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Sir Anthony Monckton Synnot (1922–2001)

by John Farquharson

Sir Anthony Monckton Synnot, 1963

Sir Anthony Monckton Synnot, 1963

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L43511

When Admiral Sir Anthony Synnot assumed office as Chief of the Defence Force Staff in 1979, his aim was to get a defence force that was properly balanced – land, sea and air – for Australia’s needs.

By the time he ended his three-year appointment in 1982, he had gone along way towards achieving that objective. And, over the years, he came to be widely acclaimed not only as one of the country’s most outstanding Defence Force chiefs and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, but also as our most outstanding Chief of Naval Staff.

Described by one of his contemporaries as ‘very bright and talented’, Sir Anthony at 57 when he took over as Defence chief in succession to General Sir Arthur MacDonald, was one of the youngest men to command Australia’s armed forces.

A major component of his strategic thinking as Defence Force chief was deterrence - the capability, even against a bigger power, of causing such damage if it attempted to harm Australia’s interests that it would be compelled to weigh carefully the risks it would face before setting out on such a venture. Thus the emphasis was on having a defence force primarily for national purposes which could still join its allies if and when governments of the day might decide that this was necessary.

Admiral Synnot, who has died in Yass, NSW, aged 79, after years of ill-health resulting from a series of strokes, was born at Corowa, NSW, on 5 January 1922, and educated at Geelong Grammar School. He joined the Royal Australian Navy as a special entry cadet midshipman in March 1939 and did his initial training in Britain where among his fellow trainees was the Duke of Edinburgh and the late Rear-Admiral Sir Brian Murray.

His first ship was the cruiser HMAS Canberra before going on to serve during World War II in the destroyer HMAS Stuart at the battle of Matapan and the evacuation of Greece and Crete. He also saw service with the British Navy in the battleship Barham and HMS Punjabi, which was sunk while he was aboard. As a lieutenant, he served for two and a half years in the Australian destroyer Quiberon, of which he became executive officer. During his service Quiberon was on North Atlantic convoy duty as well as being involved in the North African landings. In 1945, he qualified as a specialist gunnery officer and there followed appointments on the staff of gunnery schools, as a gunnery officer afloat and later staff duties at Navy Office in Melbourne.

He was promoted to commander in 1954 and took command of the destroyer HMAS Warramunga in 1956. On promotion to captain in 1960, he took command for two years of the Daring-class destroyer HMAS Vampire. In 1950 he was naval member of the Bridgeford mission to Malaya, which provided advice to the Australian Government on assistance to the British, then engaged in the early stages of the Malayan Emergency. Synnot’s separate report discussing possible naval support was the beginning of an involvement in Malaya/Malaysian affairs, blossoming into him being seconded on loan to command the Royal Malayasian Navy from 1962 to 1965 during the Indonesian confrontation.

Perceived as likely to go to the top, Synnot was dubbed the ‘crown prince’, upon obtaining his captaincy, and on his return from Malaysia attended the Administrative Staff College, Mt Eliza, Victoria. Then it was back to sea in 1966 as commander of the aircraft carrier Sydney before assuming command of HMAS Melbourne in 1967. He spent 1968 in London at the Imperial Defence College and on return to Canberra became director-general of fighting equipment. Promoted Rear-Admiral in 1970, he was appointed chief of naval personnel and in 1971 deputy chief of naval staff, then going on to become fleet commander in 1973.

January 1974 saw him back in Canberra as director joint staff in the Defence Department. Though not publicised at the time, it was in this post that he played a key role in the relief effort put in train in the wake of the Darwin Cyclone Tracey disaster. He took his whole staff to the headquarters of the Canberra-based Natural Disasters Organisation where he quickly marshalled all available naval and air units, while his calm decisiveness ensured efficient, smooth coordination of relevant civil authorities.

When Synnot was appointed Chief of Naval Staff, promoted to Vice-Admiral and made an officer of the Order of Australia (AO), in November 1976 defence reorganisation was on the agenda and he initiated an organisational review of the Navy Office as well as command and control in the RAN. He also drew up priorities for the acquisition, development and retention of essential naval capability, oversighted the RAN’s guided-missile frigate project, from which the guided-missile destroyer project followed. Naval safety was another matter to claim his attention as CNS.

Despite his comparatively brief two-and-a-half-years as CNS, he undoubtedly left his mark upon naval development. However, it was as Chief of the Defence Force Staff, which brought him promotion to Admiral and a knighthood (KBE) in 1979, that Synnot made his greatest impression. In this role, he was able to bring his broad vision for Australian defence into play as he worked to develop strategic policy objectives while also vigorously seeking to build up defence capabilities. As well as being a strong advocate of close defence cooperation with the United States and other countries of the region (though wary where Indonesia was concerned), he fought hard to bring defence issues before the public and so engender a wider understanding of modern defence problems. While promoting the expansion of joint staff work throughout the defence structure, he also worked to improve the relationship between the military and civilian sectors of the defence community.

As defence chief his advocacy was evident in the Government’s decision to acquire F/A 18 fighter aircraft for the RAAF. His arguments and persuasiveness also led to the Government deciding to acquire the British aircraft carrier Invincible as a replacement for HMAS Melbourne, though this was overturned after his retirement. Believing that an aircraft-carrier strike force to be an essential in modern warfare, he went before a parliamentary committee after his retirement, declaring that the Falkland Island conflict had clearly demonstrated the need for such a force. However, his arguments did not prevail, the Government opted to invest in an advanced, long-range conventional submarine force rather than the Invincible purchase, which Synnot  defended as a ‘very cost-efficient buy’. He contended that for submarines, to provide effective defence of fast moving cargo ships over Australia’s long ocean trade routes nuclear vessels were essential. 

When Sir Anthony stepped down as defence chief his service career had spanned 43 years and he was credited with having brought more technology into the Australian armed services than any of his predecessors. To the top level of defence planning and administration, he brought a keen intellect along with a sense of what was achievable in practical terms. With assuredness in command and a genuine concern for all who served under him, went the utmost honesty and personal integrity.

On retirement, Admiral Synnot’s name was mentioned as a possible successor to Sir Zelman Cowen as Governor-General. Nothing came of this, but he did serve a term as chairman of the council of the Australian War Memorial 1982-85, fighting hard for adequate funding and staffing for the memorial, particularly to ensure preservation of records.  Apart from that, his retirement years were spent on his farm ‘Wanna Wanna’, near Queanbeyan, before he moved to another property, ‘Ballymoyer’, near Yass. There he and his second wife, Anne, raised beef cattle and bred carriage horses. Sir Anthony also pursued his interest in competition carriage driving until he suffered his first stroke.

His first wife, Virginia Davenport, whom he married in 1959, died in July 1965. He remarried in May 1968 Anne Colvin (nee Manifold). He is survived by his wife and two daughters (Jane and Amanda) from his first marriage and a stepson, Mark, and stepdaughter, Zoe.

Anthony Monckton Synnot, born 5 January 1922; died 4 July 2001.

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John Farquharson, 'Synnot, Sir Anthony Monckton (1922–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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