The story of HMS Venomous

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and the Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign in World War II lasting from 1939 to the defeat of Germany in 1945. It was at its height from mid-1940 through to the end of 1943. The Battle of the Atlantic pitted U-boats and other warships of the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) and aircraft of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) against Allied merchant shipping. The convoys, coming mainly from North America and mainly going to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, were protected for the most part by the British and Canadian navies and air forces. These forces were aided by ships and aircraft of the United States from September 13, 1941. The 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic (BOA) was commemorated in May 2013 with a series of events in the cities of Londonderry, Liverpool and London. The Londonderry Branch of the Royal Navy Association organised this year's events on the 75th Anniversary in May 2018 which attracteds visitors from ports on both sides of the Atlantic where the escorts were based.

Derry provided much needed rest and relaxation to Allied sailors following convoy duty. By April 1943 the shore base at Londonderry, HMS Ferret, was responsible for 149 escort and anti-submarine patrol vessels, two thousand shore-based personnel and twenty thousand British and Canadian seamen.

HMS Venomous at Londonderry

From late 1940 to early 1942 HMS Venomous was part of the First Escort Group at Londonderry, Northern Ireland, which with the ships of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) escorted the convoys across the Atlantic during the longest battle of the Second World War.  HMS Venomous remained an Atlantic escort until April 1942 interrupted by major repairs after detonating a mine in Liverpool bay on New Year's Eve 1940 and repairs and refit after a collision with the flotilla leader, HMS Keppel, in November 1941. After a major refit Venomous escorted Arctic Convoy PQ.15 to Murmansk on the Kola Inlet in Northern Russia and returning convoy QP.11 in April and May 1942. Find out more about the convoys escorted by Venomous while based at Londonderry.

Londonderry 1940
Londonderry waterfront, c1946?
HMS Beverley on the River Foyle at Londonderry in 1941 (top) and  four Algerine Class minesweepers moored alongside
The outer minesweeper, J277, is HMS Orestes
Courtesy of Bill Martin

Lt Homer McPhee RN (1919-2006) was a popular Canadian officer on HMS Venomous in 1941. He was born at Vancouver in 1919 and worked his passage across the Atlantic to join the Royal Navy as a boy sailor in 1936. He transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) after the war, lived for a time in Northern Ireland with his family and retired from the RCN in 1979 as its longest serving officer. He shared a cabin with Sub Lt John Tucker RNR (1920-2011) who described the convoy system in A Hard Fought Ship

Jack Bolton AB/STPO J.E. TonnerSome crew members came from Northern Ireland and others met their future wives there. And some like Jack Bolton (near left) did both. Jack did not fancy being a foot slogging soldier so travelled the twenty miles from his home at Strabane south of Londonderry to Belfast for a medical and joined the Royal Navy. After basic training at HMS Arthur in Skegness (wheree eight men were killed in a bombing raid) and a three month course as a torpedoman at Devonport he was drafted to HMS Venomous at Londonderry. Venomous was at sea escorting Arctic Convoy PQ.15 to Murmansk and Jack stayed in a boarding house for a month until her return. The girl he was courting and later married was working in a shirt factory across the road from the naval base. Jack joined Venomous in June 1942 as  Seaman Torpedoman, AB(ST), Official Number D/JX 342131. He was 95 on the 22 February 2018 and lives in Telford, Shropshire, but still keeps in touch with family in Northern Ireland.

Eric Pountney, a wireless Telegrapher on Venomous, learned to drive in Derry and one of his fellow telegraphers, PO James Andrew Tonner (in suit, right), met his wife in Derry. His widow and their children still live there today. Eric's elder brother, Sydney Russell Pountney, was serving in Northen Ireland with the Royal Corps of Signals and also married an Ulster girl, Eileen.

Jack Bolton was in the same mess as "Micky" (Joseph) Addis, a Bosun's Mate, ON SSX17322 (below left), who joined Venomous when she came out of Reserve in 1939. Addis came from Belfast and having been on the ship so long tended to throw his weight around and was regarded as a bit of a bully by the younger ratings. He had his own place in the mess where nobody else was allowed to sit and on one occasion "saved up his daily tot of rum, went on a binge, hit a sailor and was locked up for a few days".

Josepkh "Micky" AddisLS Arthur Battersby RNRArthur Battersby (AX/19952) on right was born in Coleraine, fifty miles east of Londonderry, and was in the Merchant Marine (as a cabin boy) before joining the Royal Navy Reserve in March 1938. He was in the armed Merchant Cruiser, HMS Hector, on the Eastern Station for two years. After she was bombed and sunk by Japanese aircraft at Colombo he was posted to Venomous in August 1942 in time to take part in Operation Pedestal, the relief of Malta. By then he was a 23 year old Leading Seaman, older and more experienced than the Hostilities Only (HO) ratings on the lower deck. He was on "B" Gun Crew with Cyril Hely and appeared in some of his photographs (right) and remained with Venomous until she de-commissioned at Falmouth in October 1943. He was made a Petty Officer and spent two years at HMS Ferrett, the shore base at Londonderry as a gunnery instructor. He returned to the Pacific with the repair depot ship, HMS Artifex. One of his shipmates on the Artifex was PO Kenneth Collings, a Sick Berth Attendant on HMS Hecla rescued by Venomous when Hecla was torpedoed off the coast of North Africa on 11 November 1942.

William J. ("Dolly") Gray was described by shipmate Harry Haddon as a "likeable Irishman with strong political opinions" from Belfast. He is seen below with Cyril Hely (who is playing the ukulele) and is third from right in the photograph of the crew of B Gun "fooling about" taken in the Mediterranean in 1943. Dolly Gray was killed when his next ship HMS Albatross was torpedoed on 11 August 1944. It would be nice to hear from the family of this likeable Irishman.

Cyril Hely amnd "Dolly" Gray Crew of B Gun
Left: Cyril Hely playing the ukele with "Dolly" Gray, "the likeable Irishman with strong political views" from Belfast
Right: The crew of "B" gun appear to be practising loading the 4.7 inch gun on the bow of Venomous
But Cyril Hely wrote on reverse "Having a skylark, October 42" and gave their names (from the right) as Cyril Hely, Tom Davies (Liverpool), Dolly Gray (Belfast) and (part hidden) "Ginger" Hargrave
Photographs courtesy of AB Cyril Hely
HMS Venomous as an Atlantic Escort, 1941
HMS Venomous as an Atlantic escort in 1941 its Y Gun replaced by depth charge rails at the stern
Not a single V & W Class destroyer exists today - they all went to the breakers yard at the end of World War II
HMS Cavalier at Chatham Dockyard is the only surviving World War II destroyer in Britain
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR
Sub Lt John Carson RNVR (1943) LSE 1

John Carson was one of six CW Candidates who joined HMS Venomous In September 1942
for six months sea time on the lower deck before being sent to HMS KIng Alfred for officer training.

John Carson RNVR

John Carson came from a farming family in County Down but worked at banks in Dublin and Belfast before enlisting in the RNVR on the 27 May 1942. He was thirty when he joined Venomous as one of the CW Candidates in time to escort Arctic Convoy PQ.18 to Archangel. PQ.17 had been a disaster and nerves must have been on edge as they set off for Iceland where the convoy assembled but once again their elderly worn out boilers let them down, "condensoritis",  and they had to go to Belfast for repair (200 boiler tubes had to be replaced) making it impossible for them to escort PQ.18. His fiancee lived in Belfast and he invited his fellow CW Candidate, Alex Campbell from Edinburgh to visit her house where they had a much needed hot bath. There is a recording of Alex Campbell being interviwed by the IWM in 2009 which can be heard online.

The six CW Candidates were aboard Venomous when HMS Hecla was torpedoed off North Africa on the 11 November and left Venomous at Gibraltar in February 1943 to return to England for officer training. John Carson was commissioned and as Sub Lt J. Carson RNVR his first posting was to LSE 1 (above) commanded by Lt Geoffrey N. Spring RNR who had been rescued by Venomous in November 1942 when his previous ship, HMS Hecla, was torpedoed. Lt Spring credited John Carson with his rescue and asked for him as one of his officers. LSE 1 had seen action off the D-Day beaches as an LST (Landing Ship Tank) but had been converted into a landing craft repair ship, an LSE. In September 1944 John Carson was promoted to lieutenant but remained on LSE 1 until 28 February 1946 when he transferred to HMS Sefton at Singapore for two months before returning to Britain and being discharged from the RNVR in August. 

John Carson saw his year old daughter for the first time when he returned to Northern Ireland in the late summer of 1946 and resumed his career in banking. He retained his link to the Navy during the Cold War. The Royal Naval Mine Watching Service, a civilian organisation, was formed in 1952 as part of the auxiliary forces of the British Naval Service. Its intended role, should war break out again, was to man observation points overlooking ports and strategic waterways in order to report mines dropped by aircraft. In January 1952, John Carson became the Mine Watching Service Officer for Belfast. 

HMS Caroline, Belfast
HMSA Caroline, Belfast

The C-Class Cruiser, HMS Caroline, the only surviving warship which took part in the Battle of Jutland, is the HQ of the RNVR in Belfast and a museum ship open to the public
HMS Caroline is part of the Royal Navy Museum
Photographed by Bill Forster in September 2018

This branch of the RNMWS was based on HMS Caroline, a cruiser which took part in the Battle of Jutland during World War I, and is the last floating training ship of the RNVR. The ship was restored for the 2016 centenary commemorations of the Battle of Jutland and is open to the public. In 1962 the RNMWS was transformed into the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service, intended as a short-notice response force to help disperse shipping in British ports in case of a nuclear strike. John Carson's retirement from the Bank was all too short, as he succumbed to bowel cancer just before his sixty-ninth birthday in 1981. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

Sg. Lt Ian Lowry Maxwell RNVR

Surg Lt Ian Maxwell RNVRIan Maxwell was born at Kircubbin in Northern Ireland on 21 June 1919 and educated at Queens University, Belfast. He replaced Sg Lt Milner RNVR at Londonderry on the 25 August 1942 and remained aboard as the "Doc"until October 1943.

He was aboard Venomous at Iceland when she aborted from escorting Arctic Convoy PQ.18 due to problems with blocked boiler tubes. When HMS Hecla was torpedoed off the coast of north Africa on the night of 11 - 12 November he cared for the injured survivors and Jimmy Button, the ASW Bosun in Venomous, who lost his life as a result of injuries he incurred diving in repeatedly to rescue the men struggling in the oily water.

"Herbert James Button did not live. After his rescue efforts he was exhausted and stayed in the bunk next to mine. After several hours he started groaning and seemed to be in a coma so I got our Surgeon Lieutenant Maxwell to examine him. We put into Algiers and he was lowered in a special stretcher and then taken ashore and by ambulance to hospital, and death through meningitis. Great sadness to us all, and certainly not the way to end a story." Lt Tony Sangster RNVR

He was on the first through convoy from Gib to Alex and at the landings on the south east coat of Sicily near Syracuse in July 1943. He would have been in great demand during this period but in the following months life became more routine as Venomous escorted supply convoys along the coast of north Africa.

He left Venomous when she limped back home to Falmouth in October 1943 for conversion to an Air Target Ship and joined SS Serapis, a new S (Savage) Class destroyer laid down in January 1941 at Scotts of Greenock on the Clyde and, finally, about to start her sea trials. She was commisioned on the 23 December and worked up with the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in January before escorting three Arctic Convoys to the Kola Inlet in Northern Russia.

In May Serapis transferred with ships of 23rd Destroyer Flotilla for support of the landings in Normandy, Operation Neptune, escorting Convoy S2 to the Eastern Task Force area where she provided gunfire support, patrol and defence of the assault area. In September and October she operated off the coast of Norway and in November she was part of the escort for Convoy JW61A returning Russian POWs "liberated" in Normandy to Murmansk where they facedan uncertain future. Further operations off the coast of Norway were followed by two further convoys to the Kola inlet in Northern Russia.

Dr William Maxwell, Senior Lecturer in Human Anatomy at the University of Glasgow until his retirement, mailed me the following details of his father's subsequent life:

"I believe that my father met my mother at HMS Raleigh when they were both stationed there 1945/46. They married at Cloghy in N. Ireland in June 1947. My father joined a General Practice with Jocyelin, Heron and Hayes as Junior Partner some time in late 1947, at  237 Gloucester Road, Bishopton, Bristol. Dad worked there until his death in 1973. He became deputy Police Surgeon in 1959 and Chief Police Surgeon in 1965."

HMS Venomous at Halifax, Nova Scotia

Venomous was a Short Range Escort (SRE) which left the "empties" at Iceland and met the next incoming convoy. But Fred Thomas, the RDF operator, and Lt John Tucker RNR recalled that on several occasions they made a quick dash into Havelfjord to refuel before rejoining the convoy and continuing westward to the ports on the Atlantic seaboard of Canada: Saint John in New Brunswick, St Johns in Newfoundland and Halifax in Nova Scotia.

The "No 1" on HMS Venomous in 1941 was Lt Angus Mackenzie RNR, a strong willed decisive character known affectionately as "Bloodie Mackenzie". In 1971 Mackenzie visited his daughter Sheena at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and looking down on Bedford Basin from the newly built bridge across the narrows recalled how different it was when Venomous was there in 1941. The Basin was so packed with ships that he could go ashore by walking from ship to ship. Some years after his death at Majorca in 1975 Sheena Mackenzie arranged for her father's ashes to be scattered in Bedford Basin, where the convoys assembled for the Atlantic crossing.

HMCS Sackville Sheena Mackensie and Capt John Rodgaard USN (Ret) HMCS Sackville
HMCS Sackville, the last surviving Canadian built wartime corvette, now a museum ship in Halifax
Centre: Sheena Mackenzie, the daughter of Lt Cdr Angus Mackenzie RNR, "No 1" on Venomous, 1940-1, and long time Halifax resident with Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret)

The Canadian launch of the previous edition of A Hard Fought Ship took place at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax on the 18 June 2011. Moored alongside the Museum on the waterfront at Halifax is HMCS Sackville the last survivor of the 120 Canadian built corvettes which escorted the convoys to Londonderry.

The surrender of the German U-Boats

The Battle of the Atlantic was effectively won by May 1943 but the U-Boats fought on and it was not until the war ended in May 1945 that they surrendered. HMS Venomous was one of eight destroyers in the Rosyth Escort Force sent to the entry ports on the west coast of Norway to accept the surrender of German naval forces, Operation Conan. Venomous (Lt Cdr A.G. Prideaux RNVR) and Valorous (Lt Cdr J.A.J. Dennis DSC RN) were sent to Kristiansand and their COs describe the surrender ceremonies held there on this website and in A Hard Fought Ship. Eighty six of the 135 captured u-boats were laid up at Loch Ryan in Scotland and thirty two at Lisahally
where the River Foyle joined Lough Foyle, the future site of Foyle Port, Londonderry. By agreement between the allies eight were allocated to the UK, one to the USA and ten to the USSR and the remaining 116 u-boats were sink in 100 metre of water north west of Ireland as described by Derek Waller in his detailed study of Operation Deadlight,

Captured U-Boats at Lisahally, Derry.
Surrendered U-boats moored at Lisahally, 1945.
Imperial War Museum, Crown Copyright

U-534 was raised from the sea bed between Sweden and Denmark at a cost of around 3m and put on display in Birkenhead on Merseyside and the possibility of raising U-778 from 70 m of water sixteen miles North West of Mallin Head for display at Londonderry has been discussed but the funds are not at present available. If this could be done it would be a most appropriate addition to the Maritime Museum at Derry which will open in 2021.

The 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic 2013

By 1942 many of the Escort Groups at Londonderry were made up of ships from the Royal Canadian Navy and during the course of the war at sea approximately 20,000 British and Canadian sailors made Derry their home-away-from-home, more than any other British port. In 2013, the seventieth anniversary of the turning of the tide against the U-Boats in 1943, Canadian naval veterans of the Second World War and their families attended the commemorative events in London/derry.

RCN at Londonderry (1)
View of the Guildhall from the deck of HMCS Kamsack
Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada
ACPOA Sailors' Monument at Halifax, Nova Scotia RCN at Londonderry (2)
Ratings on HMCS Royal Mount
Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

The Londonderry Branch  of the Royal Naval Association (RNA) raised the funds to install at Ebrington on the site of the stone frigate HMS Ferret (renamed HMS Sea Eagle after the war) a replica of the  Sailors’ Monument on the Halifax waterfront (above centre).  The Sailors' Monument was sculptured by Peter Bustin from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and cast in bronze by a foundry in Wales. The monument is a tribute to the thousands of sailors from the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, US Navy, Free French, Free Dutch and Royal Indian Marine that called Londonderry home during the Second World War. The annual reunions attract veterans and former servicemen from all these countries.

The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic 2018

The Londonderry Branch of the Royal Naval Association (RNA) commemorates the Battle of the Atlantic every May and continues to do this on an annual basis, despite being one of the smallest branches of the RNA. T
hree bells have been cast to "commemorate the Canadian naval and merchant sailors and airmen who lost their lives between September 1939 and May 1945 while maintaining the vital supply lines from North America to Europe".

The first bell was consecrated at St Columb's in 2005 and presented to St Brendan's Church in Halifax and the second bell was consecrated in the Anglican Cathedral of St John the Baptist in St Johns, Newfoundland, and hangs in the Tower Museum in Londonderry.
In 2018 a third ship's bell was cast, engraved and transported to Londonderry where it was dedicated in St Columb’s Cathedral on Sunday 20th May and presented to St Johns Newfoundland in early September in recognition of the service and sacrifice of the Convoy Escorts based there during WWII.

Presenting the bell to the Lieutenant Governor RNA Londonderry in the Crows Nest club at Saint Johns Newfoundland
The presentation of the bell to the Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland (on left) and members of RNA Londonderry in the Crows Nest naval club in Saint Johns (right)
Presentation of the Bell (from left): Robert Buchanan, RNA Londonderry, Jim Reddy, captain of HMCS Sackville, The Honourable Judy May Foote, Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, and 95 year old Bomber Command pilot Arthur Barrett.

Crows Nest: Pat Jessup on left and the head of Robert Buchanan on right
Click on the images to view full size

A large Canadian delegation attended the blessing of the bell for St Johns in St Columb's on Sunday 20 May and fifteen members of the Londonderry Branch of the RNA attended the presentation to St Johns by their President Robert Buchanan. The visitors and their hosts enjoyed a convivial meeting in the Crows Nest, the private naval club which began as as a club for visiting and stationed Navy officers during World War II. Pat Jessup describes in Trident, the newspaper of the Royal Canadian Navy's Forces Base in Halifax, the presentation of the bell to the Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador who accepted it on behalf of St Johns where it is now on public display in Government House.

The Battle of the Atlantic Society and the museum ship HMCS Sackville, the only Canadian corvette remaining, keep the memory of the Canadian contribution alive today.

A Maritime Museum at Derry

The Maritime Museum to be built in the former barracks of HMS Ferret at Ebrington across the River Foyle from Londonderry will include the part played by the convoy escorts based at Londonderry in the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic. The site is approached by the impressive Peace Bridge built with EU funding in 2011 to celebrate the reconciliation of the Catholic and Protestant communities in what was for many years a divided city. The Museum is scheduled  to open in 2021.

Peace Bridge across the River Foyle at Derry
The view from Ebrington of the Peace Bridge and the walled city of Londonderry with the tower of the Guildhall framed by the supports for the pedestrian foot bridge
Photographed by Bill Forster in October 2018

The attractive brick barracks at Ebrington were built around a large parade ground in 1841 and were used by the Army during the Great War and at the beginning of the Second World War:

"Ebrington was taken over by the Royal Navy in December 1940 and re-named HMS Ferret for the duration of the war.  In February 1941 the main HQ for the Western Approaches was transferred from Plymouth to Liverpool and Derry became the backup to Derby House in Liverpool. During the war, Derry was home to over 200 ships of the Royal Navy, the American Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Free French and Free Dutch Navies. Some ships from the Royal Indian Naval Reserve were also based in Derry for convoy duties. The HQ for the Western Approaches was housed in two large underground bunkers in the grounds of Magee College." History of Ebrington

Click on the llinks in the schematic map of the site in the History of Ebrington  to explore the history of the buildings on the site. After a long delay planning permission for the Maritime Museum was given in November 2017 but as far as is known no contracts have been placed for the construction of the Museum but a number of commercial developments have already opened. One of the barracks is occupied by the Walled City Brewery and its popular restaurant and another is being converted into a restaurant and hotel. Sadly, when I was there in October 2018 there was not even a sign or display board to indicate where the Maritime Museum will be located and when it will open.

 Professor J. W. Blake summarised the importance of the contribution made by Londonderry to winning the Battle of the Atlantic in Northern Ireland and the Second World War (Belfast: HMSO, 1956)

"Londonderry held the key to victory in the Atlantic. It became our most westerly base for the repair, the working up and refuelling of destroyers, corvettes and frigates. By that critical Spring (1943) when battle for the security of our Atlantic lifelines finally turned our way, Londonderry was the most important escort base in the north-western approaches."

Sailors Monument, Ebrington, Derry The former Hospital at Ebrington
The replica of the Sailor's Monument in Halifax, Nova Scotia, presented to the city by the Londonderry Branch of the Royal Navy Association (RNA) overlooks a strange assemblage of statues occupying one third of the former parade ground
Th former hospital (on right) was originally proposed as the site for the Maritime Museum but has now been reserved for commercial development

Photographed by Bill Forster in October 2018

Click on the link for details of the Convoys escorted by HMS Venomous in 1940-2

The Battle of the Atlantic was directed from Derby House in Liverpool which hosted the
Battle of the Atlantic Conference 2018 on the 25th May

The Arctic Star was awarded to veterans of the Battle of the Atlantic who escorted an Arctic convoy to northern Russia
Read about the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum 
at Loch Ewe

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 35 post free in the UK
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations

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