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The Piper of Tobruk: Pipe Major Robert Roy MBE, DCM

The Piper of Tobruk: Pipe Major Robert Roy MBE, DCM

Alice Soper
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Every Regiment can turn out an individual who is known throughout the Regiment and beyond due to their deeds and often their character and the Black Watch have done this in spades with this book. This small book brings us the very full, but relatively short life of Robert Roy MBE, DSC; The Piper of Tobruk.

A regular soldier, Roy joined the army in the mid 1930s and by the time WW2 started he was a Sergeant and Pipe Major of 2nd Bn BW. The battalion were in the Middle East in various places, Palestine, Somalia, Egypt before being sent to Crete just before the Germans invaded. The Battalion had a hard fight but were surprised when they found out they were to be evacuated as they thought they had the upper hand. By this time Roy had been wounded and was in a joint British/German hospital. When the British evacuated he was left as a prisoner. Moved to Greece he recovered from his wounds in a PoW camp and as he still had his pipes used them to entertain both prisoners and captors. One evening, after piping for German officers, Roy escaped by just walking out of the camp. He then made his way, with the very brave help of some Greek families, to Syria where he found his Battalion had been sent to just walked in to camp and reported for duty in the civilian clothes he had been loaned by the Greek families. Resuming his role as Pipe Major the battalion’s next move was to Tobruk, which was under siege, a part of the replacement for the Australians who had held out so well for weeks against the Germans. Roy was annoyed that he was not allowed to play his pipes as the officers did not want the Germans to realise that a handover was in place.

When it came time to break out from the siege, the Black Watch were in the van and were piped forward by Robert Roy who was quickly wounded, once, then again and finally in the ankle forcing him to stop, but not stop piping. For these actions he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Following the breakout from Tobruk the Battalion was sent to Syria again to rest and refit. While there the Japanese entered the war and the Bn was sent to India and began work-up training within their Division in preparation for taking on the Japanese. However, the decision was made to turn the Bn into Chindits under Maj Gen Orde Wingate for action in Burma. The Bn was therefore split into two columns rather than acting as a complete Bn which caused some internal reorganisation. Roy had been away from UK for 6 years now and it was decided to return Roy to the UK and Roy, by this time a Company Sergeant Major was posted to the Depot. After about six months of this Roy was getting bored and volunteered to return to an active Bn and was sent to 7 BW, joining them in Holland in Oct 1944. Roy stayed with 7BW and fought with them to the war’s end in Europe. The Bn finally settled in to their occupation duties in Duisberg.

There was a strict ‘no fraternisation’ rule but Roy met a young German woman that he fell in love with and determined to marry. Brunhilde, later known as Hilda, was a lot younger than Roy, was a war widow with one child. Roy cared little for this and fell deeply in love with Hilda. This caused a lot of difficulties as many of his contemporaries felt that this fraternisation was not a good thing. The story becomes a little confusing here and Roy’s rank seems to fluctuate a lot over the next few years. At this point it appears he is RSM of the Battalion but after being reported for wanting to marry a German he seems to have lost the WO1 spot and reverted to WO2 CSM. He was reported by one of his own CSMs. Life was made difficult for Roy and he did not get paid when he expected so could not take leave. He wrote to senior BW officers complaining about the actions taken against him, pointing out he was in the invidious position of being a former RSM and still with the Bn. He asked to be posted away to somewhere that he could work towards getting the WO1 badge back. He was still determined to marry Hilda. Posted back to UK he was sent to a TA unit and settled in there but also working towards getting Hilda back to the UK so they could marry. This took time, much anxiety and money but eventually return they did. Again during this period ranks are a bit strange and initially it is difficult to follow what role he was in and what rank he held; it appears though that he became RSM of the TA unit and settled down to married life with a child of their own coming along. This was a very happy time for Roy and he made sure he maintained his piping prowess even though that was not his job any more. He was invited to Brussels by Brigadier Fergusson to meet and pipe for General Eisenhower on the General’s retiral and return to the USA. Roy also was invited to pipe at several weddings of senior BW officers..

Roy’s nest posting was a Garrison Sergeant Major to Gibraltar where the family spent a happy few years until things started to kick off in the Middle East, and Suez, so families were sent back to UK. Roy remained of course and carried on as GSM Gibraltar, taking a great interest in the pipe and drums of the Gibraltar Sea Scouts. Roy was getting older and realised that he would shortly have to leave the army and was looking round for suitable civilian employment. He received much advice and officers from former officers of the BW, some at home, some abroad. Before all that though he was posted back to Edinburgh as Edinburgh Garrison Sergeant Major, settling in to that post but still looking for a home and job post army. At about this time Roy was invested with the honour Member of the British Empire (MBE). In 1960 he was asked if he would be the Lone Piper at the Tattoo and he was delighted to be asked and looked forward to this. He moved in to Edinburgh Castle Mess for this task but before the Tattoo started he collapsed and died, suddenly, with a brain aneurysm, a family trait which had taken both his grandmother and brother. He was just 51 years old.

This ended a long and full military career and the last part of this book contains many letters of condolence from very senior officers and also men he had served with, all praising Robert’s character and service. His funeral was a full military one which saw among the mourners the Colonel of the Regiment, a former Colonel of the Regiment and Brigadier Fergusson along with many comrades from his service days. Brigadier Fergusson wrote the obituary for the Regimental magazine, “The Red Hackle” in which he says Robert Roy was the most famous soldier of his generation. He finished the obit with “It is given to few, to do as much. He was a grand man.”

And so, this small book ends. Robert Roy; soldier, PoW, escapee, piper, Regimental Sergeant Major, Garrison Sergeant Major – quite a character and a great member of the Black Watch.

The book is short just over a hundred pages and is written by his daughter, who herself is married to a former BW officer. There are some confusing bits regarding his rank and role but they a minor a couple of small errors calling a CSM Command Sergeant Major and the medal ribbons shown in the photographs section have not been correctly identified. Although the photograph is in monochrome I can work out what they are and the last one appears to be the Meritorious Service Medal which has not been mentioned in the story. Also the Oak Leaf indicates a Mention in Despatches which again the author, not being military, did not appreciate its significance. It is placed on the ribbon of the 39-45 War Medal. Now these are just narks to a bit of a pedant like me and should not detract in any way from the story of this great character told with very obvious love by his daughter, who sadly did not have much time with her father before his untimely death.

A real gem of a book and it gets a welcome 4 Mr MRHs.

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