Brigadier John 'Blackie' Burns
30 Nov 1917 - 11 Jan 2003
Blackie Burns was a man of many aspects - decorated soldier, accomplished painter, internationally published author, and dedicated family man. He valued the company of friends and acquaintances, and was well known for his story-telling. And what tales they were. Many gunners, serving and retired will remember the tales of his war-time experiences. Blackie had been captured by the Germans during the Battle of El Alamein (July '42) and imprisoned in Northern Italy. After three escapes and months on the run he rejoined the New Zealand Division in June 1944. After recuperating in England he served with the 5th and 6th NZ Field Regiments and 7 Anti-tank Regiment before being awarded the MBE and returning to New Zealand.
After the second world war, Blackie worked in Army Headquarters, and attended the Royal College of Military Science at Shrivenham in 1947.
In January 1953, with the Korean War in progress, Blackie was appointed Commanding Officer, 16 Field Regiment, in Korea for 12 months. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his cool command of the New Zealand guns when the enemy breached the Allied positions during the heavy fighting preceding the signing of the Armistice.
Blackie Burns loved the artillery, and today's RNZA and NZ Army owe much to his efforts. Post Korea he was Director of the RNZA 1954-59, Director of Cadets 1959-60, Commandant Army Schools 1961 and 1963-64, Camp Commandant Waiouru 1962, Commander Central Military District 1969-72, and Colonel Commandant RNZA 1975-1981; he established the first Army Museum at Waiouru and introduced an extensive tree-planting campaign in Waiouru to enhance the camp; he established the Army Association, and the Army Central Welfare Fund. When Blackie Burns retired from the New Zealand Army in 1972, he was New Zealand's longest serving soldier of the time.
In 2002, Blackie's book, recounting his time on the run from the enemy in Europe, was published in Rome by the monastery that had sheltered him. The book, "Life is a Twisted Path", is now available in English, German and Italian, and it is a mark of Blackie's optimism and indomitable spirit that he referred to the manuscript as 'Monograph One (of eight)'.
Blackie will be remembered for many things: his quiet voice, his pragmatism, his wonderful stories, his affection for all things artillery, his devotion to his family. He will be sorely missed.
CM Rivers 11 January 2003
Eulogy by Lt Gen DS McIver, CMG, OBE
John Burns, born in Napier in 1917 grew up in Mount Victoria, Wellington. He was educated at Saint Patrick's Town and from there went on to the Royal Military College Duntroon where he was given his nickname "Blackie". A 1938 graduate into the RNZA, Blackie served in the NZ Army for 37 eventful years.
He sailed for the Middle East with the 6th Reinforcements in 1941, "a shy and diffident officer", as he was described to me by one of his comrades. He was taken prisoner for the first of three times on the Alamein Ridge on 5 July 1942 and there started that odyssey of, in his own words, "imprisonment, escape, evasion and final refuge" until he eventually rejoined his unit in mid 1944. His exploits over this period are recounted in his recently published book "Life is a Twisted Path", a remarkable account which, though understated in typical Blackie fashion, reveals much more than those events themselves. You will find his deep determination and his profound loyalty to his comrades and to those who cared for him (especially while in hiding in Italy). He made such a lasting impression that today at 5pm local time (Friday morning here) a Requiem Mass, to celebrate Blackie's life, will be offered by the Rector at the German Monastery Santa dell' Anima in Rome where he was given refuge . German and Italian and church dignitaries will attend, as will families with whom he developed a very special relationship while in hiding in Italy. The book also illustrates his crystal clear memory, his meticulous research and his remarkable record keeping. And you will find his wry sense of humour too. What a great pity we are not to read the other seven monographs which he had committed himself to writing. In 1945 Blackie was awarded the MBE.
After attending the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham in the UK, he was promoted to temporary Lt Col in 1953 to command 16 Field Regiment in Korea. For Blackie, the Gunner, this posting was one of his pre-eminent military achievements. He was noted for his cool, unflappable command in all situations and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his command of the New Zealand guns when the enemy breached the Allied lines in the fighting preceding the Armistice (the last DSO awarded to a NZ officer in action).
During the later 50s he filled other posts in the Royal Regiment including that of Director.
Posted in January 1961 as Commandant of the Army Schools his impact was wide ranging. He updated long standing Recruit and Corps training courses and there were those innovative "Woodchuck Courses" designed by Blackie and Alf Voss to develop small group operational skills. Well before New Zealand troops were involved in Vietnam he set in place a study programme on the French Indo China campaigns. Those involved will remember the book "Street without Joy", studies on the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and on personalities such as General Giap. He worked actively on the development of the Army Museum initially storing the artefacts in the renovated Homestead and Scotty will say more about this and his commitment to the well-treed Waiouru of today. I know Blackie was concerned with the Army's reduction in Commitment to the Army Training Group Waiouru - I saw it in those steely eyes when he told me. More recently, he was somewhat heartened by a reversal of that policy.
He left Waiouru as a LtCol in 1964 having somehow "arranged" his posting to London as Assistant Army Liaison Officer after he was informed, he told me, that he had "reached his limit". He went on to say "never give up - if you persevere, things will turn to your favour". For him it worked. He was appointed a full Colonel in London. Then after a period in Defence he was posted as Brigadier to Central Military District later to become Home Command.
He was the soldier's champion. He reformed the Army Welfare System so that it became a central fund with a nationwide commitment to soldiers and their families in times of tragedy or hardship. He gave impetus to programmes to provide modern living and recreational facilities for the Army. And as many of you will know, his approach was not always by the book - he was the original lateral thinker before most people knew what the term meant. When a new Garrison Club was needed in Papakura Camp and, as usual, no money was available, he did a deal with Carter Holt. They were given the cutting rights to the pine trees on the Ardmore Rifle Range in return for the delivery, to the door, of the necessary sawn and prepared timber for the Club. Army engineers built it. I remember Defence HQ had problems with his innovative approach. And he was the Army's champion too in the inevitable Inter Service rivalries of the day - he was still chuckling on his sick bed as we recalled the time when the Navy told Army that its female soldiers (WRAACs) must be moved out of their barracks on the Devonport Naval Base which the Navy now needed urgently. Only Blackie the old, and dare I say slightly devious master of any situation would have thought of it - he moved them into Fort Cautley/North Head from where he knew the Navy was equally committed to ejecting the Army.
He retired on 30 November 1972 and I well remember that, at his farewell from Home Command he laid on a special treat - Gianca, Sweet White Vermouth - a legacy of his Italian odyssey. While most of the young officers in the Fort Dorset Officer's Mess appreciated the gesture they were beer drinkers so I am not sure Blackie understood that it was not really their taste. The again maybe he did!
After his retirement Blackie took on a new position in the Department of Trade and Industry as Adviser - Defence Industries. He was proud of that six year period and of the benefits that accrued in the Defence/Industry inter-relationship. He enjoyed the appointment of Colonel Commandant of the Regiment where he filled so well the role of Grandfather to the serving soldiers. And he continued his commitment until he was overtaken by his illness, to the committee working on his long held dream of a RNZA history. He was a very active member of the Army Museum Trust Board, and the Army and indeed the Nation owes him a debt of gratitude for the Kippenberger Pavilion at the Army Museum, and its outstanding archival collection of the Military History of our young country.
Every so often we, in the military, lose a great character and with Blackie's passing we suffer again. I did not know the "shy and diffident" young officer described by his 1940s comrade in arms. Yes he was always quietly spoken and conservative. But it was a mistake not to recognise the determination of his commitment to what he believed was in the best interests of the Army, or the Artillery, or of the individual soldier. And he was always honest, highly moral and motivated. It is a measure of Blackie that he is still so widely remembered today, thirty years after his retirement. He may have retired in 1972 but as anyone who has had contact with him would attest, he never stopped being a soldier.
Rest in peace, Blackie.
DS McIver 16 January 2003
Blackie Burns - The Man