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Captain Hamish Pelham-Burn

Captain Hamish Pelham-Burn.
Born: March 17th 1918, Nairn, Scotland. Died: February 11th 2011 Age 92.

In March 1944 SOE ordered Pelham-Burn to return to England from Camp STS 103, Canada, where he had been instructing potential agents in sabotage. 

He reported to the Baker Street HQ and was asked whether he was prepared to lead a small demolition team which would be dropped into France with the objective of destroying a radar installation.

A close friend, also in SOE, had been killed in what Pelham-Burn regarded as a botched mission and he agreed to go only if he could have the two Canadian sergeants, Andy McClure and Jack Clayton, with whom he had worked at the camp.

In the early hours of the morning, three days before D-Day, they were dropped by a Wellington into rough, rolling Brittany country with rocky outcrops, Pelham-Burn carrying detonators in a cotton-wool-lined box taped to his chest.

After burying their parachutes in the bracken, they moved as fast and silently as possible to within 200 yards of their objective, where a hut with a single window and a sentry stood before the mast.

Pelham-Burn cut the telephone line.

Clayton dealt with the sentry.

The charges were taped to the mast and the time pencils set with a 20-minute delay.

The whole operation had taken four minutes.

As they were creeping away, there was a flash of light followed by a great explosion: one of the pencils had detonated prematurely.

Germans ran out of the hut firing in all directions.

A dispatch rider on a motorcycle started off down the road, and Pelham-Burn had to shoot him despite the fact that this revealed their position.

The two sergeants picked off the rest of the Germans with single, well-aimed shots.

The mast was a pile of charred and twisted girders.

Pelham-Burn led the way to a small farm that was to be their “safe house”. For the next five days, the three men hid in the hay in a small cupboard-like extension of the barn. They were then picked up by Lysander.

Pelham-Burn recommended his two colleagues for Military Medals.

As for his own wartime feats of derring-do, many seem destined to remain unknown, details having mysteriously disappeared from his service file.

Charles Hamish Pelham-Burn was born at Nairn, in the Highlands, on March 17 1918.

He was brought up at Killiecrankie, Perthshire, and then at Kilmory Castle, Argyll.

An idyllic childhood was interrupted by preparatory school in Sussex. He detested the place and, in the hope of being expelled, tried to burn it down. He was beaten instead. After Harrow, where he was captain of golf and in the cricket XI, he went to Sandhurst and was subsequently commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders and posted to the 2nd Battalion.

As a junior officer, he found peacetime soldiering very dull.

Climbing, fishing, shooting and driving sports cars occupied his leisure moments but, in 1940, he accompanied his battalion to France as part of the BEF.

During the withdrawal he managed to get hold of a BSA motorbicycle and, travelling by roads crammed with refugees and strafed by German bombers, reached Cherbourg.

To escape from the tedium of regimental soldiering, Pelham-Burn volunteered for a temporary transfer to the RAF and was sent to flying school.

He became adept at crosswind landings, sideslipping, stalling, spinning and aerobatics and was the first on the course to be allowed to go solo. But he disliked the strain of having to fly in formation.

After joining a Hurricane squadron, he enjoyed flying sweeps over northern France, flying close to treetop level to stalk armed trains. “Try to take out the gunner on the first pass,” he wrote afterwards, “then pull up and have a go at the locomotive on the second time round. Ammunition finished,” then streak for home‚”

Grounded with a bout of sinusitis, Pelham-Burn obtained an interview with General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall, who sent him to Arisaig House, the SOE Special Training School west of Fort William. He arrived in July 1942.

There he was taught fieldcraft, stalking, demolitions, weapons handling, signalling, driving locomotives and unarmed combat.

After completing his course, Pelham-Burn ran his own training establishment at a remote house near Loch Nevis before going to RAF Ringway for parachute training.
He was then dropped by Halifax into the Vercors region of south-east France, and spent two weeks instructing the Maquis in weapons handling and explosives.

In February 1943, he was posted to STS 103, also known as Camp X, a training school for agents and subversives sited on the shore of Lake Ontario, Canada.

Exercises took place, often at night, in the wild country north of the camp, and he borrowed a flight of Tiger Moths so that they could practice simulated pick-ups and landings of agents in small fields by moonlight.

On one occasion, he bombed the commandant’s car with a bag of flour. On another, he was using a Thomson submachine gun and, underestimating the heat generated by the bullets, set fire to a barn.

Pelham-Burn did an extensive tour of American Army camps.

As he wrote in his memoirs, there was some initial opposition to being lectured to by a ‚“Goddam Limey son-of-a-bitch”, but he always had some tricks up his sleeve and after a few minutes usually had his audience riveted.

After his SOE operation in Brittany, he succeeded in getting himself posted back to the RAF and learned to fly Wellingtons.

His final appointment was as SOE liaison officer at Shaef, Versailles.

He settled in Perthshire, where he became a freelance photographer. Geology, mapping and mountaineering were absorbing interests, and he was a fine golfer.

Hamish Pelham-Burn died on February 11. He never married.


Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.

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 • Last Modified: 01 January 2014, 00:00