A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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George Male
Sick Berth Attendant on HMS Hecla

George Male
George Male described how he came to join the Sick Bay Branch of the Royal Navy in a letter to Greg Clark, the "Schoolie" (schoolmaster) on HMS Hecla, the author of 
Doc: One Hundred Year History of the Sick Berth Branch (Royal Navy Museum, 1984):

"I was born in Plymouth, 26.8.1919. My father went to sea at 13, later served in the Royal Navy and HM Dockyard. In 1939 he could not rest until he got a job in Devonport Barraks although well past retiring age. I left school in 1936 and worked as a junior clerk in the Health Dept. and at the City Hospital. In 1938 after the Munich Crisis I was given the job of ordering and arranging storage of surgical and medical supplies for emergency hospitals if war came. This meant that I added some knowledge of surgical instruments etc to the rag bag of information I had acquired about diseases and treatments as a result of reading patients notes while registering and filing their records.

As Ralph Wilton used to say 'The day war broke out ...' I got on my bike and dashed off to the hospital ready to deal with the casualties I was sure would be arriving any minute. As the work of the hospital proceeded as normal I ent off to the Recruiting Office to volunteer for the Army. hey were busy dealing with territorials etc and told me to bugger off!

The next day being Monday I went to the office as usual and the Medical Superintendent informed me that I should do no more about volunteering as I would be required to arrange the dispersal of the emergency equipment. However, a few weeks later I was informed that the Navy required specialist ratings for the Sick Berth Staff - Physio, Radiographers, Pharmacists and Operating Staff. The Med Supt. gave me a letterr saying that I would be useful in operating, I applied and having passed the medical was given four shillings pay for one day and told to report to the RNB Barracks, Devonport. After going home to Mum for lunch I duly presented myself with a large envelope at the main gate. Nobody seemed to want to know me but I got a gas mask, tin hat and identity disc, then met a chief who asked me where I lived - 'Down the road - 'Then push off and come back tomorrow'. After three weeks following this routine daily I was called over the Tannoy to report for transport to RNH Stonehouse, still without uniform or other kit. At the Theatre block I was given a cap, mask and gown and sent into No. 1 theatre. In two weeks I learnt a lot particularly from Frank Best a civilian ex member of the staff who showed me how to set up and sterilise instruments, anaesthetic trolleys, etc. Then I was sent on eight days Christmas leave - having by now got a uniform and some items of kit.

On my return to my horror I was told I was on draft (sorry Sir!), with visions of being in charge of a theatre at sea, my leg was pulled  by the rest of the staff - a wooden battleship etc - it turned out to be the wooden huts of HMS Raleigh then under construction at Torpoint."


George Male continues his story on the BBC Peoples War web site:

"That was the beginning of January 1940. It was a shore base at Torpoint, still being built. It was three months before any trainees came. Adjoining the base was HMS Fishguard training base for Artificers. One Sunday afternoon an apprentice came to me, he was holding his hands together, opened them to show me his left thumb in his right hand “Could you put this back Doc?” (We were called ‘Doc’, the medical officer was the Quack!’) Peter Bull was an actor he was at HMS Raleigh and got tonsillitis, we took his tonsils out and he couldn’t each much because of his sore throat, so a rich aunt sent him parcels from Fortnum and Masons beautiful Dundee Cakes and we helped him out by eating them. He was kept in sick bay longer then anyone else!

During the blitz we had to take any patients out of the wooden huts to the decontamination building. We then had to put up the fire hydrants to get the fire extinguishers ready. There were four points to do them. I ran the operating theatre and had "rabbits" hidden in the cupboard. Rabbits were anything you couldn’t take ashore. My precious rabbits were tobacco, a new shirt and handkerchiefs and they were very special to me. I decided we’d put the first hydrant outside the theatre to protect my rabbits. Two sick berth attendants and I lifted an 18 inch man-hole cover, in the blitz in the dark on our hands and knees fishing to fit a hydrant. A plane went over dropping a stick of bombs. We all dived our heads down the man hole and our helmets jammed. When we got out it was to find the sick quarters were badly damaged. We managed to get through to the surgical wards. The bomb had dropped at the other Hydrant which we should have placed first, it saved our lives deciding to protect my rabbits. I’m too old to go to jail now.

In April 1941, I was suddenly sent on draft to report to HMS Drake Devonport. After several days I was given a rail warrant and two meal vouchers, two shillings each and was told to report to St Enochs Hotel, Glasgow on my own. In the big office I shouted “Anybody know where HMS Hecla is?” “No chief” came the answer so I was sent to Greenock and put aboard the Royal Ulsterman a small ferry which used to run between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Three days later we arrived unescorted at Havalfjord Iceland which was a wartime Naval Base. Amongst the ships there was HMS Hecla. Instead of sending me to it the ship refuelled and took me to Reykjavik where I was put ashore and spent my only night in a hammock in a stinking fish factory taken over for accommodation, "dignified by the name HMS Baldur". Awful.

Next day I was put aboard a little boat and was sent 40 miles around to pick up the Hecla. There were two doctors and the senior one laughed when he saw me. He said ”I have been sending signals to Admiralty for five months to send us a surgical specialist and they’ve sent you! Well you won’t be here more than three weeks”. No specialist came and I was still aboard when she sank two years later.

Sick Bay Team on HMS Hecla

The medical officers and Sick Berth Attendants (SBA) on HMS Hecla at Havelfjord in Iceland
  Standing from left: George Morrell, Les ("Ginger") Rowles, Brian ("Bernard") Shaw, CPO Norman Brown ("Brownie"), Walter Joyce, PO Charles Bastable and George Male.
Seated in front: Surg. Lt Cdr C. de W. Kitcat RNVR (left) and Surgeon Lt Stephen L. Hetherington RNVR
 
Brian Shaw and CPO Norman Brown died when Hecla was torpedoed.
Courtesy of Kenneth Brown

HM Hecla at Havelfjord

The destroyer depot ship, HMS Hecla, moored in Havelfjord with destroyer escorts berthed alongside
Courtesy of George Male

Capt Coltart saluted aboard HMS Hecla by the SBA
"Uncle Cyril", Capt C.G.B. Coltart RN, being piped aboard HMS Hecla by his fellow officers dressed as ratings after a day's shootin' at Havelfjord in 1941
Lt Surgeon Stephen L Hetherington RNVR is facing centre
Courtesy of Dr Peter Hetherington

In March 1942 we returned to the Clyde, did a refit and on the 15th of April sailed in a huge convoy out into the Atlantic. Exactly a month later we were off the Cape of Good Hope. I was on the upper deck after tea when there was a bang and a lot of water came up. We’d hit a mine. We had 24 killed and nearly 200 injured and 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 spent 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 Royal Navy Hospital (RNH) Simonstown and survived. None died other than those killed by the explosion. We managed to get into Simonstown having lost 72 torpedoes and 200 depth charges out of the holes.

We had six months there while they put a new bottom on the ship. We then sailed back up the Atlantic and at 11 at night I was in my cot in the sick bay when there was an explosion. Two stokers managed to get up from the boiler room before it was screwed down. They were badly burned and we spent an hour attending to them. We gave them a shot of morphine and sent them to the upper deck to await instruction. We had been hit by two torpedos and then an hour later two more. I never heard “Abandon Ship” but I found myself in the wardroom with a junior doctor and a midshipman. We went through the mess decks to see if there was anyone who couldn’t get off and then came back to the wardroom. The ship was keeling to port. It was black and the junior doctor (Lt Surgeon Stephen L. Hetherington RNVR) said “Male, I’ve sat here many a night at dinner dying for a pee and unable to have one until the captain gave permission. Well I’m having one now!” and the three of us made sure we didn’t pollute the ocean, said good-bye and went over the side.

George Male and Harry Haddon at book launch, 2010I went up the starboard rail, I could almost walk down the side it was keeling over so far. The rope ended and I let go and found myself back in the ship. I’d gone into a hole made by the torpedo. I was a good swimmer and there was a destroyer HMS Marne standing by to pick up survivors. I was swimming towards her and amongst others in the water I saw the Master at Arms (Johnny Harbor) he was standing upright in the water with his hands on the reading desk of the ships lectern with his feet on the cross bar at the bottom. What are you doing I said? He said “If I’m going to heaven boy I’m going in style”. I got near the Marne. There was a swish in the water beside me. It was a torpeo which blew the stern off the Marne. It was like being hit in the stomach by a board, really unpleasant. She had a pattern of depth charges set. They were thrown of and exploded around us and her ammunition went off. I decided to look for something else. The next day still in the water on a Carley Raft I was picked up by another destroyer HMS Venomous together with 400 or so others and taken to Casablanca where the Americans were marvellous to us. I have still got the watch I was wearing, full of fuel."

"On the way back from Gibraltar aboard the Reina del Pacifico the four surviving sick berth attendants were accommodated in a stinking hold in the bowels of the ship. We had not left port before Stephen found us and made arrangements for our removal to the Sick Bay where we travelled in comfort and were able to be of use." George Male in a letter to the widow of Dr Stephen L Hetherington on the 18 April 1993.

Right: George Male (left) and Harry Haddon, HMS Venomous, at the book launch for A Hard Fought Ship in 2010.
This was the first time they had met since November 1942 and George brought the watch he was wearing when Hecla was torpedoed.
George Male died in October 2012 aged 93 and Harry Haddon was 90 when he died on 3 August 2013

Find out more about the the Sick Bay Team in HMS Hecla



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

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 29 post free in the UK
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations



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