Obituary Courtesy of the Telegraph
Sir Robert Atkinson, who died aged 98, won three DSCs commanding corvettes in the Battle of the Atlantic. A highly rated marine engineer and businessman, he chaired British Shipbuilders in the bleak early 1980s, making one last effort to keep the industry competitive.
Atkinson arrived at BS with the company losing £100 million a year . He embarked on an aggressive campaign to turn it around and for a time succeeded. Fiercely patriotic in the face of Far Eastern competition, he even banned visitors’ Japanese cars from his yards. Ironically, when shipbuilding ended on the Wear after his departure in 1983, Nissan was recruiting for its new factory nearby.
Robert Atkinson was born at Tynemouth on March 7 1916, the son of a civil engineer. His elder brother was the theologian Prof James Atkinson, who, Robert reckoned, saved him from drowning off the Tynemouth coast four times when they were children.
Atkinson read Engineering at London University and joined the Royal Naval Reserve. As a lieutenant, he commanded the corvettes Anemone, Pink and Tintagel Castle, mainly protecting Atlantic convoys. He won his first DSC in 1941, bars to it in 1943 and 1945, and in 1943 was mentioned in despatches.
In May 1943 Pink became detached from convoy ONS-5, escorting four stragglers. They were 80 miles behind when a positive ASDIC echo was heard at a range of 2,200 yards. Atkinson, despite being short of fuel, launched six attacks on the target, four by depth charges and two using Hedgehog projectiles.
Fifteen minutes later an explosion was heard, and Atkinson thought he had sunk the submarine. The Admiralty credited him with a “Probably Sunk”, but remarkably U-358 struggled home, badly damaged. To Atkinson’s chagrin, during the attack an American merchantman under his protection was sunk by U-584.
In the final month of the war Atkinson’s Tintagel Castle secured an undisputed kill. A depth charge attack with the destroyer Vanquisher sank U-878 in the Bay of Biscay west of St Nazaire.
Demobilised a lieutenant-commander, Atkinson went into shipbuilding and in 1957 became managing director of William Doxford, Sunderland. Four years later he took charge at Tube Investments, and from 1968 he ran Unicorn Industries and Universal Grinding, quitting the latter after three successful years in a dispute with the board. His acumen brought him several directorships, and for three years he was industrial director of the merchant bank Keyser Ullmann.
In 1972 Atkinson left the City for Sheffield to chair Aurora Gear and Engineering . Over the next six years the company increased its workforce from 1,300 to 8,500, and by 1980 it owned four steelworks.
The tide turned with that year’s steelworkers’ strike which began in the British Steel Corporation and spread to the private sector. A deep recession followed, in which Aurora came close to collapse. Atkinson, non-executive chairman until 1984, was instrumental in closing unprofitable subsidiaries and selling others.
Atkinson was a candidate to chair BSC, but Sir Keith Joseph preferred the Scottish-born American banker Ian MacGregor. Instead, in May 1980 he succeeded Admiral Sir Anthony Griffin as chairman of British Shipbuilders, nationalised by Labour in 1977 . Confronted by heavy losses and falling productivity, Atkinson set himself the goal of making BS profitable by 1984. He split the company into five divisions — warship, merchant, repairing, marine engineering and offshore — and “threw away the kid gloves” over productivity after discovering that it took BS 50 per cent more man hours to build a bulk carrier than its competitors. With Japanese yards winning two-thirds of global orders, he secured £110 million in government support.
His quest for new business suffered a setback when the state-owned British National Oil Company ordered one semi-submersible from France and another from Norway. It took the intervention of David Howell, energy secretary, for a third order to go to BS’s Scott Lithgow. Nor was the company helped by the MoD paying late for warships because of its own cashflow problems; Atkinson accused the ministry of “bureaucracy and sloth”. Nevertheless new business was won from abroad and costs were brought down . By mid-1982 BS’s loss was down to £19.8 million, the lowest since nationalisation, and at the end of the year Atkinson was knighted.
Yet BS was heading for trouble again. Japan had responded to increased British competitiveness by raising its subsidies. In March 1983 the government announced that the Canadian businessman Graham Day would succeed Atkinson with the remit of putting the yards back into the private sector, but by the time he arrived as deputy chairman that July, BS was facing a major crisis. Atkinson denounced Scott Lithgow workers as “5,800 deaf men” who had let the industry down by failing to deliver on two critical orders Mrs Thatcher had steered to the yard. Only that autumn did they agree to end restrictive practices, and demarcation between trades. Leaving BS in November, Atkinson watched from the sidelines as most of its merchant yards closed, or folded after privatisation.
Atkinson chaired the British Standards Institution’s engineering and design committee from 1984 to 1987. He was awarded the North East Coast Institution of Engineering and Shipbuilders’ James Clayton Medal in 1981. He also published several books on shipbuilding and marine engineering.
Robert Atkinson married first, in 1941, Joyce Forster; they had a son and a daughter. She died in 1973 and in 1977 he married, secondly, Margaret Walker.