Captain Joseph Burnett

Birth Date 26 December 1899
Birth Place Australia: New South Wales, Singleton
Death Date 20 November 1941
Death Place At sea: Nearest landform, At sea (off Western Australia)
Final Rank Captain
Service Royal Australian Navy
Conflict/Operation Second World War, 1939-1945

Joseph Burnett was born at Singleton, New South Wales, on 26 December 1899 and became captain of HMAS Sydney in 1941. As a youth he attended Singleton Primary School and in 1912 applied to enter the Royal Australian Naval College in Geelong, becoming one of its first entrants as a cadet midshipman on 31 December 1912.

Having graduated in 1917, he was sent to England where he joined HMAS Australia, on which he served until the end of the First World War, reaching the rank of sub-lieutenant. For much of the next seven years Burnett served with the Royal Navy in England, was promoted to lieutenant in January 1920, and qualified as a gunnery officer in 1922. During his time in England Burnett proved himself an excellent sportsman, representing the United Services and the Royal Navy in rugby and performing well in tennis, cricket, and athletics.

In 1924 he was appointed gunner officer on HMAS Adelaide, in the same year he married Enid Ward and returned to Australia. After three years in Australia he returned to England in 1927, was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1928, and began service on HMAS Canberra. Further service in England followed and Burnett attended the Naval Staff College at Greenwich in 1932-33. Having been promoted to commander in December 1932, he returned to Australia and began two years of service at the Navy Office in Melbourne in 1933.

Burnett returned to sea in 1936 with a posting to HMAS Canberra as Executive Officer. The following year he returned to England for the last time, becoming Executive Officer on the battleship HMS Royal Oak. In December 1938 he was promoted to captain and the following year completed the Imperial Defence College course. When the Second World War began he was recalled to Australia and appointed Assistant Chief of Naval Staff at the Navy Office in Melbourne.

A highly regarded officer who received uniformly good reports throughout his career, Burnett was sent to Singapore in October 1940 as senior RAN representative at an Allied conference considering the defence of the Asia-Pacific region. He was instrumental in the formation Naval Auxilliary Patrol, which was used to patrol harbour entrances during the war. In May 1941 he was given command of HMAS Sydney.

Having commanded the ship on convoy duties, Burnett was bringing Sydney back to Fremantle on 19 November 1941 when she encountered the German raider Kormoran. In the ensuing action Kormoran was sunk and a damaged Sydney was seen sailing over the horizon before she disappeared with the loss of all on board.


  • Roll of Honour:

    HMAS Sydney (II)
    Second World War, 1939-1945


Date of birth 26 December 1899 Singleton, NSW.
Other 31 December 1912 Entered the Royal Australian Naval College.
Other 01 January 1917 Became a midshipman. His first appointment was to the battle cruiser HMAS Australia, serving with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea.
Date promoted 1918-10 Promoted to sub lieutenant.
Other 1920 - 1922 Served in the battleship HMS Royal Oak. After this Burnett specialised in gunnery, undertaking training in the HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy's gunnery training establishment.
Date promoted 1920-01 Promoted to lieutenant.
Other 1924 Appointed gunner officer on HMAS Adelaide.
Date promoted 01 January 1928 Promoted to lieutenant commander. Burnett then saw service in the HMAS Canberra.
Other 1932 Bridges attended Staff College at Greenwich.
Date promoted 1932-12 Promoted to commander.
Other 1933 - 1935 Service at Navy Office as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff and Director of Naval Intelligence.
Other 1936 Served in the HMAS Canberra.
Other 1937 Served in the battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Resolution.
Date promoted 31 December 1938 Promoted to captain. Returned to Australia and again served as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff.
Other 1939 Completed the Imperial Defence College course.
Other 1940-10 Sent to Singapore as a senior Royal Australian Navy Representative at an Allied conference considering the defence of the Asia/Pacific region.
Other 14 May 1941 Appointed to command HMAS Sydney.
Date of death 20 November 1941 Killed in action. The HMAS Sydney and its entire crew were lost in action off the Western Australian Coast. The HMAS Sydney was engaged with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran. The Kormoran was also sunk in the action. The loss of HMAS Sydney and all her crew is the greatest Naval disaster in Australia's history.