b. 28/07/1917 Chesham, Buckinghamshire. d. 08/12/1979 Newton Ferrers, Devon.
Peter Scawen Watkinson Roberts (1917-1979) was born at Chesham Bois in Buckinghamshire on the 28th July 1917 the son of George Watkinson Roberts an incorporated accountant and Dorothy Georgina (nee Tinney) of 17 St James Park, Beckenham.
He was educated at Falconbury School, Purley in Surrey and at the King's School Canterbury from September 1931 to July 1935 where he was a scholar and was in Langley House. He was awarded colours for boxing and for rugby, playing in the 1st XV.
On leaving school he joined the Navy and was appointed as a Midshipman on the 1st September 1936 and posted to the cruiser HMS Shropshire where he served until 1938. He was promoted to Sub Lieutenant on the 1st July 1938 and served on the minesweeper HMS Saltburn from the 6th of June 1939 until September 1939 when he transferred to the submarine service. He was promoted to Lieutenant on the 16th November 1939 and from February to April 1940 he served as third hand on the submarine H32, part of the Training Flotilla, serving on HMS Tribune later the same year.
On the 1st January 1941 he was posted as First Lieutenant to the T Class HM Submarine Thrasher. While he was with the vessel they sank a number of enemy merchant vessels and evacuated 67 Allied soldiers from Crete in July 1941.
On the 13th February 1942 Thrasher set sail from Alexandria under the command of Lieutenant H.S Mackenzie RN for her eighth war patrol. Her mission was to patrol the Ionian Sea and the Gulf of Taranto passing Northern Crete while en route.
At 04.13 hours on the 16th of February she spotted three ships at a range of five nautical miles but was unable to get into a position to make a shot and she proceeded towards Suda Bay. At 08.55 hours a small 1,000 merchant vessel was spotted but not considered to be worth a torpedo. They spotted a number of vessels around Suda Bay but did not decide to attack until, at 11.55 hours, they saw a heavily laden merchant vessel protected by five escorts and two aircraft circling over head. Despite three of the enemy using asdic to protect against submarine attack, Thrasher fired a salvo of four torpedoes at 12.34 hours from a range of 2,000 yards. Shortly after this the submarine was rocked by an explosion thought to have been a bomb dropped by an aircraft. This was followed by the sound of machine gun bullets striking the water above them. Almost three minutes after the first torpedo had been fired; a loud explosion was heard, followed ten seconds later by another one. It was not clear at the time whether this was a ship being hit or depth charges being dropped. In fact they had attacked the 1,756 ton German merchant Arkadia but all torpedoes had missed their target.
At 12.45 hours the first of a series of 33 depth charges were dropped on or near Thrasher causing minor damage and some discomfort for the crew. At 14.30 hours she came up to periscope depth and saw that three enemy vessels and two aircraft were still searching the area for them. At 15.45 hours they came up again and all was quiet allowing them to surface at 19.06 hours.
At 01.50 hours on the morning of the 17th of February it was discovered that there was a large hole in the side of the gun platform and an unexploded 100lb bomb lying on the casing forward of the gun. This bomb had a small piece of its tail still attached, which had prevented it rolling into the sea. At 02.40 hours the submarine was put in hard astern and lowered in the water to allow Lieutenant P.S.W. Roberts and Petty Officer T.W. Gould went forward and freed the bomb, allowing it to drop safely over the bow, into the water.
On closer examination of the damage forward of the gun it was discovered that there was a second, unexploded bomb inside the casing forward of the gun which had penetrated both the side casing and the deck casing above the pressure hull. The space created by the passage of the bomb was no more than two feet high in places but Roberts and Gould lay flat and wriggled past deck supports, battery ventilators and drop bollards. Gould lay on his back with the 100lb bomb in his arms while Roberts dragged him along by the shoulders. While Gould and Roberts tried to move the bomb, Thrasher was surfaced, stationary and inshore, close to enemy waters. If the submarine had been forced to crash dive, both men would drown of which they were both aware. It was 40 minutes before they got the bomb clear, wrapped it in sacking, and dropped it over the side.
For this act, both men were awarded the Victoria Cross which appeared in the London Gazette of the 9th June 1942. HM Submarine Thresher returned to Alexandria on the 5th of March. Roberts left Thresher in April 1942 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross which appeared in the London Gazette of the 30th June 1942.
He then served on the destroyer HMS Beagle from the 16th of August 1942 until February 1943. For a month from the 18th May 1943 he served at the Combined Operations base at Troon, known as HMS Dinosaur and from August 1943 he transferred to the training establishment HMS Vernon at Portsmouth where he remained until July 1945. He was then posted to HMS Black Prince until April 1946.
On the 16th November 1947 he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and served on a variety of ships during the remainder of his career. HMS Defiance from 1946 to 1948, HMS Gorregan from 1950, HMS Apollo from 1952, HMS Cardigan Bay from 1953, HMS Dingley from 1955 until 1956 when he returned to HMS Vernon serving at HM Underwater Countermeasures and Weapons establishment in 1957. In 1959 he moved to HMS Drake.
Roberts retired from the Royal Navy in 1962, and retired to Devon. He died on 8th December 1979 in Newton Ferrers, and was cremated. His ashes were interred at the Holy Cross Churchyard in Newton Ferrers. Roberts’ medals including the VC and DSC were purchased privately in 2000 by Michael Ashcroft and are displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: HOLY CROSS CHURCHYARD, NEWTON FERRERS, DEVON
Peter Roberts' medals including VC and DSC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (Aug 2014).
Peter Roberts' ashes are interred in Plot J9.
Kevin Brazier (May 2016)