Professor David Syrett

Naval and military historian
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The Independent Online

Speeding down the Hudson Parkway in New York, the driver with foot either hard on gas or brake, hand pressed down forcefully on horn, and language to match, you might think you could only be in the delicate care of a New York cabbie. Except that this was a "sightseeing tour" conducted by David Syrett, the Distinguished Professor of History of Queens College, New York, where he spent almost his entire career as a military historian. But that would suggest that his interest and influence were similarly constrained, and this judgement would be as wrong as deducing occupation from driving.

David Syrett, military historian: born White Plains, New York 8 January 1939; Distinguished Professor of History, Queens College, City University of New York 2000-04; twice married (three sons); died Leonia, New Jersey 18 October 2004.

Speeding down the Hudson Parkway in New York, the driver with foot either hard on gas or brake, hand pressed down forcefully on horn, and language to match, you might think you could only be in the delicate care of a New York cabbie. Except that this was a "sightseeing tour" conducted by David Syrett, the Distinguished Professor of History of Queens College, New York, where he spent almost his entire career as a military historian. But that would suggest that his interest and influence were similarly constrained, and this judgement would be as wrong as deducing occupation from driving.

David Syrett was born in 1939 in White Plains, New York, into high American academic circles, the son of Harold Syrett, a noted historian of Alexander Hamilton, an important, sometimes underrated figure of the early American republic. David assisted his father in the editing of some of his 27 volumes of Hamilton papers, learning skills he would later put to good use.

This suggests a conventional Wasp academic upbringing, a stereotype which patently did not fit David. For a start he suffered from severe dyslexia which he struggled hard to overcome, gaining bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University. Perhaps he gained an early insight into the sea, ships and the people who manage to use it either for a living or as an instrument of state policy by his youthful full-time employment as a Maine lobster fisherman. It certainly was to give him unusual understanding of his later field of study.

Syrett switched academic horses to University College London, receiving his doctorate after studying under Professor Ian Christie. His chosen topic - the provision of transatlantic transports during the American War of Independence - was to introduce him to one of the two strands of his subsequent work.

Eighteenth-century naval history was to be an abiding interest and led to a prodigious output of publications: books, edited papers and articles. Amongst these are The Royal Navy in American Waters 1775-1783 (1989) and his first volume of papers for the Navy Records Society on the British capture of Havana in 1762 ( The Siege and Capture of Havana, 1970). In support of this, he was a frequent visitor to Britain, becoming well known in the Public Record Office and his many other places of archival research.

But this was not the work of a quiet, mousy archival researcher. At Queens, where he began teaching in 1966, two things distinguished his classes in military history: the varied nature of the students and their lively, academically enquiring manner. The former was a reflection of an open admission policy - the latter of the quality of Syrett's teaching, vivacious but very rigorous.

All of this would have been sufficient to have ensured his reputation and advancement to the rare honour of Distinguished Professor, attained in 2000, but he also gained prominence in another field, an unusual achievement for most historians, as he developed a considerable interest in the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War and, in particular, the application of codebreaking-derived intelligence to the long struggle against German submarines.

Syrett's assiduous research and rigorously applied analyses set him apart from all but a handful of scholars who had sometimes been rather too ready to accept the mystique of Ultra rather than the reality. He was able to demonstrate through a book ( The Defeat of the German U-boats: the battle of the Atlantic, 1994), two volumes of edited material from the British Operational Intelligence Centre and, most importantly, a series of convoy action monographs that, although Ultra was important, it was not the panacea that many had discerned after the dramatic revelations of its existence in the mid-1970s.

His first marriage to Betsey was prematurely terminated by her death. He later married another historian at Queens College, Elena Frangiakis. Together they became familiar figures on the London historical scene, staying for several months each year in their home in Ealing, and being habitués of the tearoom at the PRO.

Two of David Syrett's best-known characteristics were informality of dress and keen sense of humour. You saw him attired but rarely in a jacket and tie. At one formal occasion, he donned both under protest, then overheard two colleagues placing a wager on how long both would survive the end of the event. Estimates were in seconds. So as to confound them, he kept the garments on for some hours.

Naval history has lost someone who operated with facility in two domains twice. He was a clear expert in not one field but two and he operated in two nations, at ease in each. He combined unusual academic ability with a great sense of being an unusual character, not merely quirky (although he could be) but a thoroughly human and inspiring person. The French have an appropriate name for this - un numéro.

Jock Gardner

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