Petty Officer Kenneth Charles Collings SBA HMS Hecla, his first ship, was mined and torpedoed
Bruce Collings e-mailed me on the 7 November 2012 days before the seventieth anniversary of the torpedoing of HMS Hecla
on Armistice Day 1942. His father, Kenneth Charles Collings, was born
on the 7 November 1909 and died in Bristol on his birthday exactly
eighty years later. Bruce sent me some wonderful photographs
taken aboard Hecla.
He knew very little about his father's wartime service in the Royal
Navy but he painted an affectionate pen portrait of his father which I
shall quote from in this brief account of Kenneth Collings' life.
"K C Collings was a bit of a wheeler dealer from childhood and
talked of selling stuff from a hand cart before he moved to his tiny
confectionary and tobacco business on
Hotwells Road across the road from the docks – where his Father E. T.
Collings was the marine engineer responsible for the gates and bridges
of the Floating Harbour. His shop is the tiny place beneath the large
poster in the photograph on the left with obvious bomb damage either side.
very best friend had been in the RAF and hobbled into Dad’s shop on
crutches one day, when the war was well on, having had his leg shot
off. Ken allegedly said: 'The shop is tiny, you can almost reach
either side without walking, so I’ll go off and fight the bastards and
you can stay and mind the shop.'
He was 31 when he joined the Royal Navy as a conscript and on the 6 May 1941 was sent to HMS Glendower in north Wales for basic seamanship training. Before the war this shore based training establishment at Pwllheli in Caernarfonshire had been a Butlin's holiday camp. Two months later on the 12 July he was sent to another shore base, HMS Wellesley
in Liverpool. This former hospital had been evacuated in 1939 and
turned over to the Admiralty for use as a training establishment. It
was very close to Gladstone Dock, a target for air raids and one young
seaman recalled that:
4 p.m. each day, German aircraft came in, flying across North Wales.
Some streets were littered with shrapnel, which 'crunched' under your
shoes as you walked, and many were cordoned off with notices such as
'unexploded bomb' or 'land mine'.
seamen were killed in a bombing raid in November 1940 and the east wing
of the building was demolished by a bomb during the heavy raids in May
1941. On the 13 August 1941 he was posted to HMS Drake II, the shore base in Devonport, Plymouth, where he underwent training as a Sick Bay Attendant (SBA).
On the 22 October 1941, by now rated as an SBA, he was 'lent' to the
Royal Marine Depot at Lympstone, a small village on the east side of
the Exe estuary north of Exmouth, where at its peak 800 Royal Marines a
month were being trained for war service as commandos.
On the 26 March 1942 after five months at Lympstone he was posted to his first ship, HMS Hecla, a new destroyer depot ship which was being refited at John Brown's shipyard on the Clyde after a year in Iceland. The leader of the Sick Bay team was Surg. Lt
Cdr C. de W. Kitcat RNVR and his deputy was Surgeon Lt Stephen L.
Hetherington RNVR. CPO Norman Brown, known to all as "Brownie" was next
in line. Maurice Hudson and Arthur Ching, a supernumary, also joined
the Sick Bay team at this time. Kenneth Collings told his son that
'I spent my time trying
to help men who had had their teeth and jaws blown away' so he may have also assisted the two dentists on HMS Hecla, although they were in a separate department.
Can anybody identify the men in these two photographs taken aboard HMS Hecla on the voyage south?
Kenneth Collings is middle rear in the photograph on the left Courtesy of Bruce Collings
Heading south HMS Hecla "crossed the Line" and crew members received the traditional welcome to Neptune's Kingdom (left)
Kenneth Collings is on the left in the photograph on the right Courtesy of Bruce Collings
hit the mine off Cape Agulhas she managed to make its way under its own
steam into the naval dockyard at Simons Town where it spent nearly six
months under repair. South Africans were very hospitable and
Kenneth exchanged letters with the family who welcomed him into their home until his death in 1989.
Relaxing in South Africa while HMS Hecla is under repair at Simons Town Courtesy of Bruce Collings
Ken Collings told his family that he spent eleven hours in the water when he abandoned ship. He was picked up by HMS Marne
which was towed to Gibraltar on the afternoon of the 12 November and
probably returned to Britain on a troopship, the requisitioned Dutch
liner, Dempo, which joined a
convoy for Liverpool. After his passage home and survivors leave he was posted to HMS Drake at Devonport for three months before being 'lent' to the Army from the 28 February to the 31 March 1943. Audrey Summerell, the girl he later married,
sent him this card with a press cutting about the loss of HMS Hecla in 1943.
He spent the next nine months as an SBA in the RN Sick Quarters at HMS Bristol,
a 'stone frigate' (shore base) in his home town which must have been a
convenient posting. HMS Bristol was
a collection of Victorian built buildings on Ashley Down built as an orphanage by a George Muller which still exist today as a
children's home next to Gloucestershire County Cricket Ground.
On the 29 December 1943 he was posted back to HMS Drake at Devonport for four months when he joined a former Cunard liner, RMS Aurania,
which had been requisitioned at the outbreak of war and converted into
an Armed Merchant Cruiser. She accompanied Atlantic convoys on the
northern route until torpedoed by U-123 on the 21 October 1941. She was
severely damaged but her cargo of empty drums kept her afloat. She was
purchased outright by the Admiralty and was under conversion to a heavy repair ship, with a similar role to that of HMS Hecla, when Kenneth Collings joined her at Plymouth on the 16 May 1944. She was commissioned as HMS Artifex
in August and after trials left Plymouth on the 19 January 1945 to join
Pacific Fleet assembling at Sydney, calling in enroute at Trincomalee, Ceylon, and
Fremantle. By the time she sailed Kenneth C Collings had
promoted to Sick Bay Petty Officer (SBPO). It would be nearly nine
months before he returned to Plymouth and by then the war in Europe had
been over for four months.
The former Cunard liner and Armed Merchant Cruiser, HMS Aurania, in 1944 after conversion to a repair depot ship and recommissioning as HMS Artifex
By March 1945 she was at Manus, the
largest of the Admiralty Islands to the north of Papua New Guinea.
Manus had been seized by Japanese forces in April 1942 but captured by
US forces in March 1944 and an allied naval base established at
Seeadler where HMS Artifex was based in support of the British Pacific Fleet (Tak Force 57).Artifex
took passage to the US base at Leyte in the Philippines on 19 April
1945 to repair ships attacking airfields in the Sakishima-Gunto
Islands in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa, the last major campaign
of the war (Operation Iceberg). Heavy casualties must have been expected as HMS Tyne, an identical sister ship of HMS Hecla, and a third repair depot ship, HMS Resource, were also there. The aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable was protected by its armoured deck and repaired by Artifex
in five hours after fourteen men were killed in a Kamikaze attack.
There were more than a thousand Kamikaze attacks on US and Royal
Navy warships but non of the repair depot ships were sunk. HMS Artifex left Leyte on the 20 May and returned to Manus where she spent the rest of the war.
There is nothing written on the reverse of the photographs below but since Artifex
spent most of its time in the Pacific based at Manus it seems
reasonable to assume they were taken there. The most likely explanation
is that the Sick Bay team on Artifex provided basic health care to the islanders and got to know some of the families they helped. On being released from the British Pacific Fleet in September 1945 she sailed back to Britain via Sydney and Hong Kong. Kenneth
Collings returned home from the Far East with exotic souvenirs
including a stuffed koala, Chinese ceramics and a parasol.
A tropical paradise in the Pacific taken during Kenneth Collings service in the Pacific after HMS Hecla sank
These photographs were found in a biscuit tin after his widow died and sent to his son in New Zealand
Neither the island where they were taken or the island family have been positively identified Courtesy of Bruce Collings
the war KCC returned to his shop, which prospered and in 1949 he
married Audrey Mary Summerell, from Nailsea, Somerset and eventually
went into wholesale confectionary and tobacco, until 1971 when ‘cash
and carrys’, new regs. etc made life unprofitable as a small player. He
had three children Sally, Bruce and James and lived at Bromley View,
Hambrook, Bristol until his death, on his 80th birthday, the 7 November
Left: Kenneth Collings and his wife Audrey at the Bristol Confectioners dinner in 1950
Right: Kenneth and Audrey take a flight on Concorde from Heathrow the year before he died- it was bulit at Filton not far from where they lived Courtesy of Bruce Collings
Every Christmas Day he would wear the same badly tattered, grey,
woollen polo-necked jumper and nothing was ever said; it was laughed
off as one of Dad’s ritual eccentricities. After his death my Mother
told my younger brother James that this was the garment he was given
after being sunk and spending many hours in the water before rescue.
When he retired Bruce Collings
emmigrated to New Zealand and lives at Golden Bay on the northern tip of South Island. I was intrigued by the
photographs he sent me and Bruce was keen to see them published and is
hoping that somebody will identify his father's shipmates.
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