Harold Jasper Robertson

Able Seaman Harold Jasper Robertson AB D/1697 served on HMNZS Gambia during WWII. His son David wrote this memory of his father that appeared on the RNZN Communicators Association website on September 4, 2013.

My father Harold Jasper Robertson AB D/1697 MID USN left school in 1937 and went to work in the family company Cyclone Fence & Gate as a wire worker. He joined the RNZNVR at Ngapona and was an active Zambuck. On declaration of hostilities there was an Esso tanker John A Brown (JAB) berthed in Auckland.

A few days after the Declaration Dad shipped out on the JAB as a DEMS Gunner. He used to joke they gave him a ship, a gun in a box and a user manual and told him to go and fight the war. That tends to indicate that the Poms had remembered the lessons of history and built the ship then only about a year old, to be ready for war.

I had always thought the JAB was an American ship but the dates never fitted. Sorted that out last night after years of trying with a website based on the tanker information books the U Boats carried during WWII. The JAB had a distinguished war and was finally broken up in 1959 under a Panamanian flag of convenience. She carried petrol on the Atlantic run. She once took a bomb which went through the decks and out the bottom of the hull without exploding. Her charmed life continued until in 1940 she hit a mine and went off to dry dock for repairs.

Dad was moved to Bomb Disposal in Portsmouth until the NZ Navy remembered him. He was then posted to the ill fated HMS Neptune as a Gun Layer. Neptune already had a large NZ component in the crew and more were drafted on as the ship was heading back to NZ. Not for Dad, another pier head jump and a good friend of his for the rest of his life were drafted off Neptune at the mouth of the Thames. They were sent up to Leith to stand by HMS Moa. On the creation of the RNZN Moa of course became HMNZS Moa. Neptune was sunk in the Med in an Italian minefield. 30 of the ships company got off but only one survived in the open boat. He was picked up by the Italians.

After working up out of Leith Moa set out for Auckland. This may be at variance with other Moa recollections on this site but this is how I remember things…….. Her first port of call was Halifax and from there she worked her way south to the Panama Canal. Moa then had to steam up to Canada. Some problem with getting the code books and routing plans from the USN I think. The journey home from there is somewhat obscure. On arrival home Dad found time to get married and in his grooms man was Acting Leading Signalman Campbell Buchanan US Navy Cross later killed on HMNZS Kiwi in the action with the Japanese submarine l-1 near Guadalcanal Jan 1943. In that action Dad was the gun layer on Moa's 4″ inch. For his conduct that day he received the MID USN signed by Admiral Bull Halsey. The gun from l-1 came to NZ on Otago in 1968 and seeing it at Kauri Point sent shivers up my spine. If the Japanese gun crew had been better at their job I most certainly would never have happened. (yeah I know)

A few days later Moa and Tui (I think) intercepted a group of armed Japanese landing craft. In the gun action that followed Moa's 4" gun shield took a hit which ignited the cordite bags on deck. Dad and three others suffered extensive burns and had to be evacuated ashore strapped on deck on a US PT Boat. The USN considered it too dangerous to carry wounded below decks on the PT Boats.

Luck was once again with Dad because he was alive and back in NZ under treatment when Moa was sunk in Tulagi Harbour. All of his kit including the silver cigarette case he received for his 21st went down with the ship.

Recuperating from his wounds Dad was drafted to Waiouru W/T as a driver, specifically as Eggy Biggs driver. He used to tell how the local traffic cop was encouraged (you know that black stuff) to fail Eggy his drivers licence so the boys would have use of his car at nights. I was born in Auckland on the 5th Feb my mother having gone back to Auckland from Waiouru a couple of days previous. He visited me a couple of times at Irirangi and thought the only change was it was a bit easier to get into the Wrennery.

Having fought a reasonable war you might have thought they would leave him there….. No, he was drafted to HMNZS Gambia. Gambia was actually quite busy, one day I will get on the net about that. On the day Japan surrendered Dad was at his action station as gun layer in the main director when a Japanese aircraft appeared. He had the aircraft in the cross-hairs but then the story in my head fades. The Japanese aircraft was shot down by an American fighter plane. I am not sure if Gambia actually opened up. At that stage of the war their sense of survival would be pretty well tuned. The US aircraft would have known to keep out of the way of their shells.

For Gambia the final act really was the signing of the surrender in Tokyo Bay (at action stations). Back to civvie life for Dad at Cyclone Fence & Gate where he took over from my Grandfather as manager. He was there for his whole working life. It was also back to his beloved Manukau dealing to the snapper until he passed away. Many of his old Moa and Gambia mates used to come to our bach to go fishing, have a few beers and lots of singing with Dad on the piano accordion. No short range gunnery, just funny stories.

I once asked him why he remained an AB. His reply was that he liked the job and promotion often meant a draft and a place on the list of those killed in action. His only advice when I joined "never buck a draft". I grit my teeth when I think of some of my crash drafts but I kept to his advice.

And a closing note was the launch of the 'new' Moa. When I found out about the launching I contacted the Commodores Office, can't remember who I spoke to was but he was a Yeoman/Chief Yeoman. Dad was invited as guest of honour that day and the photo of him on the wheel in the Herald was his pride and joy. Sorry not too much about Gambia in there. It is good to remember that for many the war story had many chapters. I imagine Dad would have felt just a little bit safer on Gambia compared to Moa, Bomb Disposal in Portsmouth and Neptune.

Oh…. He used to refer to himself as a one and half badgeman. RNVR GCB were smaller than RNZN GCB so he must have had one of each.