Appreciation: Robert Lawson

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Naval commander who played a key wartime role in the sinking of the German battleship the Bismarck

Born : 18 July, 1918, in East Kilbride.

Died: 17 February, 2010, in East Linton, East Lothian, aged 91.

WHEN young Bobby Lawson volunteered for the naval reserve, his name was destined to be inextricably linked with an audacious attack on an iconic German battleship.

Winston Churchill had ordered a mission to sink the Bismarck after she destroyed the Hood – the pride of the British fleet – killing all but three of her 1,418 crew on 24 May, 1941.

Bobby, by this time a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, was one of the avenging force sent to attack the German ship later that night. In his Swordfish V4295, he was part of the formation of nine aircraft from 825 Squadron that left the new fleet carrier Victorious to carry out their mission.

Led by Lt Commander Eugene Esmonde, Bobby and his fellow pilots were all inexperienced, having been on board the ship for only a few days. They had not practiced formation attack and he had only just made his first deck landing five days previously.

But as they flew over the North Atlantic around midnight, Esmond noted a radar contact and guided his men beneath the clouds. It was only then that they discovered it was not their intended target but a US coastguard cutter.

Their cover blown, the Bismarck, six miles further south, spotted the aircraft and unleashed her firepower. The attack force broke up and headed back into the clouds. When Bobby emerged, his aircraft was alone in the skies but below him the Bismarck was perfectly positioned for him to launch an attack.

The German battleship had turned to avoid earlier torpedoes, allowing Bobby to approach from starboard and let loose his torpedo in a single act of determination. His observer, acting Sub Lt F L Robinson, witnessed a column of water rise from the Bismarck's starboard side and forever maintained that his torpedo had hit the target. Historian Ludovic Kennedy and German archive material later confirmed that it was one of only two torpedoes to strike the vessel.

Having completed his mission Bobby banked away, under a hail of gunfire, and headed home to Victorious, almost running out of fuel on the way.

Although the Bismarck did not go down that night, Bobby was mentioned in despatches for his actions and a few days later the Home Fleet finished the job, sinking the pride of the enemy's fleet.

Three years later, Lt Commander Bobby Lawson's skill and determination earned him another mention in despatches, when he led attacks from the carrier Indomitable.

But his exploits with the Fleet Air Arm were only one facet of an extraordinary life which saw him go from aerial photographer to heroic pilot, pioneering businessman in Turkey to croft owner in the Highlands. Born in East Kilbride, he spent his childhood in Winnipeg in Canada and Michigan in the US, before becoming an aerial photographer. He was only 20 when he was named the official aerial photographer at the Empire Exhibition, Glasgow.

After volunteering for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on the eve of the Second World War, he and four friends formed the "Black Hand Gang". They each wore a black-banded gold ring, with Bobby sporting his for most of his life.

Following the Bismarck hunt, he continued honing his skills at convoy torpedo attacks and mine-laying while based in Malta and most notably, to his remorse, sank an Italian ammunition ship.

He was a pilot instructor with 786 Squadron, based in Crail in 1942, before taking command of 838 Squadron.

Then the following year, while based at Machrihanish, he conducted deck-landing trials in the carriers Activity and Rapana. That October he took command of 815 Naval Air Squadron when it re-equipped at Lee-on-Solent with Barracuda torpedo bombers.

And he went on to lead attacks from the carrier Indomitable on Emma Haven, Sumatra, in August 1944, on Sigli in September 1944 and the Nicobar Islands a month later, leading to his second mention in despatches. During the pre-flight briefings, he had been warned of the islands to avoid if forced to crash land as they were inhabited by head-hunters.

Post-war, Bobby joined J&P Coats, the Glasgow-based thread manufacturer, and created its business in Turkey from nothing. He was a Confederation of British Industry representative, became chairman of the British-Turkish Chamber of Commerce and was awarded the OBE for his role in promoting British companies in Turkey.

Bobby stayed on in Instanbul as a consultant after retiring and before returning to Scotland, where he settled near Aberfoyle. His love of the Highlands led to him buying a croft in Sutherland as his principal home. He also had a flat in Bridge of Allan, where he would rendezvous with his family to whom he was devoted.

In his heyday he had excelled at tennis, taking the Scottish Junior Championship in 1938. His other interests were swimming and stone polishing but he had few hobbies outside his family.

Survived by his wife Aileen, whom he married in 1942, and his three sons, Duncan, Roderick and Robert, he was a man of compassion and selflessness, courtesy and consideration and will be remembered for those qualities.

ALISON SHAW