Sir Cecil Burney, 1858-1929, British Admiral

Sir Cecil Burney was a British admiral who served as second in command of the Grand Fleet from 1914-1916, was present at the battle of Jutland, and then served as Second Sea Lord. He joined the navy as a cadet in 1871, going to sea in 1873. As a lieutenant he was present in the Mediterranean Fleet during 1882. This was a period in which Navy officers had more chance of seeing action on shore than at sea, and Burney took the chance offered by the Egyptian campaign of that year, fighting at the battles of Tel al-Mahuta and Qassassin (August 1882).

In 1893 he was given command of the Hawke, serving in the Mediterranean for three years. He then took command of the boys’ training establishment, based on HMS Boscawen and HMS Minotaur, holding that command for three and a half years. During that period he was promoted to captain (January 1898).

In 1900 he briefly commanded HMS Hawke, before being given command of HMS Sappho on the south-east coast of America. During the Boer War the Sappho was transferred to the Cape station, but was forced to return home after striking the Durban bar. The ship was then in the hands of pilots, so Burney was not blamed for the incident. In May 1902 he was appointed flag-captain to Rear-Admiral Atkinson-Willes of the Home Fleet, keeping his post when Atkinson-Willes was replaced by 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).

Admiral Sir Cecil Burney
Admiral Sir
Cecil Burney

In 1909 he was promoted to rear-admiral, and given a command at Plymouth. In February 1911 he was given command of the 5th cruiser squadron. In 1911 he was appointed to command the Atlantic Fleet, as acting vice-admiral, a rank that was confirmed in 1912, soon after he was appointed to command the 3rd battle squadron. That squadron was representing British interesting in the Mediterranean during the difficult period of the Balkan Wars. In April 1913 a five-power naval force took up position at Antivari (Montenegro), with Burney as senior naval officer. From May-November 1913 he took command of the international force occupying Scutari, performing his difficult duties with some skill, and earning him an appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG).

In late 1913 he returned to Britain, and was appointed to command the second and third fleets, then part of the naval reserve, with direct command of the 6th Battle Squadron. In 1914 those fleets took part in the test mobilization that came just at the right moment during the tense period before the outbreak of the First World War. In the days immediately before the war, his own squadron was broken up. Burney’s flagship, HMS Lord Nelson, was attached to the 5th Battle Squadron, and Burney was ordered to concentrate the 5th and 7th Battle Squadrons and the 5th Cruiser Squadron at Portland.  On 7 August the second and third fleets were reconstituted as the Channel Fleet, and Burney became its first commander.

His first responsibility was the crucial one of protecting the BEF as it made its way to France. The Straits of Dover were held by British and French destroyers, with the battleships of the Channel Fleet in reserve in case German battleships smashed their way into the channel, although if the High Seas Fleet had made such an attempt, Burney’s pre-dreadnaught fleet wouldn’t have been much of a threat to it. In the event the troop ships got across the channel intact. Burney’s main duty while he remained with the Channel Fleet was to protect the BEF’s supply convoys.  This job became more difficult as the Germans advanced through Belgium, and began to threaten the Channel ports. Burney was forced to move west to Portland, and later troop convoys landed further west along the French coast. His final duty with the Channel Fleet saw his squadrons take up new stations at Sheerness and Dover, to guard against the threat of a German invasion of southern England while the army was absent in France.

In December 1914 Burney swapped places with Vice-Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, taking command of the 1st Battle Squadron in the Grand Fleet, while Bayly took over the Channel Fleet. Burney now became second in command of the Grand Fleet. In this role he took command during Jellicoe’s absences, and was seen by some as a possible replacement for Jellicoe, a prospect that did not please some of his colleagues, who felt him to be too cautious and prone to ill health.

At the battle of Jutland his squadron was placed on the starboard wing of the Grand Fleet. As the battle fleet sailed towards the German battleships, it was arranged in six columns, with Burney, and his flagship HMS Marlborough, in the rightmost column.

When the battle fleets first made contact, the German fleet was to the right of Jellicoe’s fleet, putting Burney’s squadron, with the oldest ships in the battle fleet, clossest to the Germans, and vulnerable to long range torpedo attack. This played a part in Jellicoe’s decision to deploy on his port flank for the first phase of the main clash. This short lived encounter ended when the Germans turned through 180 degrees to avoid being overwhelmed by the Grand Fleet. In the aftermath of this move Burney’s ship was hit by a German torpedo, probably launched from the crippled cruiser Wiesbaden, which caused severe damage that got worse during the course of the battle.

For the moment it had little impact on the battle. Burney’s squadron was first to reengage the German fleet when Scheer found himself closing on the Grand Fleet once again. Once again the German fleet was able to escape. Burney now found his ship slowing down, at first to 16kts, and his division began to fall behind the main fleet. By early in the morning of 1 June he was twelve miles adrift. By 2.20 damaged bulkheads on the Marlborough were threatening to give way, reducing her speed even further, to 12kts, and Burney was forced to transfer to the Revenge leaving Marlborough to limp safely back to harbour.

The Grand Fleet made another sortie on 18-19 August, in response to a move by the High Seas fleet. At the start of the sortie, Jellicoe was absent, ill in the south of Scotland, but with a cruiser to hand in case he needed to rejoin the fleet. Burney took command of the first few hours of the sortie, before dispatching a battleship to fetch Jellicoe.

In November 1916, Jellicoe was appointed First Sea Lord. Burney accompanied him to the Board of Admiralty, as Second Sea Lord, holding the post until September 1917. He was then replaced because Lloyd George and Sir Eric Geddes, the First Lord of the Admiralty, did not think he was performing efficiently in the post. Burney was appointed commander-in-chief for the coast of Scotland, based at Rosyth, holding the post until 1919. He was then appointed commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, until asking to be relieved due to ill health in 1920.

After his retirement from this post, Burney was appointed Admiral of the Fleet. In 1921 he was made a baronet, and in 1922 appointed GCB. He was popular with those who served under him, and an able and experienced sea captain. His fellow admirals considered him to be unsuited to the highest levels of command, but he was an able second in command to Jellicoe.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 October 2007), Sir Cecil Burney, 1858-1929, British Admiral ,

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