A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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AB Sydney Compston DSM (1919-2010)

Sydney Compston (1939)Sydney Compston (2010)Sydney Compston volunteered for the Royal Navy in November 1939 and was accepted just before he received his call-up papers for the local infantry regiment. After initial training at HMS Drake in Devonport, Plymouth, he was posted to HMS Venomous and remained aboard until its refit at Troon following the collision with HMS Keppel in December 1941. He was aboard during the action at Boulogne when Venomous evacuated the Welsh and Irish Guards on the 23 May 1940 and on five trips to the north Mole and beaches at Dunkirk where from his post at B Gun he saw General Alexander, the commanding officer of the BEF, on the open bridge.

Sydney's memory of his time on Venomous was exceptionally good and he made a very significant contribution to the new edition of A Hard Fought Ship. He described the fitting of ASDIC during the refit at Portsmouth in 1940 and contrasted this modern technology to detect U-boats with the cutlasses which in the tradition of Nelson's navy were stored ready for use. His name crops up repeatedly in the index and he recalled many incidents for the book and the names of shipmates for adding to the list of ratings.

Sydney came to the book launch wearing the green beret and dagger of the Royal Navy Commandos

Sydney Compston was the sight setter on 'B' gun at action stations but acted as Bosun's Mate on normal duty (cruising stations or harbour duty). Venomous had four bosuns mates; when not at action stations two were on the Port Watch and two on the Starboard Watch. Sydney's role as Bosuns mate on cruising stations was to be bridge messenger and engine telegraph operator (passing the commands for engine speed down to the engine room). The Quartermaster, an AB like Sydney, was the helmsman on cruising stations and in charge of the gangway in port responsible for access on and off the ship, and the Bosun's mate was his assistant. Sydney was Bosun's mate on Port watch; his Quartermaster was William H. Nickless, J100855, known as "Tubby" (the nickname gives a clue to his physique). At action stations the ship would be steered by the Coxswain (a CPO).

Sydney remembers Bosun's mate, "Teddy" Weeks, being washed overboard in an Atlantic gale on 8 October 1941 (and an officer's steward breaking his arm when the ship rolled). In accordance with Naval tradition his possessions were auctioned and the money raised sent to his widow. George A. ("Arnie") Birkin, a gunlayer on “A” Gun, who joined Venomous at the same time as Teddy Weeks, made the successful bid for his bosun’s call and his son, Malcolm Birkin, who lives in South Africa still has it and sent this photograph.

Bosun's Call

A Bosun's mate wore his Call on a light chain round his neck and "piped" when he had a message to convey from the Quartermaster or the officer of the watch. There were certain standard "pipes" with set meanings such as "still" , a single long note used to bring hands on the upper deck to attention when saluting passing ships, and "pipe down" (eg lights out) with two high pips and a falling trill. The Call was also used for "piping the side", saluting a senior officer coming aboard or leaving.

Sydney Compston left Venomous during the refit at Troon after the collision with HMS Keppel on 12 November 1941. He was posted to the fast mine layer HMS Abdiel as part of a skeleton crew during a refit followed by a shore posting at Plymouth before being transferred to the newly formed Royal Naval Commandos.

The Royal Naval Commandos were responsible for establishing, maintaining and controlling beachheads during amphibious operations. Each of the 22 Royal Naval Commando units was commanded by a lieutenant commander or commander and consisted of 10 officers and 65 ratings organised into three parties, each of 25 men. AB Sydney Compston (D/JX 169001) was assigned to Royal Navy Beach Commando Fox (RNBC Fox) which trained at Inverkip Camp, June to July 1942.

The beach commandos were "key men in the complex machinery of amphibious operations. Every man must be able to handle any weapon from a revolver to a heavy gun, drive a vehicle from a motor cycle to a heavy tank and handle any kind of boat from a dingy to a tank landing craft. They rule the beach on any landing in enemy territory. Their officer, the beach master, who may  be merely a sub  lieutenant, is in absolute control of a landing. They land with the very first wave of commandos or assault troops, make a swift 'recce' of the beach to decide whether it was safe for the operation in hand. When the whole area has been surveyed the beach master lies down at the water's edge with his bodyguard alongside him facing inland, and signals in the oncoming craft" (contemporary press report).

HMS Armadillo, training camp for RN Commandos Sydney Compston and RNBC Fox took part in the landings at Algiers and at Sicily. His old ship was not far away. Venomous was escorting HMS Hecla and Vindictive to the invasion beaches at Algiers when Hecla was torpedoed in November 1942 and escorted the liners carrying the troops and their LCT to Augusta in Sicily in July 1943. He returned home on leave and married Wini (Winifred) Brain, the girl he was stepping out with before the war when they both worked at the British Federal Welder and Machine Company in Dudley.

While Venomous, its engines shot, returned to Falmouth for a major refit lasting several months the Royal Navy Commandos prepared for the landing on the Normandy beaches. They trained at HMS Armadillo, a shore base at Ardentinny on Loch Long, Scotland (see right). On 6th June 1944 RNBC Fox was assigned as Beach Masters body guard for Sword beach and Sydney was one of the first people ashore on Queen Red Beach (the eastern end of Sword). The beach master at Sword was a 24 year old lieutenant, later Rear Admiral "Teddy" Gueritz, who organised the flow of 30,000 troops and material into the beachhead on the first day.

Sword Beach
Early on in the morning Sydney was badly wounded by machine gun fire. While lying wounded on the beach he witnessed Lord Lovat's piper, Bill Millin, play the Royal Marine Commandos ashore: "Lord Lovat said this was going to be the greatest invasion in the history of warfare and he wanted the bagpipes leading it. He said I was to play and he would worry about the consequences later." Bill Millin walked up and down the beach at the water's edge playing a series of tunes over the noise of battle despite the fact many of his comrades were falling around him. He said he felt so helpless as he walked among the wounded wanting medical help but for Sydney and many other soldiers his playing boosted morale at a critical time. Piper Bill Millin is in the foreground on the right in the MOD photograph of the Royal Marines landing on Queen Red Beach.

The "Wound Certificate" completed by Sub Lt S.E. Willis RNVR of RNBC Fox and signed by its CO, Lt Cdr W.G. Payne SANF, states that: "while crawling up Queen Red beach, Sword Area, they came under machine gun fire. AB S. Compston was hit in the back whereupon he was moved to the beach dressing station, and subsequently evacuated to the UK." For his actions on D-day Sydney was awarded the DSM.

After recovering from his wound he was scheduled to be transferred to the far east but the war ended before that took place.  He decided he didn't want to return to his pre-war factory job or work in the family bakery business so he took advantage of a retraining scheme to become a farm worker and moved from his native town of Sedgley to rural Hereford and Worcestershire. Sydney and Wini had two children, Jean and Brian, and had been married for more than sixty years when Wini died last year. Jean lived in France and Brian returned home to look after his elderly parents and drove Sydney to the book launch at the RN Museum in Portsmouth on the 14 April 2010 where he was photographed with other veterans of HMS Venomous and HMS Hecla. He died later that year on the 17 November while convalescing in a care home after a fall.

A new hardback edition of A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous was published on 9 May 2017 and Midshipman Stephen Barney was the only veteran of HMS Venomous able to attend the launch at the Royal College of Defence Studies in Belgrave Square, London.

The story of HMS Venomous is told by Bob Moore and Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret) in
A Hard Fought Ship
  Buy the new hardback edition online for 29 post free in the UK
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations



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