Rear-Admiral Robert Philip Welland
During the Korean War, he commanded the Canadian destroyer Athabaskan, shelling shore batteries on the Yellow Sea coast of western Korea (once holding fire so that several hundred labourers who were building gun emplacements could escape before he blew up their handiwork).
Other operations included clearing mines in river estuaries; rescuing refugees lost at sea in open boats; transporting food to lighthouse keepers marooned on remote islands; and arming and training islanders to defend themselves.
When wounded civilians were brought to Athabaskan by local fishermen, the ship’s doctor operated on Welland’s dining room table. One patient was a six-year-old girl who had been shot in the chest ; during the two weeks it took her to recuperate, her mother stayed on board and helped in the galley.
In December 1950 Welland’s ship was one of six Allied destroyers which entered the Taedong estuary to protect UN forces during their evacuation of Chinnampo: two ran aground, but Welland crossed the bar of the heavily-mined river at night and, at low water and in intermittent snow storms, steamed 20 miles upriver.
Arming and launching his boats to escort the numerous junks carrying North Koreans who wished to escape the advancing Chinese, he used his guns to destroy tanks and troops on both banks as he led a procession of small craft downstream.
Athabaskan was awarded the South Korean presidential citation. Welland, meanwhile, was appointed to the American Legion of Merit, and the British awarded him a bar to an earlier DSC for his leadership, courage and initiative. He received his award in London, where he commanded the Royal Canadian Navy contingent at the Coronation.
Robert Phillip Welland was born on March 7 1918 at Oxbow, Saskatchewan, and, having joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1936, was sent for training with the Royal Navy.
He started as a cadet below the status of an able seaman and for the next three years, by his own account, “slept in a hammock and pushed a wire brush up 10ft-long boiler-tubes; learned about anchors and cables and how to handle them on a stormy night; read Morse code at 30 words a minute; became familiar on how to make the ocean’s salty water fit to drink; was part of the crew in a six-inch gun turret that hurled shells 12 miles; sailed a 27ft whaler around Tobago; navigated a 10,000-ton cruiser from Aden via the Seychelles to Singapore using my own sextant; learned the rules to duck hurricanes and danced with the taxi girls in Penang.”
When war was declared in 1939 he was a 21-year-old sub-lieutenant in the destroyer Fame. He stayed in the ship for eight months, in December 1939 escorting the first convoy of Canadian soldiers to Britain. He was “blooded” in attacks by bombers and U-boats during the Norwegian campaign.
In spring 1940 Welland joined his first Canadian ship, the destroyer St Laurent, seeing action off St Valery-en-Caux when the ship’s boats, attempting to rescue the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, were driven off by German tank fire. Then, on July 2, Welland took part in one of the biggest rescues of the war after the liner Arandora Star, carrying 1,216 German and Italian internees, was torpedoed off Ireland.
Some 800 oil-soaked bodies were pulled from the sea; only 586 people survived to be landed in Glasgow 30 hours later.
In 1943, when Welland took command of the destroyer Assiniboine, his mother wrote to him: “Bobby, aren’t you a bit young at 25 to be a destroyer captain?” He replied: “Aren’t you a bit young at 39 to be my mother?”
That was the year, Welland noted, when “we switched roles with the Germans; now we were winning and hunting them down.” Ninety per cent of the merchant ships under his protection arrived safely.
He also enjoyed the speed and acceleration of Assiniboine, and his sailors nicknamed him “Rapid Robert”. He was mentioned in despatches.
At war’s end, in the destroyer Haida, he helped to liberate Trondheim, which had been under German occupation for five years and where there were some 84,000 German troops. He sent his unarmed libertymen ashore to celebrate with the locals, but warned them not to pick any fights with Germans as they were outnumbered by 1,000 to one.
After the Korean War, Welland commanded the officer training school HMCS Venture in Esquimalt; the Canadian cruiser Ontario; and the naval air station HMCS Shearwater, where he operated more than 100 naval aircraft .
In 1960 he was promoted commodore and spent two years in Ottawa, working on the design of a new ship class and the introduction of big helicopters to the fleet. He was involved with the Defence Research Board and advances in sonar when the RCN was the leading Nato navy in hunting down submarines.
Just before the Cuban missile crisis, Welland became the seagoing commander of the Canadian fleet, having under his command 41 ships and four squadrons of aircraft.
In August 1964 he was promoted to rear-admiral, one of the youngest officers of his rank. But he opposed the unification of the Canadian armed forces, and resigned in 1966.
In retirement Welland was a director of the Canadian Air Industry Association and president of his own air traffic control company. He was also awarded the Canadian Decoration.
Bob Welland, who died on May 28 (2010), was predeceased by both his wife, Stephanie, and his companion of many years, Margot Hanington. He is survived by three sons and a daughter.