- Burnett, Cdr. P.R. RAN (Ret.)
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Adelaide I, HMAS Canberra I, HMAS Australia I, HMAS Sydney II
- December 1973 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
My father was in his element in this sort of activity; he enjoyed all forms of amateur theatricals, and I remember several impromptu performances he gave on various occasions. After his tour of duty at Navy Office he was posted back to Canberra in 1936 as executive officer. His third and last child, my sister Bridget, was born the same year.
At the end of 1937 he returned to the United Kingdom on exchange service for the last time. He became executive officer of the battleship HMS Royal Oak and in her took part in operations during the Spanish Civil War. In December 1938 he was promoted Captain, the third graduate of the RAN College (after Farncomb and Collins) to reach that rank, and the next year he completed the Imperial Defence College course. At the time of the Munich crisis he took troops to Gibraltar under secret orders in Royal Oak. When war broke out he was recalled to Australia, where he succeeded Captain J.A. Collins as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff at Navy Office, Melbourne, in November 1939.
In this capacity he worked under Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin, then the Chief of Naval Staff, who subsequently2 wrote of him ‘. . . his capacity to grasp a situation rapidly and to formulate decisions was quite remarkable. His thoroughness, his appetite for hard work, and his powers of organisation were invaluable, and he had a special faculty for getting at the heart of a problem and of stripping it of unessentials which is given to few.’
In October 1940 he was sent to Singapore as the senior RAN representative at an Allied conference3 to consider the defence of the Far East in the event of war with Japan, and was disturbed by the state of affairs revealed. Noting that the staffs at Singapore were ‘. . . rather uninterested in Australian and New Zealand naval activities,’ he went on to comment ‘ . . . the security of Singapore is of vital concern to us, and it is most disquieting to find a state of affairs there far removed from what was expected at the Empire’s main naval base in the Far East’4 and to recommend much greater decentralisation of command. Some improvement in Australian communications with Singapore resulted from the conference and the Chiefs of Staff and War Cabinet were alerted to the seriousness of the position.
As a result of German raider activity at Nauru he proposed to the Naval Board in December 1940 that volunteer yachtsmen be used to patrol harbour approaches. The result was the formation in June 1941 of the Naval Auxiliary Patrol5, which rendered much good service during the war. He was relieved as ACNS by Captain F.E. Getting in May 1941 and took command of Sydney at Fremantle in succession to Captain J.A. Collins. The ship was employed on convoy duties in the Indian and Pacific Oceans until September6, including a 25 knot trip escorting HMT Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth from Jervis Bay to the Bight.
During September the ship had a maintenance and exercise period at Melbourne, where my brother and I were at school. My father arranged for us to spend a day and night on board at sea; this was the last time we were to see him. I remember seeing the guns fired and being shown the torpedoes, the aircraft and the engine room while the ship exercised off Port Phillip. Needless to say our schoolmates were very envious of our unusual wartime experience on our return.
Sydney returned to Fremantle and convoy duties. I still have my father’s last letter to me, written on 5th October, in which he advises my brother and I:
‘Don’t forget what I said when at home about thinking things and problems out for yourselves and not to do or believe things just because everyone else does. Be independent and stand on your own view – but not in a too argumentative way.‘
Good advice, which I believe he followed in his own life.
And so we come to the last fateful action with the German raider Kormoran on 19th November 1941. Much has subsequently been written on this subject and the basic details are too well known by now to need repetition here. A full and admirable account is given by G. Hermon Gill in the official war history7, to which I could not, nor would I wish to, add anything. The reasons behind Sydney’s close approach to Kormoran before the action started will never be known, but it seems in the light of events that my father in this instance was too confident of his ability to handle any eventuality that might arise.
Writing in The Times a month later8, his old chief Admiral Colvin said ‘When the time came for him to go to sea – a time to which he eagerly looked forward – I had no doubt that as captain of the Sydney he would acquit himself successfully as he had at the Navy Office. He did, and whatever the sad mischance that befell that gallant and illustrious ship, Burnett I know went with honour. The Royal Australian Navy will have cause to miss him sorely in the future and with those of us who knew him will honour his memory.’
As I have said, my personal recollections of him are boyhood ones. I remember him as a kindly and humorous man who was devoted to his wife and children. He used to play a great deal with us when opportunity permitted, and it was largely due to his patience and interest in coaching us that my brother and I achieved what sporting ability we possess. He was a man of strong religious convictions and faith also, brought up in the Methodist faith and subsequently becoming a member of the Church of England. He set an example of regular worship in both family and service life in a broad-minded and practical way. A book which I believe influenced him to a considerable extent was Running a Big Ship on the Ten Commandments, by Captain Rory O’Connor, RN. He also had a keen sense of humour and the ridiculous and sometimes embarrassed my mother by acting the fool in public as well as in private. I remember him showing me a little mechanical frog set with a spring which would suddenly jump in the air some time after being set, and telling me he used it to enliven dull meetings.
He made friends easily with people and enjoyed their company. I have been interested in my travels around the world with the RAN to find how many people remember him with affection, often those who only knew him for a short time as well as his lifelong friends. A number of them have told me how much he impressed them; one was a Petty Officer in Sydney who described the effect of his address to the ship’s company on taking command, ending apparently with the words ‘I’ll play ball with you if you play ball with me.’ Another recollection is his love of the country and the bush and its wildlife. He was very fond of walking, hiking and picnicking and I remember many pleasant hours spent with him in the Australian bush and on the South Downs and Devonshire moors in England. We spent two very happy family summer holidays on a farm in Devon, and he greatly enjoyed taking part in the farm and country life and playing village cricket.