burton took off from North Weald in Hurricane V6683 at about 08:50am with eleven other No.249 Squadron Hurricanes.
RAF 249 Squadron’s Hurricanes rendezvoused with Hurricanes RAF 46 Squadron and they began to patrol Wickford before being vectored to the Maidstone area where enemy activity had been reported.
When they got to Maidstone they encountered German aircraft in two defensive formations heading south at low-level. A defensive circle of German Luftwaffe Bf 110s were spotted over Redhill and above them German Luftwaffe Bf 109 fighters were sighted higher up. Flight/Lt Butch Barton rallied No.249 Squadron into a diving attack the Bf 110 formation from out of the sun and individual combats (dogfights) then ensued. The German Bf 109 fighters flying top cover for some reason did not get into the ensuing dogfight – it was later assumed they had not seen the attacking RAF Hurricanes.
It was a successful day for 249 Squadron, when the Squadron’s Hurricanes returned to North Weald they claimed an impressive eight enemy aircraft destroyed and a further five probables, but it came with a price and Flying Officer Percy Burton had paid the ultimate price. However he had done so in a manner which simply breathtaking.
Cutting a Bf 110 in two
During the action Percy Burton locked onto and vigorously pursued a Bf 110 flown by Hauptmann Horst Liensberger in a desperate engagement which covered a distance of about forty miles (64 kilometres), weaving around at an extremely low altitude, often little more than treetop height.
Percy Burton chased the Bf 110 at this low-level, until they arrived over Hailsham, Sussex when Burton’s ammunition had all been fully expended, with silent guns Percy Burton continued the chase and the two aircraft skimmed over the rooftops. The Bf 110 simply could not shake Burton off.
At this point Percy Burton was flying slightly above and behind the twin-engined BF 110 light bomber aircraft when suddenly, and in an unprecedented manoeuvre, he banked his Hurricane, dived down and collided with the Bf 110 in mid-air, literally chopping the Bf 100 into two.
The Bf 100’s Empennage (the tail assembly including the flying surfaces – rudder and elevator) dropped out of the sky and fell into a field, it was followed by the remainder of the severed enemy aircraft’ (the wings, dual engines and cockpit) falling uncontrolled out of the sky into the field – along with Burton’s wingtip.
The Bf 110 pilot Hauptmann Horst Liensberger his rear-gunner, Uffz Albert Kopge, were killed outright. Flying Officer Percy Burton’s Hurricane, now missing its wingtip was also out of control and he crashed into a huge oak tree on New Barn Farm. The impact of hitting such a large oak tree was so excessive it threw Burton out and clear of his Hurricane.
Burton was killed and his Hurricane burned out. Eye-witness reports indicated that Percy Burton had deliberately rammed the Bf 110 in a final act of valour. Percy’s body was found riddled with bullets, which led to speculation that Percy Burton was severely wounded in the attack and had consciously pursued and rammed the Bf 100 knowing he was not coming back.
As to a conscious decision to ram the Bf 100, fellow RAF pilot Tich Palliser who had also witnessed the collision from the air reported:
“I saw his contortions, then I saw him straighten out and fly straight into the German aircraft. I was close enough to see his letters (squadron code-markings), as other pilots must have been who also confirmed the incident, which in itself caused me to realise that my young life and its future, if any, had jumped into another dimension.”
The German witness also tells a tale young lives sacrificed, A colleague and friend of the Bf 110 pilot, wrote at the time of the incident:
“I regarded Horst Liensberger highly as my commander and as a human being… Over the radio we heard his last message: ‘Both engines are hit … am trying to turn … it’s impossible … I will try to land.’ Then nothing more.”
Recommendation for a VC
As all the eye-witness reports indicate strongly that Percy Burton deliberately rammed the Bf 110 in an act of sacrifice. In a letter from Fighter Command to the Hailsham ARP Chief, Percy Burton was recommended that for this action, bravery and sacrifice at Hailsham that he receive a posthumous Victoria Cross.
However, because of the speculated issues surrounding his action, and much to the outrage, displeasure and disappointment of his fellow pilots in No. 249 Squadron, Percy Burton did not receive the VC or any gallantry award for that metter and he was only ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.
If you wish to visit another brave South African in a foreign field, Percy Burton is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, Tangmere, England (Plot E, Row 1, Grave 480). In 1980 a road in a housing estate near the crash site was named ‘Burton Walk’ in his memory. There is also a humble memorial plaque dedicated to Burton’s memory at Hailsham near the oak tree that he hit.
The two German crew were initially buried in Hailsham Cemetery but were exhumed after the war and buried elsewhere.
Looking at this recently colourised image of Percy Burton by Doug, we are reminded of just how young these brave men were, Percy Burton was just 23 years old when he boldly sacrificed his life. In perspective he was the ‘millennial’ of his time, however it is very difficult to imagine a modern millenial facing the hardship, morality, bravery and sacrifice that this – the ‘greatest generation’ – faced.
No similar such acknowledgements or symbols of remembrance to Percy Burton exist in South Africa today, it’s also very possible that almost no South Africans even know of his existence or the brave action that nearly earned him the Victoria Cross – and he is not alone, the South Africans who took part in the Battle of Britain remain obscured and his story is one of many. Their stories left to the wayside after 1948 as seismic political forces over-shadowed these brave South Africans fighting to preserve a liberated world in the sky over England during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.
In our small way, The Observation Post hopes to keep this history alive, knowing in the full grace of time that these South African men and their very brave deeds are captured and not forgotten. The Observation Post salutes and remembers you Flight Officer Percival Ross-Frames Burton.
Researched by Peter Dickens
Related Stories and Links
Zulu Lewis ‘Ace in a Day’ TWICE! … Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis
Frederick Posener South African Battle of Britain “Few” – Frederick Posener
Sailor Malan Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!
References and extracts
The Battle of Britain monument, London – on-line. Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Colourised images by Doug and DBC Colour.