Before the start of the Second World War, James managed the Radio Shop at The Cross (now the butchers shop) for his father Robert Burns (who owned the Black Bull at the time). He was a keen ballroom dancer and competed at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool prior to joining the Merchant Navy.

He was killed on the same day, in 1941, as his cousin (Squadron Leader Alex Torrance) was wounded flying in defence of Malta.

James was the Radio Officer on board the S. S. Empire Ability which was part of a convoy en route from Africa to the UK. The ship, with sixty people on board, was sunk by a U-boat commanded by Jost Metzler off the coast of Africa on 26th June, 1941

The S.S. Empire Ability was formerly a German ship, the Uhenfels, which was captured in 1939 off Freetown, Sierra Leone

On that fateful day, the Empire Ability was a part of convoy SL-78, when it was attacked by U-boat U-69. The ship, under the command of Master Herbert Flowerdew, was carrying a cargo of 7,725 tons of sugar, 238 tons of rum, and 400 tons of groundnuts.

The convoy was 200 miles southeast of the Azores when U-69 attacked during the night, first sinking the SS River Lugar, and then hitting the Empire Ability with a single torpedo. The Empire Ability caught fire and was abandoned. It sunk just 21 minutes later.

One of only two casualties was James Burns while the rest of the crew, gunners, military personnel and passengers successfully abandoned ship. The survivors were picked up by the SS Amerika and transferred to the corvette HMS Burdock. They were subsequently landed safely at Milford Haven.

The U-69 (nicknamed the Laughing Cow) was commissioned in 1940 and sunk 17 Allied ships before being sunk itself in 1943 by HMS Fame in the North Atlantic. The U-boat was lost with all hands (46), but by then Metzler had transferred to U-847 which did not see active service before the war ended. Jost Metzler, who was born in 1909, died in Germany on 29th September, 1975.

James R. Burns is listed on Panel 37 of the 1939-45 Tower Hill Memorial in London (see separate article in next edition) which commemorates men of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who gave their lives to preserve the life of the nation  and who have no grave but the sea.