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.