Commander Cecil Burleigh RNR was a Merchant Navy officer and long serving member of the Royal Naval Reserve. During WWI he commanded the Armed Boarding Ship Duke of Clarence, being made a member of the Distinguished Service Order and Mentioned in Despatches.
Cecil Wills Burleigh was born in Okaihau, Northland on 23 April 1870 and went to sea as a cadet with the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1886, later transferring to the Peninsula and Orient Line (P & O). On 6 April 1900 he joined the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) with the rank of Sub Lieutenant.
As an officer in the RNR he was required to undergo regular training, beginning in 1903 with gunnery and torpedo courses which were completed in HM Ships Excellent and Vernon, both in Portsmouth. In February of that year he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and from September began a year of full-time service in HMS Empress of India, an old battleship which was the base ship at Queenstown (now Cobh) on the south-east coast of Ireland.
Seeing and hearing the explosion Commander Burleigh turned Duke of Clarence towards the stricken ship and as he approached lowered two boats to rescue survivors.
Returning to P & O he continued his merchant service, undertaking requalifying courses in gunnery and torpedos in the latter part of 1907 and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in February 1907. Burleigh spent most of July 1912 in HMS Swiftsure, a battleship, taking part in the annual fleet manoeuvres and in October of that year he completed a course in signals and in March 1914 a strategy course.
With the outbreak of war his services weren’t immediately required and it wasn’t until November 1914 that he was appointed to the Armed Boarding Steamer HMS Caesarea. These ships worked with Royal Navy cruisers enforcing the blockade of Germany. Being smaller and less valuable, they had the task of closing neutral, but potentially enemy, merchant ships and boarding them to ascertain their cargo and destination. A year later he was appointed to HMS Duke of Clarence, then in the final stages of conversion to an Armed Boarding Steamer, in command.
Duke of Clarence was one of a class of six belonging to the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company, operating between Fleetwood and Belfast/Londonderry in winter and between Hull and Zeebrugge in summer. Once the conversion work was completed the ship was commissioned into the Royal Navy and joined the patrol force. This work was arduous, being undertaken in all weathers and with a basic routine of ten days on patrol and four days in harbour.
In August 1916, Duke of Clarence was operating in company with a sister ship, HMS Duke of Albany to the east of the Pentland Skerries (between the northern tip of Scotland and the Orkneys). Just after 9.00am the officer of the watch of Duke of Albany sighted a torpedo track heading towards the ship. He rang for full speed and turned the ship, but the torpedo struck midships. There was nothing to be done and the order to abandon ship was given, but most of the boats were unable to get away and many of the men found themselves in the water. The ship sank quickly and although a Chief Petty Officer tried, there was no time to make the ship’s depth charge safe and as the ship sank it exploded. In all 25 of the 106 on board perished.
He headed towards the submarine, firing a shot from the ship’s gun, which missed and continued on in an attempt to ram it.
Seeing and hearing the explosion Commander Burleigh turned Duke of Clarence towards the stricken ship and as he approached lowered two boats to rescue survivors. Leaving these he headed towards the submarine, firing a shot from the ship’s gun, which missed and continued on in an attempt to ram it. Duke of Clarence passed over the submarine, but without making contact. The ship then continued to circle the survivors until the arrival of some nearby destroyers. Seventeen men were saved by the ship’s boats and for his actions Cecil Burleigh was Mentioned in Despatches.
In October 1916 Commander Cecil Burleigh was awarded the Reserve Decoration, recognizing his long service in the RNR. Meanwhile the ship continued the arduous, if unglamorous patrol work. A change from the cold of the sub-arctic temperatures came in late 1917, following an intercepted message from the German Naval Attaché in Madrid, that a Spanish registered ship was to take 40 tons of Wolfram (the ore from which tungsten is extracted) from Bilbao and rendezvous with two U Boats that would take the cargo on to Germany. Observed by the British Naval Intelligence officer in Bilbao the Erri Berra sailed on 31 December bound for the Canary Islands. Duke of Clarence was tasked with intercepting the ship, which did successfully, installing a prize crew on board. Unfortunately the ship foundered in heavy weather the next day and was despatched by gunfire.
Duke of Clarence continued to undertake patrol work for the rest of the war, but also to lead convoys on some occasions. In recognition of the work of the ship over the past two and a half years, Cecil Burleigh was made a companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DS0) in September 1918 and also received a letter of appreciation from the Commander in Chief, ships and vessels Coast of Scotland. He was demobilised on 31 March 1919 and returned to the Merchant Service, continuing at sea until early 1929 when he settled in his home in Norfolk. In the meantime at his own request Commander Cecil Burleigh was placed on the retired list of the RNR on 23 April 1920. However as an indication of the esteem he was held there is a notation on his file to bring his name forward on 30 June 1921, when he would have served five years in the rank of Commander and could be considered for promotion to Captain on the retired list. This was duly done and the promotion made. He died in 1941.