Rear Admiral Ernest Dickerson Sydenham

RADM Sydenham

Ernest Dickerson Sydenham was born in Plymouth, United Kingdom on 30 October 1875 and educated at the Royal Naval Engineering College at Keyham, Devon. Students spent five years living at the college undertaking training in the workshops at the nearby dockyard, then spending a further two years at Greenwich Naval College before being assigned to ships as assistant engineers.

Sydenham was appointed as a probationary assistant engineer in the Royal Navy on 25 June 1896 and confirmed in the rank in June the following year.  During the period 1897-1908 he served as sea in a variety of ships in the Home and Mediterranean fleets. He was promoted to Engineer Lieutenant in July 1901.

He served on the Australia Station during 1909-1913 and was appointed additional to the flagship, the First Class protected cruiser HMS Powerful, and was employed as the Royal Navy coal inspector for mines in Australia and New Zealand. He travelled extensively throughout both countries checking the quality of coal being mined and supervising the contracts for the supply of high quality coal to the Royal Navy ships operating on the Australia Station.

Sydenham returned to the United Kingdom in early 1913. Promoted Engineer Commander on 18 September 1913 he was appointed as the Engineer Officer of the protected cruiser HMS Highflyer and served in her for the four years. Highflyer undertook extensive sea service during World War I. In August 1914 she was allocated to the 9th Cruiser Squadron and soon after war was declared intercepted the Dutch liner Tubantia, returning from South America with a large quantity of gold destined for German banks in London. The liner also had over 100 German reservists onboard and a cargo of grain destined for Germany. Tubantia was escorted into Plymouth, her cargo seized and the German soldiers taken prisoner; some of the first of the war.

Highflyer was then transferred to the Cape Verde station to hunt for the German armed merchant cruiser Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse which had been sighted coaling at Rio de Oro, a Spanish anchorage on the North African coast. On 26 August 1914 Highflyer found the German ship and sank her in an action lasting less than two hours. The cruiser then served off the west coast of Africa and the South Atlantic before transferring the North America and West Indies Station in mid-1917.

Sydenham returned to Britain in June 1917 and after undertaking a number of training courses, including one in the use of oil fuel in ships, he was appointed as the Engineer Officer designate for the new battle cruiser HMS Hood which had been laid down in September 1916.  Sydenham then saw the ship launched in August 1918 and commissioned her on 15 May 1920.

Engineer Commander Sydenham married Maggie Steele Baillie at Christ Church, Sutton, Surrey on 4 July 1919. Also, in the London Gazette of 11 August 1919 he was ‘brought to the notice of the Admiralty for valuable services in the prosecution of the war’. On 31 December 1922 he was promoted Engineer Captain.

Due to the retirement of Rear Admiral Clarkson, the Royal Australian Navy’s Senior Engineer Officer, in late 1922 and a shortage of senior engineer officers to take his place, Sydenham was loaned to the RAN on 22 May 1923. He arrived in Melbourne on 4 June 1923 and became the Director of Engineering in Navy Office as well as the engineering assistant to the 1st Naval Member. He was to serve in this role for the next eight years during which time he  provided invaluable advice to four Chiefs of Naval Staff (Vice Admiral Everett 1921-1923, Rear Admiral Hall-Thompson 1923-1926, Rear Admiral Napier 1926-1929 and Vice Admiral Kerr 1929-1931).

In June 1924 the Australian Government announced a major ship building program with the construction of the sea plane tender HMAS Albatross (laid down in April 1925 at Cockatoo Island, Sydney), the heavy cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Canberra (laid down in England in August and September 1925 respectively) and the two submarines Otway and Oxley which were launched in England in 1926. Sydenham had been in Australia for a year when the announcement was made and was well placed, with the experience he gained commissioning HMS Hood, to oversee this major construction project both in Australia and the United Kingdom.

He also had to maintain the RAN’s World War I legacy fleet of cruisers and destroyers plus the Royal Navy gift of destroyers, minesweepers and J Class submarines. All of this took place against a backdrop of limited financial resources, reduced manpower and rampant unionism at the Cockatoo Island and Garden Island dockyards. In the King’s Birthday Honours List of 1927 (London Gazette, 3 June 1927) he was appointed as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to the RAN.

Sydenham was promoted Engineer Rear Admiral on 4 June 1928 and his tenure with the RAN ended in early 1931. The major ship building project had reached fruition with all five ships now in commission and several of the older ships disposed of or placed in reserve. He was highly respected as a very capable and professional engineer who provided excellent advice to the Naval Board. Sydenham was succeeded by Australian born Engineer Captain Percival Edwin McNeil, RAN. Rear Admiral Sydenham departed Australia on 15 April 1931 and returned to England, via New Zealand, and following a period of leave his appointment in the RAN ceased on 18 October 1931. The following day he was placed on the Royal Navy retired list.

Sydenham and his wife Maggie migrated permanently to New Zealand in 1936 and resided in Westport for many years. Rear Admiral Ernest Sydenham died in Christchurch, New Zealand on 12 June 1952 and was survived by his wife.

Rear Admiral Napier (1st Naval Member) and Rear Admiral Sydenham in 1928 (Photo courtesy of the National Australian Archives)