Captain Ronald John Robertson

Captain Ronald John Robertson

Ronald John Robertson (1916-1980), naval officer was born on 8 August 1916, at Queenscliff, the son of Mrs Roberson and the late Captain DJ Robertson (AIF) of Queenscliff, Victoria. As a child, John, as he was known, developed a love of the sea growing up watching ships entering and leaving Port Phillip Bay. He subsequently entered the Royal Australian Naval College in 1930 as a 13-year old Cadet Midshipman. There he excelled both academically and in sport, gaining his colours in rugby, hockey, rowing and athletics and winning the Governor-General’s Cup for individual sporting prowess.

On Passing Out he was awarded ‘maximum time’, the Otto Albert prize for seamanship, as well as prizes for mathematics, physics and chemistry. He was subsequently appointed Midshipman on 1 May 1934 and posted to HMAS Australia (II) which, at that time, was tasked with conveying the Duke of Gloucester home to England. After arriving in the United Kingdom Australia (II) proceeded to join the Royal Navy’s First Cruiser Squadron operating in the Mediterranean. In 1936 Midshipman Robertson joined the cruiser HMS London before attending additional training courses in England.

On 1 January 1937 Robertson was confirmed in the rank of Sub Lieutenant and in August he returned to Australia for leave prior to joining HMAS Canberra (I). In November 1938 he was promoted to Lieutenant and was selected to undertake specialist communications training in England while attached to HMS Victory. Due to the threat of impending war with Germany the course was cut short and he was consequently posted to the destroyer HMS Malcolm. In Malcolm Robertson distinguished himself during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in May-June 1940 earning a Distinguished Service Cross for ‘outstanding zeal, patience and cheerfulness’ and ‘for never failing to set an example of wholehearted devotion to duty’. He was also mentioned in dispatches for ‘good services in operations off the Dutch, Belgian and French coasts while serving in HMS Malcolm and as signal officer to Captain D.16’.

A brief posting to HMS Badger followed before Robertson joined the destroyer HMAS Napier as part of the commissioning crew in November 1940. He remained in Napier as the Signal Officer to the 7th Flotilla until September 1942 during which time he saw service in English home waters, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean, where, at that time, control of the sea was being hotly contested between Allied and Axis forces. Following a number of serious Allied reversals Napier played an active roll in the evacuation of Crete rescuing hundreds of Allied soldiers in two successive operations. Throughout those operations Napier came under determined aerial attack and was damaged by several ‘near misses’ necessitating a period in dock for repairs. Later, in the closing months of 1941, the destroyer took part in the resupply of besieged Tobruk as well as routinely providing protection to Mediterranean and Red Sea convoys.

In September 1942, Lieutenant Robertson temporarily joined HMS Hecla before taking passage back to Australia where he arrived in November. There he was appointed to Navy Office in Melbourne where he served in the Directorate of Signal Communications until April 1944. On completion of that appointment he returned to the United Kingdom for duties on the Staff of the Allied Naval Commander of the Expeditionary Force to France later serving in command of a mobile naval communications unit destined for Kiel in Germany.

November 1944 saw Robertson promoted to Acting Lieutenant Commander and fly to Manus Island in the Pacific theatre to take up the appointment as Flag Lieutenant to Commodore HB Farncomb, DSO, RAN, and as squadron Communications Officer. He was present at Lingayen Gulf in HMAS Australia (II) and served variously in HMA Ships Shropshire and Hobart (I) during further operations in the Philippines. During that campaign he was again mentioned in dispatches for ‘gallantry, skill and devotion to duty while serving in HMAS Shropshire in the successful assault operations in the Lingayen Gulf, Luzon Island’. Robertson’s war service concluded onboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay where he was present at the signing of the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945.

Following the conclusion of World War II Robertson continued to serve at sea in Shropshire and was confirmed in the rank of Lieutenant-Commander in March 1946. In June 1947 he was appointed as Officer-in-Charge of the RAN Signals School at HMAS Cerberus and on promotion to Commander in June 1950 he was appointed Executive Officer of the naval air station HMAS Albatross at Nowra, NSW at a time when Australian naval aviation was still in its formative years.

In April 1952 Commander Robertson was appointed as the executive officer in the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III) in which he served during the atomic tests that took place off the Monte Bello Island group later that year and during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation naval review at Spithead, United Kingdom, in 1953. Service as the Executive Officer to Commodore JC Morrow, CBE, DSO, DSC, RAN, followed at the Royal Australian Naval College then situated in HMAS Cerberus.

Robertson was appointed in command of the Grimsby Class sloop HMAS Swan (II) when it recommissioned on 10 February 1956. Swan (II) was primarily used as a cadet training ship but was also fitted out as a survey vessel. Promotion to the rank of Captain on 30 June 1956 saw Robertson subsequently appointed Chief Staff Officer to the Flag Officer in Charge of Eastern Australia, a position he held between July 1956 and July 1958. At that juncture he was appointed Captain (F), 1st Frigate Squadron in the fast anti-submarine frigate HMAS Queenborough. Robertson served only briefly in Queenborough before being selected to stand by the new Daring Class destroyer HMAS Vendetta (II), then under construction at Williamstown Naval Dockyard, Victoria.

Vendetta (II) commissioned under Robertson’s command on 26 November 1958 and quickly formed part of the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve, the role of which was to deter communist aggression in South East Asia. Robertson remained in Vendetta (II) until November 1960 at which time he joined Navy Office as the Director of Plans. In the intervening period he was appointed an honorary Aide-de-camp to His Excellency the Governor-General of Australia.

Captain Robertson in his day cabin in the Daring Class destroyer HMAS Vendetta (II).

In January 1962 Captain Robertson was loaned to the Royal Navy to attend the Imperial Defence College in London and to undertake the ‘Long Tactical Course’ held in early 1963. He returned to Australia in May that year and was subsequently appointed the Director of Reserves in Navy Office before assuming command of the RAN flagship HMAS Melbourne (II) in January 1964, one month prior to the aircraft carrier’s tragic collision with the destroyer HMAS Voyager (II) on the night of 10 February 1964.

The first of two Royal Commissions concerning the loss of Voyager (II) was subsequently convened in lieu of an expected Naval Board of Inquiry. The Commissioner in his report criticised Captain Robertson’s actions that night despite the fact there was no evidence to support that criticism. Without the benefit of a trial by Courts Martial, Robertson was dismissed his ship and posted to the shore establishment HMAS Watson, prompting his resignation from the RAN after 34 years of loyal service. In resigning Robertson demonstrated his high principles at the injustice of that criticism but in doing so he sacrificed all financial entitlements under the Defence Forces Retirement Benefit Fund. The second Royal Commission held in 1968 exonerated Captain Robertson of any blame, finding that the responsibility for the disaster lay with Voyager (II).

Although too late to recover a once promising career, some compensation was granted for the loss of his retirement benefits. Many felt that Captain Robertson had been let down by the Navy and in subsequent years this single event continued to have a major impact on the Navy and its values. It was an unfortunate and premature end to Robertson’s otherwise remarkable career.

Captain Robertson's decorations and medals including a Distinguished Service Cross and a Mention in Dispatches
Captain Robertson's decorations and medals including a Distinguished Service Cross and a Mention in Dispatches for service during World War II

In civilian life Captain Robertson worked as a Personnel Manager at Farmers and Graziers and then for Dalgety and Co before retiring and returning to the sea in a 41 foot yacht in which he sailed the islands to the north of Australia. Captain Robertson, DSC, RAN (Ret'd) died on 17 July 1980.

By John Perryman

Captain RJ Robertson, DSC, RAN, captured on canvas.