By his own admission, in earlier life he "had been drawn to three autocracies: German National Socialism, Communism, and the Roman Catholic Church." Burn's father was secretary and solicitor to the Duchy of Cornwall becoming a trusted confidant of the King; while his mother's family was instrumental in developing the golf-and-gambling resort of Le Touquet. Initially educated at Winchester College, Burn spent only one year at Oxford before the social seductions of Le Touquet won out. As he himself put it, he was not sent down. Having done none of the work expected of him, he simply did not go back, choosing instead to initiate a writing career by ghosting the autobiography of 'Bentley Boy' Sir Henry Birkin.
Burn spent an amount of time in Florence, befriending Alice Keppel, the former mistress of Edward VII. A bisexual, his lovers included later Soviet Union spy Guy Burgess. On two occasions during the 1930s Burn took himself to the police, as homosexuality was then a crime.
A developing interest in bettering the lot of the socially and economically deprived led Burn to a brief dalliance with National Socialism at a time when Hitler was regarded by many as having cured unemployment and given Germany back her soul. He met the German leader, who signed his copy of 'Mein Kampf' (lost, shortly thereafter). He also attended a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg, standing on the dais just a few feet behind the Fŭhrer himself. An unquestioning tour of Dachau crowned a period of which he would later write that he was for a time duped by a combination of his own blindness and the 'intensely organized falsehood' that would later be exposed as the engine of the 'New' Germany.
In 1936 Burn joined 'The Times' newspaper, initially on probation on the Home Editorial desk. Here he remained until the outbreak of war, with but a brief stint in London as Diplomatic Correspondent. In 1937, with Hitler's intentions becoming ever more clear, Burn enlisted in the Queen's Westminsters, a Territorial battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps. Commissioned Second Lieutenant in 1938, he had, by the outbreak of war, wholly abandoned National Socialism as an engine of social change.
When World War II came, Burn was at once called up. He volunteered for the "independent companies", formed from men willing to undertake exceptional risks, upon their formation, 1939-40. Having served in Norway in 1940, as part of the unsuccessful Allied campaign to counter the German invasion, Burn joined a new elite force known as the Commandos. In March, 1942, as a Captain in command of number 6 Troop, 2 Commando, he took part in Operation Chariot, the St. Nazaire Raid, his own 6 Troop contributing 29 men to the overall total of 264 Army personnel taking part. As leader of the starboard column of troop-carrying Motor Launches, Burn's ML192 was one of the first vessels to come under fire, crashing, ablaze, into the Old Mole. Having been hauled ashore by one of his men and in spite of being wounded several times, Burn made his way to his target, the only member of his team to succeed in doing so. Of his 6 Troop contingent, carried in several MLs, 14 were killed and the rest, many of whom had had to take to the water, captured early on. Burn later attempted to escape the tightening German cordon along with two of his men, one of whom was killed in the attempt. Burn, along with his remaining companion, was captured, entering what would be a lengthy period of confinement as a 'guest of the Reich'. For his actions during the raid Burn received the award of the Military Cross. From the total of 609 soldiers and sailors to enter the Loire estuary that fateful night, five would be awarded the Victoria Cross - the greatest number for any single action during the war.
Following his capture Burn was sent to Marlag und Milag Nord, a naval POW camp that was the destination of all Charioteers prior to the separation of Commando and Royal Navy personnel. He was then incarcerated in Spangenberg Castle, Oflag 1X A/H, and there began giving lectures to fellow POWs before being sent to Colditz Castle, Oflag IV-C. There, shorthand learnt for previous employment in journalism meant Burn acted as scribe to Colditz's secret radio operator, Lieutenant-Colonel Jimmy Yule
On liberation, Burn sent dispatches to The Times about what had gone on in Colditz, published in the times on the 19 and 21 April 1945. Burn had written a novel during his stay, which was published as "Yes, farewell" in 1946.
Burn ended the war as a Captain.
When the war ended Burn returned to The Times. His first assignment, while waiting for a visa to go on to Moscow as permanent correspondent, was to Vienna. After several months of waiting in vain for the visa, he suggested to the editor of The Times that he instead go behind the Iron Curtain, to Hungary, to observe the takeover by the Hungarian Communist Party supported by the Red Army. As a consequence he became the main British reporter on the political purges, and the faked trial of József Cardinal Mindszenty.
Burn fell in love with, and eventually married, Mary Booker, who had divorced from her husband in 1926. The couple moved to North Wales where Bertrand Russell and his last wife, Edith, became first neighbours and in the years prior to Russell's death in 1970, very dear friends.
Burn has written nine books of nonfiction, four novels and six books of poetry. He presently enjoys reading his poetry aloud at regional poetry events.