Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cecil Burney
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cecil Burney 1858-1929
Jersey has produced many high-ranking Army and Navy officers over the years, and they have fought in some of history’s most famous battles, but one Jerseyman who reached the highest rank possible in the Royal Navy is virtually unknown in the island of his birth, despite becoming Second Sea Lord in World War One and commanding the British fleet during part of the Battle of Jutland.
Cecil Burney was the second son of Navy Captain Charles Burney and Catherine Elizabeth Jones, of La Ferriere, St Saviour.
He was born on 15 May 1858 and was obviously destined for a naval career from his early years because he left the Royal Naval Academy at Gosport and joined Britannia at the age of 13, going to sea two years later. By 1882 he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant and he was present in the Mediterranean Fleet. This was a period in which Navy officers had more chance of seeing action on shore than at sea, and Burney fought at the battles of Tel al-Mahuta and Qassassin in the Egyptian campaign.
After training as a gunnery officer he was promoted to Commander in 1893 and again served in the Mediterranean in command of the Hawke. Five years later he was in the South African War as Captain, commanding HMS Sappho off America, before being transferred across the Atlantic during the Boer War. His ship struck the Durban bar but he was exonerated at an inquiry because she was in the hands of pilots.
In May 1902 he was appointed flag-captain to Rear-Admiral Atkinson-Willes of the Home Fleet, keeping his post under Rear-Admiral Poë. He was then given command of HMS Triumph, in the Channel Fleet (1904-1905), before being appointed inspecting captain of all boys’ training ships (1905-1909).
In 1909 he was promoted to rear-admiral with the Home Fleet. In February 1911 he was given command of the 5th cruiser squadron and months afterwards he was in command of the whole Atlantic Fleet, as acting vice-admiral, a rank that was confirmed in 1912, soon after he was appointed to command the 3rd battle squadron. He served in the second Balkan War and received commendations from the Foreign Office and the Admiralty, as well as receiving two Knighthoods.
In late 1913 he returned to Britain to command the second and third fleets, then part of the naval reserve, with direct command of the 6th Battle Squadron. Shortly after the outbreak of the war the Channel Fleet was created, and Burney became its first commander. He was ordered to protect the British Expeditionary Force as it left for France and then its supply convoys as they crossed the Channel.
Battle of Jutland
In December 1914 Burney took command of the 1st Battle Squadron in the Grand Fleet, as overall second in command to Admiral Jellicoe. He was in the thick of the action in the Battle of Jutland having been appointed a full Admiral, and taking overall command at the start of the second phase of the Battle. By half way through the war he had risen to Second Sea Lord, but he did not have sufficient support from fellow Admirals to succeed Jellicoe, and in September 1917 he was removed, despite the opposition of Jellicoe, on the insistence of the Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty, who believed he was too old and too inefficient for the post, and instead appointed Commander-in-Chief Coast of Scotland at Rosyth. In March 1919 he became Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. He effectively retired due to ill-health the following year.
However, his significant service was recognised by his promotion to Admiral of the Fleet on 24 November 1920, and he was created a Baronet in the 1921 New Year Honours, and promoted to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in the 1922 New Year Honours. He officially retired on 24 November 1925.
As far as is known, no other Jerseyman has ever held the most senior rank in the Royal Navy, nor its equivalent in the other Services.
Burney's son Sir Charles also entered the Royal Navy and was responsible for inventing the Paravane, a steel skirt which could be floated around the hull of a ship in order to deflect mines and cut their mooring cables. The design was bought by the armaments company Vickers for some £400,000, a substantial fortune in the 1920s.
Charles Burney's son Cecil also joined the Royal Navy in 1942 and served as a radar officer, seeing action in Russian convoys. He was present at the surrender of the German Atlantic U-boat fleet at Loch Eriboll.
He emigrated to Africa where his father had acquired a farm in Southern Rhodesia, and then moved to Northern Rhodesia, later Zambia, where he would become one of the last white MPs in the parliament.