A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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In memory of those who died when
 HMS Hecla sank 75 years ago on Armistice Day 1942

If you have stories to tell about HMS Hecla do please get in touch
Phone: +44 1727-838595
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Cover of A HARD FOUGHT SHIPThe description of that long night in A Hard Fought Ship is the most detailed yet written and will probably never be superseded. The photographs of Lt Leslie Eaton and AB Cyril Hely on Venomous and the paintings of Herbert McWilliams, done within a week of his rescue, are combined with the memories of the officers and men in Venomous and the stories told by the survivors of HMS Hecla. These include Herbert McWilliams, Fred Lemberg, Norman Johns, George Male, Edward Coleman, Les Rowles, Fred Woods and Greg Clarke.

The photograph on the cover of the new edition of A Hard Fought Ship is of HMS Venomous entering the harbour at Casablanca early in the morning of Friday 13 November with her deck crowded with survivors. The painting by Lt Herbert Hastings McWilliams SANF of HMS Hecla sinking is on the back cover. It was based on sketches he made aboard Venomous after his rescue with a throat brush and iodene from the sick bay on the back of an old chart. The finished painting is in the Imperial War Museum, London, but is not on public display.

Precise figures for the number of men on HMS Hecla when it was torpedoed off the coast of Morocco on 11 November 1942, are difficult to ascertain. The names of 858 men (including 42 officers) are recorded in the Pay and Victualing Ledgers. The official list of the dead issued by the Admiralty contained the names of 9 men killed and 273 "missing presumed killed". Both lists can be seen on this web site.

Other sources record 799 ratings and 39 officers as being on HMS Hecla, of which 556 were rescued. HMS Marne rescued 64 before a torpedo blew off her stern (see below) but the vast majority, 493, were saved by HMS Venomous despite having her to break off the rescue of survivors to attack the German U-boat. The stories of many of the survivors - and some of those who died - are told on this website and in the new edition of A Hard Fought Ship.


The dramatic events of 11 - 12 November 1942 are described in the new hardback edition of
A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous
which will be published on 9 May 2017
Register your interest now to receive details of a prepublication offer and the book launch at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London

Armistice Day 2012


Armistice Day 2012 had a special significance for the families of the men who died when HMS Hecla was torpedoed on that long night in 1942 - and for those survivors alive today. The HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association organised a dinner at Stratford on Avon on Armistice Day 1992, the fiftieth anniversary, but those alive 2012 were either too frail to attend a similar event on the seventieth anniversary or lived halfway round the world in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

In the seven years since the previous edition of A Hard Fought Ship was published in April 2010  I have been contacted by many more of the men who lived through that long night and they have shared their memories with me and I in turn wish to share them with you on this web site and in the new edition of  A Hard Fought Ship. Please get in touch if a member of your family served on HMS Hecla and you have information or photographs for this web site.

The short life of HMS Hecla

Hecla
was built on the Clyde as a destroyer depot ship and after being commissioned on the 6 January 1941 was based at Havelfjord in Iceland as the mother ship for the destroyers escorting the Atlantic convoys which kept Britain from starving. Many were elderly V& W Class destroyers without the range to cross the Atlantic to Nova Scotia without refueling at Havelfjord and some, like HMS Venomous, were prone to mechanical failures and spent many days alongside Hecla under repair. Other visitors included Winston Churchill on his way back from signing the Atlantic Charter with Roosevelt and a captured German U-boat.

In the summer of 1941 Hecla was joined by the repair ship USS Vulcan and that Autumn returned to the Clyde for a short refit after which it headed south to an unanounced destination in the southern hemisphere. It was to have joined the fleet being assembled to defend Singapore against the Japanese but detonated a mine of the coast of South Africa and limped into the naval port of Simonstown where it spent several months under repair. These months were a happy interlude for its crew - many of whom were never to see their homes again.

On the 20 October with Capt G.V.B. Faulkner RN in command Hecla left Cape Town with Convoy CF.7 for Freetown escorted by HMS Shropshire. On arrival at Freetown on the 2 November they joined the destroyer depot ship HMS Vindictive as part of Convoy CF.7A whch left with a strong escort on the 4 November for Liverpool. A young RNVR rating, Tom Davis, on the destroyer escort HMS Active took the last known photographs of HMS Hecla before it was torpedoed less than a week later.

HMS Hecla, the last photograph
HMS Hecla left Freetown in west Africa as part of Convoy CF.7A on the 4 November 1942 and was photographed by Tom Davis. the ships writer on HMS Active
Courtesy of Steve Davis, the stepson of Tom Davis

The two destroyer depot ships, HMS Hecla and Vindictive, were joined by the destroyer escorts, HMS Venomous and HMS Marne, near the Canaries on the 8 November and detached for Gibraltar to support the ships taking the troops to the invasion of north Africa, Operation Torch. On the night of 11-12 November Hecla was torpedoed five times by U-515 commanded by German U-boat ace, Werner Henke. HMS Marne has its stern blown off while rescuing survivors and HMS Venomous broke off its rescue efforts to pursue the U-boat. Venomous made it it Casablanca, the following morning soon it fell to US trooops on her last few gallons of fuel, her decks crowded with survivors of the Hecla. They were well cared for by the USN and left on the 14 November for Gibraltar, burying the dead from Hecla at sea enroute.
Click on the link to find out more about HMS Hecla "from launch to loss".

The sinking of HMS Hecla

For a detailed analysis of events on the night of the 11 November 1942 when U-515 penetrated the destroyer escort screen and topedoed HMS Hecla five times you should read the new edion of A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous due out in Spring 2017.

Chart sowing position of ships on 11 November 1942 when attack took place
Tracking plate showing the position of HMS Hecla, HMS Vindictive, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous during the attack
From: Analysis of U-boat attacks: HMS Hecla, 11-12 November 1942. Report of Anti-submarine Warfare Division (NA Ref: ADM 199/2013)

The names of all the officers and men on HMS Venomous during that long night off the coast of Morocco are known and can be seen as a PDF. A Hard Fought Ship describes how HMS Venomous attacked the U-boat and rescued 500 survivors. It contains photographs taken aboard Venomous at the time and the vivid paintings of Hecla sinking by the South African war artist, Lt Herbert H. McWilliams SAN, one of the men rescued.

The View from the Bridge

The officers commanding HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous and, presumably, HMS Vindictive, the other destroyer depot ship being escorted to the invasion beaches in north Africa were required to write Reports of Proceedings giving their account of the loss of Hecla. With the exception of the report by Captain Ackland, the CO of HMS Vindictive, these have all been located and with the Report of the ASW Division and Admiral Cunningham's report on the disaster (sometimes casually dismissed as "the Hecla incident") formed the basis for the analysis by Captain John Rodgaard USN in A Hard Fought Ship.

I have recently been contacted by the son of the Navigation Officer on HMS Hecla, Lt Cdr H.C.R. Alexander RN, and sent a typescript of his father's memoir of his time on HMS Hecla which describes its loss and is outspoken in its criticism of the decisions made by Captain H.G.D. Ackland RN, the senior officer of the convoy. This is not an official report and may have been written in retirement though it ends with his own short three point "submission to the Admiralty". It is the only such document by an officer on Hecla known to exist and is a far more vivid account than the somewhat formalistic RoP of the Commanding Officers of the ships in Convoy but should be read alongside them if one is to have a balanced view of the events of that long night off the north African coast. This page also includes the names of the 42 officers serving on HMS Hecla with links to information about theire lives and service careers.

The most detailed view from the bridge of HMS Venomous is that of Lt A. d'E.T. Sangster RN, the Gunnery and Correspondence Officer, who wrote a fifty page memoir of his wartime service in the Royal Navy in 1981. He joined Venomous in March 1942 during its refit after its collision with HMS Keppel and his memoir includes a description of convoy PQ.15 to Murmansk in Northern Russia, the sinking of HMS Eagle while flying off hurricanes to relieve the besieged island of Malta and the events of the night of the 11 - 12 November 1942 when Hecla sank. He was on watch when HMS Venomous left its position on the starboard side of the convoy to pursue an Asdic contact and rejoined to find Hecla dead in the water and Marne standing by to rescue survivors.

Sketch of HMS VEnomous by Lt H.H. McWilliams
This photocopy of a sketch of HMS Venomous was found amongst the papers of Bob Moore after his death
It is believed to be by Lt H.H. McWilliamsn SANF, the South African architect and artist who drew the dramatic images of HMS Hecla sinking
It was probably done aboard Venomous after his rescue and given to one of her officers
Please get in touch if you can confirm this provisional identification and know its present wherabouts

The role of HMS Venomous

The performance of Cdr Falcon-Steward and his officers and crew in fighting the U-boat while rescuing survivors was praised by Admiral Cunningham in his report but the initial conclusion of the U-Boat Assessment Committee that the U-Boat had been sunk was subsequently rejected in its report of the 2 March 1943 (National Archives ADM 199/184) based on two precis of Cdr Falcon Stewards report. Every member of the crew played their part in the rescue of survivors, some risking their own lives by diving in to help the men in the oil covered water. The Anti Submarine Bosun, Warrant Officer H.J.B. Button RN died later as a result of his exertions.
Notice of awards for Hecla incident
Frederick N.G. Thomas, the RDF Operator on HMS Venomous when Hecla sank, had a grandstand view of the action from "the RDF compartment on the highest point of the ship" and wrote a vivid account of the torpedoing of Hecla, the pursuit of the attacking U-boat and the rescue of the survivors during that very long night:

"Radar reported a surface target dead ahead. Evidently the enemy had surfaced. When the range had closed sufficiently we fired a star shell. Up went the binoculars on the bridge. The flare burned brightly, and almost under our bows, it seemed, was the U-boat, like a monstrous black whale its wet side glistening in the yellow light.

'Stand by to ram'. Everyone on the bridge held tightly to some firm object and braced for the shock. The U-boat however, could turn in a tighter circle and was too quick for us. She was clear with ten yards to spare, and her guns crew were already training their five-incher on us. Neither of our four-point-sevens could bear as we reeled to port under full helm. A quick-witted seaman on our starboard Oerlikon opened fire and the enemy gun crew melted under the murderous hail. Still reeling crazily to port, we came round again for another run in and the U-boat was diving at panic speed. Once again she managed to evade our cleaving bows, but as we raced by we fired a pattern of depth charges, one actually striking the submerging conning tower.

Astern the sea shuddered, boiled and upheaved itself into a gigantic water spout. By the light of our ten inch searchlight we saw a huge, black cigar shape appear to break slowly into two, both parts slowly disappearing almost immediately."

"Freddo" Thomas died on the 9 May 2012 aged 92 but his description of events during that long night can be read in full on this web site.

In April 1943 the new commanding officer of HMS Venomous, Lt Henry D. Durell RN, was notified of awards made to officers and men on Venomous for their conduct during that long night. The note he posted on the ship's notice board was later kept as a souvenir by Cyril Hely and presented to Bob Moore when this book was first published. It was thought to have been lost but has recently been found amongst Bob's papers which are to be presented to the Royal Navy Museum, Portsmouth, for safe keeping.

CPO Robert D.L. Foxe (D/J.92864) "was at the wheel throughout" and Acting Leading Seaman Harold Stafford (D/SSX.14930) was the Asdic operator. Both received the DSM. Venomous  would never had made it to Casablanca were it not for the imagination and determination of the Warrant Engineer, Mr Horace Rance Pead RN, who along with the CO, the Yeoman of Signals Albert Lofthouse (D/JX.135027) and the Anti-Submarine Boatswain were MID. The bravery of the Boatswain (A/S), Warrant Officer H.J.B. Button DSM RN, and the tragic manner in which his life ended is described below. All the men on Venomous helped haul the oil covered survivors clinging exhausted to the scrambling nets aboard the destroyer as recalled by Jack Bolton and David Hoggins. And some risked their own lives by diving in to pull men to safety.

Warrant Officer H.J.B. Button DSM RN

The unsung hero of that long night was Herbert "Jimmie" Button, the Anti Submarine Boatswain on HMS Venomous, and a strong swimmer. He gave his own life to save the lives of others, diving in repeatedly to rescue the men struggling for their lives in the oil covered water, only to die a few days later from his exertions. The HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association were unsuccessful in their efforts to to trace his family and invite them to their fiftieth anniversary dinner on the 11 November 1992 but his memory was foremost in the minds of many of those present. We now know that his father probably died in the trenches before his son was born. He was adopted, joined the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman, was awarded the DSM and promoted to officer. He was photographed at the burial at sea of the men who died after being rescued and was a very popular officer. His story was discovered quite recently and is told here - click on the link above.

HMS Marne

HMS Marne was a modern M-Class destroyer commissioned in December 1941 which with Venomous was escorting HMS Hecla to the invasion beaches at Algeria when Hecla was torpedoed by U-515. The CO of HMS Marne was Lt Cdr H.N.A. Richardson RN and his Report of Proceedings (National Archives, ADM 1/14272) is one of the critcal pieces of evidence used to piece together the story of what happened while Venomous was away from the convoy following an RFD contact. We also have the vivid description from the Diary of William Dodds, the Telegraphist on HMS Marne, sent to me by his son, Colin Dodds.

HMS Marne torpedoed Fifty four ratings and ten officers were rescued by HMS Marne before she was hit in the stern by a torpedo intended for Hecla (see the sketch at the top of this page) killing fourteen of the crew.  Stan Juson was one of those rescued. A crew member of Marne was asked by Norman Johns at a Hecla reunion where he was when the torpedo struck Marne in the stern and answered, "I was midships getting your CO and other officers aboard".

Michael Flanders and John Anderson were CW Candidates completing six months service as ratings on Marne before being sent for officer training. They had written a light hearted skit poking fun at their officers which was abandoned when Hecla was torpedoed. They were ordered into the ship's whaler to rescue the men in the water and when Marne's stern was blown off they agreed to tell each other's mother should one of them be killed. Herbert McWilliams was one of those pulled aboard the overcrowded whaler. It capsized as it came alongside Venomous and many of those rescued died despite the bravery of "Jimmie" Button, the Anti-submarine Bosun on Venomous. The following day Marne was towed to Gibraltar by HMS Salvonia escorted by HMS Jonquil. After commissioning Lt Michael H. Flanders RNVR served on ML 236 with Coastal Forces and his friend, Lt John Anderson RNVR, served on the Flower Class corvette, HMS Saxiflage. Michael Flanders (1922-75) was invalided out after contracting poliomyelitis and went on to achieve fame for his comedy duo with Donald Swann in "Flanders and Swann".

Above left:
Lt Herbert H McWilliams SANF drew this sketch of HMS Marne being hit in the stern
by a torpedo intended for Hecla on the back of a signal form after being rescued by HMS Venomous

You can read here the stories of some of the men whose lives were saved

The survivors crowd every foot of space on HMS Venomous (double click the image to see it full size) as it heads for Gibraltar after leaving Casablanca. The publication of A Hard Fought Ship has led to me being contacted by survivors in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK as well as by the families of many of those who died on Armistice Day 1942 and their stories are told here. If your family has a story to tell get in touch by clicking "contact online" at the foot of this page.

"Harry" Alexander, the Navigating Officer on Hecla, was on the Bridge when the critical decisions were taken

Greg Clark the last surviving officer on HMS Hecla and first Curator of the RN Museum died aged 95 in August 2012.

HMS Venomous with Hcla survors enroute to GibLeading Stoker A.R. Cripwell - "Sunk five times but 'Jonah' still smiles"

Harry Cornish and Sam Kingslan, "joined the Navy on the same day and stayed together until the Hecla was torpedoed". Sam, a strong swimmer drowned but Harry was saved by HMS Marne.

Charlie Brierley, a stoker on Hecla, was pulled aboard Venomous by "Jimmie" Button

Stan Juson was one of sixty four survivors including Captain G.V.B. Faulkner RN rescued by HMS Marne

Norman Johns - the last survivor to be rescued formed the HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association in 1990 and was 92 when he died in January 2016.

The stories of the Sick Berth Attendants (SBA) are told first hand or by their families.

Les Proctor - his first ship and nearly his last

Harry Cliffe told the story of his "Navy Days" the year before his death in 2003

Bill Clayton lived to  "walk with ghosts on HMS Tyne", an identical sister ship to Hecla.

An AB called 'Charley' helped save the life of Les Mortimer but lost his own

Fred Lemberg - one of twelve ratings from New Zealand on HMS Hecla

HMS Veonous at  Casablanca, 12 November 1942
HMS Venomous arriving at Casablanca with her decks crowded with survivors from HMS Hecla
Click on the image twice to view fullsize and zoom in
Ref NARA-080_G-30679


And some of those who died ...

The widows and orphaned children of the 273 men who died that night had to come to terms with the loss of husbands and fathers. The impact of their loss continues to be felt up to the present day. David Norman Holmes Golby has written an account of the life and death of the father he never knew, Norman Holmes, Electrical Mechanic 5th Class, on HMS Hecla. Herbert McWilliams describes seeing his friend Lt Guy Henry Garrett-Cox RNVR for the last time when he entered the the water after the third torpedo struck. Kenneth Brown was thirteen when his father, CPO Norman Brown, died and got to know him better after his death by talking to his shipmates on Hecla. Jabez Skelhorne never returned home to receive his seven year old daughter's Christmas present and each year it is hung  on the family tree at Christmas and the story retold to his great grandson, Jabez. Christine Donovan Smith found out about her father, Don Preece, a talented and popular cartoonist, by reading the letters he wrote to his wife after she died. Their stories are perhaps even more poignant than those of the men who survived when Hecla was torpedoed seventy two years ago.

Lt Herbert Hastings McWilliams SANF

This recently commissioned 35 year old officer in the South African Navy, an architect in his father's practice in Port Elizabeth before the war, had enlisted as an ordinary seaman in 1941 and joined HMS Hecla at Simonstown on the 4 September 1942.

He was an exceptionally gifted artist and his wonderfully realistic paintings of Hecla sinking on the back of old charts (based on sketches done with a throat brush and a mixture of iodine and rum  from the sick bay of Venomous) and extracts from his description of that night taken from a letter to his Mother written within days of its loss are included in A Hard Fought Ship. These paintings are in the Imperial War Museum, London.

The HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association

Stratford 1992
Wreath laying ceremony at the War Memorial in Stratford on the fiftieth anniversary in 1992

The men who were there when HMS Hecla was torpedoed and sank off the north African coast on the 11 - 12 November 1942 formed the "HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association" which held its first reunion at Stratford on Avon on the fiftieth anniversary of its loss in 1992. Some left written accounts and Norman Johns, the Secretary of the Association, put me in touch with others who recalled their memories of that long night. The lengthy chapter in A Hard Fought Ship weaves together their stories with the facts given in the reports of proceedings written by the commanding officers and the memories of the officers and men of HMS Venomous.


Finally, take a look at the Hecla Scrapbook - can you throw some light on the items posted here?

The 858 men recorded in the Pay and Victualing Ledgers as being on HMS Hecla on the night it sank can be downloaded as a PDF
The official Admiralty  List of those who died when HMS Hecla sank  can also be downloaded as a PDF
It contains the full name, rank, rate and service number of all those who died and those "missing presumed killed"

Find out how to obtain the service record for a family member who served on HMS Hecla 


Caution - this web site only contains details received since publication of the old edition which is out of print
You should read A Hard Fought Ship for the full account of the loss of HMS Hecla
A new edition of A Hard Fought Ship will be published in 2017

"The ship’s role in the events surrounding the loss of the depot ship Hecla and crippling of the destroyer Marne at the hands of Germany’s U-515 ... is especially well documented.
Rigorous design and production values means that images are reproduced clearly to a high standard,  and the overall book has a quality feel."
"Naval Books of the Year, 2012" - Warship.




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