When I was an undergraduate, I worshipped at St Aldate’s Church in Oxford. One member of the pastoral team was a Reader whose name was Branse Burbridge. It’s one of those names that sticks with you! His wife was Barbara. She was also a member of the pastoral team, so between them – Branse and Barbara Burbridge – they were a bit of a tongue-twister!
Branse led worship and preached at services, but what I remember about him is the way he read scripture. I learned that if he was reading in church he would study several different translations of the passage and put together his own version. He had worked for Scripture Union, as schools’ secretary. He put so much in to his preparation that, in church, instead of reading the text from the page, he brought it to life, like an actor delivering a monologue. His son, Paul Burbridge, is part of the Riding Lights Theatre Company, so the acting gene was obviously passed on from his father!
We also knew that Branse had ‘been something in the war’. All I really knew at the time was that on Remembrance Sunday, Branse wore his medals on his Reader’s scarf. It didn’t mean a lot to me. I have since discovered that:
Wing Commander Bransome Arthur “Branse” Burbridge DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar (born 4 February 1921) is a former Royal Air Force (RAF) night fighter pilot and flying ace—a pilot credited with at least five enemy aircraft destroyed—who holds the Allied record of 21 aerial victories achieved at night during the Second World War. Burbridge is the most successful British ace still living.
Branse, the rather quiet, modest, gentle, artistic man that I knew was a genuine war hero. A flying ace, who holds the record for the most kills achieved by a night fighter. He and his navigator, Squadron Leader Bill Skelton (who later became a priest in the Church of England), were known as the ‘night hawk partners’. Bill and Branse used to have theological discussions while they were flying above the clouds at 300MPH.
I also learned that Branse was brought up in a Christian household – his father was also a preacher – and that the family were pacifists. In September 1939, because of his strong Christian beliefs, Branse registered himself as a conscientious objector.
As the war progressed, he changed his views. He had believed that as a Christian, it was not right to take another person’s life. Jesus tells us that we are to love, not just those who love us, but our neighbour, whoever that might be, and that our enemy is also a neighbour whom we are to love. Branse became convinced that, although it was not right to take someone’s life, the war meant that people were dying and that he should do what he could to prevent the deaths of others. In 1941, at the age of just 20, he joined the RAF, where he became the night fighter pilot that I have described.
He came to believe that shooting down an enemy plane, his aim was not to kill the pilot but to prevent that plane from killing anyone else. He is quoted as saying:
“I always tried to aim for the wings of enemy aircraft and not the cockpit. I never wanted to kill anyone.”
Branse remained the gentle, loving, Christian man, who came to believe that it was his Christian duty to help bring the war to an end. When asked how he had the courage to do what he did, he said, “Well, someone had to do it!”
The next time I heard about Branse was a few years ago when a story about him made the papers.
In February 2013 Burbridge’s family reported that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and they were considering selling his medals and wartime memorabilia to fund his private care home. On 25 March 2013, Burbridge’s medals fetched £155,000 at auction.
A gentle Christian man, a bone fide war hero, now with Alzheimer’s and needing care, which he and his family did not have the resources to provide, in the way they felt he needed and deserved.
On Remembrance Sunday, we rightly name those who have died in the service of their country and in the defence of our freedom. We also remember those who survived. They too have paid a price for the freedom we enjoy.