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Sir Charles Stuart Burnett (1882–1945)

by Robert O'Neill

This article was published:

Charles Stuart Burnett (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1941

Charles Stuart Burnett (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1941

Australian War Memorial, 001109

Sir Charles Stuart Burnett (1882-1945), air force officer, was born on 3 April 1882 at Browns Valley, Minnesota, United States of America, second of four sons of John Alexander Burnett of Kemnay, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and his wife Charlotte Susan, née Forbes Gordon. Educated in England at Bedford Grammar School, at 17 Charles added a year to his age and joined the Imperial Yeomanry so that he could serve in the South African War. He took his discharge in order to be commissioned (2 October 1901) in the Highland Light Infantry. While seconded to the West African Frontier Force in 1904-06, he fought in Northern Nigeria, was wounded and twice mentioned in dispatches. In 1909 he resigned his commission and sought his fortune as a part-owner of a shop in Portuguese Guinea. Burnett entered government service in 1911 as assistant-resident at Ilorin, Nigeria.

Rejoining the army on the outbreak of World War I, he qualified as a pilot in November 1914 and in December was appointed to the Royal Flying Corps. On 30 November that year at the register office, St Martin, London, he had married a divorcee Sybil Maud Pack-Beresford, née Bell. A flight commander with No.17 Squadron in the Middle East in 1915, he had his own squadron in France from 1916. He was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in October 1917 and given command of the Palestine Brigade's No.5 Wing. For his part in the campaign that led to the capture of Jerusalem in December, Burnett was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Appointed C.B.E. in 1919 and four times mentioned in dispatches for his war service, he accepted a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force.

In 1920 Burnett commanded R.A.F. operations in Iraq; following postings in Britain (1921-29), he went back to Iraq for two years as air chief staff officer, in the rank of air commodore. Returning to England, in January 1931 he was appointed director of operations and intelligence, and deputy-chief of the Air Staff. He was promoted air vice marshal in July. Next year he became air officer commanding, British Forces in Iraq; he was wounded while suppressing tribal incursions near Kuwait. Repatriated in 1935, he took charge of Inland Area which was reorganized as Training Command in 1936. Burnett was promoted air marshal and on 10 July made commander-in-chief. For three years he bore a heavy burden as the R.A.F. expanded to meet the growing threat posed by the German Luftwaffe. He had been appointed C.B. in 1927 and in 1936 was elevated to K.C.B. In 1939 he was posted as inspector general, R.A.F., and was a member of the British military mission to the Soviet Union in August.

Soon after hostilities began, the government of (Sir) Robert Menzies decided to seek British officers to head the armed services, fearing that Australian officers lacked vital experience. In December 1939 Burnett was selected to be chief of the Air Staff, and the acting occupant of the post Air Vice Marshal Stanley Goble resigned forthwith. The appointment was more of a snub to Air Vice Marshal (Sir) Richard Williams, who had commanded the second and larger wing of the Palestine Brigade alongside Burnett in 1918, and who had been the senior officer of the R.A.A.F. since its foundation. Arriving in February 1940 for an initial twelve-month term, Burnett knew little of Australian conditions and faced resentment by those who believed that the government's preference for British officers was ill-founded. He was to hold the rank of air chief marshal while in office.

Burnett's principal tasks were to continue the expansion of the R.A.A.F. and to enhance its capacity to contribute aircrew (through the Empire Air Training Scheme) to the R.A.F. This arrangement was controversial in that some Australians—particularly R.A.A.F. officers proud of the record of the country's squadrons in World War I—contended that Australia's national identity would be lost in the British-directed effort and that Australians would receive far fewer senior appointments than their fair share. While Burnett was aware of these undercurrents, he believed that a centralized Empire air force was essential to defeat the Luftwaffe and pressed ahead to create a vast structure that aimed in 1940 to have 50,000 recruits trained or under instruction by March 1943. He also worked hard, although less successfully, to build up the numbers of aircraft available to the R.A.A.F. In addition, he devoted considerable energy to the protection of Australian sea lanes and the forward basing of R.A.A.F. units. Furthermore, he intervened strongly to support the formation of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force.

His critics argued that Burnett's devotion to the E.A.T.S. undercut Australia's capacity to protect itself against attack by Japan, but his firmness, directness and ability to recognize merit in an opposing argument were to enable him to survive two years and three months in office. From October 1941 he had to work with Labor's minister for air A. S. Drakeford. Their relationship was not a happy one. Difficulties came to a head early in 1942 when Burnett proposed far-reaching administrative changes, including the abolition of the Air Board. He was replaced in May when the Japanese threat to the South Pacific was growing. Despite the problems he had faced, he was able to look back with satisfaction on the expansion of the R.A.A.F. from a strength of 3489 immediately before the war to 79 074 in May 1942, of whom some 42 per cent were E.A.T.S. personnel. It was a formidable record.

Described as 'a man of strong, decisive mind, with a gift of saying in a few words exactly what he thinks', Burnett had prodigious physical and mental energy. He despised vacillation and scorned the 'selfish place-hunter'. Transferred to the Retired List on his return to England, he was recalled to full-time duty as commandant, Central Command, Air Training Corps, in 1943. Sir Charles was a keen sportsman and a crack marksman. He continued to serve despite ill health. Survived by his wife and four daughters, he died of coronary thrombosis on 9 April 1945 in the R.A.F. hospital, Halton, Buckinghamshire. His daughter Sybil had been an acting squadron officer in the W.A.A.A.F. in 1941-42 and his brother Sir Robert became an admiral (1946) in the Royal Navy.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1941-50
  • F. M. Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps (Syd, 1923)
  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • R. Williams, These are Facts (Canb, 1977)
  • G. Jones, From Private to Air Marshal (Melb, 1988)
  • Royal Aero Club Year Book, 1915-16
  • Times (London), 1 Aug 1939, 1 Mar 1940, 11 Apr, 9 May 1942, 11 Apr, 1 May 1945
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Jan 1940
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Jan 1940, 19 May 1941
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert O'Neill, 'Burnett, Sir Charles Stuart (1882–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Stuart Burnett (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1941

Charles Stuart Burnett (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1941

Australian War Memorial, 001109

Life Summary [details]


3 April, 1882
Browns Valley, Minnesota, United States of America


9 April, 1945 (aged 63)
Halton, Buckinghamshire, England

Cultural Heritage

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