Nicholas Owen meets Sir Brian Burnett - a pilot at Wimbledon
PUBLISHED: 11:51 23 September 2011 | UPDATED: 10:23 14 May 2014
Sir Brian Burnett’s life makes for a Boy’s Own tale of extraordinary adventures – from crossing paths with Hitler and witnessing an atom bomb to becoming chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Nicholas Owen went to meet the 96-year-old at his home near Farnham *
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2009
Photos by Andy Newbold
Spending a couple of hours looking out over a heavily wooded garden, with a view of distant hills through a gap between spectacular pines, should be a wonderfully peaceful way to pass a morning. Yet many of the stories I hear in this idyllic spot, just outside Farnham, are anything but tranquil.
They come from a man who has led an exceptionally interesting and distinguished military life, stretching back three quarters of a century.
Sir Brian Burnett, GCB, DFC, AFC, is almost certainly the oldest living RAF man. He joined in 1934, before even the Spitfire had put in an appearance, when in spite of the recent rise of Hitler, British people hoped fervently there would not be another war. Sir Brian himself, who rose to the highest of RAF ranks, got an early and terrifying inkling of just how brutal the Nazi regime could be. It was in many ways the strangest of encounters.
A former pupil of Charterhouse School in Godalming, he had gone on to read French and German at Oxford University, and in 1935 travelled to Heidelberg to improve the latter. While staying there, he found time to indulge his lifelong passion for tennis, and it was on the way to a match that the chilling incident occurred.
“I was going to play in my whites and wearing my Old Carthusian jacket from Charterhouse,” recalls Sir Brian. “Suddenly, along the street came Hitler himself, leading a parade of his SA chaps. On the other side of the street were some Communist demonstrators. One shouted, ‘Heil Moscow!’. Hitler was furious and said to his thugs, ‘go and get them!’”
In front of the young RAF officer, powerless to intervene, two men were beaten to death.
He had more experience of the sinister Nazi methods when he returned to a hotel room to find two members of the Gestapo going through his luggage. Did he begin to think that a conflict with Germany was inevitable? He considers this for a moment: “Honestly, no. We knew the Germans were belligerent, but there was no talk of war.”
A life on paper
Now aged 96, Brian has finally written his memoirs. It takes the reader from his birth in India, where his father was a schoolmaster, to his last public role, as chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, presiding over Wimbledon for ten years. He was in charge at exciting times, which included the appearance of the headstrong John McEnroe.
These days, naturally, all is much quieter. Brian lives in a house he and his wife Val bought in 1967, hidden away behind huge rhododendrons on a quiet road at The Sands, near Farnham. The only occasional loud noise is made by helicopters flying in and out of RAF Odiham over the border in Hampshire. Still trim, with a sharp recollection for the events of a tumultuous life, Brian takes pride in the latest additions to his home: solar panels on its roof, and a satellite dish so he can watch plenty of sport.
It’s the second home he and Val have occupied in Surrey. For a few years before settling near Farnham he ‘flew a desk’, doing a defence job in London. So the Burnetts chose a place in Ashtead to make commuting to London reasonably simple.
His wife died six years ago. Brian has hoardes of pictures of his time in the services, and the highly attractive Val is in many of them. As he reached the top of his profession, he was appointed the last British Commander in Chief of all three services in the Far East. On his mantelpiece, there is a photograph with him resplendent in a white dress uniform, Val smiling away at his side.
"It has been, for me, such fun – such an interesting life,” he says. “But I think that the time in the Far East was probably the best – both for Val and for me.”
Long before they met, when this schoolmaster’s son was deciding what to do for a living, he knew it would have to leave time for sport. He excelled at tennis and squash – for a period he was the RAF’s tennis champion – and also played golf, rugby and hockey. He was an expert skier, too.
The RAF in the 1930s was the job for him. “Most people joined because they had always wanted to fly. I did it because I needed the money. And there was always plenty of time to play tennis, and so on. And there’s no doubt that playing sport helped one’s career.”
The encounter with Adolf Hitler and the experience of brutality on the streets of Heidelberg in 1936 was followed after 1939 by serving in Bomber Command, flying sorties over Germany.
One hair-raising incident came after a Whitley bomber he was commanding came under a hail of bullets on a raid over Kiel. The plane’s rudder was almost useless as they struggled to get home. Brian explains: “I was determined to bring the aircraft back, but when we contacted the station commander, he suggested we should bale out as we got near the English coast.
"I told the crew they had the option to bale out, but that I was determined to get back. They said they would stay. I managed to belly land the plane. Fortunately, it was a grass airstrip at Dishforth.”
The description is cool and factual. Brian chuckles when I wonder whether he was more or less disobeying orders.
No one complained once his flying skills had got the plane down with little additional damage.
The hardest part of his Second World War work, he says, was having to tell wives or sweethearts that a man had been shot down and would not be coming back. “Ten bombers would set off,” he recalls. “Nearly always, at least one wouldn’t come back.”
Once the war was over in 1945, Brian stayed on and his RAF career advanced. Many more dramas were to come. In 1956, he witnessed from an aircraft the first UK atom bomb test in the Pacific. Ordered to turn their backs and cover their eyes, everyone still felt ‘a brilliant light and a flash of heat’, as Brian’s memoirs recount.
“It was not until a few seconds later we could turn round and look at the amazing, awesome sight of the rapidly rising nuclear cloud with its top spreading sideways to form the well-known mushroom shape. It was a little while later still that the Hastings we were in received an enormous bump from the resulting shock airwave even at the 26 miles or so we were away from the bomb burst."
It makes me wonder whether he ever thought an actual nuclear war was a possibility. “Yes, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. That was a very worrying time.” He was in charge of V bombers at Mildenhall, where pilots sat in their planes round the clock, ready to take off in five minutes if a nuclear attack had been ordered. In fact,
Brian would have been among those who would have flown into action.
Throughout the years of high military responsibility, there was always tennis and other sports to be enjoyed. The man who became an Air Chief Marshall remained a keen and highly competitive player, so he was a good choice, therefore, to join the committee of the All England Tennis Club, running Wimbledon. He became chairman in the mid 1970s, when the famous championships were facing many challenges.
You cannot be serious
John McEnroe, ferociously talented but fond of arguing against decisions that went against him, was a particular headache for Brian and the committee. “I got many letters from heads of schools saying can’t you do something about McEnroe’s behaviour?” There were other arguments about players still having to wear white – Brian as Wimbledon chairman was so pleased to have been firm on that – and a sliding roof over Centre Court nearly got built during his ‘reign’ 30 years ago. It would take until this year for such a roof to become a reality.
Before he retired from the RAF, Brian had one very personal moment of great pride, pinning the wings on the RAF uniform of his older son. Bruce Burnett is now 64, having retired himself to become a stockbroker.
Another son, 62-year-old Bob, wanted to follow father and brother, but his eyesight was not good enough for a service career. He went on to become a highly successful entrepreneur, and lives today with his French wife in the south of France.
As Sir Brian and I talk about the extraordinary achievements and events of his long life, we turn briefly to modern conflicts. “Afghanistan? I think we were crazy to go in. The Russians couldn’t manage to achieve anything there. Now Iraq… I think we were right to go in, though we should have got rid of Saddam Hussein the first time round.”
Brian doesn’t let great age slow him down too much. He still does his own shopping and cooking and drives regularly to games of bridge. As for the rest, “I gave up skiing at 80, golf at 88 and tennis at 94.”
When he was invested by the Queen into the Order of the Bath, in 1970, he became entitled to armorial bearings. On one side they show a long range bomber. On the other side is a tennis racket in RAF blue. A good summing up of the life of a remarkable man.
- A Pilot at Wimbledon by Sir Brian Burnett is published by Blenheim Press.
* Sir Brian Burnett passed away aged 98, while relaxing with a G&T and looking out to sea, in September 2011.