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Thyer, James Hervey (Jim) (1897–1977)

by Alan Warren

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

James Hervey Thyer (1897-1977), by Murray Griffin, 1942

James Hervey Thyer (1897-1977), by Murray Griffin, 1942

Australian War Memorial, ART26431

James Hervey (Jim) Thyer (1897-1977), army officer, was born on 30 September 1897 at Natimuk, Victoria, fifth of seven children of South Australian-born parents James Thyer, police constable, and his wife Isabella, née Hervey. Educated at Perth Modern School, Jim entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in February 1915. He graduated in 1917 and was commissioned lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, on 1 January 1918. In April-November he trained in Britain; following the Armistice, he served with signals units in France. Returning to Australia in December 1919, he transferred to the Staff Corps in October 1920. He held a series of staff and regimental appointments, and rose to captain (1926) and major (1936). At St George's Church of England, Queenscliff, Victoria, on 7 November 1928 he had married Marjorie Chalk Firth.

Five ft 8½ ins (174 cm) tall, with a florid complexion, hazel eyes, brown hair and a calm disposition, Thyer was seconded to the A.I.F. on 4 April 1940. Within three months he was promoted lieutenant colonel and given command of the 8th Divisional Signals. He reached Singapore in February 1941. In July Major General H. G. Bennett chose him to be the division's general staff officer, 1st grade, and promoted him colonel. Bennett's headquarters was riven by personal and professional feuds. His relationship with Thyer steadily deteriorated.

In mid-January 1942 the soldiers of the 8th Division came into contact with the Japanese who were advancing through southern Malaya. Following the retreat to Singapore on 31 January, the division was sent to defend a vulnerable sector in the island's north-west. When Thyer urged Bennett to consider preparing a reserve line across a narrow neck of land, Bennett accused him of having a 'withdrawal complex'. The Australian force was swamped by the Japanese assault on the night of 8/9 February. Singapore fell on the 15th. Thyer was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his planning and supervision throughout the campaign.

Initially held in captivity at Changi, Thyer refused to tell the Japanese about Australia's defence capabilities, despite their threats to shoot him. He was taken to Formosa (Taiwan) in August 1942, and then to Mukden, Manchuria, where he acted as a spokesman for the prisoners of war. With Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Kappe, he compiled a report on operations in Malaya and Singapore: it concluded that, although units fought 'reasonably well', the A.I.F. 'did not measure up to the task required of it'. In September 1945 Thyer was released and repatriated. For his leadership and courage as a prisoner of war, he was appointed C.B.E. (1947).

Thyer strongly disapproved of Bennett's escape from Singapore on the night of the surrender. Late in 1945 he told a military court of inquiry and a royal commission that the general's conduct was 'unethical'. He transferred to the Retired List on 3 November 1947. Promoted honorary brigadier in 1955, he was colonel commandant, Royal Australian Corps of Signals, in 1957-67. Settling in Adelaide, he completed in 1974 the first volume of a history of that corps. He died on 9 January 1977 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Daw Park, and was cremated. His wife survived him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canb, 1957)
  • F. Legg, The Gordon Bennett Story (Syd, 1965)
  • A. B. Lodge, The Fall of General Gordon Bennett (Syd, 1986)
  • P. Elphick, Singapore (Lond, 1995)
  • J. Wyett, Staff Wallah (Syd, 1996)
  • M. H. Murfett et al, Between Two Oceans (Lond, 1999)
  • J. H. Thyer and C. H. Kappe, Report on Operations of 8th Australian Division AIF in Malaya (Australian War Memorial)
  • Official History 1939-45 War: Records of Lionel Wigmore (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Alan Warren, 'Thyer, James Hervey (Jim) (1897–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thyer-james-hervey-jim-11858/text21229, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 December 2014.

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

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