Robert Ryder, V.C. Polar Medal.
Robert Ryder: A Polar explorer and a VC winner from The Raid on St Nazaire
by Linda Parker
The Interwar Generation
From the South China Seas to England
In the spring of 1932, five young naval officers at the South China Sea Station decided to return to England on leave by means of an ocean voyage which would take them back to Dartmouth via Japan, the North Pacific, the west coast of America, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic, against the prevailing winds and covering fresh ground by taking a northerly route via the Aleutian Islands.
Command of the Penola
Spying on the Japanese ?
The voyage already had the potential to be exciting and dangerous, but papers released on the death of R. E. D. Ryder in 1986 led to speculation that the officers had also undertaken to spy on possible Japanese naval positions. The speculation the clandestine purposes of the voyage has been engendered by the planning notes for the voyage and correspondence discovered in Ryder’s papers, which were used in articles in Classic Boat and The Times in 2007. The article in Classic Boat described one of the aims of the voyage as “A search for advance UK and US submarine bases for attacks on the Japanese navy in the Kuriles and the Aleutians.”
Four DSOs, a Croix de Guerre and Victoria Cross
British Graham Land expedition to the Antarctic (BGLE)
Penola in the Antarctic
The Penola’s first major task was to ferry the expedition to its first base camp on the Argentine Islands. This was done in two stages and the second journey back to Port Lockroy was quite hair raising, with Ryder directing operations from the crow’s nest. This was a strategy which he was to adopt frequently in Antarctic waters. He commented : “Up in the Crow’s nest one is very snug and the sight of the ship twisting and turning below in accordance with one’s hand signals is pleasing to watch”. With the shore party safely delivered and settled in, Ryder took part in the sledging expeditions. As the men ventured into unexplored areas of the Antarctic Peninsula. In the exploration of the bays and inlets Ryder’s knowledge of small boats was useful as the expeditions small boat Stella was used under Ryder’s leadership. On one occasion the Stella was used to tow the Penola away from a calving glacier.
Command of a Q Ship
At the beginning of September 1939, Ryder returned from service on the Warspite to take up an invitation to command a Q Ship the HMS Willamette Valley, who was to masquerade as a Cardiff tramp steamer Edgehill. The Edgehill could be disguised in a number of ways. She had a ten-foot funnel extension which could be added to alter her silhouette, which could also be changed by extending the bridge with canvas screens and stowing the derricks vertically instead of horizontally. Her appearance could also be changed by overnight painting in various colours. Whilst pretending to be an imaginary Greek ship the Ambea, the Edgehgill was torpedoed and sunk by an enemy submarine. Ryder and the surviving crew were adrift on wreckage for four days, before being rescued.
RN Commander at The Raid on St Nazaire
In February 1942 Ryder was chosen to be the commander of the naval aspect of the raid on St Nazaire, OPERATION CHARIOT. The aim of the strategic planners in early 1942 was to prevent the battleship Tirpitz from breaking out into the Atlantic and wreaking havoc with allied shipping. Since such a break out was dependant on the Tirpitz and other large German ships being able to use the ports on the French Atlantic coast, it was important that everything should be done to prevent this. As the dock at St Nazaire was the only dock large enough for the Tirpitz it was therefore regarded as a prime target. The dock was 385 yards long and 55 wide and could accommodate a ship of more than 85.000 tons. St Nazaire itself is situated at the mouth of the River Loire before the river opens out to become an estuary containing shoals and mud flats. The main dredged channel “le Charpentier” was close to the north shore and heavily defended by coastal batteries, patrol boats, and minefields.
Operation Chariot, HMS Campbletown and Commandos
Approach to St Nazaire
Under Fire from the shore Batteries
The flotilla of small craft and the sailed up the estuary undetected for a while but nearer the lock gates the shore batteries opened fire and, supported by fire from the motor launches, the Campbeltown rammed the lock gates, the sea cocks were opened to scuttle her, the order was given by Captain Beatie to abandon ship and the commandos whose aim was to destroy the submarine pens went ashore. The destroyer was now in a perfect position to demolish the lock gates when the main explosive charges in the bows detonated.
HMS Campletown rams the dock gates
Ryder now manoeuvred to put the commando party ashore and went ashore himself to check that the Campbeltown was in position to cause maximum damages when she exploded. The motor launches had not fared well. They had approached the last few miles up the estuary under withering fire. Of the MLs on the starboard column, only one, ML 177 managed to land its troops successfully. In the six minutes after the Campbeltown had struck, most of the starboard column MLs were out of action. Lt. Rodier in ML 177 had taken off survivors including Captain Beattie, from the Campbeltown and they set off for the open sea at 01.57. The MLs in the port column had been told to land their commandos at the Old Mole. The only one to succeed in this was Lt. Collier in M L 457.
Escape from St Nazaire
The Campbeltown Explodes….Ryder awarded the VC
The Campbeltown exploded on the morning of 28th March, destroying the gates of the Normandie lock and putting it out of action for the rest of the war. A longer term result of the raid was the increasing efforts of the German army to defend the long Atlantic coast, using a disproportionate number of men and resources in constructing the Atlantic Wall.
On 21st May the citation for Ryder’s Victoria Cross appeared in the London Gazette and he remains the only man to have been awarded the polar medal and the Victoria Cross. His previous experiences on the Tai Mo Shan and the Penola, added to his Naval experiences had produced a character which had been able to achieve the accomplishment in action noted in the citation for his Victoria Cross.
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