Obituary: Lt-Cdr Alastair Robertson

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The Independent Culture
ALASTAIR ROBERTSON had two complementary careers, as an early member of the reconstituted Fleet Air Arm, for whom he was a distinguished navigating officer, and at the Board of Northern Lights, the body that manages Scottish lighthouses. In 1939 he was the first victor over the German Air Force, when, on 26 September, his Flight shot down a Dornier flying boat over Heligoland. He said that it was going so slowly that it would have been embarrassing to have missed.

Robertson joined the Navy in 1928 and after Dartmouth served in Nelson, the Home Fleet flagship, and the cruiser Exeter in the South Atlantic, where she was to distinguish herself in 1939. In the destroyer Antelope he was involved in the diplomatic and dangerous protection of British citizens involved in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1937 he volunteered for the reviving Fleet Air Arm. Naval aviation had originated in the First World War with the founding of the Royal Naval Air Service. This was merged with the Royal Flying Corps in 1918 into one service, the RAF. After a long struggle, the Naval Air Branch was returned to Admiralty control in 1937 and renamed the Fleet Air Arm. Robertson flew through the great evolution from biplanes such as the Hawker Osprey to the monoplanes first exemplified by the Blackburn Skua, which he was the first Service pilot to land on a carrier.

He had the good fortune to be Officer of the Watch in Ark Royal when a spare crew took his machine so close to the U-boat they were attacking that they fell victim to the blast of their own bombs.

In 1940 a surplus of FAA pilots caused his return to surface warfare. He was appointed in March to Fitzroy, a mine-sweeping sloop, as squadron navigator, but not before his ship had fired on German tanks over open sights while covering the evacuation of the BEF. He qualified as a specialist navigator, and won his first DSC for his mine-sweeping work, though his ship was lost.

He led the mine-sweeping off Dieppe before the disastrous raid in August 1942. He became navigator of Abdiel, one of four highly successful fast minelayers; at nearly 40 knots there was singularly little room for error but Robertson made none. Her fields were credited with some 30 sinkings and he was awarded a bar to his DSC.

The ship made a lightning raid on Taranto when Italy surrendered, and successfully landed many of her troops before, alas, detonating a ground mine while swinging at anchor. Robertson was rescued by an Italian ship but, uncertain of the Italian interpretation of the armistice thought it better to jump over the side, and his elementary cadet's breast-stroke brought him to relative safety and a service hospital where the patients lay at attention for Matron's rounds.

Robertson was mined for the third time in Scylla, the cruiser in which the irascible Admiral Philip Vian flew his flag for the Normandy invasion. Despite professional advice, Vian ordered the ship to exceed the safe speed needed to prevent the detonation of German pressure mines; inevitably there was a prompt explosion. The ship's company were cheered by the fact that she would be refitted in her home port and that the only person injured was the offending Admiral.

Robertson's last sea-going appointment was to Ocean, the carrier in which he served from her first commissioning in 1945 until 1947. He is remembered with particular affection by his yeoman, who recalls his whimsical and relaxed but never less than professional approach to life in general and his task in particular. After he had inadvertently misled his master by a reference to a wrong star, the yeoman was gently rebuked by Robertson's feigned relief when it became clear that the ship was not, after all, high and dry in the middle of the Sahara. Another shared contretemps caused Robertson to remind his assistant that "It is the stars, the stars above us, govern our condition".

The post-war contraction of the Fleet led to Robertson's retirement, and he started civilian life with the British Aluminium Company, where he made a notable contribution on the personnel side and was on the brink of a directorship when the firm was taken over. Disliking his new prospects, he made the fortunate career move from London to Edinburgh - he came from North Berwick along the coast - as General Manager to the Northern Lighthouse Board, the Scottish counterpart to Trinity House.

Seldom have job and man coincided more felicitously. His second career was long, happy and successful. From 1960 to 1977 he helped transform a faintly 19th-century organisation into a modern one. His man management was superb; the keepers and all the other staff recognised his professional skills and he was the first General Manager to be elected to the Board of Commissioners. He was appointed CBE in 1975.

Probably the happiest days of his working year were voyages to outstations in the Commissioners' tender, Pharos, and perhaps his best remembered work was an early manifestation of devolution when he negotiated the detachment of his Board from the supervision of Trinity House. On retirement to East Lothian he became Chairman of the Dunbar Lifeboat Committee.

Alastair Robertson married in 1944 Third Officer Jean Gordon WRNS, whom he had met by chance in his wardroom when she sought first aid in his ship after a hockey match - another instance of his good fortune in life.

A. B. Sainsbury

William Alastair Robertson, naval officer: born North Berwick, East Lothian 14 January 1915; DSC 1941, and bar 1943; General Manager, Board of Northern Lights 1960-77; CBE 1975; married 1944 Jean Gordon (one son, one daughter); died Haddington, Lothian 8 September 1998.