Charles Dennistoun Burney

(1888 - 1968)

Charles Dennistoun Burney, often called Dennis Burney, was born in Bermuda on 28 December 1888, the only son among the three children of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cecil Burney Bt. He was given naval education, starting his training at HMS Britannia in 1903, and joining the battleship Exmouth) as a midshipman in early 1905. In 1909 he was posted to the destroyer Afridi, and soon afterwards the Crusader, then being used for experimental anti-submarine work.

Burney was quick to see the potential of the aeroplane and as a result in September 1911 he went on half pay so that he could continue his researches at the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company. There he came up with a novel seaplane design using a hydrofoil undercarriage. Further development was carried out and two prototype designs, the X.2 and X.3, were produced, but were not successful. His work there was interrupted by appointments to the battleship Venerable and the cruiser Black Prince, but in each ship he remained only long enough to apply for half pay and return to Bristol. In August 1912 he commenced a one-year gunnery course, and on its completion the Admiralty allowed him to continue his seaplane development.

On the outbreak of World War I Burney was given command of the destroyer HMS Velox, but shortly joined the research establishment at HMS Vernon, the Portsmouth torpedo school. Here he developed the paravane, an anti-mine device - for which he took out a patent in 1915. Trials with this device started in the spring of 1915, and in June Burney was appointed to organize a new paravane department at Vernon. In the following year he took out another ten patents dealing with paravanes and associated gear. In 1920 the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors gave Burney the main credit for this invention, but recommended that, as he had received some £350,000 for patent rights for its use by merchant vessels and abroad, no further payments should be made to him. He had received no payment for the navy's wartime use of this device, but he had been rewarded in the 1917 birthday honours by his appointment as CMG, an honour rarely given to a lieutenant. In 1920 Burney retired from the navy as a lieutenant-commander, and on reaching the age of forty, he was promoted on the retired list to commander. In 1921 he married Gladys, the younger daughter of George Henry High, of Chicago; they had a son. Burney succeeded his father in the baronetcy in 1929.

After the war, Burney realized that the new developments in aviation held both economic and political implications. Communications in the British Empire would be greatly improved by a comprehensive system of air travel. To further these ideas he entered parliament as a Unionist member for Uxbridge in 1922, and held his seat until 1929, when he succeeded to the Baronetcy.

Meanwhile, in 1923, Burney proposed the Imperial Airship Scheme, a plan for civil airship development which was to be carried out by Vickers. As a result he became a consultant with Vickers and in 1924, in conjunction with Vickers, formed the Airship Guarantee Company. Burney became managing director of this specially formed subsidiary of Vickers that was to build the R100 airship, where his design team, headed by Barnes Wallis included Nevil Shute Norway.

In 1927 he set up Streamline Cars Ltd to build technically advanced aerodynamic rear-engined cars. Thirteen cars were made at Maidenhead between 1929 and 1931. Each was different, as they were intended as showcases for his patents rather than for serious production. Streamline Cars finally closed in 1936.

In 1939 Burney was employed by the War Office, again joined by Nevil Shute, in the development of an early air-launched gliding torpedo, the Toraplane, and the gliding bomb, Doravane. Despite much work and many trials the Toraplane could not be launched with repeatable accuracy and was finally abandoned in 1942. During 1940, along with Shute and Sydney Hansel, Burney developed the Burney Amphibian. A huge six-engined airborne aircraft carrier, it was carry four Satellite Torpedo-Bomber-Fighters within its wings. Never built, the aircraft is typical of Burney's adventurous approach to design. Among other military weapons, he was the inventor of the High Explosive Squash Head shell and the British developer of the recoilless rifle, known as "Burney guns".

After the war, he became interested in improving fishing trawlers. He designed a catamaran trawler, apparatus to facilitate trawling and landing the catch, an otter or ‘porpoise’ (a kind of paravane) incorporating sonar to detect fish shoals, and plants for freezing fish either on board or ashore. In all, Burney took out more than one hundred patents during the period from 1915 to 1962. Among these were six with Barnes Wallis and one with Wallis and Nevil Shute Norway on aspects of airship design. In 1947, acting for British iron and steel interests, he secured a concession in Northern Rhodesia for iron and coal prospecting, and consequently maintained two homes: one in Rhodesia and the other in Bermuda.

Commander Sir Dennistoun Burney, Bt, CMG, RN (Ret), retired to Bermuda, where he died on 11th November 1968.

Biography References
  1. Bristol Aircraft Since 1910, C.H. Barnes (Putnam, 1964)
  2. Vickers Aircraft Since 1908, C.F. Andrews and E.B. Morgan (Putnam,1988)
  3. W. D. Hackmann, ‘Burney, Sir (Charles) Dennistoun, second baronet (1888–1968)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32191]

V1.4.4 Created by Roger Moss. Last updated August 2020