A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN
The Longest Night

11 - 12 November 1942


After two days in Gibraltar Venomous and HMS Marne were ordered to rendezvous with Convoy CF.7 west of the Canary Islands and escort the destroyer depot ships, HMS Hecla and HMS Vindictive to Gibraltar. Capt Hubert G.D. Acland in Vindictive was the senior officer. The recent discovery of the reports of the COs of all four ships make it possible for the first time to apportion blame for the disaster which followed. Falcon-Steward pursued an RDF bearing and Asdic contact of a stalking U-Boat leaving the starboard side of the convoy unprotected. Werner Henke in U-515 evaded Venomous and took advantage of the gap in the screen to launch a successful attack on Hecla despite being sighted by an alert Gunnery Officer on the bridge of Vindictive, dismissed by Acland as being Venomous. The situation became more desperate when  Marne was hit in the stern and Falcon-Steward had to reconcile the conflicting priorities of fighting the U-boat with saving the survivors struggling in the water. The first hand accounts of survivors, the photographs taken by Cyril Hely and Leslie Eaton and the dramatic paintings of the South African war artist Herbert McWilliams make this one of the most exciting chapters in the book. Venomous reached Casablanca with 500 survivors crowding her deck and her tanks empty of fuel.

Illustrations

HMS Vindictive and Convoy CF7A after leaving Freetown on 4 November 1942
Photographed by Tom Davis and reproduced courtesy of Steve Davis

The last known photograph of HMS Hecla taken less than a week before she was sunk
Photographed by Tom Davis and reproduced courtesy of Steve Davis

Tracking plate showing position of HMS Hecla, HMS Vindictive, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous during the attack
Analysis of U-boat attacks: HMS Hecla, 11 - 12 Nov.1942. Report of Anti-submarine Warfare Division (NA Ref. ADM 199/2013)
Redrawn by Emma Aldous, Arthouse Publishing Solutions

HMS Hecla with torpedo striking HMS Marne in background by Herbert McWilliams
This finished ink wash is based on a sketch made on the back of an old chart soon after his rescue by HMS Venomous 
IWM Image Reference ART LD 002612. Courtesy of the Imperial War Mueum.

The moment when HMS Marne was torpedoed in the stern by U-515 drawn by Herbert McWilliams after his rescue by HMS Venomous.
Courtesy of George Male
 
HMS Hecla sinking by Lt Herbert H. McWilliams SAN
This finished ink wash is based on a sketch made on the back of an old chart soon after his rescue by HMS Venomous.
IWM Image Reference ART LD 002611. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Able Seaman Frederick H. Wharton MD/X2827
Courtesy of Dr Philip Wharton

Hecla survivors on Carley float photographed by Leslie Eaton at dawn on 12 November.
Photographed by Lt Leslie Eaton RNVR

Survivors of HMS Hecla on Carley float
Photographed by Cyril Hely

Survivors of HMS Hecla on two Carley floats hanging together
Photographed by Cyril Hely

HMS Venomous (D 75) enters Casablanca with her decks crowded with Hecla survivors
NARA Ref. 80-G-30679. Courtesy of the National Museum of the US Navy

HMS Venomous berthed alongside the heavy cruiser USS Augusta at Casablanca.
NARA-80-G-30471. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, USA

The Hecla dead sewn in canvas hammocks ready for burial are moved on the deck of Venomous at Casablanca
NARA-80-G-30105. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, USA

Hecla survivors on Venomous at Casablanca, carrier is USS Chenango.
Looking towards stern, note Aldis lamp on rear platform.
Photographed by Lt Leslie Eaton RNVR

View of Casablanca from flight deck of USS Chenango
Note the French warships berthed opposite
Photographed by Cyril Hely

Lt Herbert Hastings McWilliams SAN, South African architect, war artist and boat designer
Copyright reserved (left) and courtesy of his nephew Julian Cockayne (right)

Preparatory sketch by Herbert H McWilliams of Hecla sinking done aboard HMS Venomous
Copyright reserved

Preparatory sketch by Herbert H McWilliams of Hecla sinking done aboard HMS Venomous
Copyright reserved

A photocopy of a sketch of HMS Venomous by Herbert McWilliams found in the papers of Bob Moore
Copyright reserved

Exhausted survivors of HMS Hecla
View from funnels looking towards the stern (note whaler and pom pom gun)
Photographed by Lt Leslie Eaton RNVR

Venomous on her way to Gibraltar with Hecla survivors
Courtesy of Mervyn Mansell
 
“Burial at sea [whilst en route to Gibraltar] of the unlucky ones”, Cyril Hely.
Lt Cdr H.C.R. Alexander RN, the Navigation Officer in HMS Hecla, is reading from the Bible.
Photographed by Cyril Hely

The dead were sewn in weighted hammocks.   
“The officer in foreground is the one that died a few days afterwards, he was a fine bloke too”, Cyril Hely.
Warrant Officer Herbert J.B. Button RN, the Anti-Submarine Warfare Bosun
Photographed by Cyril Hely
      
HMS Marne at Gibraltar, November 1942
Courtesy of George Male

Notes

1. Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (1951).

2. Signal from Flag Officer Gibraltar to Venomous sent at 6/1200Z/11/42 (GMT).

3. All of the destroyers in the 1st Flotilla in the Baltic in 1919 were V&W Class destroyers. See http://www.dreadnoughtproject.org/tfs/index.php/First_Destroyer_Flotilla_(Royal_Navy)

4. The service record of Capt, later Capt Sir Hubert Guy Dyke Acland DSC, RN, can be seen at http://www.unithistories.com/officers/RN_officersA.html#Acland_HGD

5. For more information about the early history of HMS Hecla see the website of Holywell House Publishing. http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/hecla.html

6. George Faulkner (1897-1962), the son of a Devonshire vicar, entered the Navy as a Midshipman in August 1914 and served throughout both world wars. After the loss of Hecla he was made the first CO of the new Roberts Class Monitor, HMS Abercrombie, and awarded the American Silver Star Medal for “conspicuous gallantry” during the landings of US troops in Sicily. He died at Capetown in July 1962. For more about his life and naval service see http://www.unithistories.com/officers/RN_officersF.html#Faulkner_GVB

7. For more about the life and naval service of Capt Stephen H.T. Arliss RN see http://www.unithistories.com/officers/RN_officersA6.html#Arliss_SHT

8. From the cover letter of Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, The Naval Commander Expeditionary Force, Algiers, sent with Capt Faulkner’s Report to the Admiralty on 13 December 1942. The cover letter written by Cunningham and the reports by the COs of HMS Vindictive, HMS Hecla, HMS Venomous and HMS Marne to Admiral Cunningham can all be found at the National Archives bound together in the Case Folder for Operation Torch, ADM 199/869. Click on the links to read PDFs of these reports. The Anti-Submarine Warfare Division (ASWD) Analysis of U-Boat attacks on HMS Hecla, 11 – 12 November 1942 is at ADM 199/2013.

9. For more about Tom Davis and HMS Active see http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/TomDavis.html

10. Anti-Submarine Warfare Division, Naval Staff, 25.1.43, Analysis of Attacks by a U-Boat on HMS Hecla at 2315, 11 November, 1942, p.1 (ADM 199/2013).

11. Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre 1939-1945 by Patrick Beesly (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 2000). The information derived from deciphering the German Naval Enigma codes was passed to the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre (OIC) which sent brief, downgraded indications and warning signals (so as not to compromise the source) to ships needing the information. Admirals and senior captains received top-secret level signals directly from O.I.C. Capt Acland would have probably received a downgraded signal.

12. Lone Wolf: the life and death of U-Boat Ace Werner Henke by Timothy P. Mulligan (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1993). This study by a German-speaking archivist describes the life and psychology of the commander of U-515 as well as his boat, crew and events leading to the sinking of HMS Hecla.

13. A short account of the life and service career of Lt Cdr Henry C.R. Alexander RN and the full text of his description of his time in HMS Hecla can be seen on the publisher’s website, http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/LtCdr_HCR_Alexander_RN.html

14. U-Boat Attack Logs: A Complete Record of Warship Losses, 1939-1945 by Daniel Morgan and Bruce Taylor (Seaforth Publishing, 2011). See War Diary of U515, patrol of 7 November 1941 - January 1942, p. 524.

15. Ibid.

16. Capt G.V.B. Faulkner’s “Report of the loss of HMS Hecla under my command”, dated 16 November 1942 (ADM 199/869). The distance between Hecla and Vindictive was approximately 600 yards.

17. Report of Proceedings of HMS Venomous between 6 – 14 November 1942; including Precis of three U-Boat attacks (in ADM 199/869, case folder on Operation Torch). Capt Faulkner’s report also notes the RDF contact.

18. See the unpublished account by Sangster on the publisher’s website: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Lt_Tony_Sangster_RN.html

19. Commanding Officer, HMS Vindictive’s Report of Proceedings, 15 November 1942, to Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force (in ADM 199/869, case folder on Operation Torch).

20. Radar at sea: The Royal Navy in World War II by Derek Howse (Palgrave, 1993).

21. Despite the risk, Henke’s U-boat followed the convoy on the surface. Henke was a bold and, in the eyes of his crew, a reckless commander. Robert Moore corresponded with U-515 crew member Hans Hahn, who said Henke was egotistical and highly aggressive, even reckless.

22. Admiral Cunningham’s assessment is from the cover letter for his report to the Admiralty on the Loss of His Majesty’s ship Hecla, dated 13 December 1942 (ADM 199/869, case folder on Operation Torch). Other explanations for only Venomous detecting the contact include differences in the calibration of the radar equipment on Venomous and Marne, atmospheric conditions and differences in the expertise of the radar operators.

23. Anti-submarine Warfare Division (ASW), Analysis of attacks by a U-boat on HMS Hecla at 23.15 on 11 November 1942; dated 25 January 1943 (ADM 199/2013).

24. Capt H.G.D. Acland RN, Report of Proceedings, 19 November 1942 and tracking plates for ship movements (in ADM 199/869).

25. Ibid.

26. Translated from Hans Hahn’s letter to Robert J Moore dated 1 June 1989 in the first edition of A Hard Fought Ship (1990). A scan of the letter in German can be seen on the publisher’s website. The times given in reports by Henke and his crew were German local time, GMT +1.

27. As told by the Gunnery Officer, Lt A. D. Caldwell RNVR, to Lt Cdr H.C.R. Alexander RN after he assumed command of HMS Vindictive when Captain Acland was invalided home.

28. U-Boat Attack Logs: A Complete Record of Warship Losses, 1939-1945, p. 524.

29. Capt G.V.B. Faulkner’s “Report of the loss of HMS Hecla under my command”, dated 16 November 1942 (ADM 199/869). Vindictive was extremely fortunate to have executed the next zigzag to port at the time Hecla was hit, since the Anti-Submarine Division’s report believed the two torpedoes that struck Hecla were part of a four-torpedo spread fired by Henke. This was confirmed by Hans Hahn, a surviving crewman of U-515.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Herbert McWilliams’s letter was published fifty years later as The loneliness of the long-distance swimmer in Sea Breezes, January 1992, pp.11-19. His paintings of the sinking of Hecla are in the Imperial War Museum. He subsequently worked on the services magazine Parade as an artist and journalist. For details of his life see http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/HHMcwilliams.html

33. Norman Johns, My memory of the sinking of HMS Hecla Nov. 11-12th 1942, see http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/NormanJohns.html

34. From an unpublished account by Lt Michael Cashman RN in the papers of Robert J Moore.

35. Vindictive was extremely fortunate to have executed the next zigzag to port at the same time as Hecla was hit, since the Anti-Submarine Division's report believed the two torpedoes that struck Hecla were part of a four-torpedo spread fired by Hencke. This was confirmed by Hans Hahne, a surviving crew member of U-515.

36. U-Boat Attack Logs: A Complete Record of Warship Losses, 1939-1945, p. 524.

37. Capt G.V.B. Faulkner’s “Report of the loss of HMS Hecla under my command”, dated 16 November 1942 (ADM 199/869).

38. Sea Breezes, January 1992.

39. Norman Johns, My memory of the sinking of HMS Hecla Nov. 11-12th 1942, see http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/NormanJohns.html

40. Fred Lemberg (1920-2015) was rescued the next morning from a Carley float. Roland Fitzgerald was the only one of eleven New Zealand ratings on Hecla who died. He was in the sick bay when the torpedo struck, was late in joining Fred at their action station on the bridge, was covered with oil and went down to get a life jacket and was not seen again. See http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/lemberg.html

41. Sea Breezes, January 1992.

42. Johnny Harbor survived the sinking of Hecla and met up with George Male many years later on Plymouth Hoe. See George Male’s description of events and what happened to the other members of the Sick Bay team.

43. U-Boat Attack Logs: A Complete Record of Warship Losses, 1939-1945, p 524.

44. The Commanding Officer of HMS Marne, Lt Cdr H.N.A. Richardson RN. Report of the Proceedings leading to the torpedoing of HMS Marne; dated 17 November 1942 (in ADM 199/869, case folder on Operation Torch).

45. See the publisher’s website: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/William_Dodds.html

46. Michael Flanders (1922-75) and John Anderson were planning a light-hearted skit poking fun at their officers for the night Hecla was torpedoed. Lt Michael H. Flanders RNVR was invalided out of the Navy with polio in 1944 as described by his daughter, Stephanie Flanders, in a BBC interview but went on to achieve fame for his comedy duo with Donald Swann in "Flanders and Swann".

47. Report of Proceedings of HMS Venomous between 6 – 14 November 1942; and Precis of three U-Boat attacks (in ADM 199/869, case folder on Operation Torch). With apologies for the poor quality of the first page of Falcon Steward's RoP.

48. See “The view from the Bridge” by Lt Anthony d’E. T. Sangster RN: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Lt_Tony_Sangster_RN.html

49. The depth charges, which put Venomous’ electric dynamos off-line, could also have affected the radar. The early radar sets were vulnerable to shock and many of their operators were not technically capable of fixing the sets. Specialists, often warrant officers, did onsite maintenance and repairs.

50. From an unpublished report written in 1972 by Lt Coleman contained in the papers of Robert J Moore.

51. See the full account by Frederick N.G. Thomas, the RDF operator, on the publisher’s website: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/FNG_Thomas.html

52. Translated from Hans Hahn’s letter to Robert J. Moore dated 1 June 1989.

53. From Chapter 10 of Navy Days by Edward Coleman (Andrew Books, 1999), pp. 76-91.

54. Ibid.

55. Arthur J. (“Mervyn”) Mansell MBE was a CW Candidate on Venomous (September 1942 - January 1943) and after officer training and commissioning served in the American lend-lease Buckley Class Destroyer Escort HMS Riou as navigation officer. He received his MBE for services to cricket.

56. Mulligan, Lone Wolf.

57. Greg Clarke (1916-2011) was the youngest officer on Hecla when he joined as the “Schoolie” on Boxing Day 1940 and the last surviving officer when he died aged 95 on 20 August 2011. Clarke became the first Director of the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth and appointed Colin White, his successor, as his assistant. See http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/Greg_Clark.html

58. Les Rowles was interviewed by Robert Moore for the first edition of A Hard Fought Ship (1990).

59. Lt Cdr H.N.A. Richardson RN, Report of the Proceedings leading to the torpedoing of HMS Marne; dated 17 November 1942 (in ADM 199/869, case folder on Operation Torch).

60. From John Coleman’s unpublished account written in 1972.

61. Lt Cdr Henry C.R. Alexander RN, see http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/LtCdr_HCR_Alexander_RN.html

62. Lt Herbert H. McWilliams SAN, letter to his mother.

63. See Alexander’s memoir: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/LtCdr_HCR_Alexander_RN.html

64. The Official Admiralty Communiqué gave the names of nine men known to have been killed (they died after rescue and were buried at sea) and the names of twelve officers and 261 ratings “missing presumed killed” (MPK) out of the total complement of 39 officers and 799 ratings recorded in the Pay and Victualing Ledgers as being in HMS Hecla on the night she sank. Both lists can be seen on the publisher’s website.
    After arrival at Gibraltar another four survivors who died were taken out to sea on a barge and buried by volunteers from HMS Venomous. The bodies of Jabez Skelhorne, Charles Stocker and Albert Thick were washed ashore on the Moroccan coast and now lie in the Santa Catalina cemetery in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

65. See Alexander’s memoir: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/LtCdr_HCR_Alexander_RN.html

66. Lt Coleman was mistaken. Recognition was slow in coming but on 27 April 1943 Lt H.D. Durell RN posted a notice on the ship’s board of the award of the DSM to CPO R.D.L. Foxe and Acting L.S.H. Stafford. Cdr Hugh Falcon-Steward, Mr H.J.B. Button, the Anti-Submarine Bosun, Mr H.R. Pead, the Engineering Officer, and Acting Yeoman of Signals, A. Lofthouse were Mentioned in Despatches.

67. Admiral Cunningham’s cover letter in the case folder for Operation Torch (ADM 199/869).

68. Ibid.
 
69. The Anti-submarine Warfare Division’s (ASW) initial Analysis of attacks by a U-boat on HMS Hecla at 23.15 on 11 November 1942, dated 25 January 1943 (ADM 199/2013) concluded that the attack was a “probable” but two subsequent reports by the DTASW Proceedings of U-boat Assessment Committee, of attacks on the U-boat at 0139 and at 0550 on 12.11.42 led to the Decision of the U-boat Assessment Committee on 1 February 1943 to downgrade this to “probably damaged B” and a further re-assessment on 2 March 1943 as “insufficient evidence of damage” (ADM 199/184).

70. By 1944, the USN had hunter-killer groups consisting of an escort aircraft carrier and several escorts.

71. Daniel V. Gallery, Twenty Million Tons Under the Sea (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1956), p.262.

72. The SS Ceramic was unescorted when torpedoed 400 miles west of the Canary Islands. The sole survivor was a British soldier rescued by U-515 and Henke did not know that many of her passengers were women and children. Rear Admiral Gallery describes the incident in his book. See also Mulligan, Lone Wolf. And SS Ceramic: the untold story by Clare Hardy, grand daughter of Trevor Winser one of the 655 who died.

73. Henke is buried at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, the home of the National Security Agency (NSA). See website http://uboat.net and Gallery, Twenty Million Tons under the Sea, p. 269.

74. The names of the 177 officers and men in HMS Venomous and the 858 officers and men in HMS Hecla on 12 November 1942 can be seen on the publisher’s website. The names of those rescued by HMS Venomous and HMS Marne were recorded at the time in order to establish the names of those who died or were MIssing Presumed Killed (MPK) but the lists of survivors may no longer exist. The stories of many of the survivors and some of those who died are recorded on the publisher's website.  Norman Johns (1924-2016) formed The HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association with shipmates Harry Cliffe and George Male in 1990, the year A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous was first published. The Association is no longer active but its papers have been kept by his great-nephew, Nicholas Johns.




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