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Syme, Hugh Randall (1903–1965)

by Richard Refshauge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Hugh Randall Syme (1903-1965), naval officer, bomb disarmer and newspaper proprietor, was born on 20 February 1903 at Kew, Melbourne, third child of Australian-born parents John Herbert Syme, journalist, and his wife Ethel Maud, née King. David Syme was his grandfather. Educated at Scotch College and the University of Melbourne, Hugh rose to become assistant-manager of the family business, which published the Age. At St George's Church of England, Malvern, on 12 May 1931 he married Olive Alyson Clark; they were childless and divorced in 1940.

A keen yachtsman and part-owner of the 82-footer (25 m) Westwind, Syme was appointed probationary sub-lieutenant, Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, on 1 September 1940. He was mobilized sixteen days later and sent to England for training at H.M.S. King Alfred. With John Mould, H. D. Reid and J. H. H. Kessack, he was one of the first Australians chosen to serve in the Royal Navy's Rendering Mines Safe section which had been established to disarm unexploded (and often booby-trapped) bombs and mines scattered across Britain by German aircraft.

Syme was promoted lieutenant on 17 December 1940 and posted to the naval base H.M.S. Vernon, where he quickly gained a reputation for courage and initiative. He was awarded the George Medal in June 1941 for his coolness in dealing with ten mines. In June 1942 he was awarded a Bar to his G.M. for disarming a mine that had lodged deep in clay in a reservoir embankment at Primrose Hill, London. After tunnelling to the mine, he found that the fuse was on the other side, and had to tunnel around it. His action in disarming the weapon in extraordinarily difficult and dangerous conditions saved the neighbourhood from possible flooding.

On 3 March 1943 Syme was awarded the George Cross for carrying out nineteen mine-recovery operations. The most important had taken place in November 1942 at Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, where he defused a new mine known as a Type T. He endured painful electric shocks while insulating the detonator wires and at one stage hung upside down in a mud hole. Other clearance officers found the information he had gained from the Type T invaluable. The award of his G.C. made Syme the most highly decorated officer in the R.A.N. at that time. His expertise was such that, despite the scepticism of the scientists who devised it, he defused a new British magnetic mine, much to their chagrin. Some of them refused to speak to him for months.

Following the deaths of his father and of his uncle Sir Geoffrey Syme, Hugh sailed for Australia in January 1943 and became a trustee of the family company. On 12 March 1943 at the Presbyterian Church, West Hawthorn, he married Joan, the 26-year-old daughter of Delamore McCay. He attempted to return to England, but the R.A.N. decided to avail itself of his experience, and in April 1943 he set up a bomb-disposal section at H.M.A.S. Cerberus, Westernport. The organization was never operationally required because the United States Navy's Mobile Explosive Investigation Unit jealously guarded its control over bomb disposal in the Pacific. Seeing no useful role to play, Syme returned to civilian life in December 1944.

In 1946 he was appointed general manager of the Age. Two years later a public company, David Syme & Co. Ltd, was formed. After overseeing the firm's entry into television in 1956, he continued as general manager until 1963 and as a director until his death. He immersed himself in business matters, becoming a director of the Victorian Broadcasting Network Ltd and Anti-Friction Bearings Ltd, president (1959) of the Australian Newspapers Council and chairman of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association of Melbourne.

A member of the Athenaeum and Yorick clubs, Syme enjoyed motor racing, fishing and shooting. He was also a keen gardener who cultivated rare specimens of orchids. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, he died of a cerebral tumour on 7 November 1965 at Epworth Hospital, Richmond, and was cremated with Anglican rites and full naval honours. His estate was sworn for probate at £106,914.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. Turner, Service Most Silent (Syd, 1955)
  • I. Southall, Softly Tread the Brave (Syd, 1960)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • P. Firkins, Of Nautilis and Eagles (Syd, 1975)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily, 2nd edn, revised and condensed by J. Williams and A. Staunton (Canb, 1986)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 1941, 8 Nov 1965
  • Age (Melbourne), 8, 11 Nov 1965.

Citation details

Richard Refshauge, 'Syme, Hugh Randall (1903–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/syme-hugh-randall-11815/text21141, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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