Flying Officer Percy Burton

Text by Divan Muller
Sometimes, a pilot's name is written in history through a lifetime of exceptional service. Other times, one's true character is shown by a single, life-changing, split second decision.
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Percival Ross-Francis Burton, the youngest of five sons, was born in South Africa's Cape Town region in 1917. He attended school at Diocesan College in Rondebosch, Cape Town, better known simply as Bishop’s. Percy, as he was known to his friends, matriculated in 1934 and then volunteered to serve with the South African Citizen Force. In 1937 he graduated from Cape Town University, after studying Roman law and Jurisprudence (legal philosophy). He then moved to England where he continued his studies at Christchurch College in Oxford. Whilst studying, he was a member of the Oxford University rowing team and learned to fly at the Oxford University Air Squadron.

In October 1939, a month after World War II broke out, Burton was called up to serve with the Royal Air Force (RAF) Volunteer Reserve to commence training at Flight Training School Cranwell and then No. 6 Operational Training Unit in Lincolnshire. In July 1940, at about the same time as the start of the Battle of Britain, he joined 249 Squadron as a pilot officer flying Hawker Hurricane Mk.I fighters. At the squadron, he served alongside Albert Lewis, a South African veteran of the Battle of France, whose story was told in the April 2012 edition of African Pilot.

Needless to say, Burton participated in many interceptions of German bombers and fighters. During one such mission in September 1940, his Hurricane was hit by a Messerschmitt Me 110 heavy fighter over Rochester in South East England. Burton was uninjured and managed to safely force-land his badly damaged Hurricane. Later that month, he was promoted to 'Flying Officer.’

On Friday, 27 September, one day after his promotion, 249 Squadron was scrambled to intercept and attack a formation of Me 110s. The German heavy fighters formed defensive circles, but the Hurricanes attacked and caused the Me 110s to flee toward the English Channel at low level. Burton pursued the leader of the enemy formation, Horst Liebenberger, an experienced fighter pilot. The Me 110 and Hurricane sped across the English countryside at tree-top level, with Burton firing his guns every time the Messerschmitt moved into his sights. As the two aircraft skimmed the rooftops of a village in East Sussex, Burton's Hurricane ran out of ammunition. Eyewitnesses saw the Hurricane moving closer to the Me 110 and then banking hard, ramming into the twin-engined fighter at about 200 feet above the ground, in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to prevent the German pilot and his gunner from reaching the English Channel. The Me 110's tail was severed from the fuselage and the aircraft plummeted into a field, crashing into sewage pipes, killing its crew instantly. The impact broke off a large piece of the Hurricane's port wing. For a few moments, it appeared that Burton still had a measure of control of his aircraft, but the Hurricane suddenly turned and hit a large oak tree at about 260 knots. Burton was killed on impact.
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Percy Burton made the ultimate sacrifice to reach his goal of preventing the German aircraft from reaching and crossing the channel. Today, whilst sitting in our comfortable chairs, we may criticise such an action and even call it stupid. However, in many ways, Percy Burton represents many other pilots who sacrificed their lives in combat. Burton never received a posthumous award and very few people have ever heard of him. Rather than judging Burton's decision, let us realise that for a brief moment, nothing in life mattered more to Burton than achieving the goal of his mission. His mission was more important than his own life. Without that mindset, the Battle of Britain and even World War II would have had a different outcome. As a side note, Percy Burton's brother lost his life during the following year, whilst flying a Wellington heavy bomber, shortly after a bombing raid over Germany.

The local council set up a plaque at the site of the 23 year old Percy Button’s fateful collision. It read, "With his good looks and slim boyish figure, Flying Officer Percival Ross-Francis Burton, a young South African, was the very epitome of the publicly held image of what a fighter pilot should be. He also possessed, although probably unaware of it, a grim dogged courage so vividly illustrated in the manner in which he met his death in the skies over Britain in September 1940."

Percy Burton's flying career may have been short, but in a sense, he was a personification of all the courageous, unknown pilots who sacrificed everything to help win the war.

We would like to thank Col. Graham du Toit of the South African Air Force Museum for his assistance in writing this article.