A Reluctant Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Ryder VC, Richard Hopton

A Reluctant Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Ryder VC, Richard Hopton

Robert Ryder was the commander of the naval force during the raid on St. Nazaire, one of the most successful raids of the Second World War. As one might suspect Ryder had a fairly unconventional naval career before being selected to command at St. Nazaire. The first part of the book looks at Ryder's early naval career, which rather resembles a boys-own adventure. After joining the navy in 1926 he had a fairly normal career for seven years, but in 1933-34 he and a small group of friends sailed back to Britain from China against the winds in a yacht that they had ordered built in Hong Kong. After that he was given command of the Penola, a small boat that took part in the British Graham Land Expedition (1934-37), an Antarctic exploration mission that survived on a financial shoestring during the Great Depression. For four years Ryder's career was thus dominated by sailing ships. These early exploits are covered in great detail and make for an interesting read.

After a brief spell on battleships he soon moved back into small ships, taking command of the Q Ship HMS Willamette Valley in 1939. The Q Ships weren't very successful during the Second World War, and the Willamette Valleywas lost in 1940. He moved from her to an early frigate (HMS Fleetwood) and then to a land ship, infantry, HMS Prince Philippe, converted from a cross-channel steam. The Prince Philippe sank after a collision after a short career, so at this point Ryder's career wasn't go so well.

This changed when he joined Combined Operations and was given command of the naval forces taking part in the raid on St. Nazaire, which was mounted in an attempt to destroy the only dry dock on the French Atlantic coast capable of taking the German battleship Tirpitz.  Ryder was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in this raid, which achieved its main objective, admittedly at a high cost. The account of the raid is fascinating, involving us from the early planning stages and including far more detail on the tense naval voyage from Britain to St. Nazaire than is often the case. After St. Nazaire Ryder remained with Combined Ops, taking part in the Dieppe raid (realising early on that it was turning into a disaster he avoided adding his own ships to the failure), took part in the D-Day landings and then commanded a destroyer escorting convoys to Russia (this may seem like a step down, but was actually a promotion, giving him command of the largest warship of his career).

This is an unusual example of a full length biography of a winner of the Victoria Cross who didn't go onto high rank. Ryder himself felt that his later career didn't match the interest of his pre-war and wartime exploits, despite spending some time as an MP. His parliamentary career gets some coverage, but his life after parliament only gets a few pages.  The pre-war exploits are fascinating and are dealt with in great detail (deservedly), so we get some idea of the sort of skills required for his wartime career.

1 - Family and Childhood: India and England
2 - Into the Navy (1926-31)
3 - Hong Kong and the China Station (1931-33)
4 - The Voyage of the Tai-Mo-Shan (1933-34): Japan, the North Pacific and the United States
5 - The Voyage of the Tai-Mo-Shan (1933-34): Central American, the West Indies and Home
6 - The Voyage of the Penola and the British Graham Land Expedition (1934-37): The First Year
7 - The Voyage of the Penola and the British Graham Land Expedition (1934-37): The Second and the Third Year
8 - The Coming of War (1937-39)
9 - HMS Willamette Valley(1939-40)
10 - HMS Fleetwood, HMS Prince Philippe and Marriage (1940-42)
11 - The Raid on St. Nazaire, Operation Chariot: Hatching the Plot (February and March 1942)
12 - Operation Chariot: the Raid on St Nazaire (26-8 March 1942)
13 - Combined Operations, Dieppe and D-Day (1942-44)
14 - The Arctic Convoys, Peace and Politics (1944-50)
15 - The House of Commons (1950-55)

Author: Richard Hopton
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2011

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