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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Symes, George William (1896–1980)

by Roger André

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

George William Symes, n.d.

George William Symes, n.d.

George William Symes (1896-1980), army officer and governor's secretary, was born on 12 January 1896 at Minterne Magna, Dorset, England, son of George Symes, sergeant major, Royal Artillery, and his wife Eliza, née Paulley. On leaving Bridport Secondary School, George enlisted in the British Army. Tall and athletic, he showed qualities of leadership and was commissioned in the Durham Light Infantry on 14 June 1915. While serving in the Machine Gun Corps in World War I, he won the Military Cross (1916) for capturing twenty Germans single-handed in a communications trench. In 1918 he was awarded a Bar to his M.C.

After the war, Symes performed staff duties in Britain and India, and rose to major (1938). At St John's Anglican Church, Colaba, Bombay, on 11 December 1939 he married Katherine Bellairs Lucas (d.1961), a South Australian. The outbreak of World War II led to his rapid promotion: by November 1940 he was in England as an acting brigadier. On 11 February 1942 he was promoted acting major general (substantive July 1944) and given command of the 70th Division, which was sent from the Middle East to India. In 1943 the division was broken up in order to provide manpower for Major General Orde Wingate's Special Force, operating behind Japanese lines in Burma. Symes was appointed Wingate's second-in-command.

When Wingate was killed in an air crash in March 1944, Symes was astonished to be passed over as his successor, but bore the set-back with public equanimity. After serving in England (May-November 1944) and India (December 1944-June 1945), he returned to Burma as commander South Burma District.  He was twice mentioned in dispatches. In 1946 he was appointed C.B. and colonel of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Following two commands in England and a career that was distinguished rather than brilliant, he retired from the army in April 1949 and settled in Adelaide.

Symes cut an imposing figure as private secretary (1956-64) in turn to governors Sir Robert George and Sir Edric Bastyan, the latter an old army colleague. A staunch Anglican, a synodsman and a member (1953-80) of the diocesan council, Symes presided (1952-72) over the charitable institution, the Cottage Homes. He was president (1954-57) of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian branch; he contributed articles on South Australian history to its Proceedings and wrote four articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. His full-scale life of Sir Charles Todd remained unfinished. A principal founder (1956) of the National Trust of South Australia, he was also an inaugural director (1954-78) of Santos Ltd.

On 30 March 1967 at St Peter's Church of England, Box Hill, Melbourne, Symes married a widow, Kathleen Cavenagh Champion de Crespigny, née Cudmore, grand-daughter of J. F. Cudmore. They lived at Tennyson, Adelaide. Survived by his wife, he died on 26 August 1980 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Hospital, South Terrace, and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. He bequeathed money to the State branch of the R.G.S.A. for an award for historical research. In 1982 a memorial to George and Katherine Symes was dedicated in the chapel of the York and Lancaster Regiment, Sheffield Cathedral, England.

Select Bibliography

  • Collected Papers of George W. Symes 1896-1980 (Adel, 1981)
  • Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, 1979
  • National Trust of South Australia, Annual Report, 1980, and Newsletter, Oct 1980
  • Adelaide Church Guardian, Oct 1980
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28 Aug, 1 Sept 1980
  • Times (London), 4, 9, 13 Sept 1980
  • Symes papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • Symes diaries (Imperial War Museum, London)
  • private information.

Citation details

Roger André, 'Symes, George William (1896–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 10 August 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

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