Honouring Our Heroes: Tom, 92, from Hunmanby, listened in on the Nazis in World War Two

Tom Burton at home in Hunmanby. PIC: Richard Ponter
Tom Burton at home in Hunmanby. PIC: Richard Ponter

A scholarship to Cambridge University aged 16; listening out for Nazi U Boat messages from on board a destroyer; translating documents for Ian Fleming; and working as a translator in New York City.

To experience any of these would be a life-defining moment for most people ... but during his 92 years, Tom Burton has done them all.

Tom at Cambridge. He is, back row, second from left. PIC: Burton family

Tom at Cambridge. He is, back row, second from left. PIC: Burton family

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Born in 1926, Tom was 12 and living in Bridlington when World War Two broke out – he remembers being called down from his attic room to listen to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on the radio.

Despite occasional interruptions to school by air raids – when students would hide in a ditch behind the building – he won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, aged 16.

One year later, in 1944, he joined up to the Royal Navy and, due to his knowledge of German, was recruited into the signals intelligence service, listening in to U Boats and E Boats.

Tom Burton at home in Hunmanby. PIC: Richard Ponter

Tom Burton at home in Hunmanby. PIC: Richard Ponter

When war finished Tom was sent to work for James Bond author Ian Fleming at the Admiralty in London, translating documents that had been taken out of Germany.

He returned to Cambridge in 1947, completing a law degree before returning to languages during the rest of his career.

Tom moved to Montreal, Canada, where he met his wife, before working as a translator in New York and Long Island and for the World Trade Organisation in Brussels and Geneva and retired to Hunmanby 25 years ago.

One year into his degree at Cambridge, Tom Burton, aged 17, put his studies on hold to sign up.

Tom, second row up, first on left, during his training at HMS Royal Arthur near Skegness. PIC: Burton family

Tom, second row up, first on left, during his training at HMS Royal Arthur near Skegness. PIC: Burton family

“When I finished my first year I was expecting to be called up anyway so I thought I might as well get in on the good foot,” he said.

Having spent time in the sea cadets, and inspired by his great-grandfather who had been a sailor, Tom opted for the Navy and was soon picked out as a possible candidate for their signals intelligence service – or Y service – and sent to train in London.

“When I joined they asked if I spoke any languages and I told them I knew some German because I’d learnt it in school, when actually the most German I’d spoken had been to prisoners of war who worked on the same farm as I did in the holidays.”

In November 1944, he joined HMS Vesper, a destroyer from World War One, as a ‘headache operator’.

Headache was the codename given to shipborne sections of Y intelligence and 50 warships had headache units.

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On board, Tom and one other were responsible for listening in to direct communications from U Boats and E Boats while the ship accompanied a convoy of 40-50 ships across the Atlantic.

Tom explained: “The communications were in code but it was a relatively simple code.

“I had to tune the radio to wavelengths where we thought there might be German aircraft or U Boats.”

Despite her age, HMS Vesper was comfortable enough for the 100 or so crew.

Tom added: “Apart from the occasional storm, it was quite agreeable. The sea certainly got pretty angry at times but Vesper did the job, never let us down.”

Although clearly a fascinating job, Tom – a modest man – said his role in the war effort was minimal, and he was lucky to have not been called up earlier, when signals intelligence was at more risk, particularly during the Arctic convoys.

“I was very fortunate.”

When the war ended Tom was not yet eligible to be demobbed and was instead sent to work at the Admiralty in London as a Writer Special.

He translated documents from the German Naval Archives that had been taken from Tambach Castle by 30 Assault Unit, a unit of specialist intelligence commandos formed by Ian Fleming.

Fleming began his Naval career as personal assistant to the director of Naval intelligence John Godfrey, before promotion to commander.

The documents Tom was translating were of interest to many including specialists in anti-radar materials, boilers, hydrophones and torpedoes.

As the Writer Specials translated, a team of German-speaking Wrens looked for evidence of war crimes.

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Tell us about Heroes you know

We launched our Honouring Our Heros campaign in April. In this special year - the 80th anniversary of the start of World War Two - we are seeking out those who played a key role in the Forces or on the Home Front.

If someone you know deserves recognition email corinne.macdonald@jpimedia.co.uk