By Elise Horspool
Sniper first, photographer second: Ian “Robbie” Robertson
Ian Robertson had an eye for photography – and sniping. He was considered to be one of the best marksmen in his unit, the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) during the Korean War. Robertson was chosen by Phillip Hobson to be his replacement as battalion photographer and was soon armed with both a rifle and a camera. Born on 21 February 1927 in Heidelberg, Victoria, Robertson was too young to serve in the Second World War, but enlisted in the Australian Army in 1945, continuing his family’s tradition of service.
Robertson’s grandfather, Ernest, had worked for the Argus as a printer and served in the Printing Section in Egypt during the First World War; his father, James, joined the 23rd Battalion at Gallipoli at the age of 15; his maternal great-uncle, Gideon Dare, served in the same battalion; his uncle Frank Leslie was killed during the Anzac Landings in 1915; and his uncle Albert served with No. 4 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps in France and was awarded the Military Cross in 1918. Robertson’s younger uncles, Donald, Harold and Roy, served in the Second World War. Roy became a prisoner of the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942. All three returned home. Robertson’s older brother Douglas served in the 2/5th Battalion at the age of 17; and his brother-in-law Allan Hargreaves served in 2/32nd Battalion.
Robertson attempted to enlist at the age of 15, but the recruiting officer knew his father and deterred him.
In 1946, Robertson became part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, where he met Claude Holzheimer and Phillip Hobson, official Australian Army Public Relations photographers for Japan and Korea. He also met his future wife, Miki, who he married in October 1952 in Kure. Her brother, who had served in Manchuria, gave her permission to marry Robertson, a fellow infantryman. Miki was unable to migrate to Australia until June 1953.
Robertson arrived in Japan with little to no experience and a box-brownie camera, carried by most soldiers. Under Holzheimer and Hobson’s tutelage, Robertson became the battalion photographer for the Korean War. Holzheimer supplied Robertson with printing paper and took a keen interest in the younger photographer. He also married a Japanese woman, Norie Asada, in 1952. Both Norie and Miki were from Hiroshima.
Hobson and Robertson had served together in 67 Battalion. Robertson developed his photographs with the assistance of a local Japanese photographer in Hobson’s darkroom. He had three different cameras – a Mamiya, a Canon, and finally a Zeiss Ikoflex – and charged his fellow soldiers one shilling per print. Hobson recommended Robertson as his replacement as official battalion photographer when Hobson left to join Public Relations in 1949.
Robertson served with 67 Battalion until 1948 when it became 3RAR. Chosen as a sniper in late 1949, he was considered one of the top ten marksmen in 3RAR, a battalion of over 600 men. Robertson was wounded in action in late November 1950 after the battle of Yongju when his rifle jammed and a North Korean soldier’s bullet grazed his wrist; again at Chongju when he was hit by shrapnel in the leg; and a third time in April 1951 before the battle of Kapyong when he was targeted by mortars on the “Salmon” position. He returned to Korea for a short tour in March 1953 with 1RAR.
Robertson had been taught by his father and uncles to shoot rabbits on their property in Victoria and was an exceptional marksman. In November 1951 he represented the British Commonwealth Forces Korea at the King’s Medal Shoot, Williamstown. The following year he came second in the Queen’s Medal Shoot. Serving in the Sniper Section, part of the Intelligence Section within Headquarters Company, Robertson found himself serving close to his commanding officers, Lieutenant Colonels Charles Green (who died of wounds in November 1950) and Bruce Ferguson. Robertson was a sniper first, and a photographer second.
Robertson’s photography was influenced by Hobson’s style. He certainly had an eye for photography, which was likely due to his depth perception as a sniper. Looking through a camera sight was not so different to a sniper scope. Below is a comparison of Robertson’s and Hobson’s portraiture style. Robertson’s portrait of an unidentified Australian soldier is on the left; Hobson’s is on the right. The photographs of the same subject were taken in late 1950 and 1951.
Robertson photographed his comrades while serving side by side with them, capturing more candid imagery than the formal, staged photographs of Hobson and Holzheimer whose role was to entice Australians to enlist and show a more favourable side of the war. Holzheimer also took many photographs of the Korean people as a record for the Military History Section. Robertson took portraits, photographs of the Korean landscape, the Korean people and several 3RAR unit photos (platoons, companies and officers).
Robertson returned to Australia and had three daughters with Miki. In 1970 and 1971 he served in the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam as a warrant officer class I. He died in February 2014. Hobson served as a photographer in Malaya and as a civilian public relations photographer for the Royal Australian Navy. He died in October 2006. Holzheimer served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and died in September 1969.
All three photographers had wonderfully artistic styles which capture the nuance of the Australian experience of the Korean War. The Memorial holds thousands of photographs by Hobson, Holzheimer and Robertson in the National Collection.
See a small gallery of Robertson’s photographs from Korea and Japan below: