The story of HMS Venomous

OfficersRatingsV & W Class destroyersWhat's NewBuy the BookLinksHome

Herbert Hastings McWilliams (1907-95)

Herbert McWilliams, "architect, naval officer, artist, author, wit, photographer, Springbok yachtsman, yacht designer and builder, traveller in the Victorian sense" (Keith Sutton) was rescued by HMS Venomous when his ship, HMS Hecla, was torpedoed off the North African coast on Armistice Day 1942.

His vivid description of that night written in a letter to his mother within days of his rescue and the extraordinary ink wash drawings of
Hecla sinking in the Imperial War Museum, London, will keep the memory of her loss alive for generations to come.

McWilliams was born in Port Elizabeth, Cape Province, South Africa, where his father, had an architectural practice. As a boy of five he made a voyage to England with his family aboard RMS Grantully Castle, was taken down the engine room in his dressing gown and made his first drawing of a ship. He was educated at St Andrew's College, Grahamstown, but did not impress the Headmaster who told his father in 1923 that even if his son remained at college "until he had a long white beard" he would never be able to pass 'matric'.

He left at the age of sixteen and was sent as an articled clerk to the office of Sir Herbert Baker and Partners in Cape Town, to be trained as an architect. He went to London in 1926 to study at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square and obtained his diploma in 1929. He travelled in Italy, Germany, Holland and Spain and exhibited at the Royal Academy before returning to South Africa in 1931 to enter his father's practice of Jones and McWilliam.
Ink wash by Herbert McWilliamsInk was by Herbery McWilliams of forward mess deck on Queen ElizabethInk wash of street in Capua
From left: Italian cruiser, Zara, at Brindisi in 1933, ink wash; Forward mess deck, HMS Queen Elizabeth, 1945?, ink wash; Street in Capua,  watercolour.
Courtesy of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, 1 Park Drive, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

During the Depression in 1932 he went to Russia with the idea of working there but this proved unrewarding and he returned to Port Elizabeth. In 1934 he went on a sketching tour of Holland, France and Italy and then joined an archaeological expedition to Egypt organised by Chicago University and spent six months sketching and drawing at Sakkara before joining the Colt-Welcome expedition to Palestine excavating the Biblical city of Lacish near Hebron. He returned to England with four companions in a converted Ford lorry via Anatolia and the Balkans and wrote an account of the journey which was published as The Diabolical (Duckworth, 1934) the name he gave the lorry in which they travelled. On returning to South Africa in 1935 he joined his father's practice in Port Elizabeth.

HMS Shropshire on Arctic Patrol, 1940; painted by H.H. McWilliams
HMS Shropshire on Arctic patrol, 1940
Painted while McWilliams was serving as an Ordinary Seaman (OD) prior to officer  training at HMS King Alfred
Courtesy of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, 1 Park Drive, Port Elizabeth, South Africa (Accession No. W69/74)

In 1940 at the age of 33, he joined the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman (OD) and served in the heavy cruiser, HMS Shropshire, as a CW Candidate (Commissioned and Warrant). McWilliams wrote in the catalogue for the 1973 exhibition of his work that "a large percentage of the ship's company were South Africans. I saw action in places as far apart as Italian Somaliland, Iceland and Murmansk in Russia". HMS Shropshire was often in Icelandic waters and In August 1941 at Havelfjord, where HMS Hecla was based, McWilliams saw Churchill during his brief visit after meeting with Roosevelt in Newfoundland. HMS Shropshire was part of the escort when the Prince of Wales left Havelfjord with Churchill aboard on the 18 August. Michael Mills writing from Port Elizabeth described a walk his father Thomas ("Billy") Mills, an AB on Shropshire, took with McWilliams up the rocky slopes overlooking the fjord from which he brought back a pressed Iceland poppy for his wife.

HMS Ashanti in drydock at Immingham
HMS Ashanti in dry dock at Immingham on the Humber estuary
Watercolour, probably painted in 1940 while McWilliams was stationed at Lowestoft

Courtesy of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, 1 Park Drive, Port Elizabeth, South Africa (Accession No. W70/74)

After completing his sea time as an OD (Ordinary Seaman) McWilliams was sent to HMS King Alfred at Brighton and Hove for officer training. His first posting was as Executive Officer at the shore base, HMS Minos II, in Lowestoft where the Thirteenth Flotilla Coastal Forces protected the east coast convoys from marauding E-boats. He did many drawings of the 40 knot motor launches and motor gun boats of coastal forces at Lowestoft including studies for a mural in the wardroom of Minos II. Was this mural completed and does it still exist today?

Slow Convoy, mid Atlantic 1942; painted by South African war artist Herbert McWilliams
Slow Convoy - Mid Atlantic, 1942
"An idea of the slow speed of these ships on a calm sea can be obtained by observing that the smoke is blowing ahead", McWilliams

This picture was probably painted while McWilliams was taking passage to Simonstown where he joined HMS Hecla
Courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg

The ed of a merchantman; undated painting by Herbert H. McWilliams
The end of a Merchantman
This picture is undated but was probably painted while McWilliams was taking passage to Simons Town where he joined HMS Hecla
Courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg

He was promoted to Lieutenant SANF and drafted to Simon's Town. These two paintings (above) may have been painted on the voyage south. Mcwilliams described "The end of a Merchantman" in the exhibition catalogue:

"This steamer was torpedoed off the West coast of Africa; she lay down by the bows for several hours while her crew took to the boats and waited to see the last of her. Dawn was just breaking and her funnel was sending up a wisp of smoke to join the large cloud that hung overhead in the still air after the explosion. In order to prevent her being a danger to shipping she was sunk by one of our own torpedoes."

On arrival at Simons Town he joined HMS Hecla and was on passage to Algiers when it was torpedoed on the 11 November 1942. His wonderfully realistic paintings of Hecla sinking done on the back of old charts (with a throat brush, iodine from the sick bay and rum) and his detailed description of that night taken from a letter to his Mother written within days of its loss were included in A Hard Fought Ship and the catalogue of the exhibition of his paintings held at Port Elizabeth in 1973. Click on the link for further details of HMS Hecla and the stories of survivors.

On survivor's leave in London he sold his finished paintings to the Imperial War Museum and in a letter dated December 1942 wrote “I agree that in respect of my pictures (three Admiralty subjects) purchased for thirty five guineas for the three, on the recommendation of the Artists Advisory Committee all rights of reproduction in any form shall be vested solely in the Crown.” He retained the preliminary drawings made on the back of signal forms while still aboard HMS Venomous. His paintings and first hand description of the sinking of HMS Hecla make an important contribution to this chapter in A Hard Fought Ship.

HMS Saunders, the shore base on Egypts Bitter Lakes where the the troops trained for the landings in Sicily
HMS Saunders, the shore base at Kabret on Egypt's Bitter Lakes where McWilliams  trained with the troops for the amphibious assault on Sicily
Painted from the water tower overlooking the base with latrines (lower left), tent accommodation and the landing craft on the Bitter Lakes in the background
Presented by McWilliams to the CO of HMS Saunders and inscribed "To Capt. G.I.S. More - with admiration: HMS Saunders & Kabret. From: H.H. McWilliams"
Courtesy of Henry More, the grandson of Capt G.I.S. More RN
Landing craft at KabretLanding craft at Kabret, watercolour
Kabret: landing craft practicing disembarkment (on left, ink wash) and landing craft discharging tank (right, watercolour)
Courtesy of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, 1 Park Drive, Port Elizabeth, South Africa (Accession Nos. W381/85 and W78/85)

"Full dress rehearsal for an invasion" - Kebret, Bitter Lakes, Egypt (painting by Herbert H. McWilliams)
"Full dress rehearsal for an Invasion"
The scene on the shore of the Bitter Lakes at Kebret where the troops and naval personnel based at HMS Saunders practiced the amphibious landings on Sicily.

Courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg

Early in 1943 he was attached to Combined Operations and was sent out, via the Cape, to the Middle East to be trained to take part in the amphibious landings in Sicily at HMS Saunders, the shore base at Kabret on the Bitter Lakes:

"This was a 'ship of the desert' where for months before the Sicilian invasion thousands of officers and men went through the training  for the Combined Operations  course. The level sandy shores of the BItter Lakes were covered for miles with tents and sheds, and not only was this vast naval establishment placed near the rehearsal beaches, but also army and Air Force camps so that a very great area was occupied. In the early summer conditions were bearable but for the rest of the time HMS Saunders was considered to be the worst ship to which one could be drafted".

At Alexandria he was made "Senior Naval Officer for a merchant ship adopted for the transport of motor vehicles" to the invasion beaches. His ship was part of a huge convoy carrying troops and equipment  from Alexandria to Augusta on the south east coast of Sicily. One of the escorts was HMS Venomous. McWilliams described the voyage and the continuous air attacks during the landings on the 10 July in a letter to his  Mother:

"Owing to the heat I was only clad in a pair of shorts. One doesn't feel very secure in shorts and a tin hat and every time a bomb fell you could feel its scorching breath on my body. This was my first experience of dive-bombing but I can tell you it doesn't need much practice to fling yourself flat on the deck when you hear the whine and screech of a bomb. We had only two near misses, one falling ten yards ahead of the ship and another only about twenty yards from the port quarter; this last peppering our ensign with shrapnel until it looked like a piece of open-work lace and puncturing the ship's side in many places, some holes were as big as six inches in diameter. The whole ship was lifted bodily by the explosion and the noise was astonishing."

SS Talambo sinking off Sicily, 1943; painted by Herbert H McWilliams, South African war artist
The sinking of the hospital ship HMS Talambo, Sicily 1943
"All British hospital ships were clearly marked with the Red Cross in many places, several of which were illuminated at night", Herbert H McWilliams

Courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg

After the Sicily invasion he was returned to Alexandria "to await further orders" and it was during this period that "a chance meeting with an Admiral [name forgotten]" gave him an opportunity to display his drawings of these operations and others done while attached to coastal forces in the UK. Many of them were purchased by the War Artists Commission and after idling in Alexandria for some weeks Lieutenant McWilliams was posted on the 10 September 1943 to HMS Nile, the shore base at Alexandria, for press duties in Cairo. He became Naval Editor, artist and photographer on the staff of Parade, the service publication produced simultaneously in Cairo and Naples and eventually Calcutta.

Rooftop painting in Malta by war artist Herbert H. McWilliams
The harbour from a roof in Malta
Malta survived the pounding it received from enemy bombers and by June 1943
 convoys were once again able to go from Gib to Alex
Courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg

The first active resistance of the Italians against the Germans took place at Piombino opposite the island of Elba. When the Germans were driven out the harbour was unusable and McWilliams painted the construction of a 'hard' where landing craft could land military vehicles, salvage work to clear the harbour and the bombed ruins of the nearby steel works.

Building a 'hard' at Piombino; painted by Herbert H McWilliams
The 'hard' at Piombino
Courtesy of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg

Salvage work at Piombino; Herbert H McWilliamsBombed stell works at Piombino; painting by Herbert H McWilliams
Foating sheerlegs raising sunken wrekage (left) and bombed steelworks at Piombino (right)
Courtesy of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, 1 Park Drive, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

He took part in the allied landings in the south of France, the liberation of Greece and the Dodecanese islands and the invasion of Rangoon. He returned from Colombo aboard the old battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth (see ink wash above) and was demobilised at Alexandria in 1945.

McWilliams painted b y Dorothy Kay

Oil painting of Herbert Hastings McWilliams by Dorothy Kay, 1944

McWilliams and Dorothy Kay both lived in Port Elizabeth
Courtesy of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, 1 Park Drive, Port Elizabeth, South Africa (Accession Nos. W161/1988)

He returned to Port Elizabeth and when his father died took charge of the practice in Port Elizabeth. He was responsible for many landmark buildings in Port Elizabeth, ranging from Art Deco to Classical and Moorish. He was a Trustee of the King George VI Art Gallery, as well as the original architect for the building.

He was a keen yachtsman and was South Africa's only representative in the Olympic Yachting events at Torquay in 1948 where he competed in the Firefly class. In 1947 he designed the largest and best loved class of racing dinghy in South Africa and named it the Sprog, naval slang for small, and called the first Sprog, the one he sailed on the Swartkops river, Stroppy, meaning cheeky. He was a keen member of the Swartkops Yacht Club and lived nearby. Roux van der Merwe, Emeritus Professor at Rhodes University and a close personal friend, described the unique nature of the boats he designed:

"As a fellow resident of Amsterdam Hoek, along the Swartkops River, my personal contact with Herbert was as a fellow yachtsman. He was the designer of a plywood  sailing dinghy, the Sprog, of  pioneering “monocoque” construction, glued with urea formaldehyde adhesive; at a time when even hard-chine boats were built on frames and stringers, and fastened with riveted copper nails. Other of his boats which I owned and sailed were a Winger (larger than a Sprog) and an Extra (smaller)"

The idea for the design of the Sprog came to him "in the Bay of Bengal in 1945 when we had to heave-to in the tail end of a cyclone" and it was "launched" in March 1946. You can read Herbert McWilliams own account of how he came to design and build the Sprog in the April 1958 issue of the Sprog Log which was rediscovered by Warwick Owen and published by Richard Crockett, publisher and editor of Sailing magazine,
in his blog, Talking Sailing.

Warwick Owen has drawn my attention to a five minute film clip on You Tube (‘saved’ by Bruce Baldwin from old film footage, from his grandfather’s archives) of Sprogs & other dinghies sailing on the estuary of the Swartkops which includes footage of Herbert and Albert Milde going down the slip from his home, the ‘Poop’,  at the grand launching of "Stroppy" in 1946. Herbert McWilliams is easily recognisable as the blond chap, the one with crinkly hair. Later you see them ‘planing’ along the river.

He was a flamboyant colourful character as Van der Merwe recalled:

"Herbert entertained royally at his magnificent riverside home, “The Poop”, with its figurehead of HMS Medusa, now returned to the Greenwich Museum. He owned a majestic Rolls Royce, later replaced by a more modern version (“but with less majesty” – unquote!); and a superb 1950’s Bentley Continental fastback coupe."


The catalogue of the exhibition of his work held in Port Elizabeth (1973) and in Johannesburg (1974) which included the paintings in the Imperial War Museum is the best published guide to his work:

The retrospective exhibition of naval drawings and water colours from World War II, 1939-1945; Herbert Hastings McWilliams.
King George VI Art Gallery, 1973 (ISBN 062001217X, 9780620012171).

In 1985 The Poop, the luxurious home at Amsterdamhoek on the Swartkops river fourteen miles east of Port Elizabeth, which he shared with Albert Milde, his lifelong friend and partner,  "was gutted in a dramatic blaze…. and most of his paintings and drawings were burnt." The Herbert and Albert Charitable Trust was established in their names after the death of Herbert McWilliams in 1995.

The Ditsong National Military Museum in Johannesburg has six of his wartime water colours painted in the Mediterranean and during the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth, formerly the King George V1 Art Gallery (designed by Herbert McWilliams), has sixteen of his drawings and water colours.

Chapter 13 in the new hardback edition of 

Hard Fought Ship: the Story of HMS Venomous
published on 9 May contains the most detailed description yet of the events of 11 - 12 November 1942
when HMS Hecla was torpedoed and Herbert McWilliams was one of the 500 survivors rescued by HMS Venomous

The front cover of A Hard Fought Ship (2017)Back cover of 2017 edition
click on the link to find out more and order a copy of

Hard Fought Ship: the Story of HMS Venomous

Return to the
Home page for HMS
to find out more about this naval disaster

Holywell House
Holywell House Publishing
88 Holywell Hill, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 1DH, Britain
Telephone: +44 1727 838595
contact online