Branse Burbridge

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Bransome Burbridge
Bransome Burbridge (right) with his radar operator Bill Skelton (left)
Nickname(s) Branse
Born (1921-02-04) 4 February 1921 (age 101)
East Dulwich, London
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1941–1945
Rank Wing Commander
Service number 100067
Unit No. 85 Squadron RAF
No. 141 Squadron RAF
No. 157 Squadron RAF
No. 100 Squadron RAF
Battles/wars Second World War
Awards Distinguished Service Order & Bar
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
Distinguished Flying Cross (United States)
Other work Scripture Union

Wing Commander Bransome Arthur "Branse" Burbridge DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar (born 4 February 1921) is a former Royal Air Force (RAF) night fighter pilot and flying ace—a pilot credited with at least five enemy aircraft destroyed—who holds the Allied record of 21 aerial victories achieved at night during the Second World War. Burbridge is the most successful British ace still living.

Born in February 1921 into a family with strong Christian and pacifist beliefs, Burbridge was not an ambitious man. After leaving school he worked as an officer clerk for an insurance company. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe on 3 September 1939 Burbridge registered himself as a conscientious objector. By 1940, with the Battle of Britain underway he came to the conclusion the British cause was just and enlisted in the RAF.

A competent pilot and a quick learner he completed his training within a year and was posted to No. 85 Squadron RAF, a night fighter unit which was equipped with the American-designed Douglas A-20 Havoc before re-quipping with Bristol Beaufighters. His time on the Havoc brought only one probable claim against enemy aircraft with a further damaged in 1942. Burbridge was then posted to an operational training unit (OTU) as an instructor before spending a year as a staff officer attached to various squadrons. By July 1943 he had reached the rank of flight lieutenant.

Burbridge returned to operations in late 1943 with 85 Squadron. The unit was to perform night defence operations in the British Isles. 85 Squadron was equipped with the de Havilland Mosquito. In January 1944 the Luftwaffe returned to British skies in strength. Operation Steinbock targeted Greater London in retaliation for RAF Bomber Commands campaign against Berlin. Teaming up with radar operator Bill Skelton, Burbridge achieved success in a relatively short time period. By the end of the German air offensive in May 1944 he had shot down five enemy aircraft making him an ace. For these achievements both men were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in May 1944. In June 1944 Operation Overlord and the Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe began and the Western Front, dormant since 1940, was now reactivated. Burbridge flew a number of sorties as an intruder pilot with No. 100 Group RAF over the front. He achieved a further two aerial victories with one probable and another damaged in combat in these operations. Burbidge also destroyed three V-1 flying bombs over southern England.

In September 1944 85 Squadron returned to intruding over Germany and supporting Bomber Command. Burbridge was awarded a bar to his DFC in October 1944 and a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) the following month. From 11 September 1944–3 January 1945 Burbridge claimed 13 enemy night fighter aircraft destroyed. This included four on the night of the 4/5 November 1944. In February 1945 both men were awarded a bar to their DSO. After the end of hostilities in May 1945, Burbridge stayed in the RAF for a further seven months before leaving in December.

After the war he studied at Oxford University and then Cambridge University before entering the Christian ministry. He remained in its service until his retirement. In 2013 Burbridge came to prominence again when it was reported in the national media that his family had been forced to sell his medals to pay for his care and worsening Alzheimer's condition. Burbridge currently resides in Chorleywood.

Early life

Born in East Dulwich the son of a Wesleyan preacher, Burbridge lived in Knebworth and was educated at Alleyne's School in Stevenage. At the outbreak of Second World War in September 1939, he was working as an insurance clerk. Although he had initially indicated that he would register as a conscientious objector, he came to the view that the war was a just cause, and joined the Royal Air Force in February 1941, shortly after his 20th birthday, pre-empting his registration under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, due on 22 February 1941. His brother, Jarvis, was already serving in Bomber Command but was shot down and was a prisoner of war.

Into the RAF

Second World War

Home defence

After pilot training at No. 54 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Church Fenton, he was posted to No. 85 Squadron RAF at RAF Hunsdon in October 1941, flying Douglas Havocs – the night fighter variant of the Boston. Burbridge claimed his first successes – a probable Junkers 88 over Ipswich on 1 June 1942 and a Dornier 217 damaged over Canterbury two nights later. Tour-expired, in late 1942 he was posted as an instructor to 62 OTU at RAF Unsworth and then briefly to 141 and 157 Squadrons.

With Bill Skelton

He returned to 85 Squadron at RAF West Malling in July 1943 as a flight lieutenant. 85 Squadron was commanded by John "Cat’s Eyes" Cunningham, and it was here that Burbridge teamed up with Flying Officer Bill Skelton as his navigator/radar operator (they had met at RAF Unsworth).

Fellow navigator at 85 Squadron, Jimmy Rawnsley, described the pair as follows in his post war book Night Fighters:

Of all the crew I knew during the war, the most interesting, to my mind, was made up of Branse Burbridge and Bill Skelton ... not only were these two the most interesting and capable young men, but they also flew what was probably the most extraordinary of all long-range escort patrols ever accomplished ... from the moment they crewed up together for their second tour of flying, Branse and Bill hit it off together both on the ground and in the air. They had the perfect and all too rare understanding that characterised the best crews, and which enabled them to work together almost as one man.

It was not only that Branse was an excellent pilot, and that Bill was a first-rate navigator: they had also developed the ability to anticipate each other’s moves, to work with a minimum of chatter and without friction and argument, and almost to read one another’s thoughts; and the months of gruelling work flying from West Malling against fighter-bombers in the raids on London had put the final polish on their individual skill and on their work as a team. In the far more exacting conditions of offensive operations, where only the master craftsman could hope for consistent success, they climbed the individual score-board in a meteoric fashion, and established a record night bag for any one crew.

Burbridge had far more success flying Mosquitoes with this squadron, initially on home defence duties prior to June 1944, than on bomber support operations with No. 100 Group RAF against the Luftwaffe's Nachtgeschwaders. With radar operator Flight Lieutenant Bill Skelton alongside him, he claimed 21 kills over the next ten months, 16 over occupied Europe.

Operation Steinbock

They opened their account on the night of 22–23 February 1944, destroying a Messerschmitt Me 410 south-east of Beachy Head. During the night of 24–25 March, they claimed a Dornier 217 damaged (later confirmed destroyed) and then after encountering more enemy aircraft off Dover, they downed a Junkers 88.

Their next confirmed kill came during the evening of 18–19 April, south of Sandgate, Kent, when a three-second burst from 300 feet destroyed a Junkers 188, which crashed into the sea. Burbridge reached flying ace status on the 25–26 April, after shooting down a Messerschmitt Me 410 south of Selsey Bill. For this act, Burbridge was recommended for the immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

Intruder night fighter

Burbridge and Skelton then flew missions supporting the D-Day landings, and on the night of 15 June 1944, shot down "a Ju 188" (incorrectly identified by the crew) of Major Wilhelm Herget of I/NJG 4. Herget and his crew baled out and the Junkers 88G-1 (work number 710833) crashed south-west of Nivelles. The crash site was initially excavated in the summer of 2008.[1] On the 23 June they suffered engine damage from the debris of their next victim, another Junkers 88.

For the growing tally of kills, Burbridge was recommended for a bar to his DFC. In the late summer of 1944 he also managed to shot down three V-1 flying bombs. In September, Burbridge started more offensive sorties and on 12 September downed Junkers 188 over the Baltic Sea and added two further Junkers 88s over Gutersloh airfield on the 14–15 October,and four days later another Junkers 188 over Metz.

It was in November that Burbridge an Skelton, now becoming well known as the "Night Hawks", claimed their best single night tally. On 5 November, over Bonn, they shot down four enemy aircraft (with just 200 of 700 rounds of ammunition expended) – three Junkers 88s and a Messerschmitt 110. This night's actions earned Burbridge his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

More enemy aircraft fell to the "Night Hawks"; over Mannheim on 22 November 1944 they claimed a Messerschmitt 110 and a Junkers 88 near Bonn. On the night of 12–13 December they shot down another Messerschmitt 110 and Junkers 88 outside Essen and ten days later one more Messerschmitt 110 near Koblenz.

Burbridge's and Skeltons 21st and final confirmed 'kill' came shortly into January 1945 when south-west of Ludwigshafen they downed a Junkers 88. This confirmed victory made them the highest scoring British and Commonwealth night fighter partnership of the War. For this action Burbridge received a bar to his DSO.

Burbridge left No. 85 Squadron in March 1945 to become commanding officer of the Night Fighter Leader’s School. He was later awarded the American DFC.

Burbridge is quoted as saying "I always tried to aim for the wings of enemy aircraft and not the cockpit. I never wanted to kill anyone."

List of air victories

Burbridge ended the war the RAF's highest ranking night fighter ace, claiming 21 confirmed destroyed.[2]

Victory No. Date Squadron Enemy aircraft Notes
1. 22 Feb 1944 No. 85 Squadron Messerschmitt Me 410 Beachy Head
2 & 3 25 March 1944 No. 85 Squadron Dorner 217 and Junkers 88 Dover
4 19 April 1944 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 188 Sandgate
5 26 April 1944 No. 85 Squadron Messerschmitt Me 410 Selsey Bill
6 15 June 1944 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 188 Nivelles. A Junkers 88G-1, Werk No.710833 of I./NJG 4 flown by Major Wilhelm Herget. Herget and his crew baled out.The aircraft crashed in Pont-à-Celles, North of Charleroi.
7 23 June 1944 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 88
8 12 September 1944 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 188 Baltic Sea. Ju 88G-1 Werk No.710579 of 6./NJG 3 flown by Gerhard Schmitz. The Ju 88 crashed on a farm near Hojme, west of Odense. Schmitz baled out but broke a leg upon landing. His Gunner baled out without injury. His radar operator Uffz. Heinrich Heckmann was severely wounded, and died the same day.
9 & 10 15 October 1944 No. 85 Squadron Two Junkers 88s Gutersloh airfield. One kill was a Ju 88G-1 of Stab.III./NJG 2: Lt. Ernst Hoevermann (2 claims) and crew killed.
11 19 October 1944 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 188 Metz
12, 13, 14 & 15 5 November 1944 No. 85 Squadron Three Junkers 88s and one Messerschmitt Me 110 Emmrich on Rhine; Two victims were Bf 110s of 6./NJG 1: Oblt. Ernst Runzel and crew killed near Urdenbach, and Uffz. Gustav Sarzio (5 claims) and crew killed over Viersen.
16 & 17 22 November 1944 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 88 and Messerschmitt Me 110 Mannheimon
18 & 19 13 December 1944 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 88 and Messerschmitt Me 110 Essen. A Ju 88 of 6./NJG 4, Uffz. Brue & 2 crew killed, and a Bf 110G of 9./NJG 1, Uffz. Wilsch & crew baled out.
20 23 December 1944 No. 85 Squadron Messerschmitt Me 110 Koblenz. A Bf110 of 3./NJG 6, Werk No. 730309.
21 5 January 1945 No. 85 Squadron Junkers 88 Ludwigshafen

Post war

A committed evangelical Anglican, Burbridge studied theology at the University of Oxford[3] after the war, before becoming a full-time worker and lay preacher for the Scripture Union. In the 1970s he was a member of the pastoral team at St Aldate's Church, Oxford.[4]

Sale of medals

In February 2013 Burbridge's family reported that he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and they were considering selling his medals and wartime memorabilia to fund his private care home.[5] On 25 March 2013, Burbridge's medals fetched £155,000 at auction[6]


  3. Harris, Paul; Brooke, Chris (26 February 2013). "In Britain's hour of need, he shot down 21 Nazi planes. Now, in HIS hour of need, World War II hero has to sell his medals to pay for care". Daily Mail. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Harris, Paul; Brooke, Chris (26 February 2013). "In Britain's hour of need, he shot down 21 Nazi planes. Now, in HIS hour of need, World War II hero has to sell his medals to pay for care". London: The Daily Mail. Retrieved 13 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Bransome Burbridge's World War II medals sold to pay for care". The BBC. 28 February 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Lot 1187". Dix Noonan Webb Auctioneers. 25 March 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gillian R Warson Wings & A Prayer: The Life of Branse Burbridge ISBN 978-0-9542606-4-4
  • Chistopher Shores & Clive Williams Aces High Grub Street, 1991, p 157
  • A Brooks Fighter & Bomber Squadrons at War ISBN 1-85648-246-4