James Thomas Burrows was born at Prebbleton, near Christchurch, on 13 July 1904, the sixth of seven children of Frederick William Burrows, a storekeeper, and his wife, Sarah Johnson. Most of his childhood was spent at Waiau in North Canterbury where, by 1912, his father had another store. His parents were of modest means, life was hard, and James soon developed a physical toughness and independence of spirit that were to stand him in good stead.
At Waiau School he showed potential and his parents sent him to Christchurch Boys’ High School from 1918 to 1922. For three years he was in the top rugby and cricket teams. In 1922 he was senior monitor, head boarder, captain of the First XI and First XV, senior boxing champion and senior cadet officer. He also won the prestigious Robert Deans Scholarship. In 1923 he began teaching at St Andrew’s College, and in May 1926 he took up a position at Christchurch Boys’ High School. He married Elsie Hamilton Wilson, also a teacher, on 14 May 1929 at Christchurch. Two children were born to them.
Burrows’s sporting enthusiasms continued. He played cricket for St Albans and High School Old Boys’ and represented Canterbury from 1930 to 1933, impressing onlookers with his swing bowling and stubborn batting. As a part-time student from 1925 at Canterbury College (he graduated MA in history in 1932), he joined the university’s boxing club and became the New Zealand universities’ middleweight boxing champion in 1924. A spirited forward, Burrows played rugby for the university team from 1923 and for Canterbury in 1923 and from 1925 to 1930. In 1928 he was selected for the first All Black team to tour South Africa. He was sole selector and coach of the Canterbury team from 1932 to 1933, and manager–coach for the All Blacks in their 1937 test series against South Africa.
Burrows was a captain in the territorial army and volunteered immediately when New Zealand declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. On 27 September he reported to Burnham Camp and was placed in charge of the Southland Company of what became the 20th (Canterbury–Otago) Battalion. After intensive preparation the battalion, as part of the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, left Lyttelton on 5 January 1940, bound for Egypt. There it trained in desert warfare and helped to supply the offensive against the Italians. In March 1941 the 2nd New Zealand Division was shipped to Greece. Outnumbered and outgunned by the invading German forces, and lacking any sort of air cover, it was soon involved in a bitterly fought rearguard action. Burrows was evacuated on 27 April to Crete. On 20–21 May the Germans executed a massive airborne invasion of Crete and the strategically vital Maleme airfield was captured. Burrows, now temporarily in command of the 20th Battalion, led a courageous but futile night counter-attack to recapture the airfield. He was evacuated on the evening of 31 May to Alexandria.
Burrows then took charge of the Southern Infantry Training Depot at Maadi Camp. When the 20th Battalion was badly mauled in Cyrenaica, Libya, he was given the task of rebuilding it. After a brief period in Syria in 1942, the battalion was recalled to North Africa. On 26 June two brigades of the New Zealand Division were deployed at Minqâr Qaim to halt the oncoming Germans. Deserted by promised British tank support they were surrounded, but broke out of that encirclement on the night of 27–28 June in one of the most ferocious infantry actions of the Second World War. The escape was spearheaded by the 4th Brigade, led by Burrows. At Ruweisat Ridge on 14–15 July he again commanded the 4th Brigade in a successful night attack but, once more, armoured support did not eventuate. Burrows was captured, but escaped.
He was made a DSO in October 1942 for his courage, leadership, skill, determination and cool-headedness during both actions. After a furlough from June 1943 to January 1944, Burrows rejoined the New Zealand Division in Italy. He led the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade at the battle for Cassino and the 6th Brigade during the advance on and battle for Florence, winning a bar to his DSO in March 1945. Thus he had the unique experience of commanding all three New Zealand brigades.
In October 1944, while still in Italy, Brigadier Burrows was appointed rector of Waitaki Boys’ High School, Oamaru, to succeed the redoubtable Frank Milner. He arrived back in New Zealand on Christmas Day 1944. Burrows’s tenure at Waitaki (1945–49) was marked by curriculum reform, widespread changes to the boarding house management and a divisive staffing dispute which prompted his resignation. (Burrows’s nomination for the position of first assistant master was passed over, and he took this as expressing a lack of confidence in him.)
He was immediately offered an appointment in the New Zealand Regular Force as colonel in charge of Papakura Military Camp. From 1951 to 1953 he was commander of the Southern Military District, and in 1953 was sent (with the rank of brigadier) to command Kayforce in Korea and Japan. Commander of the Southern Military District again from 1955 to 1960, Burrows finished his professional career as regional commissioner for Civil Defence (1960–72).
During a busy retirement Burrows wrote his autobiography, Pathway among men (1974), became district governor of Rotary, president of the University of Canterbury graduates’ association and club, trustee of the Charles Upham Trust, a member of the Lottery Profits Board of Control, vice president of the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand, and a prominent fund-raiser for the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum at Waiouru. After Elsie’s death in 1977, on 15 December 1978 he married Eleanor Florence Lester (née West-Watson), who died in 1981. James Burrows died on 10 June 1991 at Christchurch, survived by his son and daughter. An archetypal man’s man, ‘Gentleman Jim’, as he was known, was innately courteous, dignified, tolerant and warm-natured. His son, Brigadier Ian Burrows, also served the army with distinction.