During lockdown I’ve been walking a lot round my local cemetery, Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth. Actually, it’s very local – I can see it from my back window. And as you would expect, it has a lot of war graves – over 500 to be exact.
When I was doing some research last year on casualties related to D-Day, I came across one naval officer who had a fascinating career. And with the National Archives free downloads during lockdown I have been able to piece together his career. While on the face of it he may not have seen active service in the Second World War, he did serve 41 years including two world wars, and rise from Boy Shipwright to an Engineer Lieutenant-Commander.
Henry Southcott Burge was born in Portsmouth on 2 September 1884. He joined the Royal Navy on 28 May 1903 for an initial engagement of 12 years. After initial training as a Boy Shipwright in Portsmouth Dockyard he was rated as Shipwright from July 1903, onboard HMS Duke of Wellington (depot ship), HMS Firequeen, HMS Thames (submarine tender at Sheerness) and HMS Drake (armoured cruiser). On 1 October 1905 he was promoted to Leading Shipwright – at the age of 21 and after only two years service. He then served at HMS Victory II (Portsmouth naval barracks), HMS Emerald and HMS Essex (Armoured Cruiser) before being promoted to Carpenters Mate on 3 December 1909. In this rank he served on HMS Essex, HMS Fisgard (Engineer training, Portsmouth) and HMS Vernon (Torpedo school, Portsmouth). On 1 December 1912 he was promoted to Shipwright 1st Class, and served on HMS Vernon and HMS Cochrane (Armoured Cruiser). Then on 5 October 1913 he was made a Chief Shipweight, in which rank he served on HMS Cochrane, HMS Victory, HMS Attentive (Scout Cruiser) and HMS Arrogant (Submarine depot ship).
On 1 April 1915 he was made an Acting Carpenter, a Warrant rank. He served as such at HMS Pembroke (Chatham naval barracks) for serving on board HMS Lord Clive (monitor), before being confirmed as a Carpenter on 1 April 1916. He then served in this rank for nine years, on HMS Lord Clive, HMS Vivid (Devonport naval barracks) for HMS Hood, HMS Victory, HMS Maidstone, HMS Lucia (both submarine depot ships) and HMS Columbine (stone frigate at Port Edgar on the Forth, depot for Torpedo Boat Destroyers). While at Columbine he was made a Commissioned Shipwright on 1 April 1925. He then served on HMS Columbine, HMS Vulcan, HMS Victory for service on HMS Malaya, HMS Malaya proper, HMS Vivid for trials on HMS Malaya, HMS Victory for service on HMS Barham, HMS Warspite and HMS Victory for service on Warspite.
On 2 September 1934 he was placed on the retired list and promoted to Shipwright Lieutenant, after more than 31 years service. However on 12 September he was recalled and served at HMS Royal Arthur, a training establishment for hostilities only personnel at the Butlins camp at Skegness. On 12 September 1942 he was promoted to Engineer Lieutenant-Commander. However on 21 December 1943 he was admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital in Chatham with lung cancer. His condition did not improve and he was discharged home, where he died on 6 July 1944. He was 59.
A couple of things jump out from Burge’s career. Firstly, 41 years is a long career in anyones book, and that is a lot of different ships and stone frigates. Secondly, it is noticeable how joining a specialised trade in the Royal Navy opens up prospects for promotion – it is a similar situation today with in demand trades like engineers. And thirdly, while Lieutenant-Commander Burge may not have served on D-Day for example, one of the ships that he was a Shipwright on did, and he no doubt trained many sailors who did, particularly in the hostilities-only dominated landing craft. That pretty much sums up total war – everyone playing their part, in the way that they best can.