Written by Martin Roche (son)
Bert Roche’s War
The late A C Roche, holder of The Arctic Star
My father, A C Roche, served in the Merchant and Royal Navies from 1939 until his discharge on 18th February 1946. He had signed on at Glasgow and finished his service at the Merchant Marine office at Troon, Ayrshire. In between, he’d travelled the world. Because his war service number is apparently a Merchant Marine number that does not recognises his RN service and because we have very few documents, it has been difficult to piece together Bert’s war, where he served, on what ships and when. He said he was on HMS Victorious when she was involved in the attack on Tirpitz and that one of the Fleet Air Arm pilots was a friend from Glasgow. In a box of photographs we have an aerial picture of Tirpitz (so it says on the back) showing a shock wave coming off the ship, which must have been caused by a bomb dropped by the plane that took the picture. I can find no record of Bert serving on Victorious, though that’s not to say he didn’t.
A C Roche was known as Bert or Bertie. (For some now unknown reason he was for at least part of his wartime service known as Bob). He was born in Clarkston, on the south side of Glasgow. His father was a successful cabinetmaker and the family lived in some comfort. Bert left St Mungo’s Academy to take up an apprenticeship as a grocer with Cooper & Co. On the eve of war he was working at Fortnum and Mason on London’s Piccadilly. Before war was declared he returned home to Glasgow, signing up on the first day of hostilities, 3rd September 1939.
Photo: A family at war: Bert Roche, in his Royal Navy Petty Officer’s uniform, flanked right by his elder brother Frank, who served in RAF air-sea rescue; left is Bert’s younger brother, Andy, then an apprentice marine engineer in Glasgow. Front is their sister, Patricia, who served as a nurse.
Bert Roche’s first posting was to HMS Circassia, an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC). Build on the Clyde for the Anchor Line’s Liverpool – India run. She was a luxury liner mainly engaged in carrying senior British civil servants and military officers between the UK and India. Requisitioned by the Royal Navy, many of the trappings of her old life were stripped away. Guns and amour were installed and Royal Naval discipline replaced the grand hotel atmosphere that had pervaded the ship in her civilian life.
Bert served two tours on Circassia, the first as a fireman, or stoker. Stokers worked in the engine room. Circassia was a diesel-engined ship, so shoveling coal was no longer a fireman’s lot, though it would still be a hot and humid place to be. Ship’s engine rooms were generally considered death traps in the event of a torpedo hit. Seamen had a long climb to the upper decks and the potential safety of a lifeboat. Many perished in the attempt to get to get away from the dungeon of the engine room, as doomed ships sank and the grey, ice-cold, waters of the North Atlantic or Arctic Ocean poured in, dragging great ships to their deaths as relentlessly and successfully as a spiders eat flies.
Bert’s second tour of duty on Circassia saw him elevated to the comfort of being an Assistant Steward, running the bar and serving Pink Gins to in the officer’s wardroom.
Circassia patrolled the Northern and Western approaches. She probably went as far as the Artic Circle, though I have not been able to establish if she went on to Murmansk or Archangel.
In March 1942, Bert transferred to HMS Mersey, a shore establishment specialising in mine warfare.
His training over, he was sent to HMS Southern Prince, another former Merchant Navy vessel, though this one engaged in mine-laying duties. Southern Prince had been torpedoed in 1941. She was badly damaged but towed to safe waters then repaired in Belfast. It is likely Bert was part of the new crew when the ship came out of the Belfast yard.
He was on Southern Prince when the ship was ordered to be part of a diversionary force intended to act as a decoy for Convoy PQ17. PQ17 has passed into history as the greatest catastrophe of the Russian Convoys. It suffered a larger loss of men and ships than any other single convoy of the war. The decoy force did its job and the disaster cannot be blamed on it. Perhaps it got through untroubled because U Boats and German surface ships found easy targets when PQ17 itself scattered; leaving slow, heavily laden and poorly armed merchant ships isolated and at the mercy of the Nazis. Of the 35 PQ17 ships that had set sail only 11 remained by the end of the convoy.
Bert Roche served on HMS Southern Prince until December 1943, so it is possible that the ship, with him on it, continued to serve in the North Atlantic and Artic Circle. He spoke of his deck duty in far Northern waters, of being encased in an asbestos suit and helmet. Armed with a steam hose, his job was to use the piping hot steam to de-ice the rigging and upperworks. If ice were allowed to form unchecked it could destabilise a ship, making it top-heavy, difficult to steer and liable to simply roll over if the weight of ice became too great.
Fighting Nazis, ice and sea
Bert said that the fear of the ship being lost to ice was greater than the fear of U Boats, enemy aircraft or surface ships. I imagine that any attack by those machines might offer a chance of survival. Rolling over into the coldest seas on the planet would mean a very quick death indeed. Imagine too being out on the deck of a ship being tossed about in Arctic gales, usually in the darkness of the long winter days, sea-soaked deck making it hard to stand up, hurricane strength winds buffeting man and ship. Water as cold as Hitler’s heart seeping its way into socks and shoulder. Sweat from the effort of working the heavy hose in cumbersome clothing turning instantly deep-chilled on the skin. Giant waves crashing down as the ship ploughed through the angry sea. The enemy as much the ocean as the prowling Nazis.
Southern Prince was stationed off Juno Beach for the Normandy landings in June 1944 and was the flag ship of an admiral. By that time Bert had been transferred to the air craft carrier, HMS Emperor, where he was promoted to Petty Officer. Emperor was also involved in the D Day “Overlord” liberation of Europe.
A world tour
It is not possible to tell from the papers in my possession which ships took Bert to the Mediterranean (he was on a Malta convoy), probably Emperor. He also went ashore in Bermuda, Trinidad and Iceland when he was on Circassia or Southern Prince. At some point he went to Boston and New York, visiting Al and Nellie Corbin at their home on Staten Island. Nellie had been my mother’s closest friend at school in Glasgow. Nellie’s family fell on hard times and emigrated to the USA. There Nellie met Al Corbin, a manager with the Todd Shipbuilding Co.
During the war, Todd built over 60 large merchant ships for the British Purchasing Commission. It is likely that some of these ships sailed on the Russian convoys. Al Corbin (an American) rose through the ranks and by the 1960s was president of the Todd Shipbuilding company.
After HMS Emperor, Bert was soon back on Southern Prince and in the Pacific. On the way he went ashore at East London in South Africa. He visited Burma, India and Singapore and witnessed the surrender of the Japanese at Singapore, which was taken by Lord Mountbatten, then Supreme Commander Allied Powers Far East.
Bert Roche was awarded the 1939-45 Service Medal, The Atlantic Star, The Africa Star, The Burma Star, The Pacific Star and, long after his death, The Arctic Star.
He died in July 1973. Many years later, his eldest son, Peter, applied for and was sent Bert’s Arctic Star. Peter was a shipbuilder who learned his trade at Scotts of Greenock. He emigrated to Canada in the late 60s, becoming a senior ship repair manager for Cayzer Shipyards in St John New Brunswick, a company and a place no doubt well known to those who sailed in the Allied navies in World War 2. Peter gifted Bert’s Arctic Star to my son, Frank, who was then 16. Frank is a historian and currently studying for a degree in history at the University of Manchester. He is well read in the history of the Russian’s defence of their homeland and of the role played by the Allies in supplying Russia with arms. He is proud to have his grandfather’s Arctic Star.
Whilst writing this account, I discovered a letter that Peter had written to Frank that I don’t think I’d seen before. In it, Peter says that Alastair MacLean, the author and who had himself served in the North Atlantic and on two Arctic Convoys (and written a convoy story about a merchant ship, San Andreas), was a friend of my mother, Josie.
MacLean’s book, “The Guns of Navaronne” has been turned into a blockbuster film It was premiered in London in April 1961. MacLean, like my mother, had lived in Glasgow as a child and after the war he took a degree at Glasgow University. He arranged to have a Scottish premier of the film at a cinema in Greenock. MacLean invited my mother to the great event (and no doubt my father). My parents were by then living in neighbouring Gourock, where my father had established a business not long after being discharged from wartime duties.
Bert and Josie Roche had six children. Peter died in Canada in 2019. Hugh lives outside Aberdeen and is a retired teacher. Marie lives in Manchester and is a retired nurse. Andy too is retired and lives in Inverkip, by the banks of the Clyde. He worked in social care. Jimmy was an electronics engineer and lives in Dunfermline in Fife. I live in Canterbury, Kent and am a writer and public relations man. In the course of talking to my brothers I discovered that Hugh’s wife’s father may also have served in the Arctic Convoys. Andy’s wife’s grandfather did. Clydeside men.
Bert fought for peace and his generation gave us that great gift. They gave us many more precious freedoms. Hold on to them. Let nobody take away the rights these men gave their youth for and many their lives. Nazism was an attack on humanity. It created a too powerful state that took first the freedoms of ordinary people and then, for many, their lives. Celebrate the sacrifice of those who took to the deep, dark waters of the far north. But fight for the values they won. Winning World War 2 was a great effort of allies and friends, of men and women of every type, every religion, every colour, from the conquered lands of Europe, from the West Indies, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Burma, Malta, Kenya and many more Empire and Commonwealth countries, from the USA, from Ireland, from wherever men and women challenged tyranny, prejudice and hate. The enemies of democracy are those who would take from us the rights our fathers and grandfathers won. They gave their lives and youth. We are asked only to give our votes. Make them count. Bert Roche’s legacy and the legacy of his shipmates is the peace we in Europe have enjoyed for seventy years.
A good war
My dad thought he’d had a good war. He saw a great deal of the world. He’d made firm friendships and the comradeship of his naval service never left him. Because we lived on the Clyde, from time to time old shipmates would call by. I never saw my dad more animated or enlivened than on these occasions. These were the men he’d shared danger with. The bond was strong. They won the peace.
So let us pray, that come it may
As come it will for ‘a that
That man to man the world o’re
Will brothers be for a that.
(Robert Burns, “A man’s a man”)
God bless them all.
Click to expand photos