Destroyer Depot Ship for Convoy Escorts
Havelfjord, Iceland, March 1941 to early1942
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
The Atlantic Convoys would never have
survived without the Atlantic escorts but the escorts were themselves
very dependent on the presence of a destroyer depot ship. The escorts
for the Atlantic convoys which brought both food and amraments to
Britain were often elderly V & Ws with "short legs" like HMS Venomous.
Their fuel capacity was too small to accompany the convoys all the way
to ther ports on the east coast of Canada and they were prone to
There were too few Royal Fleet Auuxilliary (RFA) "oilers" or escort
oilers chartered by the Admiralty's Departmernt of Trade to refuel the
escorts at sea. The escorts would dash into the sheltered deepwater
harbour at Havelfjord west of Rekjavik to berth alongside HMS Hecla to refuel and undertgo essential repairs before dashing out to meet the next incoming convoy.
HMS Hecla 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 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. HMS Hecla was named after an active volcano in Iceland and was the seventh ship to bear this name.
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.
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."
Harry Cliffe gave a more detailed description of the facilies and the conditions they endured in Havelfjord:
"I returned home
for my first time since joining the Navy on seven days survivor’s leave
after which I joined the newly commissioned HMS Hecla
in December 1940. She was built at John Brown’s Clydeside
shipyard and cost more than £1,000,000 (a fortune in the 1930s). Hecla
was a 12,000 ton depot ship, capable of servicing and supplying three
flotillas of 24 destroyers for a year in remote parts of the world
where dockyard facilities were not available. She was almost 600 ft
long and 66 ft wide with 20,000 sq. ft of workshop space, one 10-ton
and two 4-ton cranes. Teams of divers, shipwrights and the like could
carry out most underwater repairs and replacements to vessels moored
alongside, where they could also be supplied with electricity, water,
fresh bread, etc. A large galley and canteen kept everyone fed while
the bakery could turn out 6,000 lbs of bread daily. Hecla was still on the Clyde during the Blitz when Greenock was almost flattened. Hecla
supplied the port with bread for several days before sailing to Iceland
where most of 1941 was spent moored in isolated Havalfjord repairing
Battle of Atlantic escort vessels."
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).
"I still recall the 140 mph Icelandic gales, snow-covered mountains and
the ship’s upper decks covered in twelve inches of snow which had to be
pushed overboard every morning before breakfast, trying, of course to
miss the destroyers moored alongside! Then there was the first U-boat
captured intact (U570) which moored alongside Hecla before it was towed
to the UK to become HMS Graph which was later lost. Sir Winston Churchill also paid a brief visit onboard." Harry Cliffe
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 March 1942 Hecla returned to the
Clyde for a short refit.
After a short refit Hecla
left Greenock on the 15 April 1942 with Capt E.F.B. Law RN in command 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.
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.
On the 15 May 1942 Hecla roundedthe
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