Warrant Officer H.J.B. Button DSM RN
the hero who lost his life saving the lives of men on HMS Hecla when it sank on Armistice Day 1942
James Brown Button was born at Leister, Suffolk, the son of Louisa
Ellen Button on 2 May 1915. The father's name was not recorded on his
and one wonders whether he was killed in the trenches before he could marry the
mother of his unborn child. Brown may have been the name of his father since
"Jimmie" Button always gave his surname as Brown Button (unhyphenated).
His mother died when he was very young and he was in a children's home
until his adoption by an Aunt of Gladys Kimber who lived in Suffolk.
Gladys Kimber knew him for 14 years and he often visited Gladys and her
husband at Glebe Farm, Froxfield. He was known as "Punch" and she wrote
in a poignant letter to his widow on 11 February 1943 that "he led a
He joined the Royal Navy as a boy sailor at HMS Ganges on 11 November 1930. He met his
future wife, Florence Mary Nunn, while visiting relatives of his mother
in Baldslow Road, Hastings, who lived across the road from Florence and her parents. Florence
was two years older than him and was born at Barton,
Lancashire. When they married at Hastings on the 2 March 1940 he
entered his father's name on the wedding certificate as Herbert James
Brown Button, and gave his father's occupation as
a Guide in the Indian Civil Service. Jimmie Button, as he was always known (he did not like being called Bert), was a
petty officer on HMS Antelope and Florence moved to Portsmouth to be near him when his ship
was in harbour.
The photograph of him smoking a pipe on the left is the only portrait I have been able to trace.
Jimmie Button, a strong swimmer, was photographed with his wife Florence
Mary Nunn on Hastings beach (left) and newly married on the right Courtesy of Jane Wilson (left) and Ken Nunn (centre and right)
He won his DSM while serving as the senior Anti Submarine Detector (ASDIC operator) on HMS Antelope which sank U-41 in February 1940.
The navigating officer, Lt Michael Marwood DSC RN, described the action
on the BBC Peoples War web site. On the 17 March 1941 he was promoted
to Warrant Officer and posted to HMS Tyne, an identical sister ship to HMS Hecla. In April 1942 he was at HMS Egret, Western Approaches HQ in Liverpool, and may have met and impressed Cdr H. Falcon-Steward the CO of HMS Venomous. He joined Venomous at Londonderry later that month.
Harry Haddon, an AB on HMS Venomous, described what happened when an overcrowded and very unstable whaler from the destroyer escort, HMS Marne, attempted to come alongside Venomous.
Jimmie Button dived in with a rope to bring it within reach of the
scrambling nets. The men on the near side lunged at the ropes and the
whaler capsized trapping those on the other side. Jimmie Button dived
beneath the overturned whaler to pull them free but many drowned.
had most of the survivors aboard thanks to some incredible swimming
feats by my cabin mate the anti-submarine bo’sun Herbert James Brown
Button. He was a strong swimmer and used to dive out from the quarter
deck and take heaving lines out to rafts and wreckage to which oily
The next day he took to his bunk but on the 13 November whilst en-route
from Casablanca to Gibraltar he summoned the strength to don his
uniform and attend the burial at sea of those who died and was
photographed glancing down with his hat off by AB Cyril Hely. Jimmie
Button was liked and respected by the men on Venomous. Cyril
Hely wrote on the back of his photograph “The officer in
foreground is the one that died a few days afterwards, he was a fine
"Jimmie" Button can be seen glancing down as the last of the men who died after rescue is buried off the stern of HMS Venomous The notice on the right was posted on the ship's notice board by Lt H.D. Durell RN, Cdr Falcon-Steward's successor as CO of HMS Venomous, and retrieved as a souvenir by Cyril Hely Courtesy of the widow of Cyril Hely
Tony Sangster continued his account:
"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
Jimmie Button died at Algiers on the 27 November most likely from swallowing oil and is buried in the Dely Ibrahim War Cemetery. His young widow married Tom Wilson (1910-82), an army officer, in 1948. Ken Nunn told me that they visited the
grave of her first husband while on a Mediterranean cruise. In
they emigrated to Australia with their three children, a son Beverley,
born at Milford Haven in 1950 and twin daughters, Jane and Anne born at
Bangor in 1953. Florence died on the 19 October at Adelaide in
2000 but their three children are alive and living in Australia.
In 1948 Florence married Thomas Wilson, an army officer and they had three children Courtesy of Jane Wilson
Warrant Officer H.J.B. Button DSM RN (click on the link to see his service record) was the only person on Venomous to be killed when HMS Hecla was torpedoed and his sacrifice was remembered by the survivors and his shipmates at the 50th anniversary dinner of the HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association
in 1992. The Association had tried unsuccessfully to trace his family
in order to invite them to their anniversary dinner.
The menu was designed by George Male whose life was saved by Jimmie Button Courtesy of George Male
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Hastings Observer
which published three stories about my search for the family of Jimmie
Button which led to me being contacted by Ken Nunn, the son of Florence's brother Cyril. Ken was given a Russian fur hat
which Jimmie brought back from Murmansk in 1942 after Venomousescorted
Arctic Convoy PQ.15 to Northern Russia. Florence's family by
her second marriage to Thomas Wilson who live in Australia have also
been very helpful. Florence Wilson gave his medals and papers to John
Bird in Adelaide and his scans and photographs of these helped tell the
story of his early years but the precise identity of Jimmie Button's
remains a matter for speculation.
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 £35 post free in the UK
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations
Return to the "Home Page" for HMS Hecla
to find out more about its history and the stories of other survivors
Holywell House Publishing
88 Holywell Hill, St
Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 1DH, Britain
Telephone: +44 1727 838595 contact online