Micky Burn, British writer and WWII hero who regretted flirting with fascism, dies at 97

By Jill Lawless, AP
Monday, September 13, 2010

British writer and commando Micky Burn dies at 97

LONDON — Micky Burn, a British journalist, novelist and World War II commando who flirted with fascism, embraced communism and helped save the life of Audrey Hepburn, has died at the age of 97.

Burn died Sept. 3 at his home near Porthmadog in north Wales after suffering a stroke, his friend James Dorrian said Monday.

Capt. Michael Burn took part in one of the war’s most daring raids, an amphibious assault on the French port of St. Nazaire in March 1942 code-named Operation Chariot. The plan was for commandos to ram a destroyer into the dock and then blow the ship up, while the troops stormed ashore to destroy German installations.

The raid was a success, and a great morale-booster for Britain, but losses were heavy — of the 28 men under Burn’s command, 14 were killed. Burn was wounded but fought on until he was captured by German troops. Newsreel footage showed Burn flashing the “V for victory” sign as he was led away. After the war he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the raid.

Burn was especially proud of his role fighting Nazi Germany because as a youth — and, he later said, “to my eternal shame” — he had flirted with fascism. Visiting Germany as a young journalist in the mid-1930s, he met Hitler through his friend Unity Mitford, the Nazi-sympathizing daughter of an aristocratic English clan, and attended a Nazi rally at Nuremberg. He later recalled with embarrassment how he had greeted Hitler with a Nazi salute and told him, in German, that he was very popular among English youth. Hitler gave him a signed copy of “Mein Kampf.”

“He was extremely ashamed of his own role and the degree to which he had been taken in,” said Dorrian, who is completing a documentary film about Burn’s life.

“He thought Hitler was doing a good job getting rid of unemployment in Germany and giving, in his own words, Germany back its soul.”

Burn was born into privilege in 1912, the son of a royal official, and educated at private Winchester College. He won a scholarship to Oxford University but dropped out after a year to travel around Europe — staying with assorted high-society figures including Alice Keppel, former mistress of King Edward VII — before becoming a journalist.

Strikingly good looking, he attracted both male and female admirers. His lovers in the 1930s included Guy Burgess, a left-wing British intelligence officer later revealed as a Soviet spy.

“Guy was the catalyst, the man who drew him away from fascism toward communism,” Dorrian said.

“We suspect Micky was being groomed by him” as a Russian agent, Dorrian said. “I think the war intervened just in time.”

Increasingly aware of the dark side of Nazism, Burn enlisted in the army reserve in 1937 while working as a journalist for The Times newspaper, and after war broke out in 1939 joined a commando unit.

After his capture at St. Nazaire, Burn was sent to the prisoner of war camp at Colditz Castle in Germany, where he was one of a small team operating a secret radio. Burns would listen to BBC news reports, taking down he details in shorthand, then brief the other prisoners.

He also studied for an Oxford degree in captivity, and wrote a novel, published in 1946 as “Yes, Farewell.”

“It was a pivotal moment in his life,” Dorrian said. “Before that it was all castles and villas and posh people. Then he was sent to Colditz and had time to reflect.”

At Colditz, Burn received a Red Cross parcel after an acquaintance, Ella van Heemstra, recognized him from newsreel footage of his capture.

After his release Burn returned the favor by sending food parcels to van Heemstra in Holland, where she and her daughter, Audrey Hepburn, were malnourished, reduced like many Dutch people to making flour from tulip bulbs. He also sent cigarettes, which van Heemstra sold on the black market for penicillin to treat the seriously ill Hepburn.

After the war, Burn reported for The Times from Eastern Europe before moving to Wales, where he put his socialist principles into practice by running a mussel-farming cooperative — it was a financial disaster — and wrote novels, nonfiction books, poetry and an autobiography, “Turned Towards the Sun.”

Dorrian said that Burn rejected orthodox communism but kept his left-wing views to the end. Of all his achievements, he was proudest of his poetry.

In 1947 Burn married Mary Booker, who died in 1974.

A funeral will be held Thursday in Wales.

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