Photo: Dix Noonan Webb
Sgt Stephen Burns, the young rear gunner in Geoff Rice’s crew, spent several hours on the night of the Dams Raid soaked in a disgusting mixture of Elsan contents and seawater after their aircraft nearly came to grief over the sea. Flying in the second wave and tasked with attacking the Sorpe Dam, AJ-H had crossed the narrow neck of Vlieland at 2259 exactly on track. Past the danger point, Rice gained altitude briefly to check position and then went low again to turn south-eastwards towards the Ijsselmeer. The bright moon shining on the water made height difficult to judge and flight engineer Edward Smith was about to warn Rice that the altimeter was reading zero when there was a huge jolt. Instinctively Rice pulled upwards and felt another ‘violent jolt’.
AJ-H had hit the water twice. The first impact had torn the mine free and sprayed water up through the bomb bay. The second had forced the fixed tail wheel up through the fuselage and demolished the Elsan lavatory just in front of the rear turret. A revolting mixture of its contents, disinfectant and sea water had poured into the turret and immersed gunner Stephen Burns up to his waist. His shout of ‘Christ, it’s wet back here!’ was pretty understandable.
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 hit by flak 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.
As with many families, the Burnses kept their son’s effects and letters safe and the collection has rarely been seen outside the family. Amongst other things it contains his dress uniform, the gloves which were rescued from his final crash by Belgian civilians and given to his brother after the war, his logbook and several interesting letters.
The material is now coming up for auction next week at Dix Noonan Webb, and should make a good sum. Once again, I express the hope that if possible it should be made available to the public, but I know that this may not happen if there are private collectors around with deep pockets.
UPDATE 18 May 2016: This material sold at auction for £7,000.
Hat tip: Edwina Towson
More about Stephen Burns here.
fantastic blog, I love reading news of the Dambusters.
I don’t know if this is the sort of thing that people post on this excellent website, but here’s a photo of a painting I did some 20 years ago now. As a new subscriber I just thought it might be of interest. As a part-time aviation artist, I must have painted many dambuster scenes over the years, some commissions and some just for myself! Hope this is of interest. I also hope you can recognise the two gentlemen!
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Can’t see the photo, Mike, could you post it again
Fascinating article! You did well to find such good photos. It is interesting to see and read some of the details, such as how Sgt Burns wrote sometimes without capitalizing the beginnings of sentences (I’ve no idea if this was a fashion of the day) and how Belgian civilians carefully kept Sgt Burns’ gloves and gave them back to the family after the war.
I wonder if we will know who buys this unique collection. As you say, it would be excellent if the buyer were kind enough to put the items on public display; I’m sure that there are a number of museums who would be happy to take them on loan.
I’ve been in touch with Sgt Burn’s sister Dorothy and she is none too pleased that some of these items are up for public auction as she parted with some of them in good faith to a museum in Australia and now it “appears” as if they are being sold on. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would wish to buy anything of this nature and hold on to it for personal consumption. They should be in a reputable museum where they can be seen and appreciated by everyone.
Stephen Burns was my great uncle and the young man in the photo with him and his mother is my father… I am saddened that these have been sold as we also believed they were in a museum.. They are far more valuable to my family than a collector and I would certainly have appreciated having a chance to purchase them if they are no longer in a museum.
Yes I fully understand Yvette, I have spoken with Dorothy at length about the matter. There are unfortunately many people out there who regard these things as commodities rather than very personal items.
I am assuming there is nothing left. For the record, my father John never ever mentioned receiving Stephens gloves. He spoke of his brother often but never said anything about these gloves. My father has now passed and no one has ever seen any gloves. I am sure if he had Stephens gloves they would have been a prized possession.
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Hello Yvette’ I have made Charles Foster of my role as a writer for The Back Country Bugle heritage weekly newspaper which circulates in the Dudley area. I am seeking photos of Stephen Burns. Can you help me? My email address is
Please acknowledge and I will provide more information. Regards David Cooper
I have some photos of my Dad and his brother. I have the original of the photo of Stephen, my Dad and my grandmother but that will remain in the familySent from my Galaxy Tab® E
This material sold at auction on 18 May 2016 for £7,000.
Just told Stephen Burns sister and she is completely baffled as to where the photograph they had of her two brothers and her mother came from. If anyone can find out where the items have gone then please let me know. Hopefully at the cost of £7000 + 20% it will have gone to a good home. i.e. a good museum
Subject: RE: Dambuster painting…
Date: Fri, 13 May 2016 16:59:02 +0100
I don’t know if this is the sort of thing that people post on this excellent website, but here’s a photo of a painting I did some 20 years ago now. As a new subscriber I just thought it might be
of interest. As a part-time aviation artist, I must have painted many dambuster scenes over the years, some commissions and some just for myself! Hope this is of interest. I also hope you can recognise the two gentlemen!
Sent from my Windows Phone
[New post] Burns archive and clothing goes to auction
charlesfoster posted: ” Photo: Dix Noonan Webb Sgt Stephen Burns, the young rear gunner in Geoff Rice’s crew, spent several hours on the night of the Dams Raid soaked in a disgusting mixture of Elsan contents and seawater after their aircraft
nearly came to grief over the sea”
How can we see the painting Mike?
Dear Mr. Knight
Thank you for your response and I apologise for the delay in replying to you.
I an afraid that I am not at liberty to name my client, but if there were any questions that you would like to put to them, then I would be happy to forward these on your behalf.
Thanks again and if I can be of any further assistance please don’t hesitate to contact me.
No problem, thanks.
I wonder if it would be possible for you to list the prices that the various items in the Burns Archive sold for on 8th July please? Many thanks – Tony
Stephen Burns is my great uncle and the young man i in the photo with Uncle Steve is my Grandmother and my father John. I am deeply saddened that these items were donated to a museum then sold by the museum without giving the family the option of having them back. Stephen was my fathers best friend and he never got over the loss of his brother.. These are worth more to my family than a collector.