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Captain Roland J Roberts – A British Columbia Mariner’s Life at Sea
by Catherine Marie Gilbert 2016
Captain Roland Joel Roberts (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
When Gerald Roberts of Roberts Marine in Metchosin contacted me after having read my article in the Western Mariner about Yorke Island, and told me he was the son of Captain Roland Roberts, once owner of the Allaverdy. My curiosity was piqued and I went to visit Gerald to learn more.
All I knew before I spoke to Gerald, was that his father had built the 72 foot halibut seiner Allaverdy in 1939. It was the largest halibut seiner on the BC coast. I also knew that a good part of the funds used to build this boat had come from money Captain Roberts had earned while running guns to the rebels in Spain during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. But there was much more to Captain Roberts’ life than that. Not only did he live a life of adventure on the high seas, but also he left a tremendous amount of documentation behind, including photos and original World War II reports, that provide a record his life and escapades.
Stewardess Roberts on board the Clare Lilley (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
The senior Roberts was born in 1900 in the small community of Pennycomequick, now part of the city of Plymouth, UK. He began his life at sea serving on the Clan Lines at the age of 15, when these steamships were in service in the First World War. Surviving the war without mishap he worked his way up, and became a Master Mariner at the age of 29. He then spent several years crossing the Atlantic from England to North America as Master of the SS Harpathian, and made several visits to Vancouver BC. It was there that he met and married Gerald’s mother Evelyn, who was working at for the US Naturalization and Immigration Service.
By the mid 1930s, he was again embroiled in action, when he was hired to bring guns into the Spanish ports of Cartagena and Valencia during the Spanish Civil War. Although he began working on behalf of the rebels, once it was clear that Franco, their leader, was allying himself with Hitler and Mussolini, Roberts switched sides and began working for the Loyalist government. Mrs. Roberts went with him, hired as Stewardess on his ship the Clare Lilley, a British steam freighter. In an article published in the Vancouver Daily Province, she described their hair–raising adventures as they tried to bring goods and supplies into Spanish ports, and how they just narrowly missed being sunk, when the boat in front of them in the harbour and the one behind were both hit by bombs.
Building the Allaverdy (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
Upon returning to Vancouver, Roberts decided that he would begin a new career as a halibut fisherman. He had never fished for halibut before, but took on the task of learning the ins and outs of the profession by starting as a deckhand on other halibut boats. With the earnings from his Spanish adventures, and with financial help from his wife’s friend Prince Leo Galitzine (a Russian aristocrat living in Edson Alberta), Captain Roberts set about building the Allaverdy.Soon after the Allaverdy was launched, Roberts chartered her to the RCN Fisherman’s Reserve. He was appointed as a Lieutenant (Temp.) RCNVR (With seniority dated 14/09/1939 later backdated to 1938). At that time owners of Fisheries Reserve vessels stayed with their vessels while on active service. He was mentioned in the army’s War Diaries as arriving at Yorke Island with the Allaverdy towards the end of September in 1939. After a brief stay at the island, Captain Roberts left the Allaverdy there, and proceeded to Prince Rupert in HMCS Armentiѐres, one of the Royal Canadian Navy’s examination vessels.
HMCS Allaverdy (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
In 1941 he took command of the corvette HMCS Battleford, serving as an escort to supply ships crossing the North Atlantic in convoy to the United Kingdom. These ships were bringing much needed goods to the UK and had to be protected from German U–boats that lurked everywhere along their route.
The corvettes were a new addition to the navy. At the outbreak of World War II, the RCN had only thirteen ships. To rectify this situation, they began building corvettes, whose design was based on a whale catching vessel, the Southern Pride, but which were to have more powerful engines. These speedy vessels could be built in a year’s time and because, as Joseph Lamb relates in his book The Corvette Navy, they could turn on a dime, and out manoeuvre U–boats.
HMCS Battleford (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
While on duty, Roberts took photos of his ship and in particular of a rescue he and his crew performed when a German U–boat hit the American supply ship SS Radcliffe, and the crew of Battleford attempted to bring all the survivors aboard. Ironically, the freighter Clare Lilley that he had commanded during the Spanish conflict was supposed to have been used as a supply ship, but ran aground offshore at Nova Scotia while delivering armaments from the United States to Halifax.
Crew of HMCS Battleford with Lieutenant Roberts RCNR in center front. (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
Rescued survivors on board HMCS Battleford (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
Roberts returned to the West Coast serving in HMCS Burrard and in 1943 he served in HMCS Chatham. He served again as sea in HMCS Bellechasse (In command), a Bangor-class minesweeper stationed on the West Coast. After this service he was becoming senior in the Navy List and was promoted to Acting Lieutenant–Commander RCNR in 1944 serving in HMCS Moncton (In command) a Flower–class corvette. He was demobilized on 05/03/1945.
Roberts Returned to Halibut Fishing After His Wartime Service. (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
In 1945 the Allaverdy was returned to Roberts and he received a payout from the Navy in lieu of repairs. In 1948 he sold her to J.H. Todd & Sons Ltd., Victoria BC and he went back to halibut fishing for the season, alternating with service in tugs. But that wasn’t the end of his adventures. Among Gerald’s possessions is an article describing a rescue his father made at Twin Islands. The caretaker, a man named Peter Banning, had been gored by a bull, and although the weather was dirty and others were reluctant to go out in it, Roberts in his fearless fashion made his way there to help Banning, who he brought to safety. In the same article, Captain Roberts and his Allaverdy were described as "one of the most versatile nautical teams on BC’s coast". Gerald remembers his father as a character, who was never without a pipe in his mouth. Fortunately for him, his father left him with a fascinating legacy, the records to provide proof of his exploits and the urge to go to sea.
Captain Roberts On Board the Ivanhoe (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
Captain Roberts at the Wheel of the Ivanhoe (Photo from the Gerald Roberts collection. )
Catherine Gilbert is the author of Yorke Island and the Uncertain War, defending British Columbia’s coast during WWII and of numerous articles about BC’s coast. www.catherinegilbert.ca. A print version of this expanded article was originally published in the Western Mariner Magazine, October 2013 – reprinted with permission.
To quote from this article please cite:
Gilbert, Catherine Marie (2016) Captain Roland J Roberts – A British Columbia Mariner’s Life at Sea. Nauticapedia.ca 2016. http://nauticapedia.ca/Gallery/Roberts_Roland.php
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