The Destroyer Depot Ship HMS Hecla:
from launch in March 1940 to loss in November 1942
HMS Hecla was named after an active volcano in Iceland and was the seventh ship to bear this name. Shewas 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 entire 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 Portsmouth in 2011 aged 95.
HMS Hecla on the Clyde after commissioning in March 1941
Note the three ship's cranes Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne
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
After commissioning in March 1941 HMS Hecla was sent to Havelfjord
in south west Iceland where she "mothered" the destroyers escorting the
Atlantic convoys. Her displacement of 12,000 tonswas more than ten times that of Venomous and her sister ships. Venomous
was notoriously unreliable and spent a lot of time alongside Hecla in
1941 and got to know her
well. Her crew enjoyed the space aboard the large 12,000 ton depot ship, the fresh baked
bread (the bakery could bake 6,000 lb of bread a day), the laundry and
facilities (including an operating theatre).
HMS Hecla in Havelfjord with destroyer escorts moored alongside, 1941
Including HMCS Collingwood (K180) and HMCS Baddeck (K147), Canadian Navy Flower Class Corvettes Photographed by 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.
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.
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 erected.
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 smiling thin-faced
officer is Surgeon Lt Steve Hetherington.
"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 dispatched 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.
Winston Churchill being welcomed aboard HMS Hecla by Captain C.G.B. Coltart RN and his senior officers Courtesy of George Male
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:
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.
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.
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.
"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 carrier, USS Wasp, the battleships USS Mississippi and USS Wichita, the depot ship USS Vulcan, and a screen of four destroyers.
HMS Hecla at Havelfjord in the Summer of 1941 Courtesy of Dr Peter Hetherington
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
Christmas 1941 the ship's own theatre company, the "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 restricted
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, between 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
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:
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 sand shaved with a giant wooden mock razor, to be baptised by
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
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 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 Hecla rounded
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:
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."
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
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:
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."
The damage to the
ship’s hull was massive. Her survival can be attributed to the very
strict construction standards set by the Admiralty. 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:
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
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 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.
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.”
"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 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
At eleven minutes past
11pm on the 11 November the first torpedo hit 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 2016
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