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Flight Lieutenant Noel Ernest Burton DFM, 778740 (160039) RAFVR

Born: 18th January 1923 - Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia. Died: 30th December 2015 - Glencairn, Cape, South Africa

Written and submitted to Aircrew Remembered December 2017 by his daughter, Diana.

“He was a constant in my life. The long, big-eared young bugger with a bairn’s smile who always got my Dad back home.”

Noel Ernest Burton was born in Lusaka on 18th January 1923, the eldest of the three children of Cecil Starr Burton and Edith Mabel Burton, née Ebbage. The family left Lusaka when Noel was just 6 months and moved to Rhodesia and later to East London, South Africa where Noel attended Selborne College. The family later settled in Selukwe, Southern Rhodesia and Noel finished his schooling boarding at Maritzburg College in Pietermarizburg, South Africa. His father wanted him to be an accountant or magistrate but Noel had other ideas. It was 1941, the Empire was at war with Hitler and Noel stepped forward.

He volunteered in Salisbury, Rhodesia starting EFTS Belvedere 14th October 1941 and completed his SFTS Kumalo, Bulawayo 23rd March 1942. He left for Cape Town by train along with other pilots where he awaited the ship Laconia which set sail for Liverpool, unescorted, so several of them were asked to take 2 hour watches in pairs daily. Once in the UK they were transported from Liverpool down to Bournemouth where he experienced air raids on Southampton and Poole nearby. On 26th June 1942 he was at AFU, Kirmington, Lincs and BATS, Dishforth, Yorks and then was stationed at 30 OTU at RAF Hixon, Staffordshire in August 1942. This was where he formed his crew:

Noel and crew at 106 Squadron:

Fl/Lt. Noel Ernest Burton Pilot, Fl/Sgt. James 'Hank' Hancock Navigator (killed on the 26th June 1943 Lancaster I W4367), Sgt. Freddie Mann Wireless Operator, 'Whit' Whitby Flight Engineer, Joe Rookes Bomb Aimer, ‘Monty’ Banks Mid Upper Gunner, Fl/Lt. John Hall Rear Gunner.

L-R: Noel Burton, Joe Rookes, ‘Hank’ Hancock and Freddie Mann.

Their first operational flight was 24th October 1942 in a Wellington when were sent to scatter ‘Nickel’ propaganda leaflets over the submarine pens at Lorient. After conversion, on 14th January 1943 he was posted with his crew to 106 Squadron at RAF Syerston, Lincolnshire as a Sergeant Pilot to fly the Lancaster heavy bombers which were by then the mainstay of Bomber Command. He was not yet 20 although soon to be.

Noel’s first operational mission on Lancasters was on 27th January 1943 as ‘2nd dickey’ with pilot Sgt. A.L. McDonald and his crew to Dusseldorf. His commanding officer at Syerston was Guy Gibson VC and it was he who signed off Noel’s logbook in March 1943 before Gibson left to form 617 Squadron later known as the Dam-busters Squadron. Noel’s operations span the period of the Battle of the Ruhr: Feb – June 1943 and included Lorient, Wilhemshaven, Bremen, Nurnberg, Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg, Essen, Stuttgart, Kiel, Duisburg, Pilsen (Skoda works), Spezia, Stettin, Dortmund, Dusseldorf. He recalls aircraft being damaged, being repaired and returned to service, facing heavy flak and being “coned” which was extremely alarming but never experienced ‘friendly fire’.

On returning from Stettin, he remembers a change in procedure and they were to fly at low altitude, there and back. On the return, in order to avoid the anti-aircraft fire from coastal defences, they tried to get below the aiming depression of the guns. His rear gunner informed him “Hey Skip, the trailing aerial is in the water!” He flew 18 operations in Lancaster R5677 ZN-A Admiral Chattanooga although he referred to it as ‘A Apple’. This was his favoured aircraft, the first he flew on arriving at 106 and always held a special respect for it along with the ground crew that attended to the aircraft. He wrote “very disappointing” in his logbook when he learned of its loss as he had undertaken ‘NFT’ just earlier that day 29th May. His mother kept a newspaper cutting in Rhodesia which also referred to this aircraft:

Noel completed his tour of 30 missions on 11th June 1943 once more to Dusseldorf. He was awarded the DFM, gazetted in 13th July 1943 Supplement to London Gazette, and received his commission as a Flight Lieutenant. He was sent to OTU Ossington and returned to RAF Hixon as flying instructor mid-March 1944. Noel continued those duties until the end of the war. He was demobbed in April 1945, returning to Africa on HM Troopship Andes.

One tribute paid to him noted: “Before I move on, I would like you to consider Noel’s 30 missions over occupied Europe. His bravery, his heroism was not of the spur-of-the-moment kind. It was as a 20 year old, to take command of a heavy bomber and lead men into battle in hostile skies far from home. He would know that the enemy fighters, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns were waiting and that after every mission the ground crew would have to quietly clear the Nissan huts of the possessions of those crews who had not returned. Noel and his crew had a less than evens chance of completing their tour of 30 missions. Noel spoke of those times only late in life. He would say he was only doing his duty, like all the others, but remember always that he was a volunteer, doing what was right. No one conscripted him. He himself put his survival down to chance, but whether it was luck or skill or a combination of those, Noel always brought his crew home.”

Already at Hixon when Noel arrived for the first time was Bobbie. Bobbie – Barbara Doreen Davies of Stockport, Cheshire – was an LACW - and later Corporal - in the WAAF who had been tasked with setting up a new Dental Section at the RAF Medical Centre near the village and airfield. They became engaged immediately after the end of his tour and married on 17th May 1944. Their wedding had been fixed for 7th June and they went so far as having the invitations printed for that date. They had, however, to bring it forward to May. They were not told at the time but the 7th June was the proposed date for the D Day landings and, as Noel explained it, those could not be cancelled in their favour.

Wedding at St James’s Church, Gatley, Cheshire 17th May 1944.

Noel brought his new wife to Africa, to Selukwe in Southern Rhodesia in June 1945. Attending training at Guinea Fowl School for mining, he accepted a position as a trainee surveyor on the Golden Valley Mine. Their daughters Cynthia and Lesley were born while Noel was working there and Diana after they moved to Chakari, their next gold mine location. In 1970 Noel was recruited to work on the surveying and development of the new copper nickel mine at Selebi Pikwe, Botswana so the family moved first to Francistown and then to Pikwe itself. He worked his way up to Chief Mining Engineer.

In 1984 Noel retired and he and Bobbie moved to Cape Town. Just as they had in Pikwe, when Noel and Bobbie settled in Glencairn they committed themselves to the community in which they lived. They were never ones to leave others to do the hard work. Noel became qualified as a carer and drove for St Luke’s Hospice and he and Bobbie opened a Day Centre at the local hospital. They soon gathered a wide circle of friends. Keen members of RAFA in Cape Town, he was honoured to lay the wreath at Battle of Britain/Remembrance Day Services. They were active members of the church community at Holy Trinity, Kalk Bay, helping with their time and, when the church had the opportunity to purchase the land above the hall, financially. If you open the beautiful lectern bible, you will see that in 2000 it was given by Noel in memory of Bobbie to replace the original one which was sadly stolen.

They purchased their first home, The Moorings, in Glencairn soon after moving to the Cape. This was to be the only home they owned as before they had to make do with mining accommodation. The Moorings was a neglected and rather dilapidated place then but they could see what it could become and over the next few years they transformed it into a beautiful family home. Noel was always a thorough and very practical man. When people talk today of do-it-yourself they often think of botched repairs and dodgy work. Not Noel. He could lend his hand to most things and they worked well together as a team.

Noel and Bobbie belonged to that generation that expected to provide for themselves. They educated their three daughters and lived as their generation did, putting aside what they would require for their old age. Very sadly, for Noel and for the family, Bobbie was taken with cancer in 1999, far too early for someone of such spirit. Noel wanted never to leave the home he and Bobbie had made at The Moorings and his family was so grateful that it was there, sitting down to a family meal that he became unwell and slipped peacefully away.

Noel continued to travel to visit family well into his 80s. His last visit to the UK was in 2012 when he would at last have allowed himself to feel at least a little proud. Surrounded by his family, he watched his granddaughter Emily compete – and excel – in the swimming for South Africa in the London Paralympic Games. He also accepted an invitation to the unveiling of the truly humbling memorial in London’s Green Park to the men and women of Bomber Command. Noel initially hesitated, feeling he was not up to attending. However, while mulling it over in the way he did, he realised that he would be one of the youngest there. While there he spoke of his sadness at losing his navigator ‘Hank’ soon after Noel himself completed his tour. He was sorry he had not been able to keep in touch with his crew.

After the ceremony he met Prince Charles and showed him a photo of himself being introduced to Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in Gatooma, Rhodesia in July 1953, with Princess Margaret in attendance. Oh! Granny! Prince Charles exclaimed, and Auntie Margaret too! Prince Charles was clearly taken with Noel, chatting for a while, and he later sent his aide back to ask Noel if he could possibly have the photo. Noel of course obliged! He did not tell of meeting King George VI while at 106 Squadron on an inspection parade when the King stopped to say how good it was to see so many men from the colonies at various visits to stations. He asked Noel how many sorties he had completed and wished him well for the future. He met the King once more when he was presented with his DFM at Buckingham Palace on 28th March 1944, with Bobbie in attendance. After the Bomber Command Memorial unveiling he was very moved when people in the train came up to thank him, perhaps gently touching his shoulder or on his hand. The tears that welled up in his eyes brought tears to those around him.

Noel Ernest Burton 2nd from left talking to Queen Elizabeth. Photo in Gatooma, Southern Rhodesia, 7th July 1953.

So, to speak of Noel as a person rather than of his life. He paid attention. He never sought attention himself, but he instead listened to everyone, was concerned in their cares and delighted in their joys. Noel was a man who never closed his mind to anyone or anything. He was amazingly adaptable, dealing with each situation as it came along. In his 90s he did become less mobile and he decided that the roads around him had perhaps seen enough of his driving. He acquired an iPad and quickly became adept at facetiming and emailing friends and family in Southern Africa and overseas. In that way he kept in touch with so many. Being almost 93 did not deter him.

His family received many wonderful tributes to Noel. They spoke of his gentle-ness, of his kindness and his concern for both his family and the wider community. His friends remember him as a gentle-man, thoughtful, an upright man, a man who could see what others sometimes couldn’t. As for Noel himself, in his papers was his re-writing his interpretation, of the poem “Measure of a Man” not as a tribute but as a guide by which to live his own life.

Noel’s family and his friends will always hold close to their hearts the man with a bairn’s smile who, with his beloved Bobbie, gave of himself to King and Country, to their friends, to their family and to their community.

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• Last Modified: 15 March 2021, 12:57 •