Extract from autobiography of Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey RobsonExtract from autobiography of Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Robson
Extracted by Rorie G S Grieve on 19 June 2008 from:
MY NAVAL LIFE
The autobiography of
SIR GEOFFREY ROBSON
K.B.E., C.B., D.S.O., D.S.C.
(Extractors’ notes: This unpublished memoir is held in the Churchill Archive at Cambridge and copyright, permission being required before any publication. The material is extracted from a plastic-spiral bound, photocopied document covering the whole of Sir Geoffrey’s career, with some photocopied photographs. The Churchill Archives index refers to these papers as “The memoirs of Vice-Admiral Sir William Robson” whilst the document itself refers to him as Geoffrey – his forenames were, I believe, William Geoffrey Arthur.
Sir Geoffrey describes the commissioning of H.M.S. Kandahar on page 28 and describes his return to Alexandria, after her loss, on page 53. On page 31, prior to the Force K period, Sir William describes, inter alia, an April 1940 refit at Hull to strengthen the framing of the forward section: “There was tremendous weight there, with two double mountings of 4.7” guns as well as all the bridge structure and the director, and this was obviously too much for the forward frames”. On page 38 he describes sailing from Aden to Bombay for a 10 day refit. A copy of the familiar starboard side photograph of a camouflaged Kandahar is described as “Alexandria 1941”. The period of relevance to Kandahar’s service from her joining Force K up to her loss is covered on pages 50 to 53 and is included here in full. At no point does Sir William refer to the Board of Inquiry. )
Our next assignment was a bombardment of Bardia which was a collecting point for the enemy’s stores: we were told it was very successful. A few days later, a small force of cruisers and destroyers carried out a sweep towards Malta without drawing any reaction from the enemy, although their reconnaissance planes had us reported continuously. When the rest of the force turned back to Alexandria, the Kandahar and the Kimberley went on to Malta to operate with Force K, consisting of the Aurora, Penelope, Lance and Lively, which had done great work, sinking many supply ships. Whenever a convoy was reported at sea, we tried to intercept and return by daylight. By this time, the enemy were pretty jumpy after their convoys had been so knocked about by Force K, and they returned to harbour as soon as we were reported at sea. For instance, there was one important enemy convoy that we knew of which consisted of three cruisers and that had several times started for Tripoli but turned back.
Eventually Malta was getting so short of fuel that we could no longer go to sea after these convoys, as an important force of four destroyers was on its way from the United Kingdom to Malta and then onward to Alexandria and the fuel was required for them. This force was so loaded up on deck and everywhere else that they did not particularly want any action with any enemy. However, this is just what happened. The three Italian cruisers who had been our target for some ten days were trying to creep along the coast of North Africa and elude our searches when they met the four destroyers under the command of the Sikh making for Malta on opposite courses. Two of the Italian cruisers were sunk by torpedo and guns and the other cruiser was damaged. The latter turned for Sicily with its two accompanying destroyers. This was a very fine action and Sikh’s force were loudly cheered when they got into Malta. Amongst this force was the Dutch destroyer, the Isaak Squeers.
In early December 1941, our Force K steered east to meet the cruisers and destroyers from Alexandria who were escorting a much needed convoy of supplies for Malta. We were to take the convoy over and escort them back to Malta. As luck would have it, the Italians were doing just the same thing. They were escorting a vital convoy for Tripoli, with petrol and ammunition for Rommel’s advance eastwards into south Cyrenaica. At that time the front line was between Tripoli and Benghazi – Benghazi being in our hands. The Italian battleships, as well as cruisers and destroyers, were at sea, escorting or supporting, and together made up a considerable force.
We got our convoy into Malta and were in the middle of oiling when we got a message from the Admiral to disconnect and go to sea and await Neptune, whose Captain was Senior Officer, who would give us orders. I, as Senior Officer of the destroyers, declined to go until I had heard from the Captain of the Neptune what the plan was, so I waited for him in his ship.
The enemy convoy, which we knew all about, had continued on to Tripoli but their battleships and some of the cruisers had turned back. It was thus quite a feasible proposition to attack this convoy, and the Captain of Neptune’s plan was to steer for Tripoli until across the 100 fathom line and then to steer east as the convoy was making landfall in that area.
Our three cruisers were in line ahead and the Kandahar, with the four other destroyers, was astern of the cruisers. It was a night of no moon. As we crossed the 100 fathom line at 30 knots, there were explosions ahead of us and I was sure they were mines. I therefore led the destroyers round to port to avoid running into the field. Then I saw splashes alongside the cruisers and decided that I was wrong and that these were due to night bombing. At that time, as far as we knew, no airforce had the equipment for night bombing.
A moment later I noticed the leading ship, Neptune, had a bad list and decided it must have been mined after all, so I took the destroyers out. Not long after, Neptune stopped, and Penelope and Aurora came out of the mine field, both of them damaged. Aurora went on to Malta at 10 knots, which was her maximum speed, while Penelope communicated with Neptune.
Eventually, I was told by Penelope to send a destroyer in to try to tow Neptune out of the mine field. I decided to go myself but, on our way in, we touched off a mine which blew up our aft magazine, so there we were. There was obviously no point in drawing anyone else into the mine field, so I signalled for the Captain of Penelope “Suggest you go”, to which he replied “There is nothing more I can do, God be with you”, and off he went. At about 1 in the morning, Neptune drifted onto another mine and there was an explosion amidships. She was only about one mile away from us. She turned over and sank. Our First Lieutenant lowered our whaler to go to her rescue, forgetting that all the aft part of the Kandahar, which went up in the air when our magazine had blown up, had come down on the ship and holed the whaler, which sank on the way across.
As day broke, there was not a sign of men, debris, oil or anything else, which has always remained a mystery to me. The Captain and some men did get into a Carley float, but they all died except one who was picked up later. With daylight, we could see the coast quite plainly and we made all the preparations we could. Not one of our guns would work, nor would our torpedo tube, so we just had to await events. I made a signal to the Admiral in Malta, saying I was in a good position to observe all that was going on in Tripoli and would report to him. This was by way of telling him that we were still afloat, or bits of us. We could get no reply from Malta, but a ship in the middle of the Atlantic made a signal to us, “I am reading you, make your signal”. It transpired that Malta had refused to reply because we had been reported sunk by the rest of the force and they thought we had been captured with the code book from which I had made the signal.
We then got a reply from Malta in code and I told the signal man to decode it. He replied “But you said throw all the books over the side except the Fleet code”. So the Fleet decode had gone with the rest! We then set to work on a nailbiting crossword puzzle; eventually, we decoded the signal telling us that a aircraft would try to find us an hour before dark and would home the Jaguar on to us. I was not very optimistic.
About an hour after sunrise, first an Italian Savoia and the a Junkers 88 came out and flew round us without attacking. We waited for surface forces to come up, but nothing more happened by daylight. Our aircraft bombed Tripoli very hard all that day and flew over us on the return, giving us a cheerful wave. It was a lovely day with not a cloud in the sky.
The promised aircraft duly arrived an hour before sunset and told us that the Jaguar was on her way. He would patrol around us until later when he would try to home the Jaguar on to us. Suddenly, he reported six Italian destroyers on the lookout for us. They missed us first to the south and then to the north while we sat tight with our fingers crossed. Then at 1 o’clock, he reported they had gone back to Tripoli.
The Jaguar had been told to give up if they had not found us by 1 a.m. However, she went on and found us about 5 a.m. It was blowing about force 6, with a nasty sea. The Captain made one attempt to put his bow against our bow, so that we could jump across, but there was too much risk of damaging his ship, so I told him to lay off to windward and we would abandon ship and swim clear to be picked up. We only lost three men. Meanwhile, the Engineer Officer and I, and two engine room Petty Officers, did all that was necessary, opening all the sea cocks and main inlets, to sink the ship, before we too went over the side.
I found myself alone in the water and the Jaguar started to move off. I had a torch that the Engineer Officer had made watertight for various of us to use to get the men collected around us. Jaguar saw the light and came back and picked me up. Very lucky. We were fortunate, too, in our return passage to Malta, as the visibility was very bad indeed, so we had no trouble from enemy aircraft, which we certainly would have if the conditions had been right.
On our arrival in Malta, the Penelope put us all up and very hospitable they were indeed. But we could obviously not stay long in a seagoing ship, so my old friend, Captain “Shrimp” Simpson, put us u[p in part of his submarines shore accommodation. When he took over as Captain (Submarines) in Malta, he had arranged that each submarine had its own quarters so that, when they returned from patrol, they found everything as they had left it; in this case we took cared that they did. A memorial service for the Neptune and the Kandahar was held the day after we got back, in the dockyard church.
As well as my awards for the Red Sea Campaign and Crete, I was awarded a D.S.C., another honour for the Kandahar.
The Dido came in for a short stay, for what purpose I cannot remember. She sailed for Alexandria after four days with two other destroyers, escorting three merchant ships, and the Captain very kindly gave my fellow survivors and me a passage back. Before leaving, the Admiral at Malta, Admiral Ford, told me he was being relieved in the near future and was going to be the Admiral in Scotland, and that he wanted me as Captain D of the destroyers in that command. I accepted gratefully.
We suffered the usual attacks on the way back, without any damage being done to the convoy or the escorts, and we got into Alexandria just before New Year.
(Extractors’ note: In the event, Captain Robson went to Combined Operations with Lord Louis Mountbatten on his return.)
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