Sergeant (Pilot) James Joseph Burke
At 1545 on the afternoon of Wednesday 25 February 1942, a flight in a small Miles Magister MkI trainer T9947 ended in tragedy. The aircraft’s occupants were carrying out low-flying practice when it stalled, crashed and caught fire near Three Bridges in Sussex (1).
The Magister was being flown by two RNZAF pilots from No 485 (NZ) Squadron based at Kenley aerodrome fifteen miles to the north of the crash site. Both were killed. They were sergeant pilots, James (‘Jimmie’) Burke who was 23 and who had flown 228 hours and Arnold McNeil, more commonly known as ‘Mick’ (2), aged 22 with 207 flying hours logged.Strangely, there is no record of the accident in 485 Squadron’s Operations Record Book.
The previous day Jimmie Burke had taken part in a four-aircraft anti-Rhubarb patrol along the southern coast which resulted in no sighting of enemy aircraft. The other pilots werePilot Officers IJ McNeil and Fred Chandler who was to be shot down over France and killed on 2 April 1942 and Sergeant John Liken who shortly afterwards, on 26 April, bailed out into the sea off Dungeness but who died before reaching a hospital (3).
Jimmie Burke’s parents, Patrick and Annie Burke, lived in Temuka 90 miles south of Christchurch, a small town near the coast on the South Island’s extensive Canterbury Plains servicing nearby dairy and sheeps farms. Jimmie was born there on 27 February 1918 and he attended Temuka’s District High School (now Opihi College). Leaving school, he headed north to Wellington as a timber orderman working in the timber yard of Stacey & Co.
On enlistment into the RNZAF, he underwent recruit training as an airman pilot (under training) starting on 19 January 1941 at RNZAF Levin in the lower half of the North Island. In March he was posted to the 3rd Elementary Flying Training School at RNZAF Station Harewood near Christchurch where he divided his time equally between learning to fly on the DH82 Tiger Moth and ground studies,
In late May, Jimmie sailed to Canada for Harvard flight training, starting on 16 June in Class 31 at the RCAF’s No 10 Service Flying Training School at Dauphin, Manitoba. On 1 September 1941, having successfully completed his training, he was awarded his wings and promoted to Sergeant.
Three weeks later he embarked for England where, on 28 September, he arrived at the RAF’s No 3 Personnel Reception Centre in Bournemouth overlooking the English Channel in Hampshire. This was the arrival point for thousands of Commonwealth aircrew after training in Canada and here they were accommodated in scores of requisitioned hotels and luxury flats. Their presence in the town eventually prompted a heavy lunchtime raid by 26 Fw 190 fighter-bombers of the Luftwaffe in May 1943 resulting in 161 deaths, mostly of Canadian and Australian airmen (4).
On 6 October 1941 Jimmie, along with Sergeant Mick McNeil, was posted to 58 Operational Training Unit at RAF Grangemouth in Scotland where he converted to Spitfires. His first operational posting, on 25 November, was to No 91 Squadron based at RAF Hawkinge near the coast in Kent. Again he was posted there with Mick McNeil. The squadron was equipped with the MkII Spitfire and, owing to the short range of the aircraft, was flying a mixture of coastal shipping patrols, weather reconnaissance flights and air-sea rescue sweeps.
Two months later, on 2 December, they were again posted together, this time to No 485 (NZ) Squadron at Kenley which was equipped with the more powerful Spitfire MkVb.
Sergeant James Joseph Burke is buried in the Air Force Section of St. Luke’s Cemetery at Whyteleafe, near Kenley aerodrome, next to Sergeant McNeil and Sergeant Liken.
In 1948 his mother Annie was presented with a New Zealand Memorial Cross. Instituted after the war, the cross was awarded to family members of service personnel who had died on active service during the Second World War – the award is still made today (5).
Okioki ki te rangimarie – Rest in peace Sir.