Admiral Sir Anthony Monckton Synnot

Chief of Navy (1976-1979)

Anthony Monckton Synnot was born on 5 January 1922 at Corowa, New South Wales. While he was young the family moved to Albury, New South Wales and then to a remote sheep property at Eskdale, near Longreach in Queensland. From age 12, Anthony (Tony) was educated at Geelong Grammar in Melbourne, and for the next five years he was immersed in school life, only visiting his family at Christmas. Synnot was a solid achiever at school and excelled at tennis, cricket and golf.

In early 1939, at age 17, Synnot joined the RAN as a Special Entry Cadet Midshipman. He was sent to Britain for training at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and after a compressed seven month course he graduated as a Midshipman in 1940. At Dartmouth he had gained course prizes for signals, torpedo, anti-submarine and his specialty gunnery.

Synnot was promoted Sub Lieutenant in late 1940 while serving on HMAS Canberra. He then joined HMAS Stuart in the Mediterranean under Captain Hector Waller [q.v.]. After a near miss from attacking aircraft early in 1941, Captain Waller [q.v.] asked his Midshipman ‘What do you think of that then?’ to which Synnot replied, ‘Very exciting, Sir’. Much more ‘excitement’ followed as Synnot served on Stuart at the Battle of Matapan and during the evacuations of Greece and Crete. He was mentioned in dispatches for bravery when ferrying soldiers off the beach at Tolon, Greece, in strong wind, heavy surf and under shellfire. Synnot later served on board HM Ships Barham and Punjabi. He was onboard Punjabi when it was sunk in collision with the battleship HMS King George V in Arctic waters in 1942. Paddling in the mid-winter conditions, covered in engine oil, he was fortunately rescued by another destroyer. Later in life, he joked that the bill for the oil-fouled sheets where he slept on board that destroyer followed him for the rest of the war. Synnot joined HMAS Quiberon in July 1942 and remained on board until December 1944. He was promoted Lieutenant in April 1942 and became the ship’s second-in-command at age 22. After leaving Quiberon he qualified as a specialist Gunnery Officer at HMS Excellent, Whale Island, Portsmouth.

After the war he served in the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney on staff at Navy Office, and as an instructor at HMS Excellent, being promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1950 and Commander in 1954. In 1956 he commanded HMAS Warramunga during the Malayan Emergency and as a guard ship for the yachting at the Melbourne Olympic Games. Promoted to Captain in 1960, Synnot commanded HMAS Vampire in operations in south east Asian waters, including a visit to Saigon in 1962. He left Vampire to become Chief of Naval Staff for the Royal Malaysian Navy, a position which he held from 1962 to 1965. His efforts helped establish a strong naval tradition in Malaysia, and his service was recognised when he was awarded the Order of Chivalry 3rd class, Johan Mangku Negara, (3rd Grade of Darjah Yang Mulia Pangkuan Negara). His tact, judgment and energy were all instrumental in his success in this complex environment. Unfortunately his stay in Malaysia was interrupted by the illness of his wife, Virginia. When she subsequently died in Australia, Synnot’s sister Kitty Howson was able to care for his two young daughters while their father was at sea.

In 1966 Synnot commanded HMAS Sydney on two voyages to South Vietnam, carrying troops and equipment in support of the Australian Army. On one of these occasions he successfully berthed the 698 foot (213m) long aircraft carrier in Sydney without tugs - his ship handling skills receiving a loud cheer from the ship’s company. The following year he commanded the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne during the introduction of the A-4 Skyhawk and Grumman S-2 Tracker aircraft. In the words of Vice Admiral (Sir) Richard Peek, ‘the flagship never had a better, more efficient and more loved Captain’.

During 1968 Synnot attended the Imperial Defence College in London. He married his second wife Anne Colvin, the daughter of Admiral (Sir) Ragnar Colvin, RN, [q.v.] in the same year before returning to Canberra. He was promoted to Rear Admiral and appointed Second Naval Member in 1970, and subsequently Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. In 1973 his last sea-going command was as Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet.

Returning to Navy Office Canberra in 1974, he served as Director Joint Staff on the Defence Force Staff, and then as Assistant Chief of the Defence Force Staff. He was prominent in organising relief operations after Darwin was devastated by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas morning 1974.

Synnot was promoted to Vice Admiral and appointed Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) in November 1976. During the same year he was also awarded an AO. While CNS he ensured the RAN developed an awareness of the decision making processes within the Australian government and administration. He emphasised good planning and staff work, and improved systems and relationships between the military and public service arms of the Department of Defence. Although he recognised the need to buy the United States built Guided Missile Frigates (FFGs) as a stop gap measure, he consistently advocated renewal of an Australian in-country shipbuilding effort.

In April 1979 he was promoted to Admiral and became the Chief of Defence Force Staff, a position he held until his retirement in 1982. He initially persuaded the Government that the replacement of the aging aircraft carrier Melbourne was a high priority, and was involved in the decision to buy HMS Invincible. Later, he criticised the Fraser government’s economic cutbacks when they ‘rescheduled’ a range of re-equipment programmes, including the purchase of a replacement aircraft carrier for the RAN. ‘Rescheduling’ was a euphemism used to hide the loss of defence force capability without directly over-ruling the individual Defence Force and Service Chiefs. Despite such setbacks Synnot was always courteous, patient and thoughtful. His approach was not adversarial, but rather he sought consensus through systematic effort.

After retiring from the RAN he became Chairman of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, a post that he relinquished in 1985. Survived by his second wife Anne and his four children Jane, Amanda, Zoe, and Mark, he died on 4 July 2001 after a long illness and a number of years suffering total blindness.

Synnot was one of the most highly respected officers ever to serve in the Australian Defence forces. He had a presence that simply commanded without ever raising his voice or using theatricals. From an early age he was destined for the highest ranks in the Australian Defence Force, despite the determination of a select group of politicians and defence bureaucrats to promote only ‘safe’ people to senior rank. With strategic foresight and determination he started a program to improve the equipment capability of the Australian armed forces that would enable Australia to play a significant military role as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region.

Gregory P Gilbert