A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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Bill Clayton walked with ghosts on HMS Tyne

Bill ClaytonWith the exception of his two years on HMS Hecla Bill Clayton has lived in Plymouth all his life. He was born there in 1920, christened William Louis Herbert Clayton and was only 15 when he began a five year naval apprenticeship as a shipwright in the Devonport naval dockyard. He completed it in September 1939 as war broke out and entrained to Glasgow to join HMS Hecla, which had just finished fitting out at John Brown's shpyard on the Clyde, as a Petty Officer shipwright (the photograph was taken on Hecla). Sub Lt Greg Clarke, who lives in Portsmouth today, also joined Hecla on the Clyde and was told by Captain C.G.B. Coltart RN on New Years Eve 1941, "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."

On the night of the 11 November Bill Clayton and four shipmates were in their hammocks in the shipwrights workshop when the first torpedo struck. Bill put on his lifejacket which had to be inflated by mouth and resembled a child's swimming ring but with a battery operated red light . He and his fellow shipwright, Arthur Kneebone, went to their action station near the laundry where they attempted without success to shore up the distorted watertight doors to stem the flow of rising water. Bill Eddy, the shipwright officer, and the engineering officer toured the deck and seeing that nothing could be done told them to abandon ship.

Bill and Arthur went up on deck where the ratings were standing on the starboard side to try and counter the list. They went to the stern and Arthur went over the staboard side where the prop was out of the water, some small fires were burning and the surface was thick with the heads of swimmers. Bill thought it wiser to go over the lower port side. He swam towards a crowded Carley float which overturned throwing him back in the water. He remembered very little of the hours which followed and by a strange coincidence was dragged semi-conscious over the side of Venomous early next morning by a second cousin, Leading Seaman Bush, who knew he was on Hecla and had been looking out for him. This was the first time they had met.

Hecla survivors awaiting rescue         Hecla survivors on Carley float
Hecla survivors awaiting rescue photographed from HMS Venomous in the early morning of the 12 November
by Lt Leslie Eaton RNVR (left) and AB Cyril Hely (right)

Bill stayed on in the Navy after the war and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and served on HMS Tyne, a sister ship to Hecla, built at Scotts shipyard on the Clyde. The layout was identical and he slept in the cabin which had been occupied on Hecla by Bill Eddy. He felt as if he was surrounded by the ghosts of those who had lived and died together on Hecla.

HMS Tyne at Malta after the war
HM Tyne, sister ship of Hecla, leaving Valetta harbour, Malta, after the war
Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne, grandson of CPO Jabez Skelhorne

He left the Royal Navy after thirty years and in 1965 applied for a position as a junior lecturer in naval architecture in the dockyard technical college where he taught for another twenty years before retiring as a senior lecturer in 1985. Bill is now 90 and still lives in Plymouth, the city of his birth.

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