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Navy honours WW2 veteran Captain Rolfe on his 100th birthday

22 November 2023
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There can be no finer way for a sailor to celebrate a birthday than surrounded by comrades, enjoying a tot, cake and the odd naval anecdote.

And at 100 years old, Captain Rolfe Monteith probably has more than a few from service under two flags.

In a distinguished career spanning nearly 30 years, the officer served in both British and Canadian warships through the hardest days of WW2 through to the challenges of the Cold War.

Originally from Ontario, he arrived in the UK in 1941 to begin his officer training – alongside 30 fellow Canadians – at Britannia Royal Naval College.

Dartmouth acted as the alma mater not merely for officers joining the Royal Navy and those of the Dominions including New Zealand, South Africa and India, but also volunteers from occupied Norway, Denmark, Belgium and France.

In late 1943 Capt Monteith was assigned to new destroyer HMS Hardy at Scapa Flow to complete his training through practical experience on an operational warship.

In mid-October, Hardy sailed with Canadian ships HMCS Haida and HMCS Iroquois and the destroyers HMS Janus and HMS Vigilant, as escort to the battleship HMS Anson, carrying a relief garrison to the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen – more than 500 miles north of the North Cape.

“These Arctic Convoy trips were dangerous affairs, on route to Murmansk and Archangel we fell under almost constant surveillance by the Germans,” Capt Monteith recalled.

“Being in the engineering branch, I naturally came to the attention of the squadron engineer, who insisted I operate all the machinery in the ship, even if a compartment were blacked out.

“It was an invaluable lesson in damage control, especially on the convoys from Scapa Flow to Russia where we could expect attacks by German U-boats and Luftwaffe aircraft at any time.”

His draft to Hardy ended in the final days of 1943. Barely a month later, the destroyer was hit by a German torpedo. HMS Venus took off survivors before sinking the hulk, but 35 of the Canadian’s former shipmates were lost.

From a relatively small force of barely 1,800 officers and men crewing just 11 fighting vessels at the outbreak of World War 2, by the war’s end the Royal Canadian Navy was the fifth largest fleet. Canadians sank more than 30 U-boats, and seized or destroyed over 40 surface ships at a cost of 33 vessels and 1,797 souls.

After the war, he continued in service and retrained as an air engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy, going on to serve as air engineer officer on aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent, then as project manager for the Canadian hydrofoil project and as Director of Fleet Maintenance.

He left the RCN in 1970, emigrated to the UK, eventually settling in Devonport, and worked with Babcock until 1983, and thereafter as a private consultant, travelling the world on behalf of British industry.

Capt Monteith was surprised on his milestone birthday by Devonport Naval Base Commander Brigadier Mike Tanner and Captain of the Base Captain David Preece, who presented the centenarian with a cake and a specially-labelled bottle of Rum, produced by one of the staff at the Naval Base.

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