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Rear Admiral Andrew John Robertson AO DSC RAN

Andrew John Robertson was born at Kings Norton, near Birmingham, England on 11 April 1925, his family later migrating to Perth, Western Australia.  He joined the Royal Australian Naval College in early 1939 as a Cadet Midshipman, was made a 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 as the Cadet Midshipmen 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 when he joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia.  During his time onboard the cruiser operated in the Coral Sea 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 to New Guinea before rejoining Australia.  In March 1944 he travelled to England for his Sub Lieutenant's courses for which 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 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, the waters off Greece and the Dodecanese Islands.

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 isolated German forces still present in the area.  Kimberley was active in enforcing the surrender of German forces in the Dodecanese Islands in May 1945.  Sub Lieutenant Robertson was granted his watch-keeping certificate in July 1945 and Kimberley returned to England in August and decommissioned the following month.  By then Lieutenant Robertson, he had been promoted on 1 August 1945, was on his way home 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, however, she did serve in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force during September 1946-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.

In August 1947 Andrew Robertson transferred to the sloop HMAS Swan as a watch-keeping officer.  Swan was the Flotilla Leader for the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla conducting mine clearance operations in Australian and New Guinea waters during 1947-48.  Minesweeping was long, arduous and dangerous work as evidenced by the loss of HMAS Warrnambool with four men killed in September 1947.  While Swan was alongside at Garden Island, in late 1948, Lieutenant Robertson was given his first command when he took charge of General Purpose Vessel (GPV) 963 during October-December 1948.  GPV 963 was attached to the shore depot HMAS Rushcutter for anti-submarine warfare training duties.

Lieutenant Robertson was selected to undertake the long gunnery course in England and commenced his training at HMS Excellent (Whale Island) in early 1949.  On completing the course later that year he was ranked 1st in his class.  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 newly commissioned destroyer HMAS Anzac and she departed Australian waters in July.

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 at Portsmouth in June.  Following these activities the carrier crossed the Atlantic Ocean 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.  Robertson was promoted Lieutenant Commander on 1 August 1953.

Lieutenant Commander 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 he 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.  Andrew Robertson was promoted Commander in December 1957 and in January 1958 he took command of the anti-submarine frigate HMAS Quickmatch.  During his time in command the frigate operated in Australian and Southeast Asian waters.

He handed over command of Quickmatch in late 1959 and took up his next appointment to the UK Joint Staff - Singapore based at HMS Terror near the Sembawang Dockyard.  This was a busy period and, while the Malayan Emergency was coming to end, 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 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 of Captain in June of that year and remained in this role for three years, during a significant period of change where the RAN was struggling to recruit sufficient personnel and also introducing several new weapons systems such as the guided missile destroyers, submarines and new aircraft types all with an additional manning and training burden.  In January 1967, Captain Robertson took command of the frigate HMAS Yarra as well as being in command of the First Frigate Squadron consisting of four River class vessels.

Yarra had just completed a refit and conducted lengthy trials of the new Ikara anti-submarine system before deploying to Southeast Asia for six months.  During her time ‘up top’ Yarra 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, to work as a member 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 and following completion of this course he took command of the fast troop transport HMAS Sydney in January 1973.  This command also carried the additional responsibility of Commander First Australian Transport Squadron although troops transport duties to South Vietnam had ended in December 1972.  Soon after assuming command, Sydney deployed to Southeast Asia for exercises and then returned to operate in Australian waters, with a short trip later in the year across the ‘ditch’ to New Zealand taking Australian troops to an exercise in the North Island.  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.

Albatross was a very busy command with aircraft regularly embarked in the aircraft carrier 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 the Northern Territory capital of 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, the 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.

As if Albatross did not have enough work 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 began to arrive from England in crates, to be assembled at Nowra.  Grumman Trackers were also forward deploying to Broome to conduct fishery surveillance patrols off the north west coast.

Commodore Robertson became the Director General of Naval Operations and Plans, in Navy Office in January 1976.  His appointment to Navy Office was short as in December that year he took up the position of Head Australian Defence Staff in the Australian High Commission, in London, and was 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 a regular activity.

Rear Admiral Robertson’s last appointment was as the Flag Officer Naval Support Command, based in Sydney, commencing 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 and the maintenance and upgrade program of all ships, submarines, aircraft and armaments.

Royal Australian Navy senior officers at a mess dinner in Canberra, ACT on 9 March 1981. 
L-R: Rear Admiral Stevens, Rear Admiral Lynam, Rear Admiral Rourke, Rear Admiral Swan,
Vice Admiral Willis, Rear Admiral Loosli, Rear Admiral Leach, Rear Admiral Doyle and Rear Admiral Robertson.

Andrew Robertson retired from the RAN in early 1982 after 43 years of service.  Since retiring he has undertaken a number of roles including Federal Vice President of the Navy League of Australia, Councillor Order of Australia Association, Chairman of Old Sydney Town Pty Ltd, as well as a long term involvement regarding the creation and management of the Australian National Maritime Museum, of which he was named the Inaugural Honorary Fellow in 2016.  He was also award the Centenary Medal in 2001 for distinguished service to business and commerce.

At age 91, Andrew was the key instigator behind the Windjammer Sailors statue in Darling Harbour and at the time of his death, was a member of 18 organisations or associations, including as Patron of the HMAS Sydney Association and Training Ship Sydney for naval cadets.

Chief of Navy Australia Vice Admiral Michael Noonan AO RAN, described Rear Admiral Robertson as a role model for what Navy officers can achieve in the most demanding of circumstances.

“Rear Admiral Robertson always sought to fight through obstacles, and rose to all challenges both in war and peace,” Vice Admiral Noonan said “One of our most admired leaders, his courage under pressure and calm demeanour
in the face of adversity has set the benchmark for our Navy leaders now, and for generations to come.”

Australian National Maritime Museum Recognition of Rear Admiral Andrew Robertson’s Contribution.

The museum mourns the passing of one of its earliest champions.

RADM Andrew Robertson was Deputy Convenor of the Advisory Committee for the Australian National Maritime Museum in 1985 and Deputy Chairman of the Interim Council from 1985 to 1988.  He had profound input into the establishment and shaping of the museum.  He drafted a proposed charter and influenced all aspects of the museum’s physical and museological planning.  He was a generous donor and remained a strong supporter.

RADM Robertson was awarded an Honorary Life Membership of the museum in 1991 and appointed as the museum’s first Honorary Fellow (the museum’s highest level of recognition) in 2016.  The Director’s recommendation in support of this honour reads ‘His impact on the founding of the museum was profound and is enduring.  Over and above RADM Robertson’s contribution to the museum, he is a person of the highest distinction and the museum would be well served by association with him.  His achievements in his naval career and his honorary work for the Navy League of Australia and the HMAS Sydney Association are strongly aligned with the mission of the Australian National Maritime Museum.’

Kevin Sumption, Director and CEO, stated, ‘The Council and staff of the museum are saddened by the loss of our great friend RADM Robertson.  He was one of our earliest champions and we bear daily witness to his legacy in the work we do here.  The Windjammers Sailors statue, in the museum’s forecourt, was donated by RADM Robertson and is much loved by our visitors.  Andrew and I would have lunch regularly at the Museum to discuss the Museum’s future.  Andrew’s passion and enthusiasm was electrifying and his greatest interest was always in ensuring the next generation were better informed about our nation’s unique maritime history.  Personally, Andrew was a wonderful inspiration to me and I feel blessed to have been considered a friend and will greatly miss his warmth, wit and incredible intellect. Our deepest condolences go to his family.’  ENDS.

Rear Admiral Andrew Robertson passed away on 10th July 2020, at the age of 95.  He is survived by his wife Patricia (Pat) and children Angus, Jane, Julia and Bruce.

Andrew John Robertson:  1925 -2020.

Conversations:   Featuring Andrew Robertson - January 2019
John Anderson in conversation with Rear Admiral (Ret) Andrew Robertson AO DSC,
retired senior officer, Royal Australian Navy.  John and Andrew discuss military and
naval history, defence strategy and the state of Australia's current defence policy.

Royal Australian Navy
John Anderson
Australian National Maritime Museum