Veteran Stories:
Robert Whitcomb “Burt” Brown

Navy

  • Alexi Makarov - Minister/Counsellor of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, is presenting to Robert Brown a commemorative medal recognizing his service in the Murmansk Convoys. Photo taken in Edmonton, Alberta, November 1987.

    Robert Brown
  • Mr. Brown wrote home to tell his Dad about the Battle of North Cape of the sinking of the Scharnhorst in the Arctic north of Norway. Mr. Brown's father gave the letter to The Winnipeg Free Press who published scripts.

    Robert Brown
  • Robert Brown in Winnipeg, Manitoba, August 1943.

    Robert Brown
  • Canadians serving on British cruiser HMS Belfast, in Iceland, December 1943. Robert Brown is in back row, right side. His friend Rex Jarvis is in centre, back row. They were together through all their service and when they were discharged, they married sisters.

    Robert Brown
  • Robert Brown's Service Medals: 1939-45 Star; Pacific Star; France and Germany Star; Canadian Volunteer Service Medal; War Medal (1939-45); British Arctic Emblem; Russian Commemorative Medal.

    Robert Brown
Enlarge Image
Listen to this story

"I sat on the deck in the shell room, counted off the time and sure enough, there were two bumps that two of our torpedoes had hit the ship. And it went down very quickly after that."

Transcript

I was only on the British ship for a month when we were involved in the Battle of North Cape [December 26, 1943], north of Norway, in the Arctic [Ocean], where we were part of the ships that sank the [German battleship] Scharnhorst. And as a matter of fact, I remember that the torpedo officer gave the order to fire, and they had a setup where we could hear what was going on because 90 percent of the people on the ship are all buttoned up inside and can’t see what’s going on. So they had a chap on the bridge that was giving a running commentary on, on the battle. We were told if we could count off 18 seconds from the time the order was given to fire, we would hopefully hear their or feel the explosion. And that’s what happened. I sat on the deck in the shell room, counted off the time and sure enough, there were two bumps that two of our torpedoes had hit the ship. And it went down very quickly after that. We never had time to turn around and fire our other set of torpedoes.

I was assigned as a crane operator because our ship had been designed to carry aircraft. The aircraft would be catapulted into the air, but when they came back, they’d have to land on the water. And then they had this crane that would pick them up, and put them back on the ship. When I was in Seydisfjordur [Iceland], an open boat came alongside our ship where we were anchored and there was quite a wave, about six foot high, in the fjord where we were anchored. So this boat was bobbing up and down quite a bit and they had a badly injured sailor, and I think they called it a striker stretcher, it was like a, a wire basket. They had to get him onboard our ship because we had an operating theatre and he needed help. So I had to, it was pretty tricky. The crane had a big hook on it, to pick up the aircraft. I had to lower that thing and set up a rhythm where I was keeping in time with the rise and fall of the waves because I didn’t want that big hook to drop on the fellow. But I picked him up with a hook and got him back on the ship. And that was a tricky thing to do. And we got him onboard and he was able to get medical help that way.

And when we were in Russia, Russia was paying the Allies for their war supplies that were being sent up to Murmansk, they were paying for those in gold bullion. And I remember, we loaded the boxes of gold onto the ship. That’s what I was doing with the crane, I was picking up these boxes from, from a lighter, from a small vessel alongside and stacking them up on the deck. And I knew the, it was, there were boxes of gold and I knew that I had got a lot. There was a big stack of these boxes. But I never knew how much until I think two or three years ago, I was back on the ship in London and discovered I had loaded 17 tons of gold onto the ship. And I don’t know whatever happened to it because when the ship got back to port, it would be another crane operator that unloaded it. I know that I didn’t. But anyway, that was another interesting thing that happened.

In the Pacific [Ocean], we were sailing alongside one of the carriers when we were attacked by the suicide bombers. That one crashed on the deck of the carrier and it made a dent in the steel deck. Oh, about 15 feet across, a couple of inches deep. What happened was that they just pushed all the wreckage over the side of the ship, shoved it over in the water. The firefighting crew, they put out the fire. All their aircraft were away on a bombing mission. They had some fast hardening cement, and they filled that dent on the flight deck, leveled it off and that stuff set, and by the time the aircraft came back to land, they were able to land on the carrier.

And I remember after that, that there were some American admirals came over to see what was so good about the British aircraft carriers. And what it was, Britain had armoured steel decks, and so when the aircraft crashed on them, they just shoved the wreckage over the side. With the Americans, when they were hit with a suicide bomber, it put the aircraft carrier out of the war because the Americans had wooden flight decks and crashing aircraft, they would break right through the deck into the hangar deck below, and they’d rupture the fuel lines that were there to fuel the aircraft. They’d have a big fire, and the damage would end up putting the aircraft carrier out of the war. Those that the American carriers that were hit, they were put right out of service, they were never used again. But the British, they were much better. They could stand up to the attack. That was an interesting thing and the Americans, they learned a lesson. (laughs)

Follow us