LOST AT SEA
Bannerman Robertson was my brother. He was born on the 28th March 1925 at
16A North Street, Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. I know little of Angus in his
early years, because I was not born until 1934 and by then he was already nine
years of age.
However from what I have learned, he was a fairly adventurous lad who joined the
Cub Scout movement before eventually becoming a Boy Scout, all of which he did
in Inverurie. From an early age his interest in the sea and ships was
overwhelming. I am told, whenever he was taken or went to Aberdeen; the first
place me made for was Aberdeen Harbour, predominately to look at the trawlers
and ships tied up in the port at the time. At the age of 14, Angus left school
to join the Prince of Wales Sea Training Hostel at Ingham Hall, Stalham in
Norfolk. The Hostel changed its name in 1948, to the Prince of Wales Sea
In September 1939 war had been declared and Great Britain was then at war with
Germany. Angus having completed his time at the Prince of Wales School, was then
assigned on the 22nd June 1940 to the SS Castilian where he was employed as a
Cabin Boy. On the 22nd August 1940, he became a Deck Boy on the same ship.
The war at sea, especially in the Atlantic, was just beginning to take its
terrible toll on our Merchant shipping and it was on the 5th November 1940,
whilst serving on the SS Castilian that Angus witnessed at first hand, the
battle between the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer and the Jervis Bay.
The Jervis Bay, originally a passenger ship, formerly owned by the Aberdeen and
Commonwealth Line, had been taken over by the Admiralty in August 1939. They
armed her decks with 6” guns and she flew the White Ensign, her roll being that
of ocean escort for Atlantic convoys. At the beginning of November 1940 the
Jervis Bay had left Halifax, Nova Scotia as the sole escort of Convoy HX 84,
when, on the 5th November she was suddenly confronted by the Admiral Scheer.
The Captain Fegen of the Jervis Bay decided he would take on the German
battleship, but realising he would be hopelessly outgunned, he ordered the rest
of the convoy to scatter. As the Jervis Bay went towards the Admiral Scheer with
all guns blazing, she started to be hit by the 11” guns of the German ship and
soon the bridge along with the gunnery control centre were out of action. Captain
Fegen lost an arm and shortly afterwards was killed by another shell.
Although the battle had lasted only a short time, the Jervis Bay was ablaze and
with no guns, the crew were ordered to abandoned ship. Only 65 men were picked
up, out of an original total of 255. It is believed another armed freighter, the
Beaverford, took up the fight and held the Admiral Scheer for a further few
hours, but late in the evening she to was sunk with the loss of all hands.
The German ship succeeded in sinking only five freighters in the time before
darkness fell, this being mainly due to the actions of the two armed ships who
faced the Admiral Scheer. (Excerpt from ‘Fighting Ships of World War II by
The SS Castilian did as she had been ordered by the Captain of the Jervis Bay,
and arrived safely back in Great Britain on or before the 25th November 1940. At
this time I was six years of age and attending Port Elphinstone Infant School. I
returned home from school one afternoon to find my brother Angus sitting in my
fathers chair, still in his uniform, speaking to my mother and father. Why, I
have no idea, but I threw down my school bag and dived under the chair where
Angus was sitting and remained there for some considerable time, still hearing Angus’s voice relating his experiences.
He was home on leave for some time and his records show that he was signed off
the SS Castilian on the 25th November 1940 and remained at home awaiting a
recall to another ship. The recall eventually arrived and he was ordered to join
the Empire Comet at Greenock.
The Comet was a new 6,914 ton ship, built by Lithgows Ltd, at Port Glasgow. I
recall making my way upstairs at View Cottage, Port Elphinstone on the day Angus
was due to leave and I witnessed my father begging Angus not to return to the
sea, as well he could have, due to the fact he was still not 16 years of age,
but he would have none of it. Angus signed Articles of Agreement on the Empire
Comet on the 17th February 1941 where he was employed on board as an Apprentice.
The supplementary list of crew was submitted to the Registrar General of
Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff by Dodd, Thompson & Co., who managed the Empire
Comet on behalf of the Ministry of War Transport.
The Empire Comet set sail for the United States of America on the 28th February
1941, arriving in Boston on the 15th March. The ship then left the USA for a
return journey to Great Britain, docking in Liverpool on the 19th April 1941. As
Angus on this occasion was not due for leave, he was obliged to remain on ship.
My mother and I left Inverurie and travelled by train to Liverpool, where my
mother began to make enquiries as to the berth position of the Empire Comet, but
every shipping office and person she asked, were loath to inform or assist her.
Eventually, one company office after much checking of details, advised her the
‘Comet’ was berthed over in Birkenhead on the other side of the River Mersey We
then travelled via the Ferry to the Port of Birkenhead, where we eventually
found Angus’s ship. We were kept by a police officer at the gate of the docks,
whilst he contacted the ship and requested my brother to come to the dock gate
and confirm who we were and sign us in. I was 7 years of age at the time.
My mother and I had dinner on board the Empire Comet and as the other Apprentice
assigned to the ship was away on leave at the time, this left an empty bunk in
Angus’s room. He then requested permission of the Captain, if it were possible
for me to stay on board that night and after much discussion, it was agreed. My
mother left and returned to the hotel in Liverpool.
On the following day she returned to the ship to collect me from Birkenhead and
we said our farewells to Angus. It would be the last time we would ever see him.
The Empire Comet cleared Liverpool bound for Montreal on the 5th May 1941. The
ship then sailed to various parts of the world. From Montreal she travelled to
Sydney, Nova Scotia and from there, yet again back to the port of Liverpool,
where she arrived on the 22nd June 1941.
On the 25th July 1941 the ‘Comet’ was in Cardiff where she left for Port Sudan,
then on to Bombay and from there to Cochin in India. It left Cochin and arrived
in Galle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on the 23 November 1941.
Leaving Galle, it arrived at Cape Town on the 13th December and again left on
the 16th of December. The ‘Comet’ berthed in Trinidad on the 5th January 1942,
where it remained for three days before moving off for Halifax, Nova Scotia,
arriving on the 20th January 1942.
On the 7th February 1942 the Empire Comet sailed from Halifax in Convoy HX 174
bound for Great Britain.
It appears the ship became detached from the Convoy, due it is believed to dense
fog or a report of submarine activity in the area of the convoy HX 174 on or
about the 10th February, but these facts are unclear.
The authorities in this country then felt she may have been sunk on the 19th
February 1942, but could not say for sure by which means.
At the time, I remember the Headmaster of Port Elphinstone School, Mr Alexander
entering the room of Miss Walker, in whose class I was at the time and after a
short conversation between the two, I was asked by Miss Walker to collect my
things and make my way home.
Arriving home, I found my mother in the kitchen and it was obvious she had been
crying. I asked why I had been sent home from school and why had she been
crying? She then told me Angus’s ship the Empire Comet had been reported
A short time later my father arrived home from his place of work at the
Inverurie Loco Works. The days slipped past, then the weeks and months and no
further news was received of my brother and it was now feared he was indeed,
‘Lost at Sea’.
At the time of the loss the British authorities would give very little details
to my parents, only that the Empire Comet was believed sunk, but they had no
earthly knowledge how, why or where and as it was wartime, this was all they
were obliged to say.
In April of 1955 I joined the Metropolitan Police in London and started to make
enquiries as to where I may be able to trace details of the Empire Comet. This
proved extremely difficult and the only place I found the smallest of details
was the Ministry of Transport, St Christopher House, Southwark Street, S.E.1,
whose responsibility it was to keep all wartime merchant shipping records.
However, they showed the ‘Comet’ as presumed lost on the 19th February 1942 and
gave position locations where they thought the ship had been lost, but no
At this point I felt there was no further use in trying to trace any other
details of the Empire Comet.
Some years passed before my son Melvyn Robertson, who had completed four and a
half years with the British Army and who was now living in Hannover, Germany,
decided to start making enquiries of the naval and U-Boat archives in that
He was advised to contact a Mr Jurgen Rohwer at the History Library in
Stuttgart, who it appeared was an authority on German U Boats of the Second
After much further investigation by my son, involving many phones calls and
letters to various parts of the world, he received a letter from Mr Rohwer,
dated the 8th May 1987.
In it Mr Rohwer wrote and I quote, ‘The Empire Comet was in convoy No. HX 174
from Halifax to Liverpool. On the evening of the 17th February 1942 at 22. 37
hrs (German time) at grid 58’ 10’ N, 14’ 00’ W, she was torpedoed by the U-Boat
136, Commanded by Kapitanleutnant Zimmerman.’
My son was absolutely dumfounded and slightly overcome with emotion that these
details had at long last surfaced and from all places, Germany. Melvyn,
bolstered by his initial find then decided to pay a visit to the German U-Boat
museum at Cuxhaven, a small German town on the North Sea coast.
The museum itself is run by an ex-submariner, Mr Horts Bredow and he showed my
son throughout the museum, eventually withdrawing a folder containing the
details of U-136. Within the folder he found photographs of the actual U-boat,
along with photos of the Captain Zimmerman and his crew.
Enclosed also was Captain Zimmerman’s log for the 17/2/42. The log showed the
details of how he had sunk the British merchant ship, how long he had taken to
carry out the task and how many torpedoes he had used. Lastly the log describes
how the cargo ship had been hit and how she went down.
My son kept investigating the details and from his subsequent enquiries, found
that U-136 with Captain Zimmerman on board, had been sunk on the 11th July 1942,
just off the west coast of Maderia, whilst in the process of attacking British
Convoy OS 33, along with a number of other German U Boats. The U-Boat went down
with the loss of all hands.
So there it is, my brother Angus Bannerman Robertson gave his life during the
‘Battle of The Atlantic’. He was sixteen years of age at the time, just 39 days
short of his 17th birthday.
Both my parents went to their graves, never knowing the full details of how
Angus lost his life during World War II.
21st February 2002.