A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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HMS Venomous at Falmouth
Conversion to an Air Target Ship and the start of her final Commission
October 1943 - August 1944


Sub Lt W.R. Forster RAF, Aldeburgh 1919Lt(E) W R Forster RNR 1943My father was 43 and the father of three sons when he was called up for service in the Royal Navy and sent to HMS Forte, the shore base at Falmouth, before joining HMS Venomous. I was six years old when he returned home in 1946. I asked the question  all children asked their fathers, "what did you do in the war"? He told me about HMS Venomous and said he was on an Arctic Convoy to Archangel in North Russia. The names of HMS Venomous and Archangel stuck in my memory.

After my retirement from the University of Hertfordshire Press in 2003 I began researching the life of my father who spent "forty years at sea" as a marine engineer and served in both World Wars. He was born in 1900 at Gateshead on the opposite bank of the Tyne from Newcastle and on his eighteenth birthday,  3 April 1918, three day after the establishment of the Royal Air Force, he enlisted in the RAF and after commissioning as Sub Lt W.R. Forster RAF served as an Observer Gunner in Short 184 Seaplanes at Houton Bay Air Station on Scapa Flow, Orkney, on anti-submarine patrol. After the war he completed a trade apprenticeship as a fitter at a shipyard on the Tyne and joined Eagle Oil as a junior engineer on oil tankers and by 1933 was a Chief Engineer on tramps. In 1938 after 18 months as the shipbuilder's Guarantee Chief Engineer for RFA Aldersdale he left the sea and worked for the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate of the Air MInistry inspecting the work of the Rolls Royce inspectors of Merlin Engines at a greenfield "shadow factory" near Crewe. In October 1943 the Royal Navy decided they needed him more than the Air Ministry and Lt(E) William Redvers Forster RNR was posted to the Engineering Office of HMS Forte at Falmouth and joined HMS Venomous during her refit.

Falmouth and HMS Venomous played an important part in my father's life and inspired me to publish a new edition of a small pocket book about HMS Venomous written and self published by Bob Moore, the CO of TS Venomous, the Sea Cadet Unit at Loughborough. After the death of Bob Moore in 2007 Capt John Rodgaard USN (Ret) took over as lead author. I published a 389 page paperback in 2010 and a 480 pages larger format hardback edition with five new chapters and 258 photographs in 2017. This led to me setting up a website for the V & W Destroyer Association to tell the story of all these elderly destroyers built at the end of World War 1 which were brought out of "retirement" in the Reserve Fleet to escort Atlantic and Arctic Convoys.

I had no plans for a fourth  edition of A Hard Fought Ship (2017) and decided to resume work on the uncompleted account of my father's life, Forty Years at Sea: a voyage with my father. My wife is from Hamburg, the daughter of a doctor who served in the German Kriegsmarine during the war. After we met on an EU funded exchange programme between universities we had a wonderful holiday together in Cornwall at Carwinion on the Helford river but had never visited Falmouth. We decided to rent an apartment off Castle Drive, the road leading to Pendennis Castle at the entrance to Carrick Roads and Falmouth harbour.

Officers at HMS Forte, c1943
Eng Capt Sydney G. Roch RN was Base Maintenance Engineer at HMS Forte, Lt Cdr W.C.G. Keats RN his deputy and Lt(E) William R. Forster RNR and Lt(E) H.D. Seed RNVR were on his staff
The names of those present were recorded on the reverse but the occasion is not noted or the location but is assumed to be in Falmouth, probably HMS Forte 1
See the entries from the Navy List for the second quarter of 1944 below
Copyright reserved

Navy List, 2nd quarter 1944, HMS Forte, Falmouth
Navy List, 2nd quarter 1944, HMS Forte, Falmouth

HMS Forte was selected as the name for the Falmouth Naval Base when it was commissioned on the 24th August 1939. The name was traditional, having been used for various ships and shore establishments since 1799. It was initially based in the Tregwynt, now the Membly Hall Hotel but subsequently expanded to three other locations. The Treqwynt, Naval HQ, became Forte I and acquired an underground plotting room manned by WRNS which was to become a centre for planning the St Nazaire raid. Forte II was based in the Imperial Hotel just outside the entrance to the docks which provided further admin support, a sick bay etc. The location of Forte III was in Taylor's Garage overlooking the inner harbour which is now the Trago Mill discount store. There was a lookout on the roof and its special function was contraband control. Forte IV was based at wharves on the Penryn River between Falmouth and that town and was a coastal forces base. It also was involved in the St Nazaire raid. HMS Forte was finally paid-off on the 31st January 1946. Most of this information comes from Shore Establishments of the Royal Navy (Maritime Books, 2000) by Ben Warlow.

It is a reasonable assumption that Capt Roch was the organiser of the meeting as well as hosting it at HMS Forte in Falmouth and that it was in some way related to his role as Base Maintenance Engineer. It is tempting to assume it was to do with preparing the Landing Ship Tanks (LST) for the Normandy Landings since they were critical to the success of the landings and very few RN marine engineers were familiar with them (they were built in the USA) but other explanations have also been suggested.My best chance of finding out anything further about this meeting would be if I were contacted by the families of the men (and one woman, 3rd Officer Dickerson) in the photograph. If you visit this page do please e-mail me.

It has not been possible to identify with certainty all the officers listed on the reverse of the photograph but they came from RN shore bases in the south of Britain including HMS Drake, the Devonport Dockyard at Plymouth (Eng Capt H.H. Gordon RN), HMS Vernon at Portsmouth (Cdr A. Bryant RN), HMS President 111 the accounting base for men allocated for service on Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) had moved from Bristol to London by 1944 (Cdr Theophile Le Blancq Pirouet RNR, Lt L. Angove, Lt Cdr E.J. Luscombe and 3/O J Dickerson WRNS). A Teleg Lt E.N Dennis was at HMS Forte which only leaves Lt Hart and Mr Perkins to be identified. Confusingly, the number of stripes on the sleeves of some of the retired officers recalled to service in 1939 do not correspond to their ranks.

Names of Officers
The names of the officers were written on the reverse of the photograph above
Window of bus shelter outside Memblay Hotel
One of the elegant windows and shutters with cutout anchors in the bus shelter below

Memblay Hote with bus shelter, formerly HMS Forte 1
The bus shelter presented by the CO of US Naval Forces in Falmouth to the Mayor in July 1945 still stands outside the Membly Hall Hotel, formerly HMS Forte 1, near popular "Gully" Beach
HMS Forte also had sites in the Imperial Hotel opposite the dockyard (Forte 2), Trago Mill discount store (Forte 3) and a coastal forces base on the Penryn river (Forte 4)
Pendennis Castle is visible on the headland beyond with the entrance to Carrick Roads and Falmouth harbour behind
Photographed by Bill Forster in September 2019

CO of US Navy presents bus shelter to Myor of Falmouth, July 1945
The presentation of the elegant bus shelter to Falmouth by the Commanding Officer of US Naval Forces in the town in 1946
Falmouth was a US Navy base in the buildup to D-Day and US Forces landing on Omah and Utah Beaches in the American sector suffered the heaviest casualties
From the collection of the Falmouth History Archive @ The Poly

The weather was awful but this gave me an excuse to further my research and visit the places in Falmouth linked to my father and HMS Venomous. I was particularly keen to identify the name of the ship in which my father went on an Arctic Convoy to Archangel in the White Sea of North Russia. I knew it was not Venomous and there was nothing in his service certificate but I recall him telling me so clearly that I was in no doubt that he had been there. The only clue was my elder brother's belief that during his time in Falmouth he was on a tanker. It was fortunate that Lesley James, our landlady, was a close friend of Penny Phillips BEM, Executive & Customer Support Assistant at A & P Falmouth Ltd, the company which owns the dockyard of Silley Cox & Co where Venomouswas refitted in 1944. Penny has the Logbooks of Silley Cox in which the dates ships entered and left the four graving docks are recorded. She is also the Chairman of The Mission to Seafarers branch in Falmouth, and Manager of The Flying Angel Centre. There is no public access to the dockyard but we were permitted to enter to study the logbook and visit the Flying Angel Centre where Penny's partner, Graham Hall, has created a masterful sculpture of a seaman on watch on an Arctic Convoy.

Tony Pawlyn, Hon. Head of Research at the Bartlett Library in the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth, and his team of volunteers are very helpful. Their collection includes the Harbour Masters Journal recording the names of all merchant ships entering Falmouth Harbour and  Fox’s Arrivals Books, the books of one of the two shipping agents in Falmouth, which contain more detailed entries. The tankers chartered by the Trade Division of the Admiralty to refuel the escorts for Atlantic and Arctic Convoys are included in the Harbour Master's Journal and Fox's Arrivals but not Royal Navy warships. Finally, the dedicated volunteers in the Falmouth History Archive at "The Poly", The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, assist researchers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Email: history@thepoly.org

*******************

FALMOUTH DOCKYARD
Where Venomous was refitted as an Air Target Ship in 1944

There have been at least two books published about Silley Cox & Sons, the firm that owned Falmouth Docks until they were taken over by the present owner, A&P Falmouth Limited, but neither contain much information about the role of the docks during World War 2. In 1939 Falmouth Dockyard had four dry docks (graving docks) where ships could be mounted on blocks for major repairs or refits, and there were storage tanks on site for 20,000 tons of fuel oil. Most of the work Silley Cox did would have been for the Admiralty or the Ministry of War Transport. The Admiralty gave instructions to HMS Forte on the refit of HMS Venomous and other warships and these would have been conveyed to Silley Cox and the work supervised by HMS Forte.

The programme to convert merchant ships  into Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) by the addition of a flight deck to provide air cover for convoys beyond the range of shore based aircraft began in mid 1943. Nine of the merchant ships selected for conversion were oil tankers belonging to Anglo Saxon Petroleum (owned by Shell) and two of these were converted by Silley Cox at Falmouth. MV Avica entered service in October 1943 and MV Adula in February 1944. They carried a normal commercial cargo of oil and refuelled convoy escorts. The officers and crew were Merchant Navy but the RNAS provided the flight crew for the three Swordfish aircraft. The MAC conversions came into service after the Escort Carriers built at shipyards on the East Coast of America were transferred to Britain under lend lease, and before the Nairana class Escort Carriers (eg HMS Vindex and HMS Campania) were built in the UK. Escort Carriers carried fighter planes as well as Swordfish and were crewed by officers and men of the Royal Navy, and although based on merchant ship hulls they did not a carry a commercial cargo. When Arctic Convoys resumed in September 1942 after the terrible losses suffered by PQ17 the escort for PQ18 included the escort carrier HMS Avenger which provided stiff opposition to attacks by German bombers based in Norway. After the war ended Silley Cox was given the job of converting the Avica and Adula back to tankers.

The Log of ships entering the graving docks at Silly Cox are the best guide to the work being done and from mid 1943 until July 1944 the docks were full of Landing Ship Tanks (LST) mostly built in the USA.The exact nature of the work required to prepare them for the D-Day landings in Normandy is at present uncertain but their engines were of a type not used by the Royal Navy and a particular cause for concern.

Aerial view of Docks at Falmouth
A postwar aerial view of the Docks at Falmouth showing Drydock Number 2 on right where HMS Venomous was converted to an Air Target Ship in 1944
A similar view can been from a layby with safety rail on the harbour side of the road round Pendennis Castle.
This dry dock was enlarged and renamed the Queen Elizabeth Dock in 1958
Copyright A&P Falmouth Limited, reproduced with thanks

Venomous had been in the Mediterranean since December 1942 escorting convoys along the north coast of Africa to support allied forces as they advanced eastwards and escorting the troop carriers to the landings on Sicily, Operation Husky. Her "engines were shot" (to quote my father later) and she was in urgent need of a refit. She arrived off Falmouth in a thunderstorm at 0100 on 20 October 1943 and was in danger of running ashore when lightning struck a barrage balloon at the entrance to the harbour which caught fire and  "lit up the whole area beautifully like daylight".

Silley Cox & Co took Venomous in hand at their dockyard on 23 October but a small care and maintenance party stayed aboard including Wt Eng Charles G. Lapthorne RN (1899-1979), my father's predecessor, who had been promoted from the ranks. My father did a basic induction course at HMS Victory in Portsmouth and was sent on a six week course on internal combustion engines (ICE) at HMS Pembroke, the shore base at Chatham. This was probably to prepare him for working on the V-12 diesel engines which powered Landing Ship Tanks (LST). They were the ships which made the D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy possible. Churchill complained with some bitterness that "the destinies of two great empires ... seemed to be tied up in some god-dammed things called LST's whose engines themselves had to be tickled on by ... LST engine experts of which there was a great shortage". Lt (E)  W.R. Forster RNR was posted to HMS Forte "to assist the Engineering Office" on 26 November 1943 but did not join Venomous until 13 March 1944.

The original intention was to replace the tubes in all three boilers of Venomous which would take 3 - 4 months but the Admiralty decided to remove No 1 Boiler. Removing the forward boiler and front funnel freed up space for more fuel oil and enabled a V & W with "short legs" to be converted into a Long Range Escort (LRE) but this was not what the Admiralty had in mind. More modern destroyers which could escort a convoy across the Atlantic without refuelling were now available and the Admiralty decided to convert Venomous into an Air Target Ship for Barracuda Torpedo Bombers based at RNAS Ronaldsway on the Isle of Man. This was a much bigger job but had a lower priority.

On 4 December the Admiralty ordered that "refit of 'V' be suspended and HMS Oribi be TIH". HMS Oribi was a modern O Class destroyer which Lt Cdr John E.H. McBeath RN commanded after leaving Venomous. Oribi entered Dry Dock 2 on 11 December, left six weeks later on 21 January and Venomous took her place on 23 January 1944. The Logbook recording the dates in which ships entered the dry docks was provided by Penny Phillips (see below). One is struck by the large number of Landing Ship Tanks (LST), Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) and Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) entering the dry docks and leaving a few days later. Falmouth was the main assemby port for the US troops landed on Utah and Omaha beaches.

HMS Venomous,designated as ER.12561, entered  Dry Dock 2 at 1.45 pm on 23 January 1944 to begin her refit as an Air Target Ship. The entries in the Silley Cox Log are somewhat confusing but she appears to have remained in the graving dock until the 2 June when she  "floated in dock and [until] replaced on blocks" 18 days later on 20 June. She left Dry Dock 2 for the last time at 9 am on 26 June.

The  Naval Signals between Flag Officer Falmouth and the Admiralty and the Logbook of Silley Cox give a clear chronology of events but we also have a long letter written by Lt Frank Greenaway RNVR, the Officer in Command during the refit, to Lt Cdr Robert A Moore, the CO of TS Venomous at Loughborough, after the publication of the first edition of A Hard Fought Ship (1990). Greenaway joined Venomous in late February and "was joined by Lt(E) Forster RNR a little later" and "within a week of finishing the hull work and emerging from dry dock [on 2 June] Venomous was moved to a mud berth to give priority to the buildup to D-Day". This may correspond to the eighteen days when the Silley Cox Log records Venomous as "floating in dock" until "replaced on blocks" on 20 June.


1943

4 October
20 October
23 October
28 October

25 October
16 - 19 November
26 November
4 December
11 December

1944

21 January
23 January
27 January
Late February
13 March
2 - 20 June
26 June, 9am
27 June
8 August
18 August
1 September

1945

10 January
18-19 January


WRF: Entry to RNR, HMS Victory Portsmouth
HMS Venomous arrives at Falmouth
Naval Signal, FO Falmouth to Admiralty: "TIH for defects only, 3 - 4 months"
Naval Signal, Admiralty to FO Falmouth, 28/1542/10/43:
"V to be refitted Target Ship Duties"
Lt(E) W.R.Forster RNR: ICE Course, HMS Pembroke, Chatham
Naval Signals, FO Falmouth / Admiralty: confirms boiler removal
Lt(E) W.R. Forster: HMS Forte, to assist Engineering Office (EO)"
Admiralty to FO Falmouth: "Refit of 'V' be suspended and HMS Oribi be TIH"
HMS Oribi enters dry dock No 2


HMS Oribi leaves Dry Dock No 2
HMS Venomous enters Dry Dock No 2 - see entry in Log on right>
San Ambrosio (Eagle Oil) arrives Falmouth (Harbour Masters Jnl, Bartlett Lib)
Lt Frank Greenaway RNVR joins Venomous as OIC during refit
Lt(E) W.R. Forster RNR joins HMS Venomous (replaces Lapthorne, 16 March)
HMS Venomous "Floated in dock and replaced on blocks" 18 days later
HMS Venomous (ER12561) leaves dry dock for last time.
The San Ambrosio leaves "OHMS" (Foxe's Arrivals, Bartlett Library)
Lt Greenaway recorded concern about mast before signing for the ship.
HMS Venomous (Lt Cdr A.D.A. Lawson RNVR) leaves for sea trials on the Clyde
Leaves the Clyde for Douglas on the Isle of Man, her base as a Target Ship


Venomous ordered to Rosyth Command on Firth of Forth
HMS Venomous lost her mast in gale in Lunnan Bay
Mast retrieved & FO RNAS Arbroath blamed Silley Cox for its loss
Sillex Cox & Sons Log Book, page 214 (1944)
The Silley Cox Log records the dates on which ships enter and leave the four graving (dry) docks
HMS Venomous is designated as ER.12561 and enters dry dock 2 at 1.45 pm on 23 January 1944

click twice on linked image to see full size
Courtesy of Penny Phillips

HMS Venomous as an Air Target Ship in the Irish Sea 1944
HMS Venomous as an Air Target Ship in the Irish Sea
Venomous was a target for Barracuda TBR based at RNAS Ronaldsway on the Isle of Man launching torpedoes fitted with dummy concrete warheads
Courtesy of Caroline Turner



ESCORT OILERS AT FALMOUTH
Tracing my father's Arctic Convoy to Archangel

Nartional Maritime Museum, Falmouth
The Bartlett Maritime Research Centre and Library in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall is accessible by reseachers without charge
Contact the Hon. Head of Research,Tony Pawlyn, in advance of your visit to describe your area of interest.
The marker in the foreground of the photograph is about the Coastal Forcces base on the Penrhyn River

Photographed by Bill Forster in September 2019

The collection of the Bartlett Library in the National Maritime Museum at Falmouth includes the Harbour Master's Journals recording the names of all merchant ships entering Falmouth Harbour and  Fox’s Arrivals Books, the books of one of the two shipping agents in Falmouth, which contain more detailed entries. Merchant ships joining convoys and the tankers chartered by the Trade Division of the Admiralty to refuel the escorts for Atlantic and Arctic Convoys are included in the Harbour Master's Journal and Fox's Arrivals but not Royal Navy warships. I may be following a red herring but at present I think my father may have been on one of these "escort oilers" and am hoping to find evidence to support this theory.

Harbour Masters Journal, Falmouth, 27 Jan 1944
The Harbour Master's Journal: arrivals and sailings, 23 - 27 January 1944
The San Ambrosio sailed from Falmouth on 27 January with eleven other merchant ships
Courtesy of the Bartlett Library, National Maritime Museum Cornwall


Fox's Arrivals at Falmouth 1944
The Arrivals ledgers of the shipping agents, G. C. Fox & Co., provide more detailed entries for merchant ships arriving and leaving Falmouth
MV San Ambrosio (Capt Hicks) owned by the Eagle Oil Shipping Co Ltd was "On His Majesty's Service" (OHMS) when she sailed from Falmouth on 27 June 1944
She and her sister ship San Adolfo were chartered by the Trade Division of the Admiralty to refuel the destroyer escorts for Arctic Convoys to Russia
double click the linked image to view full size
Courtesy of the Bartlett Library, National Maritime Museum Cornwall


It seems likely that my father's Arctic Convoy would have been after his arrival at HMS
Forte on 26 November 1943 and before he joined HMS Venomous on 13 March 1944 but it could have been after work on Venomous was temporarily suspended as described by Lt Frank Greenaway RNVR, OIC during the refit, in his letter to Bob Moore in 1990. The presence of the Eagle Oil tanker, San Ambrosio,at Falmouth on 27 January may be significant as she was one of two Eagle Oil tankers chartered by The Trade Division of the Admiralty as oilers for the destroyers providing the close escort for Arctic Convoys in 1943-4. My father spent nine years on Eagle Oil tankers when he first went to sea in 1921. The crew and officers as well as the ships were provided by Eagle Oil but its conceivable that because of my father's past experience on these ships and with the Royal Fleet Auxilliary (RFA)  that Lt(E) W.R. Forster RNR was appointed to one these escort oilers as a Naval Liasion Officer. I hope to find out more on my next visit to the National Archives at Kew.

MV San Ambrosio, an Eaglke Oil tanker chartered by the Admiralty as an Escort Oiler
The San Ambrosio, an Eagle Oil tanker chartered by the Trade Division of the Admiralty to refuel the escorts for Atlantic and Arctic Convoys
Was this the ship my father, Lt(E) William R. Forster RNR, served aboard on an Arctic Convoy to Archangel?
Courtesy of Helderline


It is my  hope that the details of the people and organisations who helped me and the resources they hold will be of assistance to other researchers with links to Falmouth. I plan to add further details of HMS Forte and the presence of the United States Navy and army in the buildup to D-Day. Falmouth was the main base for the landing ships and craft which carried the tanks and troops which landed on Utah and Omaha beaches. The heaviest casualties were inflicted on the American troops landing on "bloody Omaha".
Bill Forster
Thursday 17 October 2019

The Mission to Seafarers

The Flying Angel Centre

Rex Little, veteran of Arctic Convoys with statue sculpted by Graham Hall, 2014
U-Boat Watch, a sculpture by Gaham Hall
Penny Phillips BEM and Graham Hall with Rex Little, an Arctic Convoy veteran and family, at the unveiling in 2014 of Graham's sculpture outside the Mission to Seafarers in Falmouth Docks
Rex Liitle served in the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable which escorted RA.54A and was 98 when he died at his home near Constantine just outside Falmouth on 12 January 2019
Courtesy of Penny Phillips

UBoat Watch; by Graham Hall
Garham Hall's sculpure is made from glass fibre and resin laid on a wire mesh form
His face was first moulded in clay and he stands on steel decking salvaged from a ship
Seamen from the Philippines in the Flying Angel Club at Falmouth Docks
Penny Phillips, Bill Forster and his wife Reinhild in the Flying Angel Centre
With three Phillipino seamen - the colours of the cushion are those of the Phillipines






A Hard Fought Ship is dedicated to the memory of all those who served on HMS Venomous between 1919 and 1946
The names of the men who served in Venomous during her final Commission from August 1944 to June 1945 can be seen on this website

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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