Obituary: Commodore Ben Rogers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BEN ROGERS was known to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in the 1960s, as captain of the British India Steam Navigation Company School Ships the Dunera, the Devonia and Nevasa.

The eldest of the seven children of a West Country small farmer, Rogers ended up as the formidable and much respected Commodore of the BI Fleet. He was the epitome of all the good qualities that are associated with being a legendary sea-dog - a term in which he would describe himself with a deprecating chuckle.

Rogers's paternal grandfather, from West Country people from time immemorial, eloped to London and went in to the booming 19th-century building industry. He trained his four sons, one as a surveyor, another as a master carpenter, a third as a solicitor conveyancer and the fourth, Rogers's father, as salesman of the family business. Alas, the young man took to the bottle, egged on by clients, and was therefore despatched back to Devon and a small farm on the edge of Exmoor. All his life Rogers learnt from his father's experience, offering his distinguished guests (delicious) chilled white port, a less than potent beverage.

Born in 1906, at Bryanstone Farm, Newton Ferrers, acquired through his mother's ancient family farming connections, Ben Rogers got a sound education at West Buckland School, which gave him entrance to the Plymouth Navigational College. At 16, he went to sea as a British India cadet and spent the decade of the 1930s learning seamanship and the handling of Goanese and other Asian crews on ships such as the Carpentaria plying between the Persian Gulf, Mombasa and the ports of India and Australia.

As a member of the Royal Naval Reserve he transferred to the North Atlantic in 1939 and unusually for a reserve officer was given command of a frigate, HMS Loch Fada, from which in 1944 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for sinking a U-boat.

At the end of hostilities he returned to British India and in 1950 he was given command of the 9,500-ton Chindwara. This was one of the company's cadet training ships, mostly engaged on the Britain-to-Australia passenger and cargo run. From 1958 to 1960 he commanded the troopship Dilwara, one of the links making possible the east-of-Suez troop commitment in Singapore.

In 1960 British India faced a problem. The defence review carried out by Duncan Sandys and implemented by his successor as Defence Secretary, Harold Watkinson, endorsed the view of the Chiefs of Staff Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Dermot Boyle that it was better to move troops by air to the Far East than take up time on inevitably long sea voyages.

The result of this decision was that the purpose-built 12,500-ton troopship Dunera would come off government charter. The compensation agreed with BI was pounds 5m, a generous sum. However, in those days BI, run by men such as Kenneth Macrae Campbell and John Sharpe and their parent company P&O, masterminded by Sir Donald Anderson and his brother Sir Colin Anderson, were more interested in developing their seagoing business and in obligations to their seagoing personnel than obedience to accountants. Therefore, they developed a scheme for ship schools whereby pupils in term-time should be taken north for a 13-day cruise to ports such as Bergen, Oslo, Copenhagen, Hamburg and Amsterdam, or south to Corunna, Gibraltar and Lisbon.

Who better than to be the captain of their first ship pioneering this scheme than Ben Rogers, who had proved himself as master of the Chindwara to be so authoritative with, and such a role-model for, cadets. Albeit the pupils were having their first and perhaps only taste of the sea, the leadership of the first captain was of crucial importance to the development of the project. For six years Rogers was an outstanding success.

He was calm and dignified and a man of few words. As his deputy director of studies for two years on board I was only rebuked by him twice - once I was summoned to his cabin and told sternly: "I will not have anybody on my ship, you, Tam, included, gossiping on my Tannoy - especially after lunch when many of the crew take a well-earned rest." I did not need to be told twice.

The second occasion was when he thought that I was giving a rather politically biased account of the Spanish Civil War from my left-wing point of view. Later he was to be secretary of a branch of the local Conservative Association in south Devon - and it was a source of amusement that he would come to lunch with me regularly throughout the 1980s as a Labour MP at Westminster.

Edgar Heelas, Senior Chief Inspector of Schools for the city of Birmingham during the reign of Sir Lionel Russell, the legendary Chief Education Officer of Birmingham, was a member of the BI Educational Advisory Committee. Now aged 90, Heelas tells of the great impression of friendship and belief in the ship school project which gave Birmingham heavyweight educational chiefs total confidence in Rogers and his ship's company taking their children for a fortnight in term-time.

One incident among many remained with Heelas. In the Bay of Biscay the Fentham Road Secondary Modern pupils were thrilled that the Dunera passed another ship adopted by their school. Rogers sent a signal from the school to the adopted ship and that was the introduction to many lessons on navigation and the practical use of mathematics.

Rogers understood the educational importance of experiencing the sea and indeed dormitory life for children leaving their homes usually for the first time. No voyage could be considered wholly satisfactory without one day at least of really rough weather and the consequent seasickness. Rogers's personality spread throughout the ship's company and they were happy to be pioneers in an educational project which not only gave them employment but also which they passionately believed was nationally worthwhile.

It is not only schoolchildren who will have fond memories. Many thousands of members of the National Trust for Scotland will remember the NTS voyages when Dunera was chartered for four-day cruises. In particular no one who was on board will forget the wonderment at the captain's daring in navigating between the Stacks of St Kilda so that 1,000 people on deck could have a unique view of the rocks and the seabird life.

Rogers spent 30 years of retirement within a mile of the place where he was born in Newton Ferrers, sad at the loss of his beloved Helen in 1991. There, in September, at the age of 92, he died quietly. His death went unreported outside the local papers in south Devon.

Benjamin Andrew Rogers, merchant seaman: born Newton Ferrers, Devon 5 August 1906; DSC 1944; OBE 1966; Captain, HMS Loch Fada 1944-45, SS Chindwara 1950-58, SS Dilwara 1958-60, SS Dunera 1960-66; married 1954 Helen Leonard (died 1991; one stepson); died Newton Ferrers 9 September 1998.

Comments