A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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HMS Hecla

Mined off South Africa

15 May 1942


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.

Two Electrical Artificers (EAs),  Edward Coleman and Les Proctor, who joined HMS Hecla at the Clyde, were in the same Mess. It was Ted Coleman's first ship and everything was new and strange. In his book, Navy Days (Andrew Books, 1999), he described spending their off duty hours playing tombola (bingo), various games, "walking" (pacing up and down in the restricted space while talking with a companion) and watching an occasional film show
in the evening. 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 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 was 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 sand 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


***************


Captain Law's Report of Proceedings
On the 15 May 1942  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).

A
PDF of Captain E.F.B. Law's
Report of Damage to HMS Hecla by underwater explosion and casualties  (National Archives, Kew, Ref ADM 199/802) can be seen on this website. A hand drawn tracking plate shows the position of Hecla in relation to Cpe Town and Simon's Town when she detonated the mine

Capt Law described how the Capetown portion of the Convoy "parted company a 0330 on 15 May" and the Durban portion of four columns with three ships in each continued on its way. Hecla's ships company were at cruising stations and at 1555 the "Red Watch was piped up to relieve the Blue and, at 1559, while the watches were changing over, a heavy explosion shook the ship".

"The large number of casualties is accounted for by the explosion occuring below the lower and middle deck decks at the time the men were having tea. The majority of the casualties were quickly rescued from the messes by stokers fire and rescue squads led by officers. A large number of men who could not get through the hatches were rescued through the ship's side scuttles with ropes and hauled on deck. About 150 men were rescued in this manner from both sides of the ship.  Although the sick bay accommodation is adequate for this class of ship it was hopelessly inadequate for this lasrge number of casualties, and the bakery, church, wardroom mess and wardroom ante-room were utlised as dressing stations.

"Although it was quickly obvious that the ship had been very badly damaged and that the between decks over a very large area were in an indescribable state there was a complete absence of panic and poor morale, and the general behaviour of the officers and ship's company was beyond all praise and in keeping with the very high opinion I had formed of them in the short time I have been in command of this very happy ship."

Casualties

There were 21 men killed, 3 missing and 116 men injured out of the 981 men aboard (47 officers and 934 men) when the mine was detonated. The names of those killed are given below:

BAKER, Harold F, Stoker 1c, D/KX 105375, killed
BARKER, Cyril R, Leading Writer, P/MX 81462, MPK
COLLARD, William K L, Ty/Leading Supply Assistant, D/MX 80195, killed
CROMPTON, Frank, Ordinary Seaman, D/JX 303467, killed
ECCLESTON, Harry, Able Seaman, D/JX 193811, MPK
FORD, Brian H P D, Signalman, D/SSX 23187, killed
GRIFFITHS, Dennis E, Electrical Artificer 4c, C/MX 65788, killed
HATCHETT, Harold, Telegraphist, D/JX 191355, killed
HOAR, Ernest H, Electrical Artificer 4c, D/MX 66242, killed
HOOPER, Horace E, Stoker 2c, D/KX 134284, killed
HOSKEN, Leonard C, Supply Assistant, D/MX 68535, killed
KNIGHT, Stanley V A, Able Seaman, RFR, C/J 79989, killed
MARSON, William, Able Seaman, D/JX 219319, killed
PERKIN, Harold V, Ty/Leading Supply Assistant, D/X 22, killed
ROACH, William J, Act/Joiner 4c, D/MX 70141, killed
ROBINSON, Henry, Telegraphist, D/SSX 26621, killed
SATTERLEY, Frederick, Able Seaman, D/JX 219846, killed
SHAW, David, Leading Wireless Mechanic, 3168 (RNZN), killed
STALLWOOD, Sidney J, Stoker, D/K 1752, killed
TAGUE, George, Painter 4c, D/MX 67094, killed
WANKLYN, Gordon T, Ordnance Artificer (O), P/MX 73376, killed
WILLIAMS, Joseph, Writer, D/MX 71097, killed
YALLAND, Cyril R, Able Seaman, D/JX 187995, killed
YATES, Thomas S, Joiner, P/MX 68058, killed

See Appendix 1 for Capt Law's detailed list of commendations, listing the names of officers and men who especially distinguished themselves.

First hand accounts

Edward Coleman gives a vivid description of events in his book Navy Days (Andrew Books, 1999). Had he 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."

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 Simon's Town. 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.

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).


Under repair at Simon's Town, South Africa
May - October 1942

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. To find out more about the time HMS Hecla spent at Simonstown, the friendships made and the South Africans who joined the ship for her final voyage click on the link to the South African connection.

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.”


Torpedoed off North Africa!

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

"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 1942 the first torpedo hit Hecla ...


A Hard Fought Ship (2017) contains the most detailed account of the  loss of HMS Hecla yet published
Find out more about the book and read reviews of the book.

Return to the"Home Page" for HMS Hecla
to find out more about its history and the stories of survivors




The story of HMS Venomous is told by Bob Moore and Captain John Rodgaard USN (Ret) in
A Hard Fought Ship
  Buy the new hardback edition online for 29 post free in the UK
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations

 



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