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The story of HMS Venomous

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Hecla: the South African connection

The Mediteranean was an Axis lake and to join the the Far Eastern Fleet defending Singapore against the Japanese Hecla had to head south and round the Cape of Good Hope. With Capt E.F.B. Law RN in command she left Greenock on the 15 April 1942 as part of Convoy WS.18 "outward bound" for South Africa. On the 15 May Hecla rounded the Cape and as she crossed the Aghulhas Bank just east of False Bay struck a mine at 15.59 hours killing 21 of the crew (with 3 missing and 116 injured).Despite a huge gash in her starboard side Hecla made her own way to the South African naval base of Simon's Town in False Bay, the sheltered east side of the Cape, south of Cape Town.

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Lt Cdr Henry C.R. Alexander RN, the Navigating Officer on HMS Hecla, described the extent of the damage:

"I anchored off the yard and divers were sent down to inspect the ship's hull but their reports were inconclusive, so it was decided to dock the ship immediately. When it was possible to walk under the hull in gumboots we were greeted by a truly astonishing sight. The entire ship's bottom from bilge keel to bilge keel over a length of some 150 feet had been lifted upwards to form a cupola resembling the dome of St Paul's. The ships sides had held but every deck right up to the upper deck was twisted and bent; it was not surprising that a five month rebuild was forecast. The amazing thing was the efficiency of the shoring, which had contained the 3000 tons of water we had taken in and from a personal point of view I marvelled at my luck in having estimated our speed so accurately and kept it down within safe limits."

Hecla was under repair in the Selborne Graving Dock at Simon's Town for three months but did not leave South Africa until late October. Edward Coleman, an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) in Hecla,  described Simon's Town in his book Navy Days (Andrew Books, 1999) as "quite a pleasing rural community, a few little shops, a small cinema and a pub or two. The main street included a row of attractive colonial style buildings more or less opposite the Dockyard. Admiralty House stood fair and square at the end of the dockyard complex furthest west from the main gate." His book includes lots of gossip about Simon's Town and an amusing description of Just Nuisance, a great Dane officially adopted by the Navy and owner of a regular bed in the Fleet Club in Cape Town.

Charles Eastop and fifty of his colleagues on HMS Hecla left their ship at Simon's Town:-

“While she was being repaired fifty or so of her communications staff, wireless and signals, were sent to Mombasa to form a temporary staff for C in C Eastern Fleet who was about to pull out of Ceylon and establish a new base at Mombasa. The intention was for us to return to Hecla on completion of repairs but we were never recalled and consequently Admiralty not knowing the circumstances reported us all missing. Of course we knew nothing of this until some weeks later when somehow the news got thro’ to us and arrangements were made for each of us to send news urgently to our families to say ‘we are safe and well’. It was a great shock to us all to hear such sad news and know that we had lost so many old shipmates – in fact I have never seen a complete list of those who were lost.” Charles Eastop

The crew "enjoyed all the advantages of a peace time visit to a truly beautiful country plus the special welcome reserved for service men by those South African whites who were on the whole still sentimental about Britain and Royalty and keen to demonstrate that loyalty" (Ted Coleman).  Don PreeceJabe Skelhorne and Norman Holmes were amongst those whose final months were made the happier by the generous hospitality they received in South Africa while on "up homers" with hospitable South African families.

Two members of the Sick Bay team, Brian Shaw and Ken Collings, stayed with Pet (Petrus) and Minnie (Wilhelmina) Abrahamse on their farm at Hermon, ten miles north of Wellington in the  Western Cape Winelands. Ken Collings was one of  the survivors but Brian Shaw was killed when Hecla sank. Their daughter Cynthia Roux kept the letters she received from them and their families and her daughter, Louise Duncan, has sent me scans of this correspondence. I have forwarded these to Ken Collings' son Bruce Collings in New Zealand and to the only living relatives of Brian Shaw whose parents lived at Frodsham near Warrington in Cheshire. These letters are a poignant reminder of happier times.


HMS Hecla was in dry-dock 16 May 1942 to 16 June 1942 and then again 20 June 1942 to 18 August 1942 (details supplied by the Docking Master for the Naval Dockyard, Simon's Town). When HMS Hecla came out of drydock several young South Africans joined her crew. Gordon Nissen was barely 17 and Hecla was his first ship but "just before she sailed some of us were drafted to HMS Ceres a light C Class cruiser that was still under refit in Simon's Town". When Hecla finally left Simon's Town in late October her crew thought she was returning to the UK but she had secret instructions to head for Gibraltar and the invasion beaches at Algiers for the North African landings, Operation Torch.

"We completed repairs to the ship in mid October when we sailed to Saldhana Bay where we got ourselves organised for future activities, the end of a pleasant interlude. We went to Cape Town where our new Captain joined us. We anchored off Simon's Town for some hours while we awaited our sailing orders, which, to my surprise, meant going back up north through the Atlantic. We arrived at Freetown on about the 6 November where we stayed about three days while a convoy formed. We moved out into the Atlantic and headed north. We moved north with two destroyers, HMS Marne and Venomous, as escorts."    PO Arthur Ching, Sick Berth Attendant

Her new CO, Capt George V.B. Faulkner RN,  was married to Celia Cloete, an Afrikaner name, another link with South Africa. He had spent the previous two years at the Admiralty working with the Director of Combined Operations. After Hecla sank he distinguished himself while commanding the monitor HMS Abercrombie by neutralising enemy resistance during the landings of American troops in Sicily. He left the Royal Navy in 1947, moved to South Africa the following year and died in Cape Town in 1962. One of his officers, Lt Herbert H. McWilliams SANF, an architect from Port Elizabeth, served as a 33 year old OD (Ordinary Seaman) on the lower deck of HMS Shropshire before being sent for officer training. After service with Coastal Forces at Lowestoft  he was drafted to Simon's Town to join HMS Hecla. His paintings of Hecla sinking in London's Imperial War Museum are a fitting memorial to the men who died when Hecla was torpedoed on Armistice Day 1942.

Composite view of False Bay and Dimon's Town
Panoramic view of Simon's Town and False Bay on 6 October 1942
"Farthest to the left (West) is HMSAS Randfontein, a converted whalecatcher.  The rectangular object to her right is the Battle Practice Target, which was towed by the Admiralty tug St Dogmael, seen to the right of
Randfontein and astern of the hulk Thames.  Just beyond the tug is the corvette HMS Rockrose which became the SAN Survey Ship HMSAS Protea after World War II.
To her right is the stern of the Hulk Thames with the bow of HMSAS Oostewal beyond and beyond that the bow of the destroyer HMS Nizam
The cargo steamer anchored out in the Bay is Dolius, of Alfred Holt's Blue Funnel Line."

Both photographs are signed by the photographer, W Graham Woods
Nic Harrison provided the prints for scanning and use on this website


The view of the Naval Dockyard at Simon's Town
These photographs were taken from the hillside above Simon's Town on 6 October 1942 shortly before HMS Hecla and her escorts left for Freetown on their way to Gibraltar
Photographed by W Graham Woods

Several copies of these two photograph are known to exist including a framed copy in the Seven Seas Club in Simon's Town which is signed W Graham Woods, presumably the photographer. Bill Rice, who served in the South African Navy for 31 years and is a member of the club, has copied the caption which identifies HMS Hecla and the other ships:

"Out in the Bay are, from left to right : the Admiralty hulk Thames (formerly the Training Ship General Botha and before that HMS Thames - light cruiser converted to a Submarine Depot Ship), the Destroyer HMS Nizam (partly obscured), HMS Shropshire and the destroyer HMS Foxhound.
    Inside the Basin are, on the far side from left to right the Destroyers HMS Active and HMS Arrow, the Dutch Submarines HNeth MS 019 and K 14, and the Light Cruisers HMS Sirius and HMS Phoebe.
    Most of the West Wall (in the foreground) is taken up by HMS Hecla and ahead of her are the Corvettes HMS Cyclamen and HMS Thyme. The Selborne Graving Dock is occupied by the Cruiser HMS Ceres and the Magnetric Loop layer HMS Mead."

There were twelve South African ratings in
Hecla when she left Simon's Town and four of them were amongst the 273 killed or Missing Presumed Killed (MPK) out of the 858 officers and men in Hecla. Their names were extracted from the list compiled by TNT Data Services under contract to the Admiralty from the Pay and Victualing Records. The SA before the service number identifies them as being South Africans serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (SA) or the Seaward Defence Force (SDF). O
n the 1st August 1942 the RNVR(SA) and the SDF were amalgamated to form the South African Naval Forces (SANF). The proximity of service numbers beginning 330 suggests they trained together and would have known each other before joining Hecla in October one month before she was torpedoed.

Bennett, John F Acting Engine Room Artificer 4th Class SA330351
Byrd, Alfred S Able Seaman SANF68677
Jones, Bernard Able Seaman SANF562630
Kirk, Harold A L Acting Engine Room Artificer 4th Class SA330284
Lloyd, George H Acting Engine Room Artificer 4th Class SA330353
Peers, Charles V Able Seaman SA562653
Ryder, Cecil E Writer SA330441
Sanders, Alwyn W Acting Shipwright 4th Class SA68491
Sjollander Allan T Acting Electrical Artificer 4th Class SA68251
Smith, Ian R Acting Electrical Artificer 4th Class SA68478
Smith, Warren E Ordinary Telegrapher SA330406
Ward, Edward J Acting Blacksmith 4th Class SA67496 / MX120155

Four of these ratings are on the official Admiralty list of men killed or MPK and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) site which lists them all as SANF and gives the additional details added here:

Bennett, John Frank SANF, Acting Engine Room Artificer 4th Class R.N.V.R. P/SA.330351, aged 23, son of Henry J. and Edith N. Bennett.
Lloyd, George Herbert  SANF, Acting Engine Room Artificer 4th Class R.N.V.R. P/SA.330353, aged 32, son of George T. and Gertrude Lloyd, of Raynes Park, Surrey.
Peers, Charles Victor  SANF, Able Seaman V.562653, aged 26, son of Charles E. Peers, and of Agnes M. E. Peers, of Mowbray, Cape Town, South Africa.
Smith, Ian Ronald SANF, Electrical Artificer 4th Class. V.68478, aged 28, son of William R. and Georgina I. Smith, of Uitenhage, Cape Province, South Africa.

Roger Smith, the son of Warren E. Smith, Telegrapher, has provided details of his father's service in the Navy which will be published on a linked page and I am hoping that the families of some of the other men listed here will find this page and get in touch to tell their story before the 75th anniversary of the loss of HMS Hecla in November. Do please get in touch if you can provide further information about the time HMS Hecla and her officers and men spent in South Africa in 1942.

I would also  like to acknowledge the assistance received from  Simon's Town Museum,  the South African Naval Museum and the members of the South African Naval Heritage Trust and Society in researching this page.

Bill Forster
Holywell House Publishing



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



Return to the "Home Page" for HMS Hecla
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