Rear Admiral Andrew John Robertson

Andrew John Robertson was born at Kings Norton, near Birmingham, England on 11 April 1925. In 1927 his family migrated to a Soldiers Settlement Block near Walgoolan, Western Australia, where Robertson grew up. He joined the Royal Australian Naval College in early 1939 as a Cadet Midshipman. He was made a Cadet Captain, then Chief Cadet Captain, and awarded his colours for rugby. Upon graduating in 1942, he was awarded ‘maximum time’ (three months early promotion to Lieutenant), the grand aggregate, history, and mathematics prizes as well as the Otto Albert Memorial Prize for seamanship. Robertson was also awarded the prestigious King’s Medal for displaying the most exemplary conduct, performance of duty and good influence amongst his peers.

He first went to sea as a Cadet Midshipman in September 1942, joining the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (II), the flagship of the RAN Fleet. During his time on board the cruiser operated in the Coral Sea, Solomon Islands, and off the east coast of Australia on patrol and convoy distant escort duties. He was promoted Midshipman in January 1943. Robertson spent four months in the destroyer HMAS Warramunga, during June-October 1943, conducting convoy escort duties in the southwest Pacific, before rejoining Australia. In March 1944 he travelled to England by merchant ship for Sub Lieutenant's courses. While undertaking these courses, he was awarded a £10 prize for gaining seven first class certificates in seamanship, navigation, gunnery, torpedoes, signals, air operations and anti-submarine warfare. Robertson later reflected on this time, describing it as “very exciting, with air raids, flying bomb and V2 rocket attacks and the invasion of France”.

Robertson was promoted Sub Lieutenant in May 1944 and in November of that year went to the Mediterranean theatre where he served in the destroyer HMS Kimberley in the Aegean Sea, Greece, Egypt and the Dodecanese Islands.

Robertson (back row, far right) conducted his Sub Lieutenant's courses at HMS Excellent, where he was awarded a prize for gaining seven first class certificates. (Robertson collection)
Robertson (back row, far right) conducted his Sub Lieutenant's courses at HMS Excellent, where he was awarded a prize for gaining seven first class certificates. (Robertson collection)

The area was far from a backwater with the uncertain political situation in Greece which saw frequent violence in the lead up to the Greek Civil War (1946-49) and German forces present in the area, which was mined and littered with coastal gun batteries. Kimberley was active in enforcing the surrender of German forces in the Dodecanese Islands in May 1945. Sub Lieutenant Robertson was granted his watchkeeping certificate in July 1945 and served as navigator in Kimberley as the ship returned to England in August and decommissioned the following month. Promoted Lieutenant on 1 August 1945, he returned to Australia and joined the destroyer HMAS Bataan in December. Bataan had been commissioned in May 1945 but saw no active service in the war and spent her early career in Australian waters. She later served in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force between September 1946 and January 1947. This included a visit to Shanghai in December 1946 where Christmas Day was celebrated. Robertson’s remaining time in Bataan was spent in Australian waters, with the destroyer completing a short deployment to New Caledonia, the New Hebrides and Fiji in April. During this time, Robertson briefly served as the ship’s executive officer under a series of commanding officers.

In August 1947 Robertson transferred to the sloop HMAS Swan, the Flotilla Leader for the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla conducting mine clearance operations in the Great Barrier Reef between 1947 and 1948. Minesweeping was long, arduous and dangerous work as evidenced by the loss of HMAS Warrnambool with four men killed in September 1947. In late 1948, Lieutenant Robertson was given his first command when he took charge of General Purpose Vessel (GPV) 963. GPV 963 was one of two small vessels converted for magnetic minesweeping, and took part in clearing Japanese and American mines around New Ireland in modern day Papua New Guinea.

Lieutenant Robertson was then selected to undertake the long gunnery course in England and commenced his training at HMS Excellent (Whale Island). On completing the course in 1949, he was ranked 1st in his class and awarded the Commander Edgerton Prize. He then returned to Australia and was appointed to HMAS Cerberus in March 1950 for instructor duties at the Gunnery School. A year later, in March 1951, Robertson joined the destroyer HMAS Anzac (II).

Lieutenant Robertson (with sword) accompanies the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Forrest Sherman during an inspection of the HMAS Cerberus Gunnery school, circa 1950. (Robertson Collection)
Lieutenant Robertson (with sword) accompanies the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Forrest Sherman during an inspection of the HMAS Cerberus Gunnery school, circa 1950. (Robertson Collection)

Anzac saw active service in Korean waters during August-September 1951 during which time she conducted aircraft carrier escort duties and fired 1000 rounds of 4.5-inch ammunition at North Korean targets ashore. She returned to Australia in October for a refit and then served in Australian, New Guinea and Solomon Islands waters in 1952. The destroyer returned to the Korean Peninsula in September 1952 for a four month deployment where she was again active in providing naval gunfire support. For his service in Anzac, during her second deployment to Korean waters, Lieutenant Robertson was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (London Gazette, 12 June 1953). The recommendation for his award reads:

He has shown outstanding zeal, energy and devotion to duty in the training of the gunnery team in HMAS Anzac and maintaining the complicated fire control equipment fitted in the ship. In the matter of maintenance of the armament and fire control equipment his expert knowledge and understanding of its proper functioning has been invaluable and he has on many occasions worked exceedingly long hours with the maintainers, regardless of day or night, in remedying defects and getting the whole equipment into efficient operation. The efficiency and constant devotion to duty of this officer have been very large factors in ensuring general operations efficiency in HMAS Anzac. His calmness and disregard of personal danger when most effectively controlling the armament in a relatively prolonged action against an enemy coastal battery of four guns which hotly and accurately engaged HMAS Anzac on 16 November 1952 was most notable.

In late January 1953 Lieutenant Robertson joined the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney as the gunnery officer. In March the carrier sailed to take part in Queen Elizabeth II coronation celebrations in Britain in June, the celebrations included street lining in the Mall in London and the Fleet Review in the Solent. Following these activities the carrier crossed the Atlantic Ocean with ships of the Canadian Fleet, calling at Halifax (Canada), Baltimore (USA), Kingston (Jamaica), Colon (Panama), Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) and Auckland (New Zealand) before arriving in Sydney on 14 August 1953.

Having been promoted Lieutenant Commander on 1 August 1953, Robertson travelled to England in early 1954 and took up his next appointment on the staff of the Australian Naval Liaison Officer in London. After two years in this posting during which he conducted inspections of the building of the carrier HMAS Melbourne (II) and sea trials of the tanker Tide Austral (later HMAS Supply) Robertson completed the Royal Navy Staff Course, in 1956, before returning to Australia and an appointment to the Training and Staff Requirements Division in Navy Office, Melbourne. This posting also carried with it the additional duty of Flag Lieutenant to the Naval Board. Robertson was promoted Commander in December 1957 and in January 1958 took command of the anti-submarine frigate HMAS Quickmatch. During his time in command the frigate operated in Australian and Southeast Asian waters and was awarded the Duke of Gloucester Cup.

In late 1959 he was posted on exchange as the naval planner to the Commander-In-Chief’s Defence Committee based at Phoenix Park in Singapore. This was a busy period and, while the Malayan Emergency was coming to end, British and Australian warships were heavily committed to the Far East Strategic Reserve and South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) exercises. Malaya was also forming its own navy with substantial RAN involvement including its first three chiefs of navy being Australian officers (from 1960-67). Upon return to Australia in 1962, Robertson became the Fleet Operations Officer, embarked in the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and later in Sydney. This was also a very busy period for the RAN with increased Cold War tensions, the continued concern of the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, Soviet influence in Indonesia, major exercises being run in the South China Sea from HMAS Melbourne and ongoing uncertainty regarding the armistice on the Korean Peninsula.

On promotion to Acting Captain in January 1964, Robertson was appointed to Navy Office in Canberra as the Director of Manning and Training. He was confirmed in the rank in June of that year. He remained in this role for three years, during which the RAN underwent major change and expansion, with submarines, new aircraft, and Charles F. Adams class destroyers being introduced, despite severe manpower issues. In January 1967, Captain Robertson took command of the frigate HMAS Yarra as well as command of the First Frigate Squadron of four River class vessels.

Yarra had just completed a refit and conducted lengthy trials of the new digital Ikara anti-submarine system before deploying to Southeast Asia for six months. During this time Yarra conducted trials with RN submarines, including a nuclear powered boat and assisted with the search and rescue of the crew of RAF Shackleton long range patrol aircraft that had ditched at sea west of Sumatra. She also escorted the fast troop transport HMAS Sydney into Vung Tau Harbour, Vietnam in December 1967 where she disembarked over 500 troops of the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. Robertson relinquished command of Yarra in July 1968 and then briefly serving as Captain RAN Trials Team (HMAS Kuttabul) before moving to Canberra, in October that year, as leader of the Joint Policy Staff (Department of Defence). While in Canberra he was also Aide-de-camp to the Governor-General (first Baron Casey, and then Sir Paul Hasluck).

In 1972 Captain Robertson attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. Following completion of this course he took command of the fast troop transport HMAS Sydney in January 1973, carrying the additional responsibility of Commander First Australian Transport Squadron. Troop transport duties to South Vietnam had ended in December 1972, but soon after assuming command,Sydney deployed to Southeast Asia to provide aid. Later in the year Sydney took a battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment and naval helicopters to an exercise in the North Island of New Zealand. In July 1973 Robertson was advised that Sydney would not undertake a refit at the end of the year and instead the ship would be decommissioned. On 12 November 1973 Sydney was ‘paid off’ from the RAN and her crew dispersed to other units. Andrew Robertson was promoted Commodore and took command of the Naval Air Station - Nowra (HMAS Albatross) in January 1974. His seniority as a Commodore was back-dated to 1971.

Captain Robertson conducts an inspection of Air Training Division No 2.
Captain Robertson conducts an inspection of Air Training Division No 2.

Albatross was a very busy command with numerous squadrons based at the establishment and flying operations being conducted day and night. Aircraft from Albatross were also regularly embarked in the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne for exercises and deployments. In mid-May 1974 the carrier air group embarked for the first large scale tri-service exercise on Australian soil, Exercise KANGAROO ONE. On Christmas Eve of that year Darwin was devastated by Cyclone Tracy and air assets were sorely needed to provide support. In addition to the helicopters embarked in Melbourne which took part in Operation NAVY HELP DARWIN, HS 748 electronic warfare aircraft from Albatross conducted 14 flights into Darwin carrying in 23 tonnes of supplies and equipment and evacuating 485 civilians, many of them the wives and children of naval personnel from the Darwin naval base HMAS Coonawarra. HMAS Albatross personnel were well versed in conducting humanitarian activities, as the establishment had provided extensive support to the Shoalhaven region during the great flood of 1974. Hundreds of residents were evacuated to safety by Albatross units during the flood, including many who were stuck of the roofs of inundated housing.

On the night of 5 January 1975, a 10,000 tonne merchant ship, the Lake Illawarra, collided with the Tasman Bridge over the Derwent River, Hobart. A portion of the bridge collapsed, sinking the ship and a number of cars on the bridge also plunged into the river. A RAN Clearance Diving Team was urgently requested to assist with recovery operations and was flown by an HS 748 to Hobart; arriving less than 12 hours after the tragedy. In 1975 Melbourne took part in Exercise RIMPAC in Hawaiian waters, and the first of the Navy’s new Sea King anti-submarine warfare helicopters arrived from England in crates, to be assembled at Nowra. Grumman Trackers were also deployed to Broome to conduct surveillance patrols off the North West coast. Trackers were also sent to conduct patrols of Bass Strait oil installations. The Naval Aviation Museum in Nowra (later renamed Fleet Air Arm Museum) was initiated around this time and would later be opened by Admiral Sir Victor Smith, then Chief of Defence Force. Robertson had a central role in the establishment of the Fleet Air Arm Museum and a gallery within the museum would later be named in his honour.

Commodore Robertson became the Director General of Naval Operations and Plans, in Navy Office in January 1976. In December that year he took up the position of Head Australian Defence Staff in the Australian High Commission, in London as an acting Rear Admiral, before being promoted Rear Admiral on 24 January 1977. The links between Australia and the United Kingdom were still quite strong at this time, and while purchases of British equipment by the ADF had slowed, the training and exchange service of Australian personnel in the UK was still at a high level. The Cold War was ever present and the IRA were active in London.

Rear Admiral Robertson’s last appointment was as the Flag Officer Naval Support Command Sydney, in January 1980. He was made an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 1980 for service to the Royal Australian Navy and the Defence Force, particularly as Head Australian Defence Staff London. Naval Support Command was an extensive responsibility that oversaw the command and management of the majority of the RAN’s training and support bases, the Navy Supply Centre at Zetland, Sydney, the maintenance and upgrade program of all ships, submarines, aircraft and armaments and Eastern Area command responsibilities.

RADM Robertson was invested as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) by the Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowan at Government House Yarralumla, 14 August 1980.
RADM Robertson was invested as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) by the Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowan at Government House Yarralumla, 14 August 1980.

Andrew Robertson retired from the RAN in early 1982 after over 43 years of service. Following his retirement from the RAN, Robertson undertook a number of roles including Federal Vice President of the Navy League of Australia; Councillor Order of Australia Association; and Chairman of Old Sydney Town Pty Ltd. He was a regular contributor to the media on naval matters, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian National Maritime Museum, of which he was named the Inaugural Honorary Fellow in 2016. In 2017, at the invitation of the United States Government, Robertson and a number of RAN veterans attended the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea in New York.

Rear Admiral Andrew Robertson AO, DSC, RAN (Ret’d) passed away in July 2020, at the age of 95. He is survived by his wife Patricia (Pat) and children Angus, Jane, Julia and Bruce.