William Burn


William Wallace Allison Burn was the first New Zealand Army man to qualify as a military aviator. During the First World War he served in Mesopotamia, where he became the first New Zealand airman to be killed in action.

Born in Gippsland, Victoria in 1891, Burn was educated at Christchurch Boys' High School before joining the New Zealand Staff Corps. In 1912, aged 20, he left for England with three other junior officers to study with the imperial forces. He undertook instruction at Farnborough and with the RFC’s Central Flying School where he graduated as a service pilot. Burn returned to New Zealand in September 1914, just after the outbreak of the war.

In February 1915 the Indian government asked the dominions to provide trained pilots for service in the Mesopotamian (Iraq) campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Burn was seconded to the the Royal Flying Corps, and joined its Flight at Basra in May 1915. 

This Flight was equipped with a motley collection of second-rate aeroplanes, some of which had already seen service in Egypt, and were prone to engine failure in the hot and sand-blown conditions. Burn flew in these aircraft a number of times on reconnaissance flights over Ottoman positions.

On 30 July 1915, the Caudron biplane being flown by Australian Lieutenant G.P. Merz, with Burn as observer, experienced a mechanical failure and was forced to land in the desert. Burn and Merz were immediately attacked by a number of well-armed Arabs. Armed only with revolvers, the two airmen fought a running battle, killing one and wounding some of their adversaries. According to eyewitness reports, when one of the airmen was wounded his comrade stayed beside him. No trace of them was ever found.

Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Paul Harrison

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about William Burn

What do you know?