A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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The story of the Atjeh and
Cdr Goodenough's "demo party"

15 May 1940


Venomous
  spent the first week of the German blitzkrieg off the Dutch coast.
One of the more intriguing incidents described in A Hard Fought Ship during this tumultuous month took place on the 15 May when HMS Venomous and a sister ship were escorting the auxiliary mine sweepers HMS Sandown and HMS Ryde, requisitioned Southern Railway's paddle steamer ferries, near the Goodwin Sands. The lookouts on Venomous sighted a Dutch lifeboat, the  Zeemanshoop, and a tug Atjeh both flying large Dutch flags and making distress signals. Lt Peter Kershaw's photographs of the two small vessels were published in A Hard Fought Ship but the story behind these two encounters has become much clearer since publication.

The Zeemanshoop, its deck tightly packed with 46 mostly Jewish refugees from Scheveningen, a beach resort and fishing harbour near The Hague, was directed to come alongside and its passengers, both men and women, some elderly and others still at school, were helped aboard.The story of their escape from almost certain death in a German concentration camp on the day the Netherlands surrendered is told elsewhere.


The Atjeh then came alongside and transferred its passengers, a mixed group of sappers and demolition experts from a territorial army unit known as the
Kent Fortress Royal Engineers (KFRE) plus a naval demolition party which had been given the job of destroying the port facilities at Ijmuiden, the gateway to Amsterdam. Both units were under the overall command of Cdr M.G. Goodenough RN. They were accompanied by officers of the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN) including  Cdr C. Hellingman, the naval commander at Ijmuiden, and Ltz2 Pieter Joosse, the commander of the Dutch mine sweeper Hr.Ms. M.III at Ijmuiden. They are identifiable in the photographs taken by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR on the deck of Venomous.

launch packed with Jewish refugees from HollandDutch tug Atjeh
The Zeemanshoop (left) and Atjeh (right) photographed  by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR on the 15 May 1940
Courtesy of Richard Kershaw

The Kent Fortress Royal Engineers (KFRE) and the XD Operations

In 1932 the decision was taken to replace regular gunner and sapper units manning coastal defences with Territorial units. Gravesend in north west Kent was the centre of the British cement industry and the Blue Circle Cement Co was the largest employer. Clifford Brazier, the manager of their biggest cement works, had served as a sapper officer in World War I and was asked to raise and command a unit which was initially almost exclusively drawn from Blue Circle employees and was named the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers (KFRE).

The KFRE was given the job of manning Grain Fort, the HQ of the Thames and Medway defences, but early in 1940 during the nine months phoney war Lt Col. Brazier received orders direct from the Military Operations Branch of the War Office to prepare for XD Operations, the hugely challenging job of destroying fuel reserves in Holland and north France before they fell into German hands. On the 10 May, the day German forces invaded the Netherlands, three small units left for Dover and embarked on the waiting destroyers. Wild Swan was to go to the Hook of Holland to destroy fuel stores at Rotterdam, HMS Verity to Flushing and HMS Brilliant would try and reach Antwerp via the Scheldt.

Events at Ijmuiden

HMS Whitshed was given the job of taking Cdr Greenough's naval demolition team of eighty  plus a sixteen strong Royal Engineers "demo team" from the KFRE led by Capt Peter Keeble to Ijmuiden. HMS Whitshed was repeatedly attacked by German aircraft during the crossing to Ijmuiden and several of the crew were lost overboard. On arrival the demo team went by a specially laid on single carriage train to Amsterdam and after delicate negotiations with the Dutch were given the go ahead to destroy the fuel reserves on the 13 May. Dutch accounts suggest they only partially succeeded (at this stage in the war plastic explosives, magnesium incendiary devices and delay fuses were not available). They returned to Ijmeiden on a commandeered lorry and split into two groups to assist the navy in destroying the port instalations on either side of the harbour. There were no waiting destroyers to take them home.

Peter Keeble's second in command,  Lt Don Terry, joined Cdr Goodenough on the Dutch harbour tug, Atjeh (named after a province in the Dutch East Indies) which was helping the auxiliary mine sweeper M3 tow the SS Jan Pieterszoon Coen into position to block the harbour entrance. A German sircraft dropped two magnetic mines but they successfully blocked both harbour entrances by sinking the  SS Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the minesweeper. Willem Soolsma, the mate of the Atjeh, interviewed on Dutch Radio in 1989 described how a boat came alongside with fifty or sixty men aboard including Cdr Helingman, the naval commander of Ijmuiden, and a Jewish man who desperate to escape had jumped into the water from the dyke. They transferred to the Atjeh and on the afternoon of the 14 May it left Ijmuiden heading west for the first hour to clear the coast and then changing course to the south west for England. The Atjeh was a harbor tug, not sea-going and it had over seventy on board but was designed for no more than twenty five passengers plus the crew of three (the skipper, C.J. Straatman, the Mate W. Soolsma and the engineer P. Tienstra). They had almost ran out of coal and the crew were beginning to heat the boilers with wooden panels when they were spotted by Venomous, taken aboard and photographed in jublilant mood by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR.

Captain Keeble's group left Ijmuiden after dark on a thirty foot motor launch and were picked up by HMS Havoc and landed at Harwich.

Dutch naval officers and Cdr Goodenough's demolition party aboard HMS Venomous, 20 May 1940
Cdr Goodenough and demolition team on Venomous, 15 May 1940
Cdr M.G. Goodenough RN (with binoculars), the demolition party and Dutch naval officers - the KFRE  sappers are wearing steel helmets
Cdr C. Hellingman is foreground right in the top picture and stands alongside Cdr Goodenough in the second with Pieter Joosse kneeling on the right.
Half the Dutch navy went to Britain when Holland surrendered, many in their own ships
Photographed by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR

Cdr Goodenough and Capt Peter Keeble were both awarded the DSO. In his letter congratulating Keeble Goodenough said "after working in the Plans Division in the Admiralty the Amsterdam party was just like a paid holiday!" The Atjeh served in UK harbours throughout the war, at first in Portsmouth, later Greenock, and after the war returned to Amsterdam.

When Don Terry drove to the site of the refinery at Amsterdam in 1945 he met a group of middle aged women who remembered the firing of the oil stocks and admonished him for not having warned them so that they could get their washing in; it was ruined as a result! Monday was the traditional washing day in the Netherlands and Monday 13 May was the day when the "demo team" set fire to the oil storage tanks at Amsterdam.

On demobilisation most of the original members of the Kent Fortress Royal Engineers returned to their jobs with Blue Circle, several of the junior officers were made works managers and Peter Keeble became a director.

Atjeh towing Zeemanshoop to Ramsgate
Their  passengers have been transferred to HMS Venomous and the tug Atjeh is towing the Zeemanshoop with its temporary crew to Ramsgate
Photographed from the paddle steamer mine sweeper, HMS Sandown, a former Southern Railway's ferry on the Portsmouth to Ryde service
From: De Nederland in de Tweede Wereldoorlog; by J.W. de Roever (1951)

Most of what is known about the tug, Atjeh, is from the English language Forum on the "War over Holland" website created by Allert M.A. Goossens, a Dutch war historian, and the men on Venomous whose accounts can be seen in A Hard Fought Ship. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of Jan Visser who supplied details from the three volume History of the Dutch Merchant Navy by K.W.L. Bezemer (Elsevier, 1987) and De Nederland in de Tweede Wereldoorlog by J.W. de Roever (1951). His web site on the Royal Netherlands Navy Warships of World War II is a valuable resource for researchers.

An overview of operations by British forces during the invasion of Holland in May 1940 including the role of the "demo" teams can be seen on the War over Holland website. The book  XD Operations - Secret British missions denying oil to the Nazi's by C.C.H. Brazier (Pen and Sword, 2005) is written by its former commander and edited  by his son. 


Read the fascinating story of the voyage of the Zeemanshoop
and its Jewish refugees and crew of students


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