Lieutenant Peter Scawen Watkinson Roberts
Peter Roberts was born in Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire on 27th July 1917. He joined the Royal Navy as a Cadet in 1935 and was advanced to Midshipman on 1st September 1936. He was promoted to Sub Lieutenant on 1st July 1938. Peter Roberts joined Submarines on 11th Sep 1939 when he was appointed to HMS Dolphin 'for the Submarine Course'. On completion of the Submarine Course he was appointed to HMS Dolphin 'for Submarines' on 28th Oct 1939 and he was further promoted to Lieutenant on 16th Nov 1939. On 8th Feb 1940 he was appointed to the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Cyclops (3rd Submarine Flotilla) at Harwich 'for Submarines' and, a week later on 15th Feb 1940, to the Submarine Depot ship HMS Alecto (5th Submarine flotilla) at Portland 'for Submarine H32 as 3rd Hand/Navigating Officer'. Just over three months later he joined the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Ambrose (9th Submarine Flotilla) at Dundee 'for Submarines'. This was only a brief appointment as, on 15th Jun 1940 he was appointed to the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Forth (2nd Submarine Flotilla) at Rosyth 'for Submarine HMS Tribune as the Navigating Officer'. He returned to HMS Dolphin (5th Submarine Flotilla) on 1st Jan 1941 'for Submarine HMS Thrasher as the First Lieutenant – standing by whilst completing' at the Cammell Laird Shipyard at Birkenhead 'and as First Lieutenant on Commissioning'. HMS Thrasher was completed on 14th May 1941 and, after 'Work Up' and a Patrol in Home Waters the submarine was sent to the Mediterranean to join the 1st Submarine Flotilla based on the Submariner Depot Ship HMS Medway at Alexandria.
Peter Roberts was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions whilst serving in the Mediterranean in HMS Thrasher in February 1942. On 16th February 1942 Thrasher was patrolling off Suva Bay, on the north coast of Crete, when she torpedoed and sank an escorted 3,000 ton Axis supply ship. The escorts and covering aircraft attacked with about thirty depth charges and some were reported to be close. Thrasher survived these attacks and carried on with the patrol. That evening Thrasher surfaced to recharge batteries. On altering course the Submarine rolled in the swell and loud banging noises were heard from outside the pressure hull. After surfacing and an investigation a bomb was found to be lying on the casing forward of the gun mounting.
Lieutenant Roberts, as the First Lieutenant with Petty Officer Gould (the 2nd Coxswain) volunteered to remove the bomb. As it was thought that he bomb might roll off the casing on to the saddle tank and detonate Gould held the bomb and Roberts put a sack round the bomb and tied it with a length of rope. It was manhandled forward to the bows and dropped overboard as the Submarine went full astern to get clear.
Further checks identified a jagged hole in the casing and another bomb was lying under the casing on the pressure hull. The only way out was through a hinged metal grating about twenty feet away. The two men lowered themselves through the opening and crawled on their stomachs to where the bomb lay. There was a danger that if the bomb was detonated the submarine would be sunk. As Thrasher was off an enemy coast and the enemy were aware there was a Submarine in the area there was also a danger that the Commanding Officer of Thrasher, Lt. Hugh Mackenzie, would dive the submarine if enemy forces were sighted. If that happened the two men would be drowned.
Petty Officer Gould had to lie on his back with the bomb in his arms while Lieutenant Roberts laid in front of him and pulled him along by the shoulders as they made their way back to the hatch. With only the aid of a torch they worked the bomb through the casing and eased it through the grating. The bomb reportedly made a twanging noise when it was moved and it was 40 minutes before they had it clear and it could be wrapped in the sack, carried forward and dropped over the bows.
The Commanding Officer did not make much of the incident in his patrol report and merely commended Roberts and Gould for their "excellent conduct". The incident was forgotten until several months later, when, as Mackenzie recalled, he was:
shaken by the news that Roberts and Gould had both been awarded the Victoria Cross. A great personal honour to themselves and, as they and I felt, also to their fellow submariners.
The Victoria Crosses were awarded on the recommendation of the C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. The award was opposed by the Honours and Awards Committee in London, which argued that the act of bravery had not been performed in the presence of the enemy as the Victoria Cross regulations stipulated. The Committee thought that the George Cross would be more appropriate. Cunningham replied that two large enemy bombs in a submarine off an enemy coastline constituted quite enough enemy presence.
The Citation for the Victoria Cross read as follows:
London Gazette, 9 June 1942
On 16th February 1942, in daylight, HM Submarine 'Thrasher' attacked and sank a heavily escorted supply ship. She was at once attacked by depth charges and was bombed by aircraft. The presence of two unexploded bombs in the gun casing was discovered when after dark the submarine surfaced and began to roll .
Lieutenant Roberts and Petty Officer Gould volunteered to remove the bombs, - which were of a type unknown to them. The danger in dealing with the second bomb was very great. To reach it they had to go through the casing which was so low that they had to lie at full length to move in it. Through this narrow space, in complete darkness, they pushed and dragged the bomb for a distance of some 20 feet until it could be lowered over the side. Every time the bomb was moved there was a loud twanging noise as of a broken spring which added nothing to their peace of mind.
This deed was the more gallant as HMS Thrasher's presence was known to the enemy: she was close to the enemy coast, and in waters where his patrols were known to be active day and night. There was a very great chance, and they knew it, that the submarine might have to crash-dive while they were in the casing. Had this happened they must have been drowned.
Peter Roberts was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on the 4th July 1942. For his service in HMS Thrasher Peter Roberts was also awarded the DSC – see the London Gazette dated 30th June 1942.
Peter Roberts was appointed to HMS Dolphin on 3rd May 1942 for the 'Commanding Officers Qualifying Course' however, unfortunately, he did not complete the Course and he then returned to General Service with an appointment to HMS Beagle on 14th Aug 1942. Peter Roberts is reported to have died at Newton Ferrers, near Plymouth on 8th December 1979.
Peter Robert's Victoria Cross and other medals are on display in the Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London.