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Leith Built Ships on War Service.


Being the war-time history of the firm of


A copy of the old book produced sometime around 1946 to record the ships built and repaired at the Henry Robb Shipyard in Leith, Scotland during the war years of 1939 to 1945. The book was produced by the Shipyard.

“Most text copied as an extract from the actual book so the wording may seem a little bit dated. It should also be remembered that most of the information about the ships was still to be released under the “Secrets act” it was to be much later when the full story of most of the actions that were carried out would be made public and accessible”.

A number of friends and clients have suggested that the outstanding war service rendered by ships built in the Victoria Shipyards should be recorded in permanent form.
Accordingly, we have set down in this little book stories of the Fighting Ships of Leith, in the belief that old friends and new friends alike may find something of interest.
In the war of 1914-1918, only two small ships were built at Leith for the Royal Navy.
During the intervening years the shipbuilding facilities of the port were consolidated into one efficient unit, ready to take its share of the burden of national defence.
During the Second World War, the Victoria Shipyards built forty-two vessels for the Royal Navy, fourteen merchant ships and refitted and repaired nearly 3,000 ships of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy.
This means that one new ship was launched on an average every six weeks and a ship repaired every day of this long and bloody conflict.

Our contribution also involved design and pioneer work, particulary in connection with big rescue tugs and the preparation of patterns for prefabrication, so the work could be spread amongst engineering firms not used to shipbuilding and increase output of ships.
We also designed for the Pacific Campaign the “B” Class coaster and at the request of the Admiralty these designs were passed onto other shipbuilders so that the maximum number could be built in the shortest period.

Naturally, all those connected with the Victoria Shipyards were thrilled as story after story was revealed of how ships which had grown under our hands and had been launched by visitors from the South or representatives of ancient Scottish family, had fought gallant battles with enemies in the sky, under the sea and on the surface across the world from the Pacific to the Atlantic and then, when the great final blow was struck, acted as headquarters ships for the invading forces and laid the pipelines across the Channel to keep them supplied with fuel.
We were also influenced in our decision to write this story by a desire that all who participated in our work during those six strenuous years might be able to preserve some tangible record of there share in the task.
We were encouraged in our efforts through the war years by visits from many distinguished visitors. It was a proud day when Their Majesties the King and Queen came to the Victoria Yard.
Twice Mr Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, was our guest.
The First Lord of The Admiralty, Mr A.V. Alexander, also paid us two visits, as did Lord Westwood, Chief Industrial Advisor to the Admiralty, the Controller of the Navy, and many others.
Whilst we are justly proud of the part played by Leith-Built Ships in the great campaign, we realise in all humility that no success would have been possible but for the superb courage, gallantry, and supreme self-sacrifice shown by the officers, engineers, and men of the Royal and Merchant Navies, to whom we pay our humble thanks.
We are indebted to the admiralty and to the owners and officers of the various merchant ships for their co-operation in supplying the information contained in this book.


At the commencement of the war the Firm was instructed by the Admiralty to proceed with the construction of a number of Flower Class Corvettes from the master drawings circulated to all builders.

As the war developed the need for larger and more powerful anti-submarine vessels became apparent, with the result that the admiralty designed the River class Frigates.

Owing to the urgent need for these vessels, and in order to expedite construction, part of the drawing office work for the new design was undertaken by this Company, in collaboration with Messrs Smith’s Dock Co., Limited and others.

With the increasing ferocity of the submarine campaign, the Controller of the Navy realised that a still larger number of Frigates was essential, and in order to meet his requirements the Director of Naval Construction, in collaboration with shipbuilders who had previous Frigate experience, undertook the prefabricated Frigate design.

The structural steelwork for the prefabricated Frigates was to be prepared by constructional steel engineering firms all over the country, so that the steel units could be mass produced and distributed to Frigate shipbuilders for erection. At the same time mass orders for machinery auxiliaries and equipment were placed throughout the country.

As soon as the design was settled, this firm undertook to lay off the lines in our large Mould Loft and to supply the builders with the Loft offsets and other information.

In addition, templates were prepared to enable constructional engineers to carry out mass production of the steel units; this involved the preparation of over four thousand templates.

Our Loftsmen visited the various structural engineers to explain the method of application of the templates to ensure subsequent accuracy of assembly of the prefabricated steel units when they reached the slipways.

The shipbuilding and structural engineering industries closely collaborated in organising a central drawing office for the preparation of the vast number of detailed drawings which this system necessitated and which contributed in no small measure to the success of the whole scheme.
The accuracy with which the drawing office, mould loft, and template work was carried out enabled these very highly specialised vessels to be successfully prefabricated at a time when the whole war position depended on the successful transport of munitions of war from the United States and Great Britain.

A typical scene from a Mould Loft.

First Blood

H.M.S. “Basset” – an armed trawler, the pioneer of all subsequent trawlers – was the second ship to be built at Leith for the Royal Navy.
Completed before the war, her service was uneventful until April 1942 when she was attacked by four Messerschmitt 110’s. “Basset” returned such spirited fire that one of the aircraft exploded in mid air. The second was so badly damaged that the machine turned half a loop before the pilot could recover control. Pieces fell off and the aeroplane began to lose height. The pilot tried to make the English coast, but crashed into the sea. There were no casualties among the crew and the ship sustained no damage. Her Commander reported that she stood up very well to the bombing attacks.
H.M.S. “Mastiff” – also built before the outbreak of war – was an improved “Basset” but before having an opportunity of seeing much service, was mined and sunk.
H.M.S. “Ringdove” a ship specially designed for laying controlled minefields, steamed about 60,000 miles, laying such minefields round British harbours and later at the mouth of the Scheldt.
She figured in many air raids, and her company, by gallant exertions, saved Lowestoft railway station and other important buildings during one such raid. She had a narrow escape from a “V” bomb in the Scheldt.

H.M.S. “Redstart” a sister ship of “Ringdove” working in conjunction with her was sunk during operations in December 1941.

From the original book.

H.M.S. “Hazel”

The strength and endurance of the Tree Class Anti-Submarine Trawlers were exemplified by H.M.S. “Hazel” during her eleven months service in northern waters.
She was unlucky during this commission – unlucky in two ways. Whatever convoy she escorted on any route, she ran into no enemy, but plenty of bad weather. Even on her way home she ran into gales and one of her boats was stove in. But she with-stood everything and always returned safely to her base.
Once the ship was kept pinned to a quay by a gale for three days, and on another occasion, when a big merchant ship alongside was blown out of harbour, the crew of “Hazel” stayed up all night in a successful effort to hold the ship to her buoy.
The gale blew a house down and broke windows all over the town.
The ship’s Commanding Officer was the lieut.-Commander R. Dwyer, R.N.R. and he frequently drove the ship through 30 feet seas “It was like being on a gigantic scenic railway” he said.

Extra police had to control the crowds when H.M.S. “Hazel” went to Berwick – on – Tweed in July 1943, to receive her welcome as the towns “adopted ship”.
The crowd was the biggest seen there since the Coronation celebrations. Two thousand people were shown over the ship in three hours. The Commanding Officer was then Lieut. J.J. Good R.N.R.

H.M.S. “Sword Dance”

Still another Trawler, H.M.S. “Sword Dance” came in for severe punishment while on the important work of minesweeping. During an attack by Heinkels, bombs dropped all around the ship, some as close as 30 feet. The blast was heavy enough to cause some internal damage, but no leaks developed in the hull and the trawler was able to reach port under her own steam.

Some months later the “Sword Dance” sank as the result of a collision while on convoy duty.

From the original book.

A Tough Job

As leader of a group of mine sweepers in Greek waters, the “Staffa” was engaged in almost non stop minesweeping for six months – from November 1944 to May 1945.
Her Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Commander Geoffrey Syrett, R.N.V.R., of Weybridge, Surrey, described the Greek operations as “one of the toughest minesweeping operations of the war”.
Every known type of mine was encountered in profusion and the “Staffa” completed over 6,500 miles steaming without a refit. She was one of four minesweepers of the same class which accounted for fifty-five mines between them in a three week period.

The “Staffa” has the distinction of being the only Mediterranean minesweeper to fly the C.-in-C’s flag. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, now First Sea Lord, directed, when he was C-in-C., Mediterranean, that in appreciation of the work accomplished by the sweepers, one should be granted the privilege of flying his flag. The honour was conferred upon the “Staffa” and the flag was retained to occupy an honoured place in the wardroom.

From the original book.

Three Sister's

Shortly before the war, the New Zealand Government entrusted the Firm of Henry Robb with the building of three minesweeper training ships. They were the “Moa,” “Kiwi” and “Tui” and were launched during the spring and summer of 1941 in that order.
Although each ship made the long journey to her home country as soon as she was completed, they eventually came together in the 25th Minesweeper flotilla of the Royal New Zealand Navy. Together the three sisters went northwards and carried out operations in the region of the Solomons and New Caledonia, where they operated with the American Fleet.

Early in 1943 “Kiwi” and “Moa” were in company when they picked up a large 1,500 ton Japanese submarine of the “I” Class, which was subsequently proved to be carrying stores and important reinforcements of personnel to Guadalcanal. “Moa” stood off while “Kiwi” carried out so fierce an attack with depth charges that the submarine was soon forced to surface. The “Kiwi” immediately sprayed the submarine from end to end with all the gunfire she possessed, but this was not enough, and disregarding the intense reply from the Japanese guns, she put on all the speed her engines could give and rammed the enemy ship three times in rapid succession. The exited watchers on the “Moa” saw the extraordinary spectacle of the “Kiwi” slipping slowly over the submarine like a vessel stranded on an island.

The action was so fierce that there were very few survivors either of the crew or the passengers from the enemy vessel.
Even the best Leith workmanship could hardly be expected to survive such rough usage undamaged, but an examination at New Zealand’s own Devonport revealed nothing more serious than a dented bow.
Lieut.-Commander G. Bridson as he then was, added the D.S.O. and the U.S. Naval Cross to his D.S.C. for this exploit.
On the very next evening the “Moa” and “Tui” were mixed up in a brisk fight with enemy landing craft off Guadalcanal and inflicted much damage on the enemy without receiving any themselves.
In addition to the award of the D.S.O. to Lieut.-Commander Bridson, Lieut.-Commander Peter Phipps, R.N.Z.N.V.R., Commanding Officer of the “Kiwi” received a bar to his D.S.C. ; Lieutenants J.F.A. O’Neill and W.A. Laurie, R.N.Z.N.V.R., received the D.S.C.; and Able Seamen A.E.J Dalton and J.T. Washer were awarded the D.S.M. for the action in which the Japanese submarine was destroyed.

The following months saw much the same routine until one day, when the “Moa” was riding at anchor in Toulagi, a formation of Japanese planes came in behind a returning Allied formation and carried out a very fierce bombing attack on shipping in the harbour.

“Moa” received a direct hit and sank.

“Kiwi” and “Tui” still together, continued their operations over a wide area of Pacific waters. They had at least one other kill to there credit. It was only a few weeks after the loss of the “Moa” that they contacted another “I” Class enemy submarine and depth charged it until it was forced to the surface, where it was finished off by United States aircraft, the satisfaction of whose crews was increased when they discovered from a survivor that it was the ship which carried out the first bombardment of the Californian coast soon after the Japanese came into the war.
All three ships and there crews were very popular with the Americans, nor were they forgotten at home. They were visited by statesmen and high officers, and to the many gifts from the white population of New Zealand were added native weapons, cloaks, and maps. (They were of course Maori names)

From the original book.

Making Records

H.M.S. “Sidmouth”

A sister ship of H.M.S. “Stornoway” She saw a great deal of service as leader of a minesweeper flotilla. In August 1942 she was one of the minesweepers which swept the channel ahead of the raiding force which attacked Dieppe. On one occasion she made a record by sweeping a distance of 600 miles in seventy two hours.

Another of her more exiting exploits was the invasion exercises in 1943 when she led her flotilla to within three miles of the French coast without being observed.

 H.M.S. “Stornoway”

A substantial volume would be needed to do justice to all the adventures of “Stornoway”.

During her working-up period the town of Stornoway was visited and the ship and crew were given a great ovation.

“Stornoway” became one of the famous 13th Minesweeping Flotilla and steamed over 60,000 miles and swept up over 2,000 mines; did duty off the Irish coast, English Channel, and attended at Dieppe raid, and survived countless air and E-boat attacks; transferred operations to North African coast and took part in Pantellaria and Sicilian landings; swept channel in front of King’s visit to Malta in July 1943; present at all operations on Italian coast and survived attacks from R-boats, bombers, and coastal batteries; visited Capri where inhabitants organised and held first dance since Italy entered the war.

Whilst having Christmas dinner at La Maddalena was attacked by bombers. In June 1944 captured Island of Giannutri, a former E-boat base, found the Germans had left inhabitants without food, so fourteen days rations were left.

Later an R-boat was sunk by a direct hit. The next operation was to sweep channels to allow food ships to enter Greek ports. Whilst on this duty a mine exploded and stopped one engine.
At Preveza in Greece the natives gave the ship’s company a tremendous welcome. On one Greek island German garrison pleaded to be taken prisoners, but the crew being busy told them to report next morning. Sure enough when dawn broke all the Germans were ranged on the jetty awaiting transfer to the “Stornoway”. On the voyage to Taranto, one German appeared among the “request” men to interview the Commander. His request was to be allowed to remain on board as one of the crew.

The ship’s pets were two tortoises whose shells were always camouflaged with paint in keeping with the ship. One had its shell cracked by a bomb splinter; the crack was filled in with putty, with apparently satisfactory results.

During the Mediterranean operations the crew engaged with other ship’s crews in water polo and cricket matches and were often victors.

Belonging to the 13th Minesweeping Flotilla, they claim to have much factual evidence that the thirteenth is there lucky day.

From the original book

 H.M.S. “Delphinium”

One of the Flower Class Corvettes, H.M.S. “Delphinium” saw a good deal of active service off the Portuguese coast in 1943. In July of that year she shared with another corvette a “Kill” of a large U-Boat.

H.M.S. “Delphinium” with several of her sister ship’s in the Levant group of corvettes, stood by the Eighth Army faithfully from Egypt to Sicily, and visited nearly every port along the North African coast.

She formed part of the 47th Mediterranean Escort Group in March 1944.

In February 1945 she returned to Plymouth patrol.


H.M.S. “Dianthus”

A Gallant Action
H.M.S. “Dianthus another early Flower Class Corvette, was destined to play a leading part in one of the fiercest battles of the little ships against U-boats in the Atlantic. The fight lasted five days and nights in August 1942. The part of “Dianthus” is perhaps best told in the words of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Right Hon. A.V. Alexander, M.P., in a speech on 3rd September 1942. The First lord said: - “For nearly three hours one of our corvettes hunted the U-boat in the Atlantic. It was first sighted on the surface. There were violent rain squalls and complete darkness. Accurate gunnery forced the U-boat to dive, but depth charges forced her back to the surface again. Four times the little corvette fired everything she could muster and rammed the U-boat. Clouds of sparks made a fantastic firework display each time she hit her. After the fourth attack the U-boat reared up above the ship’s deck and crashed down on the fo’csle.

Then the U-boat sank. The fight had lasted nineteen minutes, during which there was great excitement. The Captain shouted, “We’ve got her. Give her everything we’ve got”.

The men shouted back “Ram her again sir”.

Every gun on board was blazing away and men even ran for rifles and revolvers and fired at the conning tower”.

The First Lord added: - “We did not get this information from the Captain. All his report said was: “The next nineteen minutes can be described as lively”

“Dianthus” necessarily sustained damage by the repeated ramming’s, but she had her station to keep to protect the precious convoy.

After five days and nights of incessant vigilance and battle the crew then worked all through the night to make the ship seaworthy.

At dawn the next morning a very tired but very happy crew had “Dianthus” seaworthy and back with the convoy.

But her troubles were not yet over. Oil had apparently been lost and “Dianthus” was 600 miles from home with only 26 tons of fuel.

A careful calculation showed that this was not enough to reach port.

The Captain ordered every drop of oil of all kinds on the ship to be mustered.

Men went down into the empty tanks and carefully swept up the pools that might remain near the feed pipes. Lubricating oil, gunnery oil, and even two drums of castor oil from the sick bay were brought into service. All this effort meant an extra half ton of oil, which proved just sufficient to bring the little ship safely into harbour.

The Commanding Officer of H.M. Corvette “Dianthus” Lieut.-Commander C.E. Bridgman, R.N.R., was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for skill and determination in protecting the convoy during these operations in the Atlantic.

Naval Resource

There was an exciting moment for H.M.S. “Petunia” one day in November 1942 when she was missed by four torpedoes from a U-boat in the South Atlantic. The Italians did the corvette the honour of claiming that they had sunk a United States battleship at the spot.

During the same voyage H.M.S. “Petunia” carried out an attack on a U-boat. Leading Cook Scott worked up to his waist in water whilst helping to man the depth charge thrower. A gale was blowing and the depth charge strop parted. The cook knelt on the deck while other members of the crew heaved charges on to his shoulder. Then slowly he pulled himself up far enough to tip the charges into the thrower stalk, from whence they were fired overboard. Leading Cook Robert Henry Samuel Scott was later mentioned in despatches for his service during this momentous voyage.

Some four months later the crew of “Petunia” proved the traditional ability of the Royal navy to deal with any emergency when they rescued 420 survivors-men, women and children-from a sunken liner “Empress of Canada” in a tropical sea.

Working in the intense heat of his galley, it was the same Leading Cook who, with such assistance as he could muster, produced in the next twenty four hours 900 sausage roll’s, 600 bread roll’s, and stews, soups and hot vegetables for more than 400 people. But there was one meal still unsatisfied. A tiny baby needed a bottle for its milk; bottles there were in plenty on board, but no teat, until the resourceful crew made a very efficient one from some soft rubber commandeered fro the medical stores.

In January 1946 H.M.S. “Petunia” was transferred on loan to the Chinese Navy under the terms of the Anglo-Chinese Lease-Lend Agreement. The Chinese Officers and ratings forming the crew had trained with the Royal Navy for many months and the Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Commander Liu Hoh-Tu, who had spent several years with the Royal Navy, was specially chosen by his Government for the command.

A Goodwill Ship

The Union Flag and the Stars and Stripes hung side by side in the wardroom of H.M.S. “Polyanthus” when; early in 1942 she went to Galveston, Texas for a refit. Never did a crew of the Royal Navy receive a warmer welcome or enjoy more generous hospitality.

During their eight weeks stay some of the crew became engaged to Texas girls. Two of the crew, with only 15/- between them after the first fortnight, “thumbed” there way all over New Orleans, and fourteen days later were driven back to the ship in a luxurious car by their final hosts, still with the 15/- in their pockets. Such was the warmth of American Hospitality.

“Polyanthus” like her sisters, did valiant work to and fro across the Atlantic before she was eventually lost by enemy action on 20th September 1943.
The Commanding Officer of H.M.S. “Polyanthus” during her visit to Texas, was Lieut.-Commander R.S. Holland, R.N.R.., who was succeeded by Lieut. J.G. Aitken, R.N.R., who was in command when the ship was sunk.

From the original book

The Greeks had a Word

H.M.S. “Lotus” made her first U-boat kill in the Mediterranean in April 1943 and shared with “Starwort” a second victim the very next day, which was at the time a record for the Navy.

She saw service at the siege of Tobruk and had been as far north as Murmansk on Russian supply run before she went south again for the landing in North Africa.

The crew of “Lotus” seem to have specialised in pets. In the Artic they collected three eider ducklings which lived happily on the ship for quite a long time. But perhaps their greatest pet was Abdul, the dog. He came from South Africa and travelled many thousands of miles with the ship. One day, he went ashore on the lonely Kola Julet and there met an untimely death beneath the wheels of the only motor lorry in that locality. There was great grief amongst the crew who for some time after reckoned time by the number of days after Abdul died.

One of the Officers was a classics master in peacetime. When listening to underwater explosions and bubblings by a U-boat breaking up, there came to his mind a word coined by the Greek poet, Aristophanes, not far from that spot some 2,000 years earlier. It was “Pompholugopaphlasnasi” Is it surprising that with the Navy’s aptitude for nicknames, he was known on board as “Mr Chips”?

“Lotus” was commanded by Lieut.-Commander H.J. Hall, D.S.C., R.N.R.

Team Work

H.M.S. “Pink” is another notable example of that fine team work through which the U-boats were frustrated in the darkest days of the battle of the Atlantic.
In the early summer of 1943 a force of between twenty five and thirty submarines concentrated in a narrow lane of the North Atlantic. Dense fog and icebergs provided trouble in the early part of the voyage, and when the weather cleared there were lengthening nights and bright moon to add to the trouble.

Coastal Command aircraft first found the enemy and sank two of the three U-boats sighted.

H.M.S. “Pink” was concerned in a battle which lasted several days, during which more U-boats were destroyed and the remainder driven off, and the whole convoy saved from harm.

Near Christmastide in the same year “Pink” in company with other corvettes, was in a similar battle which lasted two days and nights, and during which no fewer than five submarines were damaged or destroyed. On the morning of the second day a Coastal Command Liberator aircraft was so severely damaged by the gunfire of a submarine which it was shadowing that it had to descend on the sea.

Her signal for help brought a ready response from “Pink”, which was detailed to go to the rescue. Happily she arrived before the aircraft could sink and took all the survivors safely on board, although the sea was very rough at the time.

While on this strenuous work she completed three yearly crossings of the Atlantic in all weathers.

From the original book.

To be continued.......on the new website at  

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