Early life and career
Henry Mackay Burrell was born at Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains district of New South Wales. He was the third child and only son of schoolteacher Thomas Burrell and his wife, Eliza. Henry's father, who had emigrated from England, joined the Australian Imperial Force aged 55 during World War I, seeing active service in Egypt. His grandfather and great-grandfather had served in the Royal Navy. Henry attended Parramatta High School before entering the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, on 1 January 1918, aged 13. A keen sportsman, he competed in rugby union, tennis and hockey, winning colours for hockey. Burrell graduated from the college in 1921 and became a midshipman the next year. He went to sea first aboard the light cruiser HMAS Sydney and then the destroyer HMAS Stalwart. Posted to the United Kingdom for further training in 1924, he served on the light cruiser HMS Caledon and the battleship HMS Malaya. In April 1925, he was promoted to sub-lieutenant, rising to lieutenant by July 1926.
during the Spanish Civil War
After attending a Royal Navy course in 1930, Burrell became a specialist navigator, and saw service aboard the minesweeper HMS Pangbourne, destroyers HMAS Tattoo and Stuart, and cruiser HMAS Brisbane. He married Margaret MacKay at Scots' Church, Melbourne, on 27 December 1933. Burrell was promoted to lieutenant commander in July 1934, and graduated from an advanced navigation course the next year.
Burrell served on exchange with the Royal Navy as navigator aboard the cruisers HMS Coventry and HMS Devonshire, the latter during her tour of duty in the Spanish Civil War. Described as being "egalitarian" and "approachable", his familiarity with ratings earned him the criticism of Devonshire's captain. Burrell, however, believed that a close relationship between officers and men was necessary for the smooth running of a ship. After completing the Royal Navy's staff course in 1938, he returned to Australia and was appointed staff officer (operations) at the Navy Office, Melbourne, in March 1939. It was Burrell's first shore-based position, and he spent the next four months bringing naval sections of the War Book (preparations for war) up to date.