Obituary: Bill Burness, airman, compositor and charity worker

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William Edward Burness, airman and compositor. Born: 2 December 1921 in Edinburgh. Died: 7 August,2017 in Edinburgh, aged 95

As the clock approached 11pm on the night of 5 June 1944, Bill Burness was fully kitted up and in position as wireless operator in the Handley Page Halifax bomber LL344. Alongside him on the airfield at Tarrant Rushton in Dorset were five other Halifaxes, all primed for what would be one of the RAF’s most spectacularly successful missions of the Second World War.

Earlier that day Major John Howard, commanding officer D Company, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment, 6th Airborne Division, had received the signal he had been waiting for since the end of May – the codeword Cromwell, delivered by a dispatch rider, that was the green light to launch the strike.

It was the eve of D-Day, the turning point in the long fight against Nazi rule on mainland Europe, and Major Howard was to lead Operation Deadstick, a surprise raid by elite soldiers on two vital bridges in Normandy. The Halifax bombers were to ferry them there, towing the troops in Horsa gliders that would slip silently behind enemy lines before the amphibious invasion force landed on the beaches in the morning.

The aim was to seize the crossings over the Caen Canal and Orne River – Pegasus and Horsa bridges as they would become known. Howard had already given his troops the “Ham and Jam” farewell – the codewords that would signal the successful capture of the bridges intact – Ham for the canal bridge, Jam for the river bridge. He was airborne in number 1 glider at 10:56pm.

Burness, who, out of uniform, worked in an Edinburgh printing firm, took off in his Halifax of 644 Squadron at 11pm, towing glider number 4. The aircraft was piloted by Flying Officer G Clapperton with a crew of navigator, air bomber, rear gunner and flight engineer, plus Burness.

After the first three gliders landed, one crashing into another as it came down, the initial objective was achieved within minutes – the Caen bridge was in British hands. Troops from gliders 5 and 6 rapidly took the Orne bridge. The men from glider 4 had come down beyond landing zone and mistakenly taken a third bridge, a bonus on the night, 10 miles from the target.

Operation Deadstick had been an important strategic success, preventing the Germans from attacking the D-Day beach landings in the flank, and had cost only two British lives. As Burness later noted, huge credit was “due to the glider pilot regiment who displayed great courage and skill in hazardous situations”.

Burness, who served as a second pilot in addition to his wireless role, also saw action in Special Operations with 295 and 298 Squadrons. In June 1943 he had been involved in a dangerous mission to tow an unladen Horsa glider from Cornwall across the Bay of Biscay to Rabat in Morocco, a flight of almost 10 hours. From there they flew it across Morocco and Algeria to an airstrip near Kairouan in the Tunisian desert, a distance of about 2,500 miles.

Then the following month he was part of Operation Ladbroke, the start of the invasion of Sicily, and the first mass glider flight of the Allies. He left Tunisia on 9 July with six other Halifaxes, towing Horsa gliders packed with troops for the assault on the island which later marked the opening of the Italian campaign and led to Italy’s surrender that September. That night Burness’s Halifax pilot safely delivered the glider to its landing zone at Syracuse, but for many other glider crews the night proved disastrous as dozens of the craft were released too early, ditching into the sea and leading to more than 250 drownings. But Burness had a lucky war; surviving a crash and narrowly missing a fatal flight that cost the lives of his own crew. He had been standing in with another aircrew at the time of the tragedy.

An only child, he was born in Edinburgh’s Tarvit Street, raised in Stockbridge and educated at Boroughmuir High School. A keen sportsman, he swam, played rugby, golf and competitive water polo. After leaving school he began his career as a compositor, working initially with Morrisons Printers before serving in the RAF for the duration of the Second World War.

Safely returned to the UK, in 1945 he married Betty, whom he met while stationed at Ringway Air Base, Manchester. After a spell working in Colchester he came home to Edinburgh to join the Daily Mail as a printer’s proofreader. Several years later he moved to The Scotsman, where he remained until retiring.

He then went on to work in the community, helping in several charity shops’ book departments in Corstorphine, Leith and Stockbridge and giving 20 years’ service to the Bethany Christian Trust.

Fittingly, for a man whose career focused on words, he was also an enthusiastic lifelong reader. Latterly, macular degeneration made that increasingly difficult and he attended the Scottish War Blinded’s Linburn Centre in West Lothian. Deteriorating eyesight also forced him to give up driving but he continued to get out and about – habitually travelling on the top deck of buses even at the age of 95. Burness had been a seasoned traveller, enjoying the experience of discovering new places and cultures but he also loved his own East Lothian coast, walking the coastal paths as well as the Pentland Hills, and sea fishing.

Some years ago he had the chance to relive his days in the RAF when his daughter Alison took him to the Yorkshire Air Museum, on the site of RAF Elvington, where he was invited on board a reconstructed Handley Page Halifax III bomber, an example of the type he had flown. There, settling comfortably back in the radar seat, he shared his experiences of the aircraft to the delight of museum staff.

Despite his pride in the aircraft and his courage in the skies, he never sought any recognition for his role serving King and country. He refused to allow his family to complete the paperwork necessary for him to receive his medal for D-Day service. He believed he had not done anything more than a day’s work then.

Predeceased by Betty, he is survived by children Pauline, Peter and Alison, four grandchildren and two great granddaughters.

ALISON SHAW