CHRISTOPHER BURNE, 1932-2012
Crowds Greet the Canberra as she slips into Southhampton Docks, 1982 Photo: Jeffrey Smith
Captain Christopher Burne played a crucial, if unsung, role in the Falklands war. In the wake of the Argentinian invasion of the islands on April 2, 1982, he delicately managed the delivery of 2,200 Royal Marine commandos and paratroopers to the South Atlantic, and nearly four months later, after their victorious campaign to re-establish British rule, brought them home to a heroes’ welcome at Southampton. This was a less simple task than might at first have appeared.
Burne’s official title was senior naval officer on SS Canberra, the liner requisitioned as a troopship following the decision to send a task force to retake the Falklands. He and his 40-strong staff were there to impose military discipline on a civilian vessel. They joined the ship at Southampton amid preparations to convert it for war – two helicopter pads were constructed on the upper decks, one replacing the first-class passengers’ swimming pool, and chunks of the superstructure were cut away to allow the ship to be refuelled at sea.
But the Canberra already had an experienced civilian captain, Dennis Scott-Masson, and a 413-man crew primed to go to war (120 Indian and Pakistani sailors in the engine room; the deck crew had also volunteered but been rejected by the Ministry of Defence as foreign nationals). Also on board were the colonels of the three commando and paratroop battalions – each with their own ideas about how their men should be treated – and 13 journalists, whose presence had been fiercely opposed by the navy. This was a potent political mix, and doubts were expressed at the Northwood command centre in Middlesex about the wisdom of putting Burne in to deal with it.
However, he defused the situation with a mixture of naval firmness and self-mocking eccentricity. A lifelong sailor – the son of a career army officer, he had entered the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, as a cadet aged 13 – he could quote the military strategist Carl von Clausewitz at will, and frequently did so to establish his authority. But he was also adept at portraying himself as an ‘‘everyman’’ sailor, often seen jogging round the deck alone while digesting complex orders from Northwood.
He already had a reputation as an idiosyncratic commander. Earlier in his career, he was reputed to have approached a lifebuoy sentry and told him to jump into the sea so that his crew could practise “man overboard” drills. When the sentry hesitated, Burne told him, ‘‘hold my hat’’ and jumped in himself.
Burne guided the Canberra to Ascension Island and then to San Carlos Water, the inlet where British troops landed on May 21, 1982. That day, surrounded by warships, Canberra endured more than 60 air attacks; 30 men were killed, two British warships were destroyed and 15 Argentinian planes were shot down. Canberra escaped unharmed, and when not on the bridge Burne could be seen standing defiantly on the upper deck shouting, ‘‘engage, engage’’ to his gunners as the Argentinian bombers roared in so low that you could see their pilots’ faces and the spray of their bullets ricocheted around the superstructure of the ship.
The plan had been for Canberra to anchor in San Carlos Water as a casualty station and supply centre. But the high command decided that the risk to the vessel was so great that it needed to move out of range of air attack. So just before midnight, Burne sailed his ship 170 miles away, a position it remained in for several days, returning silently at night to supply the troops.
Four days later, faced with confused instructions from Northwood, he decided to take the Canberra 900 miles further into the Antarctic to the island of South Georgia to rendezvous with the QE2, the other requisitioned liner bringing reinforcements. Fortunately, the QE2 was there to meet him. Then, after the Argentinian surrender on 14 June, he negotiated arrangements to return nearly 4,200 prisoners to Buenos Aires. The deal involved declaring the Canberra a “cartel” ship, an international agreement guaranteeing free passage between warring nations – reputedly the first time such an arrangement had been invoked by the navy since the Napoleonic wars.
To his service colleagues, Burne was universally known as ‘‘Beagle’’, a nickname dating from his enthusiasm for hunting with dogs while at Dartmouth. To the journalists on Canberra, he earned the nickname “Captain Fawlty”, a reference to the similarity of his height and gait to the John Cleese character. The only thing he confessed to missing in the Falklands was the bicycle he packed on each of his ships, on the grounds that it was the cheapest way to explore new ports. In the end, he brought the Canberra home after 94 days at sea and a round trip of 25,245 miles.
Burne was born in Cairo. His family lived briefly in France but settled in north Devon before the outbreak of the second world war. His mother took up farming; his father was taken prisoner while serving with the 12th Royal Lancers in North Africa. He attended Brambletye preparatory school in East Grinstead, West Sussex, and entered the Royal Naval College in 1945, training as a gunnery specialist. Later, he served on HMS Chichester and HMS Bulwark, commanded the Royal Naval petty officers’ school at Corsham, Wiltshire, and in 1974 became deputy director of physical training and sport. Promoted captain in 1976, he became the first commander of HMS Coventry in 1978.
After the Falklands war, for which he was made a CBE, he took command of HMS Glamorgan, seeing action again in 1983 when his ship helped to evacuate refugees from Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. After leaving the service, he spent two years training the Sultan of Oman’s navy.
In retirement Burne continued to indulge his hobbies of cycling and hunting with the Park Beagles in West Dorset. He was a bell ringer and lay reader at his local church, St James’s, in East Lambrook, Somerset. He died after suffering a heart attack while cycling to a diamond jubilee celebration.
Burne is survived by his wife, Belinda, whom he married in 1969, and his children, Toby and Laura.
Guardian News Media