Dambuster of the Day No. 91: Stephen Burns

Burns 240913

Sgt S Burns
Rear gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED936/G

Call sign: AJ-H

Second wave. Aircraft badly damaged and mine lost, flying low over sea on outward flight. Returned to base.

Stephen Burns was born in Dudley, Worcestershire on 27 December 1920, the oldest of the four children of John and Sarah (Sally) Burns. John Burns was a labourer in a steel works. He had served in the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War, and they moved back to his home town of Manchester for a while during Stephen’s childhood. As a reservist, his father was called up at the outset of the Second World War, and served in the Royal Engineers.

Stephen Burns was working in an armaments factory in Dudley when the war started. Although he was in a reserved occupation and therefore not eligible for call up, he volunteered for the RAF in 1941, and after a period working as ground crew trained as an air gunner.

After qualifying, he was posted to 57 Squadron in November 1942. He flew in both the mid-upper and rear gunner’s turrets on a number of operations with at least four different pilots between December 1942 and 7 February 1943, when he was first allocated to Geoff Rice’s crew, when they flew on a trip to Lorient. On this operation he replaced Charles Challenger, who had previously filled this position. Challenger returned to the Rice crew on a couple more occasions but in early March Burns became its regular rear gunner. He was transferred along with the rest of the Rice crew to 617 Squadron at the end of March.

On the Dams Raid, Burns suffered the ignominy of being soaked by a combination of sea water and Elsan contents when AJ-H flew too low and hit the sea, and its Upkeep mine was torn away. The damage was caused by the tail wheel being forced up into the fuselage. Geoff Rice later recalled his understandable reaction, shouting over the intercom: ‘Christ, it’s wet back here!’ Worse nearly followed since, as the aircraft climbed, all the water flooded into the rear turret, threatening to drown its occupant. Burns had to smash the Perspex window so that it could drain out.

Burns flew with Rice and the rest of his crew on the handful of successful operations they undertook between the Dams Raid and December 1943, and was promoted to Flight Sergeant. However, the crew’s luck ran out on 20 December when they were shot down 14,000 feet above Merbes-Le Chateau in Belgium. Although Rice gave the order to bale out, there wasn’t time and the aircraft exploded. Rice seems to have been thrown clear by the explosion, and somehow landed in a wood but the bodies of the remaining six crew members were found in the wreckage, and they were buried in Gosselies Communal Cemetery, near Hainaut, Belgium.

A few weeks earlier, Burns had been best man at the wedding of Sgt Bill Haworth, Les Munro’s gunner. Haworth flew on the same operation on 20 December and apparently witnessed the shooting down of Rice’s aircraft. He visited the family afterwards and told them what he had seen. After the war, Burns’s brother John visited the grave, and was given a pair of gloves belonging to Stephen Burns, which had apparently been retrieved from the wreckage by local villagers. They had taken articles from all the bodies so that if relatives came visiting they could be given some small memento of their loved one.

[Thanks to the St John’s Church Preservation Group for their help with this article.]

More about Burns online:
Entry on Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Page about Rice crew burial site, Gosselies cemetery

KIA 20.12.1943.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Nigel Press, All My Life, Lancfile Publishing 2006
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
John Sweetman, David Coward and Gary Johnstone, The Dambusters, Time Warner 2003
Chris Smith, Tales from a Churchyard, Volume 1, St John’s, Church Hill, Dudley.

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Stephen Burns and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

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