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Last Updated: Monday, 2 July 2007, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Aboard an Admiralty Made Coffin
Jimmy Robart, 92, from Barra, served six years in the Royal Navy as a surgeon lieutenant.

He spent four years at sea on an Armed Merchant Cruiser - a type of vessel which earned the nickname Admiralty Made Coffins.

Here Mr Robert, a retired GP, tells of his experiences during World War II.

The D-Day landings at Normandy
Following dangerous crossings of the North Atlantic and a stint in the Indian Ocean, Mr Robart found himself in Invergordon amid preparations for the D-Day Landings at Normandy

The P&O liner Ranpura was on her way to Australia when war broke out.

She was requisitioned by the Admiralty and found herself in Calcutta being fitted with armour plating and mounted with 6in guns.

Her sister ships, Ranchi, Rajputana and Rawalpindi, were also taken over about this time.

I joined HMS Ranpura in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she was one of the North Atlantic Escort Force on convoy duty.

The ship's company of about 400 men consisted of a few Royal Navy officers and ratings brought back from retirement.

Most of the other officers were Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) some of whom were taken over with the ship at the outset.

There was a number of east coast fisherman, Royal Fleet Reservists (RFR) or volunteers, Jacks and Patiences from Avoch, Buchans and Criggies from Peterhead being a few of them.

Many of the stewards, firemen, greasers, six Chinese carpenters, an Indian curry cook and an African laundry man stayed with the ship as she entered war-time service.

The rest of us were young volunteers and members of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR).

Our chances of surviving such attacks was nil - but our resistance might possibly let the merchant ships scatter so that at least a few of them might get through to the UK

We were a happy ship not taking too serious a view of the strict naval discipline.

Merchant ships crossing the Atlantic were first gathered in the Bedford Basin, the large inner harbour of Halifax.

Every week or so, 40 or more ships would sail out to be marshalled into nine parallel columns under the command of the commodore, a senior Royal Navy or Merchant Navy officer, sailing in one of the larger merchant vessels.

We then took up station in the centre of the convoy, our main duties being to keep in touch with Admiralty and to afford some form of protection against surface attack by the German light pocket battleships which roamed these northern waters.

Our chances of surviving such attacks was nil - but our resistance might possibly let the merchant ships scatter so that at least a few of them might get through to the UK.

Our 6in guns previously belonged to HMS Bonaventure built in the 1890s and were no match for the German weaponry.

Once the convoy was halfway over, we entered the "killing zone" where the u-boats played havoc amongst the merchant ships.

Winston Churchill during World War II
Later, Winston Churchill declared that this affair proved the turning point of the war

We were soon joined by a strong force of destroyers and corvettes which did well escorting the convoy until it reached the safety of home waters.

Ranpura then left the convoy and turned north for Iceland to refuel, rest and to wait for a convoy outward bound for Halifax.

Sixty-six years ago almost to the day as I write this, we joined convoy OB 314 bound for Halifax.

The anti-submarine escort, HMS Bulldog, a destroyer and several corvettes were still with the convoy.

Almost as soon as we joined the ships the u-boats started to attack and two ships were torpedoed close to us, one quickly ablaze.

Enigma capture

It was heart-rending to hear the cries of the burned and injured crew.

I hoped that they might be picked up by the rescue ship, one of the convoy being appointed each day for this duty.

Sometimes, no sooner had they performed their act of mercy, than they themselves were torpedoed.

We were under attack for three days.

On 9 May, the corvette HMS Aubretia had a very close contact on a u-boat.

She dropped her depth charges which quickly brought up U110.

HMS Bulldog immediately prepared to ram her when the conning tower opened and the entire crew abandoned ship.

Bulldog sent over a party who went down into the submarine returning with many articles of equipment including the code books and the Enigma machine.

Cromarty. Picture by Iain Maclean
Mr Robert was posted to Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth

The incident was treated as most secret in the hope that the German High Command would not learn of their important loss.

Later, Winston Churchill declared that this affair proved the turning point of the war.

The very high loss of merchant ships had Britain nearly to her knees but after this, the u-boat menace gradually lessened and more essential foods and war supplies began to reach the UK again.

As more and better naval vessels were built, our type of ship was assigned to other duties such as trooping and we worked in the Indian Ocean.

We returned to the UK to Invergordon where we acted as accommodation ship for several hundred Royal Marines practising beach landings in the nearby Moray Firth prior to the real thing on D-Day.

About 50 merchant ships were requisitioned to become Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs). Fifteen of those were lost to enemy action.

No wonder that they were called Admiralty Made Coffins.

This short article would not be complete without mention of HMS Jervis Bay and the heroic fight of Captain Fogerty Fegan and his men against the much superior pocket battleship the Admiral Scheer.

His actions allowed many of the merchant ship of convoy HX84 to escape before they themselves were sunk.

Fogarty Fegan, who went down with his ship, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Shortly after this, as we were setting off to link up with another convoy, news came through that another two AMCs had been lost.

It was Sunday and as we stood at church service on the main deck singing.

As the line "for those in peril on the sea" drifted away over the cold grey waters of the Atlantic I am sure there were more than I wondering whether our luck would hold.

I was proud to have served my time at sea in a Merchant Navy ship and to have known and respected so many of its fine brave officers and men.


SEE ALSO
School stages major Navy tribute
02 Jul 07 |  Highlands and Islands

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