The story told in the BBC film Full Throttle, that of the writing of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s autobiography, was just one landmark in the life of another extraordinary character – the author, poet and warrior, Michael Burn. His is a tale well worth the telling.
Burn was born in December 1912, the eldest son of a solicitor who was soon appointed secretary to the Duchy of Cornwall. The family moved to a grace-and-favour house diagonally opposite Buckingham Palace. As a child, Burn used to fire his air rifle towards the palace, trying to hit the first Belisha beacon to be installed in London.
‘Tim’ Birkin and Michael Burn as portrayed in Full Throttle
While at school in Winchester, Burn suggested to his father that he was attracted to the other boys. Sir Clive arranged an appointment with King George V’s personal doctor, who prescribed benzedrine. That didn’t work, unsurprisingly, so his father went to a different doctor, who pronounced the youth ‘normal’ and, with that little matter thus cleared up, his son went up to Oxford.
University life was not a success. It ushered in a year of utter debauchery, from which Burn retired to a villa in Le Touquet in the summer of 1931, where his maternal grandfather had built the first casino. Here he met with the celebrated racing driver ‘Tim’ Birkin, twice a winner at Le Mans and a genuine Boys’ Own hero. Burn decided not to return to Oxford and instead agreed to act as ghostwriter for Birkin’s autobiography, entitled Full Throttle.
Birkin also invented electric rail racing – precursor to slot cars
The book did brilliantly and led to Burn being commissioned to write a history of Brooklands, which appeared as Wheels Take Wings (1933). During his research, Burn met a student from Trinity College, Cambridge, by the name of Guy Burgess. Burgess was openly homosexual, a Marxist, and he utterly bewitched the younger man – introducing him to his circle of friends among whom was the novelist EM Forster.
In the early 1930s, fiery political rhetoric intoxicated many young men and Burn was among them. He decided to witness Hitler’s Germany for himself: renting a flat in Munich and allowing himself to be seduced by Nazism. Here he lived among a number of other expats including Donald Maclean, who would soon join forces with Guy Burgess as members of the ‘Cambridge Spy Ring’.
Burn’s first encounter with the Cambridge spy ring came through Guy Burgess
Burn drank his fill of Hitler’s economic miracle and marvelled at the levels of national pride he encountered. He then went on to witness Mussolini in Italy, where he lived as a guest of Alice Keppel, Edward VII’s mistress, and her daughter, Violet Trefusis, in Florence. Fascist Italy provided pyrotechnic politics of the kind he so desired – and also brought about more contact with the opposite sex.
Returning to London, Burn took up residence with the celebrated stage and film actress, Viola Tree. He helped her to edit the memoirs of her late husband while he perfected vocational training in typing and shorthand. A relatively sedate life then beckoned on the staff of the Gloucester Citizen until Burn decided to spend hid summer holiday back in Munich during 1935.
Among the British crowd in Bavaria this time around was Unity Mitford, the most fervent of the celebrated Mitford sisters in her admiration of fascism. Unity was completely besotted with Adolf Hitler, and her peers were sure that she was hell-bent on marrying him. Burn took tea with Unity in Munich’s Carlton tea rooms when the Führer popped in to say hello, and Burn recorded that Unity was positively vibrating with glee as she was ushered off to sit with him.
Burn (centre) pictured alongside Unity Mitford (left) at Nuremberg
Eventually, Burn would also be granted an audience with Hitler – who invited the young Englishman to witness the Nüremberg Rally from one of the more privileged seats alongside Unity. He was utterly spellbound by “great lights in the sky, moving music, the rhetoric, the presentation, timing, performance, soundtrack, exultation, and climax. It was almost aimed at the sexual parts of one’s consciousness.”
Hitler also handed him a personally-signed copy of Mein Kampf – although he lost it soon afterwards. He was also treated to a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, which apparently didn’t phase him. Nevertheless, something sparked an almighty row with Unity Mitford in the days afterwards and, with that, Burn turned his back on Germany.
He returned to Britain after informing his editor that he wanted to leave the Gloucester Citizen for less tranquil waters. A glowing reference was presented to The Times, which stuck the newcomer on fairly light domestic duties until Burn’s unprecedented access to the royal family led to his covering the affair between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.
Burn and his father playing golf, 1931
When viewed from our age of phone tapping and litigation, this would appear to have been a staggering breach in court security. Burn’s father was firmly ensconced in the Duchy of Cornwall, and from this position granted his son access to court and everyone up to Walter Monckton, the King’s go-between with the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, during the abdication crisis. Whatever else, it can certainly be said that coverage of the whole sorry spectacle in The Times did not lack authority.
Nevertheless, the growing threat posed by Germany loomed large over proceedings and soon the threat posed by Hitler trumped even the ongoing fallout of royal scandal. Burn enlisted as a reservist in the Queen’s Westminsters territorial battalion of the King’s Rifle Corps during 1938 but remained a journalist and travelled to Croydon Airport to see off the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, when he went to Munich to meet Hitler.
When war finally came, Burn volunteered for service in one of the ten independent companies that were formed to conduct guerilla operations in the battle to save Norway from invasion. After the fall of Norway, Burn joined the British Commandos, ending up in No.2 Commando and honing his skills in readiness for the assault on the world’s largest dry dock in Ste. Nazaire in March 1942.
Ste. Nazaire: HMS Campbelltown resting on the wall it would soon destroy
The dock was believed to be the only location large enough to accommodate the battleship Tirpitz, and if it was put out of acton the German Kriegsmarine would be less likely to send its flagship out into the Atlantic. Burn’s 2 Commando landed in advance to destroy onshore facilities and minimize the firepower that could be brought to bear on the attacking force. They were to clear the way for the destroyer HMS Campbelltown, which would be crashed into the wall of the dry dock, laden with concealed explosives.
The plan was for the Campbelltown sit astride the dry dock wall, the fuses on her explosive cargo delayed to allow the Commandos to escape. Then she would be blown to smithereens, taking the wall with her and ushering in a wave that would demolish the entire facility.
Burn’s commanding officer described the audacious plan as “the sauciest job since Drake”. Militarily, the operation was an unprecedented success in terms of destroying the base, but the Commandos paid a heavy price, made worse because the small boats that they were supposed to escape in were sunk, forcing them to fight their way out and attempt to escape over land.
Burn was among the wounded. His capture was filmed for use in the propaganda reels and, noticing the camera crew as he passed, Burn discreetly positioned his fingers in a ‘V-sign’ as he was marched off. When the newsreel was shown in occupied Holland, Burn’s defiance so moved the mother of future Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn that she sent a food parcel to his prison camp.
Caught on camera: Burn gives his defiant V-sign
Burn’s internment was to last to the end of the war, primarily in Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, where he languished alongside such men as future Le Mans winner Tony Rolt. Burn recorded as much detail of life in the camp as he could and, when he was released, turned his recollections into another best-selling book. During his incarceration, Burn also became a confirmed Communist sympathizer.
In the hoary early morning of the Cold War, Burn was to be found in Vienna as correspondent for The Times. He remained in the city – a place of secrets and shadows on the fringes of the enlarged Soviet empire – for almost a year. He then went to Budapest, much closer to the Soviets, and took with him a new wife.
Mary Booker had been the subject of one of the most tragic and celebrated romances of the war, as the great love of Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary, who badly burned in the Battle of Britain and later killed in a flying accident during 1943. Mary had been significantly older than Hillary and was well into middle age by the time she married Burn. They lived contentedly enough together in Budapest while Burn was The Times’ Balkan correspondent.
Burn and his wife, Mary
The couple returned to Britain in the early 1950s, whereupon Burn forsook journalism for more creative writing. He put out a play, The Night of the Ball, which opened in 1954. It was at this time that he was arrested during a sexual encounter with a young man in Bayswater. The policemen concerned attempted to blackmail Burn, who called their bluff and prosecuted the men. They were found guilty of blackmail and sentenced to prison.
Burn continued a fairly prodigious output of poetry and novels throughout the Fifties and the marriage continued until Mary’s death in 1974. He lived for a time in some bohemian splendour amid the eccentric village of Portmeirion, later to become famous as the location for Patrick McGoohan’s surreal spy drama The Prisoner. North Wales was his home and from here he attempted to run a Communist-style co-operative mussel farming business without conspicuous success.
Portmeirion – the Welsh village has had a profound effect on popular culture
In 1988, Burn produced the book Mary and Richard, based the love letters that passed between his late wife and Richard Hillary up until his death. He wrote it as a means to end rumours that Hilary had chosen to kill himself because of unhappiness in the affair. As a defence of his late wife’s reputation it was a masterpiece: through their intimate words, Burn conclusively proved how profound their affection had been to the end.
In 1995 Burn added his voice to the BBC’s film Full Throttle, a dramatization of his three week stay with Sir Henry Birkin, where his young self was portrayed by Crispin Bonham-Carter, cousin of the celebrated actress Helena. Burn’s own autobiography appeared in 2003, entitled Turned Towards the Sun. He died in his sleep at home in North Wales in 2010, aged 97.
Michael Burn in his final days in North Wales