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Sir Henry Mackay Burrell (1904–1988)

by Sam Bateman

This article was published:

Sir Henry Burrell, n.d.

Sir Henry Burrell, n.d.

photo from Royal Australian Navy

Sir Henry Mackay Burrell (1904-1988), naval officer, was born on 13 August 1904 at Wentworth Falls, New South Wales, only son and third of five children of Thomas Henry Burrell, a schoolteacher from England, and his Victorian-born wife Eliza Heather, née Mackay. He grew up in a family that was imbued with the values of patriotism and community service. His father, although aged 55, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I and served in Egypt as a sergeant.

Educated at Parramatta High School, Burrell entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, in January 1918. He gained colours for hockey and graduated in 1921. Becoming a midshipman in May 1922, he rose to sub-lieutenant in April 1925 and lieutenant in July 1926. He served in a number of RAN and Royal Navy ships in Australian and European waters in the 1920s before specialising as a navigator in Britain in 1930.

During the 1930s Burrell was navigating officer in, successively, a minesweeper, HMS Pangbourne; two destroyers, HMA ships Tattoo and Stuart; a cruiser, HMAS Brisbane; and, after qualifying from an advanced navigation course in 1935, two cruisers, HM ships Coventry and Devonshire. The captain of Devonshire criticised him for being too familiar with sailors, but he thought the ship `would have been more efficient if officers and ratings had been in closer touch’. On 27 December 1933 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he had married with Presbyterian forms Margaret Isabel MacKay; they were to be divorced in November 1941. Burrell was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1934. He completed the course at the RN Staff College, Greenwich, England, in 1938 and was posted to Navy Office, Melbourne, as staff officer (operations). War was looming and there was an urgent need for the RAN to build up its readiness. After the outbreak of hostilities, Burrell was concerned with the threat of enemy surface raiders in Australian waters and arrangements for convoying troop-ships to the Middle East. He was promoted to commander in June 1940.

Five months later Burrell went to Washington to join the Australian delegation headed by Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey at secret talks between Britain and the United States of America on the strategic situation in the Pacific. In January-April 1941 he served as the first Australian naval attaché in Washington. He participated in British-American staff conversations to develop a strategic concept for the still hypothetical entry of Japan and the United States into the war. The talks recognised that future priority would be accorded to the European theatre and, as a consequence, major US Navy units would be transferred from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Burrell’s progress reports on the talks revealed increasing concern that the USA would be prepared to abandon the Far East, a realisation that perhaps affected his attitudes for the rest of his naval career.

Burrell took command of the new `N’ class destroyer HMAS Norman at Southampton, England, in September 1941. The ship’s first duty was to convey a British Trade Union Congress delegation to northern Russia. Norman then joined Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean. This fleet with its old capital ships was fortunate to avoid being annihilated by the overwhelming Japanese force of Vice Admiral Nagumo. In his memoirs, Mermaids Do Exist (1986), Burrell contested the British official history’s assertion that Somerville was determined to avoid action with the Japanese, and regarded the survival of the Eastern Fleet as more good luck than good management. Norman was in action in the Mediterranean in mid-1942 during operations to resupply Malta. She was also engaged in escorting troop convoys in the Indian Ocean and was with the covering force at the capture of Diego Suarez and the assault force at Tamatave and Majunga, Madagascar. In February 1943 Burrell was mentioned in despatches for bravery and resource during the Madagascar operations.

In September 1943 Burrell was again at Navy Office, Melbourne, as director of plans. At the office of the government statist on 21 April 1944 he married Ada Theresa Weller, a mica specialist known by the surname Coggan. Much of his work at Navy Office involved planning for the use of British Commonwealth forces in the closing stages of the war against Japan and the basing of the British Pacific Fleet in Australia. In May 1945 he took command of the new Tribal-class destroyer HMAS Bataan. The ship joined the US Seventh Fleet and was in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender ceremony in September, later assisting in the recovery of RAN prisoners of war from Sendai.

Promoted to captain in June 1946, Burrell was appointed deputy chief of Naval Staff in October. A major focus of his work for the next two years was to form the Fleet Air Arm and to introduce carrier aviation in the RAN. For twelve months from October 1948 he commanded the RAN’s flagship, the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia. He completed the 1950 course at the Imperial Defence College, London, then became the assistant Australian defence representative in London. In December 1952 he assumed command of the light fleet carrier HMAS Vengeance.

Temporarily posted as DCNS in August 1954, Burrell was promoted to acting rear admiral in February 1955 (substantive in July) and made flag officer commanding HM Australian Fleet. In mid-1956 he was appointed to Navy Office to investigate a new officer structure for the RAN. The outcome was the General List of officers although Burrell himself was uncomfortable with the resulting additional authority for non-seaman officers. In September he became second naval member of the Naval Board (chief of naval personnel). He returned to the position of FOCAF in January 1958, flying his flag in HMAS Melbourne. On 24 February 1959 he was promoted to vice admiral and made chief of Naval Staff in Canberra. Appointed CBE in 1955 and CB in 1959, he was elevated to KBE in 1960.

As CNS, Burrell confronted critical force-structure dilemmas but, with a supportive minister for the navy in (Sir) John Gorton, won favourable decisions for the RAN, including approval to acquire Oberon-class submarines, Ton-class minesweepers, the survey ship HMAS Moresby and Wessex anti-submarine helicopters, and to commission the fleet tanker HMAS Supply. However, Burrell’s greatest successes were to convince the government to reverse its 1959 decision to disband the Fleet Air Arm (at least as far as helicopters were concerned) and to buy three Charles F. Adams-class guided-missile destroyers from the USA. This purchase was a significant break from the tradition of acquiring British-designed warships. Burrell’s alleged refusal to support efforts to retain fixed-wing naval aviation led some to suspect that he accorded it low priority. He retired from the RAN on 23 February 1962.

Sir Henry gained satisfaction from his farm, Illogan Park, on the Shoalhaven River near Braidwood, New South Wales. Diagnosed with heart problems soon after retirement, he suffered a major heart attack in 1980. In August 1981 his wife died. Survived by the two daughters and son of his second marriage, Burrell died on 9 February 1988 in Woden Valley Hospital, Canberra, and was buried with Anglican rites in Gungahlin cemetery.

Burrell had served with distinction at sea and had been an extremely able staff officer ashore. As CNS, he recognised the need for independence in Australian defence thinking and was prepared to step aside from unquestioning acceptance of principles inherited from the RN. Naturally friendly and approachable, he was an enthusiastic sportsman, excelling at Rugby Union football, tennis and hockey. He liked a bet and owned several successful racehorses. He was known for his common touch, his cheerful friendliness, a keen interest in the well-being of his men and an ability to bridge the generation gap between himself and younger people. With his egalitarian outlook and other qualities, he may well have been the first `real’ Australian to hold the office of CNS.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (1949)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 (1957)
  • G. H. Gill, 1942-1945 (1968)
  • Australian Naval Aviation Museum, Friends and Volunteers, Flying Stations (1998)
  • D. Stevens (ed), The Royal Australian Navy (2001)
  • Navy (Sydney), Nov 1947, p 20
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Feb 1962, p 2
  • Canberra Times, 10 Feb 1988, p 13
  • Journal of the Australian Naval Institute, May 1988, p 11
  • series A6769, item Burrell H M (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Sam Bateman, 'Burrell, Sir Henry Mackay (1904–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir Henry Burrell, n.d.

Sir Henry Burrell, n.d.

photo from Royal Australian Navy

Life Summary [details]


13 August, 1904
Wentworth Falls, New South Wales, Australia


9 February, 1988 (aged 83)
Garran, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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