A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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Hecla: from launch to loss

HMS Hecla was named after an active volcano in Iceland and was the seventh ship to bear this name. She was a destroyer depot ship with 20,000 square feet of workshop area, built at John Brown's shipyard on the Clyde. She was a strong well built ship, the enire hull had a double skin with a space of between three and four feet between the two hulls. She was laid down on the 23 January 1939 and launched on the 14 March 1940 but was not commissioned until the 6 January 1941.Edward Coleman described HMS Hecla  in his memoir, Navy Days (Andrew Books, 1999): "it carries a high proportion of skilled men,  has lots of workshop space, some recreational space, not for her own crew so much as for the men from ships being serviced."

Schoolmaster Greg Clarke was told by Captain C.G.B. Coltart RN on New Years Eve 1940, "Schoolie, you are the youngest officer aboard and, therefore, will ring out the old year with eight bells and ring in the new with eight bells." Greg Clarke was the last surviving officer who served on Hecla when he died at his home in Porstmouth in 2011 aged 95.

Hecla on Clyde after commissioing
HMS Hecla on the Clyde after commissioning in March 1941
Note the three ship's cranes
Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne

On the 10 May 1940, the day that German forces swept into the low countries and on into northern France, 748 ill-equipped Marines had landed at Rekjavik to take control of Iceland for fear that Germany would seize this vital staging post on the Atlantic. Within a few months Britain had 25,000 troops in Iceland, ignoring Iceland's protests at this invasion in flagrant disregard of its declared neutrality.

After commissioning in March 1941 HMS Hecla was sent to Havelfjord in south west Iceland where she "mothered" the destroyers escorting the Atlantic convoys. Its displacement of 12,000 tons was more than ten times that of Venomous and its sister ships. Venomous was notoriously unreliable and spent a lot of time alongside Hecla in 1941 and got to know it well. Her crew enjoyed the space aboard the large ship, the fresh baked bread (the bakery could bake 6,000 lb of bread a day), the laundry and medical facilities (including an operating theatre).

HMS Hecla at Havelfjord
HMS Hecla in Havelfjord with destroyer  escorts moored alongside, 1941
Courtesy of George Male

Canadian escorts moored alongside Hecla brought foods unobtainable in England. "Freddo" Thomas, the RDF operator on Venomous, made friends with a rating on Hecla who asked him to post food parcels to his family when Venomous returned to her base at Londonderry. This was strictly forbidden but "Freddo" was  happy to oblige and was rewarded with fresh baked rolls from the ship's bakery which made him very popular with his mess mates. They were to meet again later - on the night of the 11-12 November 1942.

IcelandWaterfall in Iceland

Sn  Night over Havelfjord
Top: Some crew members appreciated the wild Icelandic scenery
Bottom: The snow covered hillside (with "beer canteen"?) and the sun setting over Havelfjord

Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne

"The only shore facility was a nissen hut beer canteen where the only excitement was the occasional unarmed combat between US, Canadian and British sailors."    George Male, sick berth attendant.

Concert party aboard HMS Hecla, Iceland, Summer 1941Evelyne Laye with senior officer on HMS HECLA, Iceland, Summer 1941
The audience at the concert on HMS Hecla
An ENSA concert party was staged on the deck of HMS Hecla that Summer
It starred Evelyn Laye (1900-96) seen on right wearing an officer's hat
As a young man the future King George VI was infatuated with Evelyn Laye but both behaved with the utmost discretion
Courtesy of Kenneth Brown, son of CPO Norman Brown, SBA on Hecla, who died on Armistice Day 1942

They had to provide their own entertainment aboard ship, usually films or an occasional drama performance. Evelyn Laye, a popular actress, was the star at a concert party put on by ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association. ENSA had to spread its resources thinly and may have earned its reputation for providing 'Every Night Something Awful' but the audience look happy. The concert was held in the summer of 1941 on the well deck where a temporary stage was errected.

George Male identified some of the faces in the audience in a letter to Ken Brown, the son of Norman Brown who died when Hecla sank on Armistice Day 1942.

In the forefront (second row) hatless and bearded is my friend, Don Preece, a gifted artist, who died 1.11.42, on his left, round faced is Buckingham, Regulating Petty Officer, his senior is the Master-at-Arms, Johnnie Harber who is half way back, third in from left, short hair, round face, flattened nose with visible collar badge.
    The front row of officers from the left is Lt Cdr D'Oyly [an error, this person has now been identified by his son as Lt Cdr H.C.R. Alexander RN, the Navigation Officer] bearded; he was a relative of the Royal family & had a signed picture in his cabin of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the young princesses. Next to him is Captain Colthart who left the ship later and was replaced by Captain Law. Colthart has his hand to his face. Smiling beside him and also with 4 rings on his arm is Paymaster Captain Monk who went down with the ship. Immediately behind Captain Colthart the smilling thin-faced officer is Surgeon Lt Steve Hetherington.

Capt Coltart saluted aboard HMS Hecla by the SBA

"Uncle Cyril", Capt C.G.B. Coltart RN, being piped aboard HMS Hecla by his fellow officers dressed as ratings after a day's shootin' at Havelfjord in 1941
Lt Surgeon Stephen L Hetherington RNVR is facing centre

Courtesy of Dr Peter Hetherington

With British forces hard pressed in Egypt and the Mediterranean and growing Icelandic resentment of British and Canadian forces occupying their land President Roosevelt agreed to take over the defence of Iceland from Britain and despatched 36,000 US troops in June 1941 (Project Indigo).

Winston Churchill stopped off at Havelfjord on the 16 August while returning home on the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, after signing the Atlantic Charter with Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, in Newfoundland. He held talks with Iceland officials, inspected the combined British and US Marine forces and came aboard the destroyer depot ship, HMS Hecla. He attended a service in the ship's chapel where the "Jack Dustie", AB Ernest Victor Frowde, known as "Fingers Frowde", played the organ.

Churchill boardinng HMS Hecla
Winston Churchill being welcomed aboard HMS Hecla by
Captain C.G.B. Coltart  RN and his senior officers

Courtesy of George Male

Churchill on HMS Hecla

Winston Churchill leaving HMS Hecla at Havelfjord
Courtesy of George Male

Herbert McWillliams, an OD on  the County Type heavy cruiser, HMS
Shropshire, was one of those who saw Churchill at Havelfjord and his ship was part of the escort for HMS Prince of Wales when it left Havelfjord on the 18 August for with Churchill aboard:

When he appeared I was disappointed, I expected a big man and he is really quite small. He was dressed in a navy blue blazer with brass buttons, and wore a cap without a badge; he looked rather like a porter on a railway station. He was by no means quite sober, having come straight from a luncheon party on the flagship. He had a most odd expression, rather like an obstinate little boy caught near the pantry with jam on his fingers, or a comedian appearing on the stage expecting a laugh. But when he began to speak it was clear how he exercises power and authority over so many. I didn’t like his speech all the same; none of us really cared to be told that we should feel thrilled at being so lucky as to have this wonderful chance to fight the Nazi evil! I would rather have heard something about his interview in mid-ocean with Roosevelt. Naturally, I was very glad to have had the opportunity of hearing him speak; I stood only a few yards from his rostrum, and had whiffs of his huge cigar which once, accidentally, he put into his ear instead of into his mouth. He really was “pissed”!

Fourteen months later  McWilliams took passage on
Hecla for the invasion beaches in Algeria and his remarkable paintings and vivid description of  its loss on the night of the 11 - 12 November 1942 in A Hard Fought Ship have preserved the memory of that night for generations to come.

Captain's Motor Launch
U-boatjjjjj

Top: The Captain's motor launch at speed
Bottom: U-570 being towed into Havelfjord after its capture on the 27 August 1941

Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne (top and bottom left) and George Male (right)

Shipwright Bill Clayton from Plymouth remembered U-570 being towed into Havelfjord after its capture on the 27 August. It remained alongside Hecla for three weeks being made seaworthy. On the 29 September  U-570 proceeded to Barrow-under-Furness under its own power with a prize crew and was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Graph (P715), the only submarine to serve on both sides in the war. Jim Coulton, now living in Lancashire, went aboard the U-boat and Engine Room Artificer (ERA) Jabez Skelhorne helped repair it and salvaged tubes of German cheese and a large lump hammer to take home which his grandson, Simon Skelhorne, still uses today.

Rekjavik
Iceland's main town and capital, Rekjavik, was close to where Hecla was moored in Havelfjord
Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne

George Male had a poor opinion of Iceland's capital Rekjavik. He thought it was a shabby place and the people were not at all friendly. Prior to the war the Germans had piped hot water forty miles from thermal springs to supply all the houses in the town and had become very popular. The British expelled the Germans when they took over the island as a base for the convoy escorts but did nothing for the Icelanders and their presence was naturally resented.


USS Hughes alongside Hecla while under repair, 1941


"Peter E. Karetka, served USN 1940 to 1946, aboard the USS Hughes DD-410 honourably and proud as a signalman. We anchored just beyond the breakwater at Rekyavik for liberty in that city. I was ashore at the time. USS Hughes DD-410 while at anchor was rammed by a freighter,  nationality not known. We tied up alongside HMS Hecla for repairs for an extended period, we had to wait for plate steel to arrive from the USA. The hull was split to about 10/12 inch's above water line.  While alongside HMS Hecla we were invited as guest's for meals and movies on the fantail. I was in possession of their menu's and hat band. The Skipper of Hughes, Donald J. Ramsey, an Englishman (sic), was a proper host  while at anchor at Havalfjord. He invited members of the British garrison for meals and gave them a guided tour of the ship."
E-mail communication from Peter E. Karetka ("Flags").

Photograph of USS Hughes on right (Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne)



In September to safeguard against a possible breakout of Tirpitz from its base in Norway the USN sent Task Force 4 to Iceland. This comprised the aircraft carrieer, USS Wasp, the battleships USS Mississippi and USS Wichita, the depot ship USS Vulcan, and a screen of four destroyers.

HMS Hecla Iceland
HMS Hecla at Havelfjord in the Summer of 1941
Courtesy of Dr Peter Hetherington
HMS Vulcan and USN destroyers, Havelfjord 1941
Two USN destroyers of the Benson / Gleaves Class and the destroyer depot ship, USS Vulcan (on right) at Havelfjord, Summer 1941.
Photographed by Eric Pountney, Wireless Telegraphist on HMS Venomous


Outward Bound, Xmas 1941
For Christmas 1941 the ship's company's own "Hecla Players" put on performances of Outward Bound by Sutton Vane, a huge success on the London stage in 1923 and on Broadway in 1938-9 but a rather ominous choice for HMS Hecla:

"The play is about a group of seven passengers who meet in the lounge of an ocean liner at sea and realize that they have no idea why they are there, or where they are bound. Each of them eventually discovers that they are dead, and that they have to face judgment from an Examiner, who will determine whether they are to go to Heaven or Hell."

Three of the eleven who took part as players or back stage assistants would not live to see another Christmas: Eric C. Bond, Ordinance Artificer, Donald A. Preece, Leading Supply Assistant (and talented artists) and Cyril B. Boyle, Electrical Artificer, died on the night of the 11 - 12 November 1942 when Hecla was torpedoed off the coast of north Africa.

The programme was printed aboard HMS Vulcan, the American destroyer depot ship which had joined Hecla at Havelfjord in September.



USS Vulcan replaced Hecla as the depot ship for the convoy escorts and in early 1942 Hecla returned to the Clyde for a short refit. With Capt E.F.B. Law RN in command, Hecla left Greenock on the 15 April 1942 as part of Convoy WS.18 "outward bound" for South Africa to join the Far Eastern Fleet, a welcome change from the tedium of Havelfjord.

Edward Coleman and Les Proctor, both Electrical Artificers (EA) joined HMS Hecla at the Clyde and were in the same Mess. It was Ted Coleman's first ship and everything was new and strange. He described how they spent their off duty hours playing tombola (bingo), various games, "walking" (pacing up and down in the resticted space while talking with a companion) and in the evening watching an occasional film show. As they passed the Canaries they were lectured by the Medical Officer (MO) on the danger of touching any metal in the tropics, particularly gun barrels, "anyone reporting sick with hand burns would be considered to have a self inflicted wound." They took on fuel at Freetown, Sierra Leone, betwee the 29 April to 3 May which gave an opportunity for a run ashore. Les Proctor noted that "the better areas were built with Victorian style houses as distinct from the huts on stilts, which were typical of the basic native quarter, where the women only wore skirts." The MO had  lectured them on the hazards ashore ending with "I know you think this a waste of time but I also know that some of you chaps would put your pricks where I wouldn't put my walking stick" but his advice was ignored by some.

For most of the 900 men on Hecla this would be the first time they had "crossed the line" and Neptune welcomed them to his domain with the traditional ceremonies. Ted Coleman described how:

"the sailmakers, oh yes the Navy still had sail makers years after the last sailing ship had been laid to rest, had constructed a huge canvas swimming pool. The chippies had made a platform complete with barber's chair designed to tip its occupants backwards into the pool after being lathered asnd shaved with a giant wooden mock razor, to be baptised by King Neptune."

The Captain and his senior officers were given a regal dispensation from the ritual humiliation by the God of the Sea but most took part good humouredly. Some of them would not live to cross the line again:

"We crossed the line during this trip and of course held the usual Ceremonies, myself having crossed on divers occasions was one of Neptune's Court. We all made our costumes out of rope etc and we looked pretty good when we took charge of the ship but by the time we had initiated a few of the novices with soap, pills and medicine (cascara and quinine) & ducked them in the bath we were beginning to get a bit bedraggled for I went into the bath myself about every five or ten minutes, about every other bloke initiated tried to take me in with him, however they were all well and truly dealt with you may depend, the more they struggled the better we liked it & the more the spectators who had been through enjoyed the fun."
Norman Brown, SBCPO (reported as "missing presumed killed", on 11-12 November 1942) in a letter to his brother dated 10 May 1942.

Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line Certificate drawn by Donald A. Preece Leading Supply Assistant, "missing presumed killed" on 11-12 November 1942
 Signed by Neptunus (Chief Petty Officer Goddard, bosun of the Hecla)
and his consort, Amphitrite (Johnny Harber, the Master of Arms, one of the survivors rescued by HMS Venomous when Hecla was torpedoed)
Courtesy of Fred Lemberg



On the 15 May Heclarounded the Cape and as it 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). Had Edward Coleman not  left his lonely workshop below the armoured deck five minutes early to go to the heads he would have been amongst those killed:

"men were staggering up from below, most of them blackened and dazed ... one of the leading rescuers was Harry Holcomb ... I well remember him going down over and over again to the decks not actually flooded to get men out. He was later decorated for his bravery. Regretfully, his award was made posthumourosly, he was killed in a later accident."

Les Proctor also had a narrow escape:

"I would normally have been standing by my locker at that time getting my washing gear but had stayed and finish a job. My locker was squashed to half its size and had I been there I would most certainly have been 'killed in action' as were  the fellows I normally saw at that time."

Bill Clayton and his fellow shipwrights were busy shoring up the distorted bulkheads and George Male was assisting in the operating theatre trying to save the wounded:

"We operated on into the night with bodies on the floor around us. One sailor had part of his brain protruding and was laid on the floor as it appeared our efforts would be better on those with more chance to survive. After a while he raised himself with one arm and asked for a drink. We got him on the table, did what we could for him. He was still alive next day, transferred to RNH Simonstown and survived."

Despite a 125 ft tear in its starboard side Hecla made its way under its own power to the South African naval base of Simonstown. Les Proctor described how:

The following morning, Cyril Hardware and I were sent down to the torpedo flat to find the bodies of two people we knew to be down there, "Tubby" Hoare was one and the other was Griffiths. Both had received news at Freetown that they had become fathers. As the hull plates had been folded back and were covered with several inches of fuel oil and water, we were unable to locate the bodies at that time. Our selection for the job was that we each had sea boots! They They were all recovered in dry dock, stitched into their hammocks and piled on the superstructure to await burial. A rather gruesome happening was that I rushed up a ladder, threw back the curtain that screened the bodies to find I was looking at the open end of the shrouds (the head end was left open for identification at burial and to place in a four-inch shell).

The dead were buried at sea by HMS Gambia. Captain E.F.B. Law's Report of Damage to HMS Hecla by underwater explosion and casualties to personnel can be seen in the National Archives, Kew, Ref ADM 199/802

Burial at seaServiceLast salute
burial at sea of Hecla dead
Burial at sea from HMS Gambia
Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne, grandson of Jabez Skelhorne who was killed when HM
Hecla sank on 12 November 1942

The mine was laid by the German minelayer, Doggerbank, which was converted from a captured British tramp steamer, the Speybank. On the 3 March 1943 the Doggerbank was mistaken for a British ship by U-43 and torpedoed and sunk west of the Canaries (with 394 killed and only one survivor).

The crew spent a pleasant five months in South Africa while their ship was under repair. They "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 Preece and Jabe Skelhorne were two of those whose final months were made the happier by the generous hospitality they received in South Africa.

Edward Coleman described Simonstown 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." He gave 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 Simonstown:-

“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.”

HMS Hecla, now with Capt George Vivian Barnett Faulkner RN (1897-1962) as its CO, was given secret orders to support the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. Also aboard was Capt S.H.T. Arliss DSC RN, Commodore (D), Eastern Fleet Destroyer Flotilla.

"In October 1942 Hecla was deemed to be operational again. We left Simonstown and proceeded about 100 miles north to Saldanha Bay where we 'hid out' for a week. On the way into the Bay our navigator missed the boom entrance and took the boom with us. We sailed back to Cape Town to provision and after a brief stop over proceeded north en route to Gibraltar to participate, as a destroyer repair ship in the North African landing." Les Proctor.

George Male thought Hecla was only sixty percent seaworthy and they were heading back home for further repairs and the crew stocked up with bananas, unobtainable in England, during a brief stop over in Freetown. They left Freetown on the 4 November as part of Convoy CF.7A bound for Liverpool and the last known photographs of Hecla were taken by Tom Davis, a young rating on the destroyer escort, HMS Active.

HMS Hecla, the last photographs HMS Hecla
HMS Hecla left Freetown in west Africa as part of Convoy CF.7A 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 beaches at Algiers as part of Operation Torch.

At eleven minutes past 11pm on the 11 November the first torpedo hit Hecla ...


A Hard Fought Ship contains the most detailed account of the  loss of HMS Hecla yet published
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