Brigadier John 'Blackie' Burns

30 Nov 1917 - 11 Jan 2003

Blackie on his retirement

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
Soldier and Friend

MajGen KM Gordon, OBE

It remains for me to give some personal insights into Brigadier Blackie Burns - soldier and friend.

Perhaps once in a lifetime, and only then if you are very lucky, you meet someone who touches you in a way that influences you profoundly for the rest of your life. Blackie is one of those rare someones, who certainly touched me and who touched many of his military colleagues - here today and elsewhere.

I first met Blackie as I reported for duty at Army Schools Waiouru as his adjutant. I had just come from an infantry battalion. There I was 5ft 5in of bristling spit and polish, knife edge creases, all boots and bellowing, to be confronted by this quiet, contemplative LtCol, comfortably dressed and pipe smoking. We made an odd pair, but it was the start of a life long friendship.

My colleagues joke that I have been Blackie's lifelong adjutant. Let me tell you that It's no joke. I have been under command for 42 years. I would gladly have volunteered for this task today, but I had no choice. I was under orders.

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of this remarkable man. With slight apologies to Shakespeare, I call it:

"The Seven Faces of Blackie Burns"

1. He was a God fearing man. His faith was firm and unshakeable - but in many ways it was a private faith. He ring fenced it. On the one hand he never spoke of it, but the equally on the other it was not something which he ever denied.

2. He was an exemplary family man. Married to Shirley for 56 years, in his undemonstrative way he loved her and his children dearly. He was proud of all their accomplishments, happy for their marriages, and in latter years, grandson Jack - that tearaway centre forward of the Willoughby Junior Aust Rules Football Club - was the apple of his eye.

3. He was an innovative military thinker. This was never better illustrated that in the four years as Comdt the Army Schools. He gathered around him bright young and capable officers and used them to examine all aspects of the Profession of Arms. He stimulated them like few others could ever have done. They all became close friends in later life and he watched their careers with great interest.

4. He was an innovator in other ways.
a. He sought out surplus rural churches for camps which were without. His plan to buy the Utiku Church for Waiouru lapsed when a new church was built in the camp. Even in Korea he had a church built, but not before he built a sawmill to produce the timber.
b. He rescued the old Waiouru Homestead. It was dilapidated. He squeezed £900 out of the Duigan Fund and set the army engineers onto its restoration.
c. He sent a Waiouru staff officer up to Taupo to buy a block of land for £2000. That was the beginning of the Army motel complexes throughout New Zealand.

All these and many more were the work of Blackie, as often as not in the face of indifference of higher authority.

5. He was a plantsman. Blackie loved trees and flowering shrubs and his Days Bay garden is testament to this. But his living memorial is in Waiouru where his tree planting programme of the 60s has transformed the landscape. Not just by thousands of trees, but by tens of thousands. I must have been the only adjutant serving who was required to know as much about the Latin genera of trees as of the Sections of the Army Act. Indicative of his resolve to plant trees in spite of the system not allowing it, was the plot hatched by Blackie and one Alf Voss to soften the baldness of the Army Schools parade ground with an edging of trees. In a pre dawn raid, meticulously planned, soldiers dug up the tar seal and there was an instant treed landscape by reveille. It is reported that the MOW Resident Engineer on his way to work spotted the desecration and nearly crashed his car. He was then seed, stupefied and speechless with rage and disbelief hammering on the horn of his car in frustration. Blackie and Alf by this time were in the Home Valley inspecting training.

6. He was a painter with a distinctly Impressionist style that suited his temperament. He exhibited severally at the NZ Academy, and in London. It's a pity that he didn't spend more time on his painting. In that field I think that the best would have been to come.

7. He was a writer. We know of his recent work and regret that he hadn't started writing earlier. Of course when we all worked for him he refused to write. "Why write when I have staff to write for me?" he said. "I'll do the thinking." We did at least know his signature in those days!

8. He was a consummate bibliophile. He loved books, and collected and read extensively. He could as easily talk on the Second Punic War as on garden bugs and diseases. This love led to his founding of the Kippenberger Military Archive and Research Library Waiouru, for which the Army is considerably in his debt. On one memorable occasion during his retirement, he heard that it was proposed to downsize the Defence Library in Stout St, and consign it to the dark reaches of Trentham Camp. There was probably good economic reason for this, given the prime space occupied. He wrote to the CDS of the day comparing this bibliographic sacrilege to the burning of the books by the Nazis. The library is still in Stout St.

9. He was a handyman par excellence and built the Moana Rd house in which he lived for so long. Incidentally, he bought the section with his war gratuity, and drew a pen sketch and sent it to Shirley in Sydney. She still has it.

10. He loved fun, never more so than when with his officers. I draw a veil over these times except to say that when he left Waiouru we, his officers, full of Mr Gancia, with disregard for safety and secure in the knowledge of our own immortality, paraded him through the camp at dawn, on a gun. We then deposited him on his front lawn to the horror of Shirley and the excited delight of his children who were watching wide eyed from the front window. Blackie loved every minute of it, and so did we.

If you've been counting I've passed seven - but then Blackie always expected an extra effort on our part!

Blackie was an admirer of FM Wavell, the soldier/scholar, and there is a modest parallel between the two in life. Coincidentally, Wavell and Blackie died in similar circumstances - visited by family, friends and comrades, and ministered to by a caring medical profession. On his death, after some time confined to bed, Wavell's son Archie said

"It is a mark of my father's nobility to attract a worthy response in others, let my father (--) be judged above all in the virtue and kindness that crystallised round his bedside in the closing passage of his life --"

He spoke of a noble and remarkable man - and now so too have I.

KM Gordon 16 January 2003

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