Biplane fighter aces


Group Captain George Burges DFC OBE, RAF no. 33225

George Burges who was a veteran of the early bitter fighting over Malta, was born in Sheffield on 4 June 1916.

He joined RAF pre-war, entering RAF College at Cranwell in February 1934 and graduating in July 1936.

He was promoted to Pilot Officer on 1 August 1936 (gazetted on 15 September 1936).

After graduating he joined the School of Air Navigation at Manston, before starting to train as a flying boat pilot at Calshot. After completion of the course, he was posted to 202 Squadron at Kalafrana, Malta, in April 1937.

On 1 February 1938, he was promoted to Flying Officer (gazetted on 8 March 1938).

During January-September 1938 he was posted to HQ, Mediterranean, as ADC first to Air Commander Paul Maltby and then to Air Commander A. Leckie. He returned to 202 Squadron until October and was then posted to HQ, Malta, as ADC to Air Vice Marshal F. H. M. Maynard.

After the war begun, he was selected as one of the pilots forming the Fighter Flight with Sea Gladiators on Malta (the famous "Faith", "Hope" and "Charity").

During the first air raid on Malta shortly before 07:00 on 11 June 1940, three Gladiators (N5519, N5520 and N5531) were scrambled. Led by Flight Lieutenant Burges (in N5531), Squadron Leader Alan 'Jock' Martin (N5519) and Flying Officer íTimberí Woods (N5520) were ordered up to meet the attackers. There were so many targets over Valetta and Hal Far that the Gladiators became split up.
Burges saw nine bombers turning in a wide circle south of the island, obviously preparing to head back to Sicily. Cutting across the circle, he and one of the other pilots (probably Squadron Leader A. C. Martin) gave chase, and he was able to fire most of his ammunition at one bomber without apparent result. These were some of 34o Stormo BT S.79s which had hit Hal Far, and the crews reported that the Gladiators fired from long range. One S.79 piloted by Capitano Rosario Di Blasi from 52o Gruppo was hit in the fuselage.

On 13 June, Flight Lieutenant Burges flew four sorties, first two patrols in N5531, both during which he suffered engine troubles and two patrols in N5520. During the first of these last two sorties, he attacked five S.79s and two MC.200s and during the last sortie he attacked five more S.79s. Both engagements were inconclusive.

During the afternoon on 22 June, a lone S.79 from the 216a Squadriglia, 53o Gruppo, 34o Stormo, approached the island on reconnaissance, flown by Tenente Francesco Solimena. Burges recalls:

"'Timber' Woods and I were on the 1600 hours to dusk watch when the alarm went off. We took off and climbed as hard as we could go, as was the custom. We did not attempt to maintain close formation because if one aircraft could climb faster than the other, then the additional height gained might be an advantage. Ground control as usual gave us the position and course of the enemy. The enemy turned out to be a single SM79 presumably on a photographic sortie. It came right down the centre of the island from Gozo, and on this occasion we were 2,000-3,000 feet above it. 'Timber' went in first but I did not see any result. I managed to get right behind it and shot off the port engine. I was told this happened right over Sliema and Valetta and caused quite a stir in the population. The aircraft caught fire and crashed in the sea off Kalafrana."
The pilot and the co-pilot Sottotenente Alfredo Balsamo managed to escape from the burning Savoia (MM22068). Unfortunately the rest of the crew were killed when the aircraft exploded right after that the pilots had bailed out. The Destroyer HMS Diamond picked up Solimene after an hour in the sea and the same vessel picked up Balsamo eight hours later, bringing them both back to become prisoners.

On 23 June there was a raid by bombers from 11o Stormo BT with an escort of MC.200s. Two Gladiators flown by íTimberí Woods (N5531) and Burges (N5519) were scrambled. The two Gladiators attacked the bombers (reportedly five S.79s escorted by three MC.200s) without obvious result, but Burges was then attacked by one of the escorting fighters, an aircraft of the 88a Squadriglia flown by Sergente Maggiore Lamberto Molinelli (alternatively he was from 71a Squadriglia). Burges whirled his fighter round and a "real old W.W.I dogfight" began over the sea off Sliema. The faster Macchi had the initiative, but overshot the nimble Gladiator, allowing Burges to "belt him up the backside as he went past". After four or five such passes the Macchi suddenly caught fire and Molinelli baled out into the sea. (The Italians later recorded that he had been shot down by "one round of A.A."). Swiftly recovered from the water, Molinelli was taken to Imtarfa Hospital where Burges later visited him. He did not find his victim particularly friendly!

During 9 July, Malta had one alert, early in the morning. Burges (P2645) and Flying Officer Barber (P2653) scrambled in Hurricanes to intercept. Climbing up into the sky, they were vectored by the controller onto a single S.79 of 192a Squadriglia, 87o Gruppo, 30o Stormo B.T., flown by Capitano Valerio Scarabellotto, with an escort of four 9o Gruppo CR.42s. The Savoia was undertaking the usual daily reconnaissance over the island. By pre-arrangement, Burges was to attack the bomber whilst Barber kept the fighter at bay for as long as possible. Thus while the latter made an attack on the leading fighter from astern, Burges swung P2645 towards the bomber for a quick attack. Before being attacked by three CR.42s, he got in a good burst of fire and believed that he had sent the S.79 down in flames to crash in the sea. Actually the crippled bomber, with pilot dead and one gunner mortally wounded, made the Sicilian coast where it made an emergency landing at Comiso. This was Burges first claim in a Hurricane.

At the end of July, Burges was advised of the award to him of the Distinguished Flying Cross (gazetted on 19 July) - Malta's first decoration. The citation stated that he had shot down three Italian aircraft and probably three more.

The Fighter Flight was incorporated into 261 Squadron in the beginning of August 1940.

On 24 August, six S.79s of 192a and 193a Squadriglia, 87o Gruppo, 30o Stormo B.T., led by Tenente Colonello Schiaretta and Capitano Verrascina, again raided Hal Far and Kalafrana, escorted by 17 CR.42s of the 23o Gruppo. Four Hurricanes of 261 Squadron was once more scrambled led by Flight Lieutenant Burges (P3731), who attacked three of the bombers. He saw a few bits fly from one of these, which headed for Sicily losing height rapidly. He was then set upon by CR.42s and his aircraft was hit by fire from Tenente Mario Rigatti of the 75a Squadriglia. Visibility was poor and Burges managed to escape, but on landing, the undercarriage of his Hurricane collapsed (due to combat damage?). Of the British pilots, Flying Officer Frederick Taylor claimed one CR.42 shot down and Pilot Officer Thomas Balmforth a second as a probable. Sergente Maggiore Renzo Bocconi of the 75a Squadriglia baled out of his stricken CR.42 and was rescued from the sea to become a prisoner of war. Taylor probably shot him down. Tenente Rigatti was also hit after attacking Burgesís Hurricane, returning to Comiso seriously wounded and with his aircraft (MM4382) badly damaged, claiming one British fighter shot down. He was later awarded the Medaglia díOro. It seems almost certain that he had been flying the aircraft attacked by Balmforth.
The returning Italian pilots claimed three more victories in this combat. One was claimed by Maresciallo Luigi Pasquetti, one by the shot down Sergente Maggiore Renzo Bocconi and finally one shared between Tenente Ezio Monti and Sergente Leo Mannucci.

At about 12:20 on 2 November, Italian aircraft were reported high to the north of Malta. This was 20 S.79s of the 34o Stormo under a fairly strong fighter escort. Eleven MC.200s from the 71a and 72a Squadriglie led by Maggiore Bruno Brambilla (top cover), and five CR.42s of the 80a Squadriglia led by Capitano Luigi Corsini (close escort) undertook the mission, these squadriglie forming the 17o Gruppo of the 1o Stormo C.T. They reported being involved in a big dogfight with five Hurricanes, Maresciallo Leonida Carozzo claiming one shot down while Sergente Abramo Lanzarini of the 72a Squadriglia was killed when his MC.200 crashed on the island at Zeitun.
261 Squadron had in fact scrambled six Hurricanes of 'B' Flight led by Flying Officer John Waters (Hurricane P3730) and two Gladiators including N5520 in the capable hands of Burges. It is possible that Sergente Lanzarini was shot down by Pilot Officer Allan McAdam, who claimed a Macchi shot down, while Burges attacked a formation which he identified as compromising eight CR.42s. He thought he had shot one of these down but did not see it crash. He also claimed a second damaged. A second MC.200 was claimed probably destroyed by an unknown pilot from 261 Squadron. It is possible that John Waters claimed a MC.200 in this combat since it's known that he made a claim around this date and this combat is the one that most fits this claim. Thus the second claim should be a 'confirmed'. AA gunners believed they had shot down a bomber.
Bombs fell on Luqa, where an empty hangar received a direct hit, and on Zabbar where four houses were demolished, fortunately without inflicting any casualties.
After the attack a reconnaissance part of from the 2nd Battalion The Devonshire Regiment was dispatched to the crash site of the Italian aircraft at Buleben il-Kbir between Zeitun and Fgura, arriving to find "the whole village...out in the streets". The unit's War Diary also noted that Lanzarini "was quite dead and the Italian equipment was very poor indeed". Lanzarini had baled out of his stricken aircraft only to plummet to his death when the parachute failed to deploy.

Burges flew his last Gladiator sortie over Malta when he flew an uneventful 30-minute patrol in N5529 on 20 November.

Newly arrived reinforcement of Hurricanes allowed a strong reception of a raid during the morning of 23 November 1940. Ten 34o Stormo S.79s escorted by eighteen CR.42s of 23o Gruppo raided Takali and eight Hurricanes scrambled to intercept the raid as it came over Fifla at 16,000 feet. Burges in Hurricane V7548 attacked five of the bombers in company with a couple of fighters. He thought he hit one "pretty hard", and saw it going down, although he did not see it crash. He then shot pieces of another.

On 18 January 1941, he was up four times during the day, flying three different Hurricanes. He claimed one Ju 87 "almost certainly shot down" and two damaged during the German attacks on the damaged HMS Illustrious in Grand Harbour.

During the next day, he made four sorties and claimed two Ju 87s shot down which he saw crash into the sea off Grand Harbour. He then knocked pieces of a third but did not see it go down. On another sortie he sat behind a Ju 88, using nearly all his ammunition on it. He last saw it heading for Sicily with the port engine on fire. During one of his flights, a bullet hit the parachute harness buckle on his left shoulder, leaving a large bruise.

Burges was posted to 69 Squadron, flying Marylands, at the end of January 1941 after a period of strenuous and successful fighter activity, to take up General Reconnaissance duties for which he had been trained. He continued to fly Marylands from the island until 5 June when he was posted home to the UK. By this time, he was a Squadron Leader. In the UK he was posted to 44 Group on ferry duties.

He was promoted to Wing Commander (temp.) in June 1942.

He remained in 44 Group until January 1943. During this period he also acted as commanding officer of RAF Treblezue, Cornwall. After this, he then attended the RAF Staff Collage, before going to Air Ministry in May in the Policy section until September 1944.

On 19 March 1945, he was promoted to Wing Commander (war subs.) (gazetted on 17 April 1945).

He was promoted to Group Captain, awarded an OBE and then became Staff officer to the Vice Chief of the Air Staff until October 1945.

Burges ended the war with 3 biplane victories and a total of 7 victories.

George Burges (left) together with Air Vice Marshal F. H. M. Maynard, with whom he served as an Personal Assistant before the war.

After the peace he reverted to the peacetime rank of Wing Commander (1 July 1947) and was posted to HQ, Transport Command. After this, he spent a period at the School of Air Transport, Netheravon. In November he was at RAF Snaith with 1516 Flight and then at 1382 TCU at Wymeswold until April 1946 before commanding 46 Squadron until August 1947. Various training and staff appointments followed until October 1953, when he undertook a conversion course on Sunderlands at Pembroke Dock, and the went out to join the Far East Flying Boat Wing at the start of 1954, becoming commanding officer in March.

A disagreement with his commanding officer here led him to make a redress of grievance. His career appeared damaged, and after returning to the UK in 1955 he took advantage of an early retirement scheme, after becoming Wing Commander Air at HQ, Home Command, from September 1955, and he came out in April 1959. Burges then joined with a retired Captain RN and an Army Colonel to set up and run a large painting-contracting firm until his retirement in 1979-80.

George Burges died of cancer on 26 November 1990.

Note: George Burges son, Squadron Leader Rodney Burges was commanding 1435 Flight in the Falklands War and the Phantom F3s of the unit were named "Faith", "Hope", "Charity" and "Desperation".

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  11/06/40   1 S.79 (a) Damaged Sea Gladiator N5531 Valetta-Hal Far Hal Far Fighter Flight
1 22/06/40   1 S.79 (b) Destroyed Sea Gladiator N5519 off Kalafrana Hal Far Fighter Flight
2 23/06/40   1 MC.200 (c) Destroyed Sea Gladiator N5519 off Sliema Hal Far Fighter Flight
3 09/07/40   1 S.79 (d) Destroyed Hurricane P2645 off Malta Hal Far Fighter Flight
  24/08/40   1 S.79 (e) Probable Hurricane P3731 Malta 261 Squadron
4 02/11/40 12:20- 1 CR.42 (f) Destroyed Sea Gladiator N5520 Zeitun 261 Squadron
  02/11/40 12:20- 1 CR.42 (f) Damaged Sea Gladiator N5520 Zeitun 261 Squadron
  23/11/40   1 S.79 Probable Hurricane V7548 Malta 261 Squadron
  23/11/40   1 S.79 Damaged Hurricane V7548 Malta 261 Squadron
5 18/01/41   1 Ju 87 Destroyed Hurricane P3731 Grand Harbour 261 Squadron
  18/01/41   1 Ju 87 Damaged Hurricane P3731 Grand Harbour 261 Squadron
  18/01/41   1 Ju 87 Damaged Hurricane P3731 Grand Harbour 261 Squadron
6 19/01/41   1 Ju 87 Destroyed Hurricane P3730 Grand Harbour 261 Squadron
7 19/01/41   1 Ju 87 Destroyed Hurricane P3730 Grand Harbour 261 Squadron
  19/01/41   1 Ju 88 Damaged Hurricane   Grand Harbour 261 Squadron

Biplane victories: 3 destroyed, 2 damaged.
TOTAL: 7 destroyed, 2 probable, 6 damaged.
(a) One S.79 piloted by Capitano Rosario Di Blasi from 52o Gruppo was hit in the fuselage.
(b) S.79 (MM22068) of 216a Squadriglia, 53o Gruppo, 34o Stormo, flown by Tenente Francesco Solimene. The pilot and the co-pilot Sottotenente Alfredo Balsamo survived and became POW's.
(c) MC.200 of 88a Squadriglia (alternatively he was from 71a Squadriglia) flown by Sergente Maggiore Lamberto Molinelli. The a/c crashed in the sea and the pilot was captured.
(d) S.79 of 192a Squadriglia, 87o Gruppo, 30o Stormo B.T., flown by Capitano Valerio Scarabellotto. The aircraft made it to the Sicilian coast were it made an emergency landing at Comiso with the pilot dead and one of the gunners mortally wounded.
(e) S.79 of 87o Gruppo, 30o Stormo B.T.
(f) Claimed in combat with CR.42s from 80a Squadriglia, which didn't suffer any losses.
Note: In a summary in his log book, George Burges assessed his total at the end of January 1941 as:
Certain 2 S-79s, 2 Ju 87s, 1 MC.200
Possible: 1 S-79, 1 CR.42
Damaged: 3 S-79s, 3 Ju 87s 1 Ju 88, 1 CR.42
Not all the damaged were listed.

Aces High - Christopher Shores and Clive Williams, 1994 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-00-0
Aces High Volume 2 - Christopher Shores, 1999 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-03-9
Battle over Malta - Anthony Rogers, 2000 Sutton Publishing Limited, Gloucestershire, ISBN 0-7509-2392-X
Gladiators over Malta: The Story of Faith, Hope and Charity Ė Brian Cull and Frederick Galea, 2008 Wise Owl Publications, ISBN 978-99932-92-78-4
Hurricanes over Malta - Brian Cull and Frederick Galea, 2001 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-91-8
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-89747-207-1
The London Gazette
Additional information kindly provided by Liana Balsamo.

Last modified 24 March 2011