Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Stuart Burnett:

An Air Marshals Doublet

Charles Burnett was born in Minnesota in 1882 to Scottish Parents, before attending school in England. This was his 1904- 1909 uniform while with the HLI. Burnett began his military career in 1899, lying about his age to enlist as a Private in the Second Boer War. He would serve overseas during the war with distinction. In 1904, he took a commission as a Lt. and was seconded to the 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment for service in the the African Protectorate. Over the next five years Burnett saw quite a bit of action in Nigeria, contracted blackwater fever, and twice mentioned in dispatches. 

Burnett joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1914 and quickly rise through the ranks. He would hold commands from Mesopotamia to the western front rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the Fifth Wing in Palestine. During the First War he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Egyptian Order of the Nile (Third Class), was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and several times mentioned in dispatches.

Leading up to WW2, Burnett served in the Middle East, and became Inspector General of the RAF, In 1940 he was appointed Chief Air Staff of the Royal Australian Air Force. He retired from the RAF in 1942. On April, 9, 1945, Burnett died of a heart attack in his home. Having served over forty years in uniform, fighting in three wars, being mentioned in dispatches a staggering seven times, and receiving some of the highest awards of the British Empire and foreign nations, Charles Burnett was a hero and a gentleman of the highest order. A true man of imperial bearing and unwavering devotion to duty. 

Background picture credit:

The Boer War

In 1899, he enlisted as a private in the Imperial Yeomanry claiming to be 18 when he actually 17. He would sail for South Africa and war shortly after and during his time serving on the dark continent he would be attached to the 8th Company, 1st Battalion, Derbyshire Regiment. The battalion arrived in December. They were stationed in the Orange Free State and took part in fighting under General Sir William Gatacre. From April 1900 they were part of the 21st Infantry brigade. For his service in Africa he would earn the Queens South Africa medal with clasps for Cape Colony and Wittebergen. 

He was discharged in 1901 in order to take commission and was gazetted as a second lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) in October. In April 1902 now serving as a Lt. in the HLI he would return to south africa to continue fighting against the Boers, earning the Kings South Africa Medal. He would return home on the SS Doune Castle in September 1902, after the war had ended earlier that year.
(picture credit: AngloBoerWar website) 
Refer to Lower section on sources

Northern Nigeria Frontier Force 1904-1909

The Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885 made Northern Nigeria a Protectorate to the British Empire. The Royal Niger Company was formed in 1886 and was responsible for negotiated trade agreements and political agreements with chieftains, emirs, and the Sokoto Caliphate. On January 1st 1900, the British government took control of the region from the Royal Niger Company.

Lokoja was the capital from 1900, but Zungeru became the headquarters for the protectorate in 1902 being the most northerly city accessible by river transport. Military operations began in 1902 and by the end of 1903 the Bornu Empire, Sokoto Caliphate and the Kano Emirate were conquered. Fighting continued throughout 1904 in Bassa.

In 1906 a large Mahdist revolution began in the village of Satiru, a combined force of the British and allied troops destroyed the town and killed most residents involved. After 1907 there were fewer revolts and the rule of the country turned more towards taxation and government.

There were still many primitive tribes inhabiting this region as illustrated by the following excerpt from the London Gazette in 1905:

"Gurkhawa, Yergum, and Montoil. These wild pagan tribes occupy the country north of Wase, on the high road from the Benne to Bauchi. They have constantly given trouble, and, after several murders of traders, they killed and ate the Government messenger sent to warn them to desist. It afterwards transpired that they had eaten the wrong man."

During Lt. Burnett’s time in Nigeria he would fight in several battles, being awarded a mention in despatches twice (in August 1905 and July 1907). We are fortunate that the records of these battles are recorded, they can be viewed below.

Sources: London Gazette July 2nd 1907, August 25th 1905

Nigerian Frontier Force, The Semolika Expedition of 1904

We are fortunate that so much of what happened was recorded in great detail by the men who served in this engagement. The other thing during his time in Nigeria was that he contracted the dread blackwater fever and became quite ill as a result. I have included an excerpt here that highlights part of the expedition and Lt. Burnett's involvement.

Lieutenant Browne, West African Frontier Force, had been sent with a patrol along the southern frontier to prevent any smuggling of gin, arms, etc. On his way back, with 30 rank and file, he endeavoured to ascend Semolika (a precipitous hill, impassable for carriers or horses). Being unaware that the people were hostile He was attacked and wounded, and 5 soldiers and his servant were killed, 1 soldier and 1 carrier wounded (3 soldiers and the carrier since dead), leaving 4 rifles and 3 boxes of ammunition in the hands of the enemy.

The people who inhabit this hill are a band of robbers and murderers, who terrorised the country and who have long been a trouble to the Administration, and it was supposed that Lieutenant Browne was aware of their attitude. The expedition sent to make reprisals for this outrage was under the command of Major Merrick. Royal Artillery, and was accompanied by Captain Larymore, Royal Artillery, C.M.G., as Political Officer. It consisted of 5 Officers and Medical Officer, 4 British Non-Commissioned Officers. 2 .95 guns, a Maxim, and 213 rank and file.

The Commandant reports that "on 18th October, under cover of the fire of the gun, which was got into position on a hill opposite, a party under Lieutenant L. Galloway, Royal Artillery, assaulted the hill by the only apparently practicable path, another party being sent round to cut off the enemy's retreat. "The enemy fought in a very determined way, and it was only after some hard fighting, during which Lieutenants Galloway and Burnett and 9 rank and file were wounded (Lieutenant Galloway twice), that the town was eventually carried.

"On the 21st, the headmen of Semolika made their submission. The restitution of the lost rifles and ammunition was demanded and they were called on to surrender 50 Dane guns in addition. The lost rifles and ammunition were restored on the 22nd; but as by the 23rd the Dane guns had not been brought in, Lieutenant Galloway and 70 men moved against a village called Ogpwe to which most of the Semolika people' had retired. This had the desired effect, and without further fighting 24 guns were brought in and satisfactory arrangements made for the recovery of the fines imposed."

He adds," I desire to bring to your notice for special mention, the name of Major Merrick for the- capable way in which he carried out the operation. He mentions specially Lieutenant Galloway for good leading and gallantry, and also brings to notice the names of Lieutenant Burnett, Highland Light Infantry, 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment, Sergeant Williams, 1st Artillery, Northern Nigeria Regiment, No. 2571, Private Jigallah. 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment, No. 2327, Private Ibrahim Kano, 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment, No. Royal Artillery 5, Gunner Isa 1st Artillery, Northern Nigeria Regiment These operations were particularly arduous— the hill being some 1,700 feet high and most precipitous, and I concur with the Commandant in considering that they were carried out in an exceptionally capable way."
Excerpt from London gazette August 1905 pages 5837, 5838 
picture credit:

Nigerian Frontier Force, Operations in Kano Province 1907

Lt. Burnett would remain in Nigeria until returning home to civilian life in 1909. During 1907 Burnett and the 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment would move into the Kano province to help stop growing civil unrest and a growing Mahdist revolt. The following is an excerpt from the London Gazette, printed on July 2nd 1907. 

I had just ordered Lieutenant Shott to accompany the interpreter to give them a fourth warning, when suddenly a body of the enemy's mounted spearmen galloped over the rise " H," which forms the entrance to the main street, full at our line. I ordered Maxim and volley firing, and the leading men were, in a few seconds, quite swept away, those behind retiring behind cover.

Undeterred, however, they re-formed, and came on again with the same result. I thought they would now give in, and waited 20 minutes to give them time. I was still reluctant to enter the town, as I felt sure it would mean many casualties and destruction of property, so, as an inducement to give in, I ordered the two guns to open on the Emir's enclosure, which stood well above the rest of the town. The result was not very satisfactory, but eventually the tower of his house was set on fire. I sent mounted patrols round the outskirts to either flank to reconnoitre, and warn any disposed to give in to come out by the flanks so as not to mask my fire.

After a little time, as the issues of the streets and compounds were still reported held, and shots and arrows were fired at any who approached the inner wall, I at length decided to enter the town. I sent Lieutenant G. M. Leatham and one Company, 1st Northern Nigeria Regiment, to the right to advance up the main street and approaches from the north-east, and Lieutenant Colonel Dobell with two Companies, 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment, direct from the east and adjoining streets in the same direction. The compounds and streets were stubbornly held, the mounted men charging down them on our men repeatedly, while slugs and arrows were fired from the doors and walls on the street sides.

After about 1 hours' fighting, Lieutenant-Colonel Dobell reached the vicinity of the Emir's enclosure with Captain R. L. Beasley and Lieutenant C. S. Burnett, and parts of the two Companies, 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment, the remainder being scattered about on his right under Captain P. H. Short and Lieutenant Shott. Here the resistance was very stubborn, and after some delay he sent back to me for guns to breach the wall and re inforcements, as the men had got much scattered in the streets.

I pushed these up at once, but before they could reach him, he, with the assistance of Captain Beasley and Lieutenant Burnett, had collected a sufficient force and rushed the entrance, killing and capturing most of the defenders. In the meantime large numbers of the poorer inhabitants, having laid down their arms, came pouring out by the flanks, and were collected behind the reserve near the eastern gate. I estimated these at between 3,000 and 4,000. As soon as the Emir's enclosure was occupied, about 1 P.M., I withdrew troops, sending strong mounted patrols to clear out all stragglers.

Guards were placed on the gates, and the unarmed inhabitants, with the exception of the ringleaders, were permitted to return to their homes. I am glad to say only a few outlying compounds of the town were burnt. Officers and British non-commissioned officers deserve much credit for the control they kept over their men under very trying circumstances. Street fighting is always demoralising; and the native soldier considers loot the natural sequence of victory.

The heat was intense, the thermometer in the fort registering 115° in the shade, and most of the Europeans were, at the close, completely exhausted. The fighting was chiefly carried on by the chiefs and their following, all mounted men, armed with sword, spears, bows and arrows. Many wore shirts of chain mail of extraordinarily strong manufacture, probably from Morocco. The chiefs seemed to have made up their minds to fight to a finish. The Emir and his son were shot charging boldly at a few yards' range.

The poorer inhabitants took but little part in the fighting, except during the earlier stages, and as far as I could ascertain there were few casualties amongst them. It is difficult to account for the obstinate and senseless bravery of the chiefs. I think that at the first this was due to their never having faced magazine rifle fire, and from their having had for several generations an unbeaten record as regards their neighbours. Some were undoubtedly frenzied with intoxicating drinks and drugs. Though in regard to weapons the combat was unequal, the conditions gave many opportunities for good leading and adventurous work, and all did well. The intense heat during the whole time since our departure from Kano and the bad quality of the water were much felt by the Europeans, and added much to the hardships of the operations.

It is difficult to particularise where all did well, but the following deserve special mention: Staff.—Captain H. foide Searight, Staff Officer; Lieutenant and Veterinary Surgeon H. C. Welch, Transport Officer; Captain and Quartermaster E. C. Hides, Provost Marshal and Supply Officer. Artillery,—Sergeant-Major Dan Yaro. Mounted Infantry.—Major A. D. Green, D.S.O., Captain E. B. Macnaghten, Farrier Sergeant W. Vaudrey, No. 658 Company Sergeant-Major Dandara. Infantry. Captain and Brevet Major (local Lieutenant-Colonel) C. M. Dobell, D.S.O., 1st Northern Nigeria Regiment, Commanding Infantry ; Lieutenant H. H. Shott, Lieutenant C. S. Burnett, Colour-Sergeant W. McLeod, No. 2b50 Private Esu, No. 32 i4 Private Bagirimi, 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment 

Excerpt from London Gazette July 2nd 1907 pages 4516-4519
Picture credit:

The Great War Above Mud and Sand 1914-1918

Following an unsuccesful business venture in civilian life Burnett rejoined the British Army in 1914. It seems he had grown tired of walking and wanted a chance to serve in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. So in November 1914 he qualified as a pilot and the following month, was commissioned as a lieutenant and made Acting Captain. Burnett married the love of his life Sybil Pack-Beresford just six days before his first posting as a Royal Flying Corps wing adjutant in Egypt.

In early 1915, Burnett was posted to No. 17 Squadron as a flight commander  where he flew BE2c aircraft from Gosport and Egypt. Following a promotion to Captain in early 1916, Burnett was promoted to temporary Major, as Officer Commanding No. 36 Squadron stationed in Cramlington.

In October Burnett was sent to the Western Front as Officer Commanding No. 12 Squadron. During his tour as Officer Commanding No. 12 Squadron, Burnett was once again mentioned in despatches. With a promotion to temporary lieutenant colonel on 8 October 1917, Burnett was granted command of the Flying Corps' entire Fifth Wing which was operating in Palestine.

Following the 5th Wings contribution to victory in the Battle of Jerusalem in December 1917, Burnett was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was also awarded the Egyptian Order of the Nile, Third Class, and in the 1919 King's Birthday Honours he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in recognition of his wartime service in Egypt.

There is an interesting story that during his time as Squadron Commander it was revealed he had a special craving for a glass of whiskey and milk before breakfast and not being prepared to accept condensed milk, he detailed one of his officers to acquire suitable supplies of milk. This resulted in the squadron being probably the only RFC unit on the Western Front or elsewhere to possess it's own cow.

Lt. Col Burnett had found his true calling and would remain in the Airforce for the next 24 years. 

Extract from the London Gazette - 5 July 1921
Picture: Unaccredited, supposedly Bombed Constantinople 

The Inspecter General 1919- 1939

During the Inter-War years, Burnett served in Iraq and the Middle East, it would be during his time with The Mesopotamian wing that he would really distinguish himself as a commander. He would find himself rising from the temporary rank of Brigadier General to Air Marshall during the Interwar years due to his devotion to duty and great leadership.

Extract from the London Gazette - 5 July 1921

"The, Royal Air Force under the Command of Wing Commander C. S. Burnett, C.B.E. , D.S.O. , Commanding Mesopotamian Wing, Royal Air Force, have during the operations above described co-operated with the Army both in attack and defence, constantly reconnoitring almost every part of Mesopotamia. Twenty-eight tons of bombs were dropped and 74,000 rounds of ammunition fired from machine-guns on insurgent concentrations, camps and. convoys and hostile villages. Communication was maintained with outlying and besieged garrisons; ammunition, food, medical comforts, wireless spare parts, and on one occasion a 13 -pounder breech block were conveyed, to isolated posts."

He led a return flight from Basrah to Muscat in flying boats in May 1929. On 28 January 1936 he was a mourner at the funeral of HM King George V. In 1936, the home command structure was re-organized into functional commands, Inland Area was renamed Training Command with Burnett remaining as it's AOC in C. As such he oversaw the great build up of the RAF training machine to cope with the increasing requirements brought about by the need for rapid expansion of the late thirties as the likelihood of war with Germany became more and more certain. 

In 1936 he would be made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. One of the more interesting things from this time was his participation in the 1939 diplomatic mission to Moscow. During this time, he also became Inspector General of the RAF and continued in this role until 1940.

(Photo: Sir Charles Burnett inspecting RAF troops in Egypt 1930's) 

An Air Marshalls War 1939-1945

In 1940 he was appointed Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Australian Air Force. Burnett's appointment to the command of the RAAF was accompanied by no small amount of controversy. By the time he was appointed Burnett was due for retirement and his health was failing, the choice of a British officer over an Australian one caused open resentment in many quarters of the RAAF. However he was chosen as both British and Australian goverment officials felt he was the most qualified for the job and there wasnt any Australian Officers on the same level. 

Unlike many senior RAAF commanders at the time, in Burnett's mind he believed the implementation of the Empire Air Training Scheme was the best way to increase Australia's ability to provide aircrew to the RAF. Under Burnett the RAAF expanded from a strength of 3,489 men in the late 1930s to 79,074 in May 1942. Of the approximately 80,000 personnel in the RAAF when Burnett was replaced, 42 per cent were EATS personnel.

Burnett strove to increase the number of aircraft in the RAAF aswell, he was sadly less successful in this respect compared to aircrew. Under Burnett, RAAF units were placed in forward positions and priority was given to the aerial protection of Australian sea lanes. He also took a key role in the establishments of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) and RAAF health services.

Burnett and and Arthur Drakeford the Australian Labor Party's minister for air frequently clashed and in early 1942 when Burnett proposed large organizational changes, a breaking point was reached. It had been argued that Burnett's focus on the European theater resulted in the RAAF lacking sufficient defensive strength and by 1942 the threat of invasion by Japan was growing. Burnett was replaced in May 1942 by an Australian, Air Vice Marshal George Jones, who succeeded to the position despite Burnett's lobbying for his deputy, Air Vice Marshal William Bostock, to take over.

Burnett retired from the RAF in 1943 however not content to sit still he would become the Commandant of the Air Training Commands Central Command. In this role, Burnett was responsible for ATC squadrons in Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Bedfordshire.

Following a period of declining health he died of a coronary thrombosis in Hospital at RAF Halton on April 9th 1945. The same day as German Chief of the Abwehr Wilhelm Canaris. Charles Burnett was survived by his wife and four daughters, leaving behind an incredible legacy of service. His Brother Admiral Sir Robert Lindsay Burnett, GBE, KCB, DSO, CStJ also had a distinguished career, serving in the Royal Navy from 1902-1950.

He had enlisted at 17 lying about his age to go on the great adventure of his time, he rose to incredible heights. Commanding hundreds of men in the desperate struggle of more than 4 distinct wars in countless countries. his story is one that is almost hard to believe and would make an incredible film. I am so honored to be the caretaker for this uniform. 
Picture credits

ACM Burnett with RAAF Flying Personnel Medical Research Committee 1941

ACM Burnett with his replacement as RAAF CAS, AVM George Jones, and AVM William Bostock (centre), 1942

ACM Burnett in the London illustrated news January 1940 upon his appointment to the RAAF

ACM Burnett Hard at work during his time with the RAAF 1941

Air Marshall Sir Charles Burnett 1945

RAAF board meeting 1940

Other Sources, some repeated above:

"No. 27434". The London Gazette. 16 May 1902. p. 3253.
"No. 27432". The London Gazette. 9 May 1902. p. 3091.
"No. 27523". The London Gazette. 10 February 1903. pp. 844–847.
"No. 27712". The London Gazette. 9 September 1904. p. 5843.
"No. 28036". The London Gazette. 2 July 1907. p. 4518.
"No. 28301". The London Gazette. 26 October 1909. p. 7851.
 "No. 29042". The London Gazette (Supplement). 15 January 1915. p. 582.
"No. 29014". The London Gazette (Supplement). 18 December 1914. p. 10904.
"No. 29444". The London Gazette (Supplement). 18 January 1916. p. 831.
"No. 30354". The London Gazette (Supplement). 26 October 1917. p. 11092.
"No. 30624". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 April 1918. p. 4410.
"No. 31647". The London Gazette (Supplement). 18 November 1919. p. 14002.
"No. 31378". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 May 1919. p. 7026.
 "No. 31486". The London Gazette. 1 August 1919. p. 9871.
"No. 32391". The London Gazette. 15 July 1921. p. 5646.
"No. 32803". The London Gazette. 6 March 1923. p. 1823.
"No. 33243". The London Gazette. 28 January 1927. p. 584.
"No. 33235". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 1926. p. 3.
"No. 33453". The London Gazette. 1 January 1929. p. 71.
"No. 33688". The London Gazette. 10 February 1931. p. 932.
"No. 33731". The London Gazette. 30 June 1931. p. 4250.
"No. 33913". The London Gazette (Supplement). 21 February 1933. p. 1180.
"No. 34237". The London Gazette. 31 December 1935. p. 8407.
"No. 34238". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 1935. p. 4.
"No. 34641". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 June 1939. p. 4452.
Forces War Records Charles Burnett 5135
Find My Past Charles Burnett 5135

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Vancouver Island, CA

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The War Dungeon is a private collection and museum on Vancouver Island, BC. Over the past several years, with the help of friends and family, we have renovated the basement of our home into a large museum. The displays here cover from the Boer War, all the way to the Vietnam War of the 1960s.  

We try to cover all aspects and countries involved wherever possible, and we are always looking to add new and interesting displays to help honor the men and women who sacrificed so much for us. We offer guided  tours upon request as well as on site displays for special occasions.

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