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Michael 'Micky' Burn, 97

Journalist 'Micky' Burn, 97, dies; renounced Nazism to become British commando

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Michael "Micky" Burn helped save Audrey Hepburn's life after WWII. (AP)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Michael "Micky" Burn, a Nazi-sympathizing British journalist in the 1930s who, having come to regret his allegiances, became an army commando during World War II and then a novelist, poet and mussel farmer, died Sept. 3 at his home in northern Wales after a stroke. He was 97.

Mr. Burn was a foreign correspondent for the Times of London after the war and wrote nearly 20 books, many based on his experiences as a prisoner of war at Colditz Castle, a German prison installation that had a reputation of harshness and dreariness.

In late March 1942, Mr. Burn was serving as an officer in a commando unit taking part in Operation Chariot, an amphibious attack on Saint-Nazaire, one of the largest ports on France's Atlantic coast. The dry dock was seen by the Allies as an essential fueling and repair hub for German navy ships, including the feared battleship Tirpitz.

About 600 sailors and commandos set off for the French coast aboard the HMS Campbeltown and smaller escort ships. Half of the 28 men under Mr. Burn's command in an escort vessel were killed when the ship's fuel tank was hit by a German round and exploded.

He was wounded by gunfire but made it ashore just as the Campbeltown, disguised as a German vessel and laden with explosives, rammed into the docks at Saint-Nazaire. He was taken hostage by German soldiers and was in the middle of an interrogation when a tremendous explosion blew out the room's windows.

"Not only had she exploded," Mr. Burn later recalled, "but taken with her scores of German investigators, sightseers and souvenir hunters."

A total of about 170 British commandos and sailors died in the operation. Another 215, including Mr. Burn, became prisoners. It was a strange evolution for Mr. Burn, who earlier in life had been an admirer of Adolf Hitler.

In the 1930s, Mr. Burn was a journalist working as a diplomatic correspondent covering the National Socialist party when he was introduced to Hitler in Munich by a mutual friend, the aristocrat Unity Mitford.

Mr. Burn attended a Nuremberg rally, and Hitler gave him a signed copy of "Mein Kampf" about that time.

"I was so infatuated with all the Sieg-Heil-ing," Mr. Burn told the British newspaper the Express in 2000. "It was so impressive. You felt the Germans had a sense of national purpose, while we had none. I was thoroughly taken in by it all."

Later, at Colditz, he helped boost the morale of his fellow prisoners by transcribing BBC broadcasts in his journalist's shorthand while listening to a secret radio in the Colditz Castle's attic.

After his release, Mr. Burn's first phone call was to the Times office to file a dispatch on his experiences as a prisoner. The newspaper made him a Vienna correspondent and he later had postings in Budapest and Belgrade.


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