A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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Leslie W Proctor (MX79979) Electrical Artificer 4th Class
Hecla Survivor

Les ProctorLes Proctor
Les Proctor grew up in Watford, lived in Garston and got to know the Fighting Cocks, England's oldest pub, and the local of the book publisher and writer of this introduction to his story of the sinking of HMS Hecla and his rescue by HMS Venomous.

Les had wanted to join the Royal Navy since he was eleven and as a first step to becoming an Electrical Artificer (EA) he took a job at the General Electric Company at Wembley in 1937 to train as an Instrument Maker Improver. This was declared a "reserved occupation" and the Royal Navy refused to take him when he tried to enlist on his eighteenth birthday after the war started in 1939. He was only able to fulfill his ambition and join the Royal Navy in June 1941 when he was 19 and had changed his job to a non reserved occupation as an Instrument Maker at Novabax Ltd.

After basic training at HMS Victory (Gosport and Portsmouth) and a six months electrical course at HMS Vernon (formerly Roedean College, Brighton, a girls school) and St Dunstans (a former home for the blind) he was drafted to HMS Hecla after its return from Iceland for a refit on the Clyde at Glasgow.

Events on the voyage south leading to Hecla being mined near Cape Town on the 15 May 1942 and spending five months under repair in drydock at Simonstown are described elsewhere on this web site. In October 1942 HMS Hecla left Simonstown with Capt G.V.B. Faulkner RN in command to support the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. Les Proctor describes what happened when the first torpedoes struck.

Les Proctor at Simonstown, 1942Les Proctor, South Africa 1942
Left:  Les Proctor in front of the ERA's quarters in Simonstown while HMS Hecla was under repair after hitting a mine
Right: From left Les Proctor, Cecil Folkhard, Cyril Hargreaves and Dennis Williams at
the Rhodes Memorial, Cape Town
Cecil Folkhard was lost when Hecla was torpedoed and Dennis Williams died aboard HMS Venomous after being rescued
Courtesy of Les Proctor

"At 23:30 on the 11 November when we were 35 degrees N, 9 degrees 55' W and approximately 150 miles from Gibraltar we were hit by two torpedoes simultaneously. Cyril Hardware and I were awake but in our hammocks and his only comment was "not again" (a reference to us being mined). While we scrambled out and dressed a sleepy head appeared from the only other hammock in the mess and "Porky" Jennings asked why we were getting up! We went to action stations and found that the boiler rooms had been hit and we were without engines or power, and the ship had a large list. The diesel generators, located in the engine room, were run up and power restored. Pumps, etc. were activated and the ship was brought back on an even keel.

HMS Vindictive passed us a line to prepare for towing. Meanwhile, the EAs were frantically restoring power to various services and some of us were in the engine room operating circuit breakers. The engine room was on the hold deck, approximately 20 feet below the water line. Also present were a rotund stoker Petty Officer and a couple of stokers. Access to the engine room was via a manhole hatch, oval in shape, held down by six clamps, and not easy to access at any time.

At 00:22 on the 12th, while
we were working at the far end of the  engine room, another "fish" came in for'ard and, despite the climb up a 20 foot ladder to get through the hatch, we were all out within a minute, or so it seemed. The stoker Petty Officer always had a squeeze to get through the hatch but he went through with lifebelt and gas mask like a cork out of a bottle.

Again the ship listed and two more "fish" came in at 00:32 and 01:05 but we (EAs) carried on running emergency cables connected to terminals through the bulkhead at the deckhead. We started at the supply end and connected live (220V DC) but as the ship took on a 45-degree list, we eventually worked with one foot on the ship's side and the other on the deck. When we had connected about half-way through the ship, an Engineer Officer came by and said that "abandon ship" had been given some time ago, it seems at approximately 00:15. Our Chief EA and the Warrant Electrician plus a watchkeeper were at the switchboard, so I went down to warn them and then joined Cyril on deck.

"Stepping In" 01:09

The drill for leaving a sinking ship is to run, walk or slide down the high side to avoid being dragged under as the vessel rolls, so we made for the high side. Discarding our boots and jackets, we went to the rail but we both fell and slid down the wet deck. On the way, I hit the legs of Flynn who was trying to work his way up. However, we all finished up in a heap on the rail, which was then under water. Cyril stood at the rail and ceremoniously dumped his cap and we all (Cyril Hardware, Flynn, Allan Wardle, and myself) "stepped in" and started to swim (my watch stopped at 01:09), agreeing to stay together. It was pitch dark and there was a ten-foot swell so we could not see each other but we saw the Marne by the light of a star shell she sent up. We tried to keep in touch by calling out but we were all being sick from taking in salt water and fuel oil, and the last I heard was Alan Wardle saying he could not go on. Cyril had said we ought to swim to the Marne, a quarter of a mile away, but she received a "fish" in the stern and the explosion doubled us up and showered us with debris. Cyril and I both instinctively ducked our heads under water to avoid the chunks of steel plate coming down. The Admiralty report states that a second torpedo, presumably aimed at the Marne, missed, and hit Hecla. As we were still close to Hecla and a quarter mile from Marne, we should have been affected by a second explosion seconds later, but I only remember one explosion. As we did not wish to be caught between two sinking ships, we turned and swam at ninety degrees. As it happened, the Marne did not sink and was towed to Gibraltar the next day. Before being hit she had picked up about fifty survivors.

I swam on and found a Spanner raft, a cross hatch of wood about 18 inches square, but lost it soon after when another swimmer grabbed it. I swam until dawn, about 07:00, when I saw a Carley float and hung onto the ropes around it. They were made for 12 but this had many more and was just submerged. After a while it overturned and, for a time, I sat on it until it overturned again. As people died or disappeared, I managed to stay with it and we helped to balance it against the ten-foot swell. As the light improved, we caught glimpses of Venomous picking up survivors but it was around noon before they got to us. This was one of the worst parts of our time in the water as we had no way of knowing whether the rescuer would ever come our way. All we could see was the top of its masts when we rose to the top of a wave. As time wore on the number on the float gradually reduced as cold, fatigue or despair overcame them. The first time 1 heard the "death rattle"
was stoker pensioner Tommy Totel who was then pushed away; it was depressing.

Rescue, 12:00, November 12

As the ship came alongside, we had to grab ropes or nets as she could not stop and, thereby, present an easy target. I managed to grab the scramble net but as my fingers, arms, and knees were locked, I could not climb up, and two seamen reached down and hauled me aboard. Once on deck, I could only move with bent knees. My only clothing was an oil-soaked tropical shirt and underpants, the latter were "borrowed" while I slept and they were drying.

Venomous ceased looking for survivors at 12:50 as no more could be seen and she was running low on fuel oil.

Questions were asked about the recovery of bodies. Venomous would have been a sitting target if it
had stopped to retrieve bodies, consequently, to avoid leaving them floating, they were machine gunned to make them sink. I understand that the last survivors were picked up some 23 miles from the point of sinking, i.e. a drift of about two miles per hour.

A hero of the rescue was Herbert Button, the anti-submarine bosun of HMS Venomous, who entered the water several times to assist exhausted survivors. He became exhausted, retired to his bunk, lapsed into a coma and died a few days later.

Venomous had a crew of 120 and picked up about 500 survivors, so you can imagine we each had a stateroom! We were so crowded and tired, we stayed where we were. The only person I recognised was a pensioner, Charlie Meech, with whom I worked in the instrument section. You could set the clock by him: workshop 08:00, tea 10:00, rum 11:00, leave for dinner 11:50, head down 12:15, workshop 13:15, to "secure" at 15:50. When Hecla sank, he abandoned ship fully clothed, got on a Carley float and was picked up early. When I saw him he was still fully clothed including collar, tie, and a cap, dried out, and his only complaint was that his tobacco had gotten wet. He had lost his entire watchmakers' equipment (the value in 1940 was 150 pounds for the lathe alone) but not a word about that.

Conditions aboard the rescue ship

As we were near the end of a two week voyage, there was little food aboard so we could not be fed. Fuel oil was also low and, as we were closer to Casablanca than to Gibraltar, we went there to take on fuel. During the night passage, a spread of torpedoes was fired at us but, fortunately, these were spotted and the spread "combed", i.e. the ship turned to go between them.

We stretched out on the mess benches to sleep with the first fellow on his back with his head at the end. Others then lay between his legs resting their body on his stomach - this were the soft sleeping accommodations. Due to the numbers, many had to sleep on the deck. When the torpedo attack came during the night, the violent turn shot us all onto the deck on top of those sleeping there. The crockery also smashed on the deck. The lower mess deck is below the waterline and, had we been hit, those in there would have had no hope, but those of us at upper deck level may have escaped.

Hecla survivciors aboard USS Augusta, 12 November 1942
Hecla survivors aboard USS Augusta at Casablanca on the 12 November 1942
Image Reference NARA-80-G-30472 National Archives and Records Association, USA

Arriving in Casablanca around 07:30 with only about four tons of fuel left (gauges showed empty), we were taken aboard the heavy cruiser, USS Augusta and given food and some clothing. I got a pair of socks, underpants, and drill trousers, after having been dressed in only my oil-soaked tropical shirt. That food tasted very good after 36 hours without. The landings in that area had just taken place and there was still fighting in the town and there were ships in the harbour on fire or sunk.

After refuelling we set out around noon. Outside the harbour destroyers were circling, dropping depth charges and, as we crossed the circle, a huge mushroom of oil came up following one depth charge drop. The U-boat was hit.

Passage to England

We arrived in Gibraltar late evening and went to our respective messes on board HMS Duke of York and "crashed" down on the deck. The following morning they gave us their breakfast - bacon, eggs, and tomatoes - the first eggs these people had received in three months. This was our first food in 24 hours. As we were heading for our mid-day meal at 12:00 we were piped to muster on deck where we boarded tugs to go out to vessels for passage back to England. We steamed around until 19:30, going from ship to ship, until the liner Reina de Pacifico agreed to take us. One vessel said we could come aboard but we would be two decks below the Lascar messes, around bottom decks. This was rejected. Once aboard the Reina de Pacifico we were allocated to cabins, between eight and twelve to each, but we received some food, our first since breakfast.

We sailed at midnight and, as the anchor was weighed, it banged on the ship's side. One of us, a South African called Sjolander, was out of his bunk, on deck, found the cause and back in the cabin before we could get out - he had become very nervous.

Next day a raffle was held for a USAF bomber jacket (leather, lambswool lined). Jennings won this with a shilling he "borrowed" from me (I still have the belt in which I saved my money), so I bought it from him for 30/- (1 and ten shillings). I kept it until the late 1970s when I gave it to Arve Bredahl, a friend in Saskatchewan.

Interestingly, Jennings, who had left the Hecla in the prescribed manner by sliding down the higher side, found that his buttocks and forearm had been badly lacerated by the barnacles but the salt water had cauterized the cuts and stopped the bleeding."

HMS Hecla on Clyde after refit
HMS Hecla on the Clyde after commissioning in March 1941
Bill Clayton survived the Hecla to serve on its identical sister ship, HMS Tyne
Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne

The Reina del Pacifico berthed at Greenock on the 23 November and after walking barefoot over cobblestones to a bombed out warehouse, they were partly kitted up (Les was given a seaman's jersey, boots, a cap and an oilskin coat). They were given a stew for dinner at noon and, when the nearby "Wrennery" heard they had nothing more, sandwiches and cocoa were brought at 21.00. They boarded a train at midnight for the journey south to their barracks at Portsmouth.

*****

When Les returned from leave in January 1943 he was drafted to HMS Indomitable at Liverpool, an Illustrious Class aircraft carrier commanded by P. Wooten-Wooten, known as "Peanuts" and other less polite names (he was not a popular officer). After working up routines they left the Clyde in June for the Mediterranean to cover the landings in Sicilly and Indomitable survived a hit from an air launched torpedo and spent ten days in Malta being "patched" before proceeding to Gibraltar. The Indomitable was sent to the US for repairs while Les returned to Londonderry on a corvette, his first experience of life at sea on one of the smaller ships of the Royal Navy.

Les was posted to John Brown's shipyard, Clydebank, in October 1943 to standby for the final building and commissioning of the aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable and it was there that he met and courted his wife, Catherine Macfarlane. Indefatigable joined the home fleet at Scapa Flow and took part in the attack on the Tirpitz in Altenfjord.

Les Proctor with John RodgaardOn 18 November HMS Indefatigable sailed to join the British Pacific Fleet at Trincomalee in Ceylon where they went on three week sorties to bomb oil fields on the Japanese occupied islands of the Dutch East Indies. Indefatigable  spent Christmas in Australia and then joined the US Fifth Task Force in covering the landings at Okinawa and Sakashima "during which they were repeatedly attacked by Japanese torpedo bombers and kamikaze (suicide bombers)." One of these at Okinawa "scored a hit on the flight deck at the base of the island, blowing a hole right through but fortunately not damaging the boiler room smokestack. After the islands were taken we withdrew to the Philippines, Manila Bay, and effected our own repairs."

They patrolled the Japanese coast and Formosa "while the atom bombs were delivered" and when Japan surrendered "went into Tokyo Bay for the signing ... and met up with HMS Duke of York carrying Admiral Tovey to accept the surrender on Britain's behalf and our captain sent a message to the skipper of the Duke of York 'Well done - we do the work, you take the glory'." Indefatigable flew the flag in Australia and New Zealand and returned to Portsmouth via Cape Town in March 1946 where it was decommissioned.

After demobilisation Les returned to his pre-war job at Novabax, an unhappy experience. His three children were born in Watford but Les moved to Canada in 1955, obtained a job as an electrical engineer and the family joined him the following year. His daughter, Kathy, lives in Ottowa and visited him regularly. His oldest daughter, Valerie, lives in Geneva and Douglas, the youngest member of the family, in Calgary.

In August 2012 Capt John Rodgaard USN (Ret), the author of A Hard Fought Ship, visited Les in Ottowa and presented him with a copy of his book. Armistice Day 2012 was the 70th anniversary of the torpedoing of HMS Hecla when 273 men died and HMS Venomous rescued 493 of the survivors. Les Proctor lived a good life and was 94 when he passed away on 9 September 2016.


Written by Les Proctor and published as a chapter in
My Experiences in the Royal Navy 1939-1945
This self published memoir includes the names of all the members of his Mess on HMS Hecla and what happened to them
Allan Wardle was lost and Cyril Hardware died aboard HMS Venomous after being rescued




Return to the "Home Page" for HMS Hecla
to find out more about its history and the stories of other survivors

The story of HMS Venomous is told by Bob Moore and Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret) in
A Hard Fought Ship
A Hard Fought Ship contains the most detailed account of the loss of HMS Hecla yet published
  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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