naval officer, recipient of the Victoria Cross, and sailing master, was born in Bengal, India on16 February 1908 to Colonel Charles Henry Dudley Ryder CB, CIE, DSO, Surveyor General of India, and Ida Josephine Grigg. He was a great-grandson of Henry Ryder (successively Bishop of Gloucester, from 1815, and Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, from 1824) – who was the youngest son of Nathaniel Ryder, 1st Baron Harrowby.
Robert Ryder had two brothers; both were killed in World War II. Major Lisle Charles Dudley Ryder (Royal Norfolk Regiment) was killed in the Le Paradis massacre of May 1940 in France – and Major Ernle Terrick Dudley Ryder (Gurkha Rifles) died in captivity, in Sumatra, in February 1942.
Ryder (known as ‘Red’ because of his initials) was educated at Hazelhurst School and Cheltenham College before entering the Royal Navy in 1926. He served as a midshipman in the battleship HMS Ramillies from 1927 to 1929. As a lieutenant he served in the submarine HMS Olympus as part of the 4th Flotilla in China from 1930 to 1933. Ryder also commanded several expeditions. These included captaining the ketch Tai-Mo-Shan on a 16,217-mile voyage from Hong Kong to Dartmouth, England during 1933–1934. On the voyage back to the UK, Ryder learnt that the Admiralty was looking for ‘a Lieutenant capable of commanding and navigating a 112 ft topsail schooner for a three-year voyage to the Antarctic.’ Ryder immediately applied for the job and he was appointed master of the Penola – the expedition ship of the British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE).
The British Graham Land expedition was a geophysical and exploration expedition to Graham Land in Antarctica between 1934 and 1937, under the leadership of John Rymill. The expedition used a combination of traditional and modern practices in Antarctic exploration, with both dog teams and motor sledges as well as a single-engine aircraft for exploration. This was largely a privately sponsored Antarctic expedition, operating on a very small budget. Surveying and exploration mapped 1000 miles of the Antarctic peninsula. The expedition became the benchmark for subsequent British scientific research in Antarctica – in the work of Operation TABARIN, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
The BGLE expedition ship was an elderly three-masted sailing vessel christened the Penola, which had very unreliable auxiliary engines. Built in Brittany, France in 1908, the three masted topsail schooner (137 tons) was intended for the Icelandic cod fisheries and named Alcyon. She was later converted into a yacht and named Navaho. BGLE purchased the schooner for £2,750. In good windy conditions she could average four knots when under sail, and on the occasions when the engine was used (with a following gale) she could average nine knots. As a result of the Penola’s shortcomings, seamanship of the highest calibre was required. The leader and members of the BGLE soon realised that Robert Ryder was an exceptional seaman. In later life Ryder considered mastering the seamanship skills required by the Penola to have been his greatest achievement.
After establishing bases in the Antarctic, the Penola made several trips to the Falklands and to South Georgia during the southern winter months. The records of the expedition make it clear that the condition of the ship caused some disagreement between Robert Ryder and John Rymill. Ryder insisted that a major refit was required, but Rymill had no funds to cover the cost.
Penola left St. Katherine’s Dock, London, on 10 September 1934 and arrived in Stanley on 4 November 1934. Stores, equipment, and husky dogs, which had been previously sent down to the Falklands via Montevideo, were awaiting their arrival at the Government Jetty.
John Rymill writes:
HMS Exeter and RRS Discovery II were in port when Penola arrived, and both gave us valuable assistance, for which we were very grateful. With help of working parties from them we set about altering the rig of the Penola to one more suitable for working in the ice … We reduced the windage by sending down the yards and two of the topmasts … We shortened the bowsprit by sawing most of it off, only leaving enough to carry two headsails. These alterations very materially increased our efficiency as a motor ship, apart from reducing windage, it trimmed the ship more by the stern, giving the propellors a better grip and protection from the ice. While in Stanley both the engines were completely stripped down in an attempt to improve their reliability. The engineer’s report on the state of the engines was not encouraging. The bed on which the engines sat had been made of unseasoned wood, and they had warped and split badly, making the engines shift out of alignment and causing bad wear in the gearbox. Captain Nelson from the Discovery II also allowed us to take one his sailors, Duncan CARSE, who had joined in England … this was a great help, as we considered, after the experience of the voyage out [to the Falklands], that a ship’s part of six would be insufficient when handling the Penola unsupported by the shore party. With all the work on the engines and rigging, as well as being held up by financial troubles in England, we were not able to leave Stanley until New Year’s Eve. Throughout our stay in this wonderfully hospitable colony, we met with every possible kindness, especially from Mr George ROBERTS, the Director of Public Works, who did everything he could to help us.
But as soon as the ship was clear of the Falklands it ran into very stormy weather, and the engines again shifted. The Penola was forced to anchor at Port Harriet. The only solution was the drastic step of blocking the beds with reinforced concrete. The ship returned to Stanley and the necessary cement was purchased. Rymill and Ryder then decided that in order not to lose the coming open season on the Antarctic peninsula to disconnect the engines and to carry on under sail alone - (n.b the sails had been laid out and repaired in Stanley Town Hall) – the engines could be repaired during the following winter. Robert Ryder’s ship handling skills would then be tested in very difficult circumstances. The Penola sailed out of Stanley on 7 January 1935 – and the South Shetland Islands were sighted on 21 January 1935.
Once various expedition bases were established Ryder took part in numerous exploration and surveying trips. He made extensive and detailed maps and charts and was often found in the crow’s nest of the ship directing its passage through the ice.
Penola left the Antarctic peninsula for Stanley on 12 March 1936, arriving on 24 March 1936. Ryder decided that a major refit was necessary, but there were insufficient funds available.
Fortunately, the Vestfold Whaling Company in South Georgia offered assistance, including free use of the company’s floating dock. The repair facilities were located at Stromness Harbour, which was the major ship repair yard on South Georgia, operated by SALVESEN of Leith. During the period of the ship's refit Brian ROBERTS took the opportunity to conduct sea bird research on South Georgia.
Ryder recounts the journey and repairs thus:
We were somewhat short-handed for the trip … but we kept up a steady 80-90 miles a day…During the night of 15 March … the boom end of the mizzen fell off, leaving the boom swinging wild. It was not easy to stop … it took three days to get things ship-shape again. And rather indicated that we were too short handed for emergencies of this nature … At dusk we could smell the peat smoke from Stanley, 70 miles up wind of us, and at daybreak the following morning, 24 March, we rounded Cape Pembroke … the wind was dead ahead … we found our progress stopped … it took us three hours to enter Port William and Stanley Harbour.The friendliness of the Falkland Islanders impressed us all, and greatly added to joy of our arrival. Presents of such things as eggs, milk, vegetables, and flowers … were showered upon us, and the hospitality and kindness throughout our stay in Stanley helped to make the time pass all too quickly. The day after our arrival we shifted berth to alongside the Government jetty … here we could enjoy a feeling of entire security which we had not known for many months
On 3 August the Penola sailed for South Georgia, arriving at Stromness on 12 August. The whaling stations, especially Salvesen, provided a great deal of help during the refit – including the use of the floating dock. It was found that the propellers had worn completely though their shaft bearings. New bearings were manufactured in the workshops at Stromness. On 2 October the Penola sailed for the Falklands, arriving 31 October – a crossing of 30 days against prevailing winds. During their stay in the Falklands the crew took part in numerous Christmas activities, including a special horse race for the crew of the Penola. The ship stayed in Stanley until 29 December before leaving for reaching the South Shetland Islands on 17 January 1937.
Penola left for South Georgia on 14 March 1937, with the shore part embarked. The ship arrived at Grytviken on 2 April 1937. The next day Leganger HANSEN, Salvesen’s manager at Leith arranged to have the ship towed around to Stromness.
Rymill commented that:
We met with every possible kindness from the whalers, and on 17 April the shore party sailed for home in the Coronda II, a transport ship under the command of Captain Sinclair BEGG. Our passages given to us by Messrs. Salvesen, which was only part of the generosity shown to the expedition by that firm.
The Penola sailed for the UK in early May, arriving on 4 August 1937. She made the long passage almost entirely under sail. After a few days at Falmouth, the ship continued to her final destination – Portsmouth. Six weeks after her return the Penola was sold for £1,700.
Rorke Bryan, in his book Ordeal by ice: ships of the Antarctic comments: ‘Although Penola’s contribution was limited by engine problems and lethargic sailing, her performance in ice and unchartered rocky shores was excellent’. Rymill described her as’ an admirable seaboat’ professionalism of her sailing crew, especially Robert Ryder.
On completion of the BGLE expedition Ryder returned to naval duties and when World War II started, he was serving as a lieutenant commander in HMS Warspite. In 1940, In 1940, he was promoted to be the captain of the Q-ship HMS Edgehill, which was sunk by a torpedo in the Atlantic, 200 miles west of Ireland; Ryder was adrift and alone for four days before rescue. He was promoted to commander of the frigate HMS Fleetwood and in 1941, he became the captain of the Prince Philippe which sank after a collision in the Firth of Clyde. Ryder, led the St. Nazaire Raid, codenamed ‘Operation Chariot’, on 28 March 1942. For his actions during this operation, he was one of five people awarded the Victoria Cross. Ryder took part in the Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe, on 19 August 1942. He was promoted Captain in 1948, and later served as naval attaché at Oslo.
Ryder married Constance Hilaré Myfanwy Green-Wilkinson on 26 April 1941. They had two children - Lisle (b 1943) and Susan (b 1944).
Following his retirement from the Royal Navy, Ryder stood for election to Parliament as the Conservative Party candidate for Merton and Morden at the 1950 general election. He was elected and served as a Member of Parliament for five years.
Ryder retired to live in the Old Vicarage at Wolverton, on the Queen’s Sandringham estate, in Norfolk. He was regularly a guest of the Royal Family, and he occasionally joined shooting parties on the estate. Prince Philip, Duke of EDINBURGH, knowing that Ryder was not a particularly good shot, once jokingly remarked “please don’t pepper Prince Charles.”
Ryder’s wife Hilaré died in 1982. He died on 29 June 1986, whilst on the yacht Watchdog during a sailing trip to France. He is buried at Headington Crematorium, Oxford.
Ryder was awarded the Victoria Cross on 19 May 1942. Other awards include: the Légion d'honneur, and the Croix de guerre. He was Mentioned in despatches on three different occasions. Ryder was awarded the Polar Medal with clasp.
The official citation for the award of the Victoria Cross reads:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Victoria Cross for daring and valour in the attack on the German Naval Base at St. Nazaire. ‘For great gallantry in the attack on St Nazaire. He commanded a force of small, unprotected ships in an attack on a heavily defended port and led H.M.S. Campbeltown in under intense fire from short range weapons at point blank range. Though the main object of the expedition had been accomplished in the beaching of Campbeltown, he remained on the spot conducting operations, evacuating men from Campbeltown and dealing with strong points and close-range weapons while exposed to heavy fire for one hour and sixteen minutes, and did not withdraw till it was certain that his ship could be of no use in rescuing any of the Commando Troops who were still ashore. That his Motor Gun Boat, now full of dead and wounded, should have survived and should have been able to withdraw through an intense barrage of close-range fire was almost a miracle.’ (Ryder’s medal is now held by the Imperial War Museum).
Ryder was a very modest and most reluctant hero. One biographer wrote that he was ‘brave almost beyond belief; he was as resolute as he was reserved and relentlessly self-effacing’. He is remembered in a bench that sits outside the porch of St Peter’s church in Wolferton, where he was churchwarden for twelve years. It bears the inscription:
To the memory of Captain Robert Ryder VC RN; a skilled and daring seaman; a true leader and a Christian Gentleman.
1. Penola, the expedition ship of the BGLE, was named after the birthplace of John Rymill - Penola, in South Australia.
2. One of the members of the BGLE expedition was William Launcelot Scott Fleming (1908-1990), who was the chaplain and geologist. He was ordained priest in 1934. He was awarded the Polar Medal. In later life he became a chaplain in the Royal Naval Reserve during WW2, serving in HMS Queen Elizabeth. After WW2 he became the Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, in Cambridge. and subsequently the Bishop of Portsmouth, and then the Bishop of Norwich and finally the domestic chaplain to HM Queen and dean of St George's Windsor Castle. In 1967, unusually for a bishop, Fleming piloted a bill (subsequently the Antarctic Treaty Act 1967) through the House of Lords.
Launcelot Fleming and Robert Ryder became lifelong friends.
John Rymill; Southern Lights; The Knell Press, 1986 [reprint of 1939 edition]
Rorke Bryan; Ordeal by Ice; Ships of the Antarctic; Seaforth Press; 2011
Richard Hopton; A reluctant hero: The life of Captain Robert Ryder VC; Pen & Sword Military; Illustrated edition; 29 Feb. 2012.
January 2022 Biography first added to Dictionary