Robert Hichens

The Unit is named after a local hero who was a Commander of a Gunboat floatila during the Second World War.

Mr Hichens' son is the present day Vice President of the Unit, and has an active roll on the UMC (Unit Managment Committee).

Robert Hichens Although his family was from Falmouth Robert was born in Northampton in 1909. He spent much of his youth in Falmouth sailing dinghies that he had built himself, while staying at the family home. He also spent some time in Guernsey, where his father retired due to ill health after the First World War. At this point he gained a good knowledge of the waters around the Channel Islands, which would stand him in good stead when he later led gunboats there.

At Marlborough College he joined the Officer Training Corp, and at Magdelen College Oxford, where he gained his M.A. he rowed for his college. On leaving, settled for the quiet life of a solicitor joining an old established firm in Falmouth.

Through his membership of the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club, he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Supplementary Reserve, but had still to gain his master’s ticket when the war started. His call-up papers not having come immediately, he wrote to the Navy threatening to join the Tank Corps. The hint was taken and he found himself at the officers’ training school at King Alfred, Brighton. Considered too old for the little ships, his first vessel was a fleet minesweeper.

Almost immediately he was involved in the maelstrom of Dunkirk. Four times he went back to the beaches. Hichens saw that soldiers were expected to row themselves out to the waiting ships, even though they hardly knew one end of an oar from the other. He went back to his ship for a rope – and was told if he went back ashore he would have to make his own way home for the ship was leaving.

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He went back and stretched the rope from the shore to one of the rescue craft. The soldiers were now able to pull themselves off the beach much more quickly and safely. Hichens got a lift back in a yacht and was awarded the D.S.C.

In November, after further training, he joined a motor gunboat flotilla, and soon showed that, despite the physical strains in these bouncy craft, greater maturity was not the hindrance, but a blessing. In the hands of heavy-footed youngsters they were constantly breaking down without achieving very much.

After proving how valuable the gunboats could be Hichens was appointed to the 6th Flotilla, under the command of Lt. Peter Howes, R.N. In February 1941, Hichens became the first RNVR officer to have command of a gunboat. In September, Howes was posted to another station, and on his recommendation Hichens became the first RNVR officer to command a flotilla. This was not an easy time to take over. Howes had done a splendid job, creating the first successful gunboat unit and proving their usefulness, but there was still a strong feeling among the regulars, both officers and men, to transfer to bigger ships to see more action. In a short time they had nearly all been replaced by “Hostilities Only” men, for whom Hichens had a high regard. Although some had never been to sea before, their dedication was such that they learned their trades remarkably quickly, put up with difficult conditions with hardly a complaint.

Increasingly, the action was now taking place on the other side of the water, to the great advantage of our coastal shipping and fishing.

Hichens had a constant struggle to get the gun boats adequately equipped. Starting as submarine hunters, they had machine-guns and depth charges. A daring and skilful helmsman could drop the depth charges under bigger craft, like armed trawlers, which was quite effective.

Lewis guns were a great help, despite their tendency to jam (he was insistent on careful maintenance) and proved, in the face of official scepticism, that a two-pounder gun could be useful on the foredeck. Fittings like gun mountings, were often too heavy. He sometimes likened his boats more to aircraft than other warships, and would have welcomed hydrofoils for speed and stability.

He hardly ever made a mistake in action and he took on unbelievable odds – the night when, with one lagging companion, he drove six heavily-armed E-boats from the convoy route is one example and when he came back he was able to write clear reports, which is a great help to his senior officers. Some of these reports were masterpieces, especially when he wanted to tell the whole truth without giving away one of his own team who hand not done as well as he should, and whom he preferred to put on the right lines in his own way.

He proved himself over and over again. He was awarded the D.S.O. and bar, the D.S.C. and two bars, and was three times mentioned in Despatches, but stopped his Commanding Officer from recommending him for the V.C. because he said, he had made too many others share the risks of the action concerned. (to rescue under fire the crew of a sinking gunboat).

Fellow Cornishman Rear Admiral Hugh Hext Rogers wrote of him: “No one who met him casually could realise that he was a great man in action; he had quiet ways and a quiet voice; he looked quiet, but he had developed a cold courage that took a lot of beating.

In April of 1943 Hichens was having torpedoes fitted to his boat. While this was being done he went out in a friends vessel to help test a new compressed-air mortar recently developed by Holman’s of Camborne. This necessitated charging in very close to a German patrol boat. To let the skipper of the boat get a better view, Hichens took over the helm. As they turned and sped away, a shell caught him causing a fatal injury.

 

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