The story of HMS Venomous

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Leslie Mortimer
P/JX 323724
Charley Stocker
saved Les Mortimer's life
but lost his own when Hecla sank
 Les Mortimer joined Combined Ops and took part in Operation Neptune
 the D-Day Landings in Normandy

Les MortimerHMS Collingwood, FarehamLeslie Mortimer was one of eleven children of Rowland Mortimer, a mattress maker, and his wife Emily May (nee Flynn). He was born at Kings Norton, Birmingham, on the 24 November 1923 and trained as a bench fitter (drilling machine operative). He gave his mother as his nearest relative when he enlisted in the Royal Navy aged eighteen in December 1941.

Les Mortimer (P/JX 323724) spent three months at HMS Collingwood, the Royal Navy shore base, at Fareham, Portsmouth, where "hostilities only" ratings were trained (right) and four months at the Mount Vernon Torpedo Training School. He shipped to South Africa from Gourack on the Clyde aboard the Queen Elizabeth which had been converted for use as a troop carrier, to join HMS Hecla, which was under repair at  Simon's Town after hitting a mine, as an Ordinary Seaman (OD).

Les Mortimer was a lookout on the bridge on the 11 November when the first torpedo struck, there was total darkness and the ship listed heavily. Relieved and ordered off the bridge he went below to find a replacement for his life belt which wouldn't hold air. 


"The two off-duty watches were hanging around not knowing what to do. I came across two ratings of my mess, Mess 32. They were regulars who could not read, write or swim and had been in the navy since the age of twelve and I never saw them again. I worked my way to the bow  and befriended a regular Royal Navy AB who threw a rope over the bow and said 'The next torpedo and over I go.' He didn't have long to wait. A third torpedo hit and most of the crew abandoned ship as word was passed round by word of mouth. The Able Seaman said he would go over first. I lowered myself into the water to find him waiting. Then we both waited for my friend to enter the water. He panicked screaming that he could not swim and would not let go of the rope. After twice swimming back the AB told me to leave him.

There was a gaping hole in the side of the Hecla, the ship was at an acute angle filling with water and we were being dragged into the hole. Then a forth torpedo hit and when it exploded we were washed clear. We followed the AB who was swimming towards HMS Marne. Ratings were climbing the nets hung over the stern and we were about thirty feet away when a 21 inch torpedo blew it off. There was a blinding explosion and we lay stunned  drifting with the swell. After coming to my senses the AB said we should leave the Marne which looked as if it was finished and we swam away into the rolling swell.  Then there came a fifth explosion in the direction of the Hecla. We swam through water alive with men holding onto debris and smashed life boats and came across what looked like a sub, stopping we listened to a voice calling for the name of the ship in an American accent."

We swam into the night with little idea of the time which passed before Venomous came into view and stopped to pick up a float full of men; she misjudged, hitting the float, spilling men either side of the ship. We swam to the nets on the stern and hung on exhausted. There came a voice from the bridge shouting 'Let go aft I have a ping'. The seamen on Venomous told us to jump off the net and most of us did but I hung on and so did the AB behind me. Venomous took off dragging us in the net. How long I was in the net I do do not know. After screaming out I was untangled, dragged onboard and thrown on deck. Afterwards thrown into the hammock rack in the seamen's mess deck to recover.

When I came to I found myself lying alongside the seaman friend that had panicked and refused to let go of the rope on Hecla. He was raving mad, nobody could do anything for him. We were told to leave him, he would recuperate. At first light I was helping to clear up the mess on the quarter deck near the nets when they pulled a body out of the nets. It was the able seaman I had spent the night with."

Jack Bolton
remembered this incident vividly:

"With Venomous at a standstill I was sent down on deck to help in the rescue. The men clutching the scrambling nets hung over the stern were so thick with oil it was almost impossible to haul them to safety. An officer on the bridge called out that they had a ping on the ASDIC and we should "let go". A seaman slipped from my hand, fell backwards with his feet tangled in the net and I heard the terrible sound of his head repeatedly hitting the ship's hull as Venomous accelerated away in pursuit of the prowling U-boat."

Jack Bolton, who tried to pull the AB aboard described what happened when Venomous accelerated away in pursuit of the U-boat.

I am indebted to Julie Nestic, the grand daughter of Les Mortimer, for having supplied the photographs and a typescript summary of the memoir Les Mortimer wrote in 1998 from Autralia
This full version on the Australia Department of Defence web site has been lightly edited but may contain errors of transcription

:es Mortimer and friend soon after joining NavyLesc Mortimer's typescript account of the sinking of HMS Heckla in 1942
Left: A studio portrait of Leslie Mortimer and friend soon after joining the Navy in December 1941
Right: The first page of his typed description of the sinking of HMS Hecla and his rescue by HMS Venomous on 12 November 1942

Eleven minutes past eleven 1942, first watch eight until twelve p.m. Close up on the starboard watch in the transmitting station aboard the HMS Hecla. After two hours as lookout on the bridge there was only one sighting, an American submarine depot ship off the Azores at approximately 8.30 p.m. We were zig zagging with another depot ship, HMS Vindictive, and two escort destroyers: HMS Maine (a brand new destroyer) and HMS Venomous (a WWI V&W class destroyer, notorious for its inability as a sea going ship). Conditions were appalling with hardlying money being paid in peace time until a conservative M.P. Lady Astor stopped the payment after travelling from the Thames to Portsmouth one sunny calm day pre-war. The night was intermittent cloud. Starlit with running swell force 3N Mod. SVVE, swell. Six ratings in the darkness of the T/S lay awaiting the middle watch,  12 p.m. until 4 a.m. There came an almighty explosion. Hecla shuddered and listed, a 21” port sub torpedo hit amidships (in the Navel reports 2 torpedoes, At 11 p.m. hit amidships. As a witness only one torpedo hit the Hecla a few minutes after 11 p.m. putting the generators out of action, as the power went off the ship. The ship was in total darkness. Action stations. (2 ZLB pom-pom anti-aircraft, 6 x 4.5 guns, immobile for lack of power) We were relieved of our station by regular trained RN Gunners. Being 3 watches only one watch manned guns and damage control etc. We were ordered off the bridge of the ship and left without leadership. After what seemed an eternity. The Hecla came on an even keel with no power. She was immobile and drifting. My lifebelt would not hold oxygen, so I went down below to mess deck 32 to try to find some authority that could insure another life belt. There was no organisation below and I was told to go and look around. Parts of the two watches were hanging around not knowing what to do. There was no leadership. 839 crew approximately 2/3 waiting for what? I roamed the lower deck finding another air life belt. In looking for my life belt I came across 2 ratings of my mess 32. They were two regulars that could not read, write or swim. They had been in the navy since the age of twelve. They were cowed (never seen again). In the stokers mess there again were nothing but the other watches hanging around. 

At about 12.15 p.m. there was another explosion and I returned to the upper deck. A second torpedo 21” hit under the starboard bow. There was still no power with the ship dimly lit. I walked around checking on mess deck mates. Several H.O’s (Hostility Only ratings) took the place of the RN ratings missing from the pom-poms,  operating the pom poms manually. Everything was at a stand-still. I worked my way back to the bow of the ship and befriended a regular Navy Able Seeaman (AB) throwing a rope off the bow. He stated “The next torpedo and over I go.” He didn’t have long to wait. A third torpedo hit and most of the crew abandoned ship as ithe command was peassd by word of mouth. The Able Seaman said he would go over first and my mate was to follow. I lowered myself into the water to find my God-send waiting. Then we waited for my friend to enter the water. He panicked screaming he could not swim and would not release the rope. The AB told me to leave him after swimming back twice. I had to get away from the ship. There was a gapping hole in the side of the Hecla’s bow. It took the AB and myself an eternity to make headway. The ship was at an acute angle filling with water and we were being dragged back into the ship. Then a forth torpedo hit and exploded and we were washed clear of the Hecla. Following the AB we swam towards HMS Marne, which was foolishly moving bow first to the Hecla in the starlight conditions. There were ratings climbing the nets on the stern when a 21” torpedo blew the stern off. We were approximately 30 foot away. There was a blinding explosion and we were both stunned and drifted with the swell.

After returning to my senses the AB said “We should leave the  Marne" and we swam away into the rolling swell. We thought the Marne had had it. Then there came a fifth explosion in the direction of the Hecla. The water was alive with men hold ing onto debris and smashed life boats. We swam into the swell again, coming from a northern direction. We came across what looked like a sub’. Stopping we listened to voices calling for the name of the ship in an American accent. I suggested going along side but the Able Seaman said we were to get away as it would be dangerous. We turned and swam in the opposite direction. We were confronted with what turned out the be HMS Venomous depth charging the area (the sub was attacking – surfaced). Venomous was depth charging amongst the survivors. Several floats crowded with survivors came by but it was impossible to get a hold (oil was everywhere). We carried on into the night. How long we swam could not be recorded but the Venomous came into view, stopping to pick up a float full of men. She misjudged, hitting the float and spilling the men to either sides of the ship. We swam to the nets of the Venomous on the stern and hung on being extremely exhausted. There came a voice from the bridge shouting “Let go AFT I have a ping” Veromous took off dragging us in the net. How long I was in the net I don’t know. After screaming out I was untangled, dragged on board and thrown on the deck. Afterwards thrown into the hammock rack in the seamen’s mess deck to recuperate. When I came to I found myself lying alongside the seaman friend that had refused to let go of the rope on the Hecla. He was raving mad. No one could do anything for him. We were told to leave him he would recuperate. At first light I was helping to clean up the mess on the quarter-deck near the nets when they pulled a body out of the nets. It was the able seaman I had spent the night with. The Venomous had something to answer for.

After picking up more men Venomous became short of fuel and went along side of HMS Marne with her stern blown off and milked for fuel. She then left the Marne and proceeded to Casablanca hoping Casablanca had been taken from the Vichy French during ‘Operation Torch” North Africa. The reason for going to Casablanca was that Venomous hadn’t enough fuel to get to Gibraltar. Venomous at 12 knots stanchions cracked like B-gun firing. How men could take such conditions is hard to understand. Water washed over the bows and tore aft and into the seaman’s mess deck. Everything was wringing wet. Her full speed 17 knots would have been a nightmare. We approached Casablanca cautiously and a signal with authorities told us the American’s had landed and were mopping up. We approached slowly to find three USS ships, the flag ship of the American Med fleet USS Augusta and aircraft carrier USS Guadalcanal and a destroyer with a gapping hole in the bows. Tying up alongside to refuel the Venomous was invited to dine and everyone kitted up with clothing. Lunch, dinner and breakfast. Then off to Gibraltar where we were invited into the harbour and put aboard the battleship King George V during the whole of the action I cannot remember seeing one officer. Not anyone above a petty officer.
The following day we were transferred to the Stratheden, a liner, and put below with one officer off the Hecla. Below deck conditions were degrading with no sleeping facilities. We sailed for England in a convoy. Two destroyers and one aircraft carrier. First night out she exploded with loss of all the ships company (approximately 1,200 dead). In the action “Operation Torch” North Africa, approximately 17 Royal Navy ships (Daily Express) were put out of action. Survivors landed at Grenock Scotland and rekitted with new gear, uniforms (basic), fed and transported back to Portsmouth RN barracks. We were screened, paid money according to rank and given 28 days leave with no medical check for any lower deck personnel. That night I blacked out finding myself in the wrong section of the barracks. I slept on a form bench. I couldn’t recall how I got there. I was walking around dazed. I found myself on a train to Birmingham but not knowing how I got on the train. When I arrived home my mother had been notified that I was missing believed killed in action.

The U-boat that sank the Hecla and damaged Marne was U-515 (Captain Lieutenant Henke) despite being engaged by B-gun on HMS Venomous and depth charged U-515 escaped unscratched. Anti-submarine forces finally caught up with her on April 9th 1943 to the north of Madeira Island where she was sunk by four USN destroyers and three aircraft from USS Guadalcanal. Fourty-four of her ship company out of sixty, including her CO, were taken prisoner. I returned to HMS Victory barracks after four weeks leave with my Royal Oak friend Pam. Pam was a survivor of the sinking of the Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands where nearly 900 men and boys were killed in October 1939. The “Oak” was out of commission owing to sea trials. Her gun’s shook her to pieces. On entering the main gate Pam called back to me. He had had enough and decided to jump the wall. His nerves had gone and he was going to friends in the north end of Portsmouth.  Shaking hands I walked into the barracks never to see him again. I was put in a mess deck, allotted a hammock and slept and ate in a building 200 years old. After one week I was transferred to Whale Island gunnery school for a course. An antiaircraft gunner 3rd class. One week in barracks and no medical. The barracks were full of war neurotics. No one wanted to know.

I arrived at Whale Island with a kit bag, a hammock and a case and on reporting to a police officer was allotted a hut, mess and class and ordered to double at all times between 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. No rating was exempt, if he carried a kitbag he doubled. Things were bleak. Winter on Whale Island was going to be bad. In the class of 35 we were allotted a chief petty officer as a teacher who should have been in hospital. He had been wounded while serving on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, when she engaged the German battleship Bismarck. He had been trapped in a section of the ship sealed off to stop the ship sinking. In the same action with Bismarck the battleship HMS Hood with a crew of 1,400 was hit with one salvo and three men swam away from her. One Midshipman (officer)  two  ratings from the lower deck. The midshipman was mentioned in dispatches.The lower deckmen were not named or mentioned. The midshipman was killed in a sports car going on leave (survivors) at Whale Island.

I continued my gunnery course; an incident with the chief petty officer. The class of 35 doubling (running from clas to parade ground) was accused of “shufferling” (half a run) and I being nearest to the chief petty officer was kicked in the backside. I jumped out of ranks and kicked him back in the backside. He threateded to report me to the Commanding Officer. Another rating witnessed what happened. I had a witness against him and he dropped the charge. The following day the witness who spoke up for me was transferred to Combined Operation for three months on minor landing craft 25 ft in length. Then to major 110 ft landing craft with Mountbatten's death squad [Mountbatten's reputation was damaged by the the disastrous raid on Dieppe in August 1942]. I did my first three months at Qeenscliff, Dartmouth for the Royal Navy’s Officer College. I did thirteen landings in the American sector and one in Aremanches (British sector).

On being demobbed I was questioned about my physical condition. I reported that I had lost the top joint of the little finger on my right hand and was told I could receive £14 but would have to stop in the Navy for a further three months. I refused and was demobbed. I was ashamed of my condition and did not report that I was “bomb happy” and was looked after since by my wife, not claiming until 1992.

  Les Motimer's service certificate and other documents can be downloaded as a PDF from Australia's Department of Defence web site by  clicking on the link

Burial at Sea

By mid afternoon HMS Venomous was almost out of fuel and ignoring orders to head for Gibraltar she managed to make it to Casablanca soon after its capture by American forces. After two nights in Casablanca Venomous left on the 14 November for Gibraltar and four of the survivors who had died after rescue were sewn into canvas hammocks, weighted with shells at their feet and buried at sea from the stern.

Cyril Hely photographed the burial and wrote on the reverse: "Thomas Luxton, George Taylor, Charles Odey and Alfred Dutton were buried at sea at latitude 34 degree 30 minutes North and longitude 7 degrees 30 minutes west." Lt Cdr "Harry" Alexander RN, the Navigating Officcer on HMS Hecla, read the brief service.

Burial of the dead at sea
"I read the funeral service for our two shipmates"
Four men who died later were buried at sea after arrival at Gibraltar on 14 November 1942
Photographed by Cyril Hely

After arrival at Gibraltar another four survivors who died from their wounds were taken out to sea on a barge with volunteers from Venomous to bury them. 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. The grandsons of Albert Thick and Jabez Skelhorne spent years uncovering the story of how they died and Simon Skelhorne arranged for their graves to be restored by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Combined Operations and the D Day Landings in Normandy

Les Mortimer  helpfully but confusingly inserted his own additions to his official Service Certificate:

Les Mortimer's annotated Service Certificate
Les Mortimer added his own hand written additions to his Service Certificate
His Certificate along with other documents related to his wartime service are avaliable online on the Australian Government website
Find out more about obtaining and interpreting service certificates

After survivor's leave Les Mortimer was sent on a course at HMS Excellent,  the Gunnery School on Whale Island at Portmouth,
and then joined HMS Quebec, a Combined Operations training base for the LCT (Landing Craft Tanks) on Loch Fyne in western Scotland in preparation for the landings in Normandy. The LCT and the Landing Ship Tanks (LST) which brought them across the Atlantic from the east coast of America where they were built were the key to the success of the D Day landings but they were brutes to control and had no accommodation aboard for their crew.

HMS Copra (an acronym for Combined Operations pay, ratings and accounts) was a shore base staffed by Wrens at Largs on the Clyde which processed the pay and allowances of Royal Navy personnel in Combined Operations. Les  Mortimer added LCT 703, the name of the LCT in which he served, alongside HMS Copra on his Service Certificate but despite being a shore base the name of HMS Copra is engraved on many of war graves in Normandy.

This photograph of the USN Landing Craft heading for Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944 with the USS Augusta in the background was scanned from a French postcard belonging to Les Mortimer but is also on the front cover of The U.S. Navy at Normandy: Fleet Organization and Operations in the D-Day by Greg H. Williams ( McFarland, July 2020).

LCT crossing the Channel to the D Day landings in Normandy 1944
30 ft LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) (Higgins Boats) heading for Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944
In the background is the cruiser USS Augusta, flagship of the Western Naval Task Force
Sixteen months earlier on 13 November 1942 HMS Venomous had berthed alongside the USS Augusta at Casablanca and the USN had fed and clothed the survivors from HMS Hecla
Scanned from a postcard belonging to Les Mortimer

There were two LCT 703.  LCT 703 was an American LCT with a USN crew which was sunk on D Day but Les Mortimer served in HM LCT-703, a British Landing Craft Tank in 57 LCT Flotilla (known as the 57 'Heinz'), part of Q LCT Squadron (Senior Officer Lt Cdr Arthur Duncan Stather Dunn) based at Plymouth. QLCT Squadron operated with B Force, the follow-up force for the American beaches in the west including Omaha, the most fiercely  defended of the five beaches.  He joined HMLCT 703 in September 1943 and "did thirteen landings in the American sector and one in Arromanches (British sector)".  Click on this link to see the stowage plan for LCT-1097, an addendum to the orders for Force G (IWM Documents.9372). This would be similar to that for LCT 703 and included three cruiser tanks.

Julie Nestic identified her maternal grandfather, Les Mortimer, in the photographs of the crew of HM LCT-703 below. If you recognise a family member who served in HM LCT-703 during the Normandy landings please e-mail Bill Forster so that he can add his name to the caption

Les Mortimer & crew of HMLCT703
Les Mortimer is second from left in this photograph which may have been taken during training on another landing craft berfore he joined HM LCT-703
Taken on the bridge at the stern - note the funnel

Crew of LCT703

Crew of LCT703 on 5 June 1944

Les Mortimer is second from right in this photo of LCT 703 on on her way to Normandy on 5 June - but who are the other crew members?
The Sub Lt in the RNVR on the left and many others are in both photos  but have not been identified
Bad weather forced the postponement of the D Day Landings to 6 June
Photograph courtesy of Julie Nestic, grand daughter of Leslie Mortimer

I am hoping to receive more  details of this period in Les Mortimer's life from his family but in the meantime click on the link to see the Admiralty  Green List (ADM 210) of  LCT in  Q LCT Squadron (revised weekly) and read the account of Austin Prosser who joined the Navy as an Ordinary Seaman in 1942 and by 1944 was First Lieutenant in HM Landing Craft Tank 1171 part of LCT Flotilla 57  which included Les Mortimer's LCT. His irreverent attitude frequently got him into trouble with authority but makes for an amusing read.

"We had an extremely rough trip [from Oban] to Plymouth during which we discovered what a battering our ship could take. Some ships had faired less well and others had been lost. In Plymouth we learnt that we were to be attached to the American forces. A near mutiny was threatened when American senior officers visited our ship to explain the implications of our attachment to their Navy. There must have been many important operational matters discussed but amongst it all was a ban on alcohol to bring us into line with the US Navy 'dry ships' policy. This immediately captured our attention and there was uproar! After a lot of discussion, and a few diplomatic moves to keep the peace among the Allies, it was decided that nothing should change. In the event it was a popular outcome for everyone since the Americans spent a fair amount onboard helping us deplete our stocks of drinks in case, as was expected, we would be on a one-way mission!

More training and routine maintenance on board followed and we had some large folding extensions fitted to our bow door to make it easier to unload vehicles on the beaches. Then the time came for our flotilla, the 57th (otherwise known as the 57 'Heinz') to take on board our cargo at St Johns on the south (Cornish) side of the Tamar River. We loaded six Sherman tanks, six half-track ammunition lorries, two half-track ambulances and all their crews. Our ship was now rather overcrowded.

At this late stage we finally found out where we were going and what was expected of us - we had to deliver our precious cargo onto a beach codenamed Omaha in  Normandy..."  click on this link to continue reading Lt Austin Prosser's account.

Prosser's LCT broke in two and sank while returning from Omaha Beach in October.

 LCT at Antwerp November 1944
The Pennant Numbers of LCT 2313 and LCT 2479 are visible in this photograph taken at Antwerp after the clearing of the Scheldt estuary
Written on reverse by Les Mortimer: -  "Two Mark V: loaded with NAAFI goods. Antwerp."

"The Arromanches Mulberry remained open well into the autumn for although Le Havre and Antwerp were captured during the first half of September, neither could be reopened until November, the former because demolition, by the RAF as well as the retreating Germans, had been so comprehensive and the latter because the heavily-mined approaches to the undamaged port were dominated by enemy-held territory, necessitating a further major amphibious operation (the invasion of Walcheren), followed by a major mine clearance operation before the first cargo could be delivered. Antwerp's docks were the largest in Europe with a daily capacity of 40,000 tons and were opened to large ships on 28 November 1944 and, thereafter became the principal Allied supply port for the advance into Germany." Operation Neptune: The Normandy Invasion, D-Day 6 June 1944 (Naval Historical Branch).

The Clearing of the Scheldt Estuary and the Liberation of Walcheren between 2 October – 7 November 1944 which opened up Antwerp’s port to Allied shipping is described in a commemorative booklet pubished by the COI for the Ministry of Defence on the 60th anniversary of the end of the war which can be read online as a PDF by clicking on the link.

LCT-7074 is the only surviving Landing Craft Tank
Read its story on the National Historic Ships website and see it outide the D-Day Story at Southsea, Portsmouth
See the stowage plan for LCT-1097 including three "cruiser" tanks, buldozers, mortars, jeeps and guns (IWM Document 9372).

Les Mortimer's  training and service in LCT 703 may be of wider interest than his rescue from HMS Hecla
Find out more abut Operation Neptune and the destroyer escorts for the Landiing Craft
We are
grateful to Geoff Slee of the Combined Operations website for his help.


Emigration to Australia

After the war Les Mortimer returned to Britain and worked at Austin Motors' Longbridge plant at Oxford before marrying and emigrating to Australia:

"he married Edna Nash (my beautiful grandmother) on 12 Feb 1946 at Kings Norton Church Birmingham and was released from the Navy four months later on 31 May 1946. He moved to Australia in 1949 after my mother, Janet Mortimer, was born in 1947" (Julie Nestic, his Grand-daughter).

In 1998 when Les wrote the account of his rescue from HMS Hecla he was living in an outlying  district of Melbourne near where his children and grand children lived. Leslie Mortimer was 92 when he died in 2016.

second daughter, Carol Tregonning (nee Mortimer), was born in Australia and is alive today:

"Dad was a very quiet man and pretty private about his tragic experiences. He suffered from bouts of manic depression all his adult life and I’m sure the hardships that he went through contributed to this. Dad's funeral was on 11. 11. 2016. It wasn’t planned for that date. Just a date I chose at random. Only after did we realise that it was the anniversary of the sinking. A very strange occurrence. Mother told me she received a telegram informing her that Dad had died in action. He later turned up on her doorstep. That must have been a big shock for my Mother."

Sadly, Carol has no contact with his family in England and I am hoping that they will read his story here and get in touch with me by e-mail

The Last Man Standing?

There were 858 officers and men aboard Hecla when she was torpedoed and 282 names on the list issued by the Admiralty of those who died. I have traced the families of less than a hundred and non of them are alive today but the publicity the death of Reg Bishop on 4 June 2022 received in national newspapers (The Sun, Express and Mirror on 17th June and the Daily Mail online 17th June) may lead to me being contacted by the family of an elderly survivor before this year's 80th anniversary of the loss of HMS Hecla on 11 November 2022,
Armistice Day.

AB Charley Stocker J17615

Les Mortimer did not remember the name of the AB he swam with that night  but he was old for a rating, perhaps in his forties, and called 'Charley'. Charley Stocker was the only Able Seamen (AB) named Charley on the short list of men who died aboard HMS Venomous after being rescued  - but there was a Charles W Odey. 

Hecla casualties ADM
Most of those on the Admiralty lit of the 282 men who died that night were reported as "missing presumed killed"
Only the living were brought aboard Venomous and only those who died after rescue and were buried at sea were reported as "killed'
They included 46 year old Charley Stocker and 33 year old Charles Odey

Charley Stocker lived for a day or two after being rescued and was buried at sea at Gibraltar but washed ashore and buried a second time in the Santa Catalina Cemetery in Ceuta,. He came from Blandford in Dorset and at 46 was probably the oldest man on the lower deck of HMS Hecla:
"AB Charles Stocker (D/J17615), aged 46, son of John and Alice Stocker (nee Sansom) and husband of Minnie (nee Dibben) of Blandford, Dorsetshire" (Commonwealth War Graves Commission). Charles William Odey was only 33, the son of Thomas Job and Mary Agnes Patrick Odey, of Buckland, Portsmouth.

Les Mortimer described: "at first light I was helping to clear up the mess on the quarter deck near the nets when they pulled a body out of the nets. It was the able seaman I had spent the night with."
He was buried at sea off the stern of HMS Venomous while enroute from Casablanca to Gibraltar and his name is on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial on Southsea Common.

This leaves a slight doubt about the identity of the AB who helped save Les Mortimer and became entangled in the scrambling net as Venomous accelerated away in pursuit of the U-boat but he was probably Charley Stocker and his story is told below with the help of his great nephew Peter Bellinger.


Charley StockerCharley's diver friendCharley - not Charles - Stocker was born at Uplyme near Lyme Regis on the Devon Dorset border on the 28th June 1896 and was probably the oldest rating in Hecla when she was torpedoed. He left school at 14 and went into domestic service at the nearby village of Whitchurch Canonicorum.

His only brother, Gunner Stephen John Stocker, two years older than Charley, joined the army in 1914, served throughout the war in the Royal Garrison Field Artillery and died on the cusp of victory on 16 July 1918 from a German gas attack a few days earlier. He was serving in northern France with the 17th Heavy Battery and is buried at Aubigney-en-Artois.

Charley was a Boy Sailor at HMS
Impregnable, a training ship at Devonport (replaced by HMS Ganges) from May 1912 to January 1913 and on the Dreadnought Battleship HMS
Bellerophon (1907). When he signed on for twelve years on his 18th birthday his service record gave his occupation as farm labourer and noted that he had tattoos on both arms. He was rated Ordinary Seaman (OD) and AB (Able Seaman) while serving in Bellerophon.

He joined the Battleship HMS
Revenge on 1 February 1916 and took part in the Battle of Jutland on 31 May. On the 1st December 1917 he joined her sister ship, HMS Resolution but returned to Revenge on 4 March 1918 until 6 January 1921.

His service was almost entirely spent with the "big ships" of the Royal Navy. After a year on HMS King George V he joined HMS Queen Elizabeth, the flahip of the Mediterranean Fleet, based in Malta where he was sure to have met Charles Michell, a diver attached to HMS Titania, who was married to his cousin, Lily.

L20 Submarine at Matsui Matsui Sumarine base

The portrait top left is the only known photograph of Charley Stoker (signed, "with best wishes your service chum" on reverse) and the diver is Charles Wallace Mitchell with Fort Blockhouse at the entrance of Portsmouth harbour behind. Charles Mitchell served on the submarine depot ship HMS Titania at Hong Kong in the 1920s. The submarine L20 was one of her charges and was photographed in the Matsu Islands, five miles from the coast of China in the Taiwan Strait, in July 1920. The logbooks of the Titania can be viewed on the web and record several trips from Hong Hong to Matsu, the L20 submarine and the use of divers.

The Stocker and Mitchel families were from the Axminster area and Charles Mitchell married Charley's cousin on his Mother's side, Lilly Augusta. The large photograph of submarines was taken at Malta on 3 November 1925 and incribed by Charles Mitchell on the reverse "My work as a Jazz artist".  They were bound to have met in 1925 while Charley Stocker was in HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, based in Malta.

Charley encouraged one of his sister Ann’s two sons, Douglas Stephen, to follow in his footsteps. Douglas joined the navy as a boy sailor in 1932 and served in HMS Repulse until her transfer to the far east where she was sunk with HMS Prince of Wales by Japanese torpedo bombers on 10 December 1941. He survived the war and left the Navy in 1948.

Charley remained in the "big ships" of the Royal Navy until he left the Navy in June 1936. After a year on HMS Valiant with the Artlantic Fleet he was moved HMS Rodney for sixteen months. In October 1931 he joined HMS Devonshire which was on the China Station from 1932-3. He returned to HMS Rodney in August 1934 and finally left the Navy in June 1936. Charley had married Minnie Dibben on 30 August 1921 but they had no children and when he left the Navy they went into service looking after a household in Hampshire.

Three years later the imminent threat of war led to his recall at the age of 43 and in November 1939 he joined HMS Andania, a former passenger liner requisitioned by the Admiralty from the Cunard White Star Line and converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC).

"At 00.29 hours on 16 June 1940, HMS Andania (Capt D.K. Bain (Rtd), RN) was hit aft by one of two torpedoes from UA about 230 miles west-northwest of the Faroe Islands. The ship sank slowly by the stern and the crew was taken off by the Icelandic trawler Skallagrímur, so only two men were injured. The trawler continued its course to Hull, but HMS Forester (H 74) (LtCdr E.B. Tancock, DSC, RN) took the men off about 36 hours after the rescue and took them to Scapa Flow on 17 June." Uboat.net

Charley Stocker joined HMS Hecla on the Clyde on the 26 December before she was commissioned and she spent 18 months as the destroyer depot ship at Havefjord, Iceland, before returning to the Clyde for a refit and the journey south to South Africa where she detonated a mine near the Cape and spent six months under repair at Simon's Town before heading north to disaster off the coast of North Africa.

All the photographs on this page are from the album of Anne Stocker, Charley Stocker's elder sister (by an earlier marriage), and were scanned and sent to me by her grandson, Peter Bellinger, who was tracing his family's history and became interested in how his Great Uncle came to be killed when HMS Hecla was torpedoed

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

Return to the Crew List for HMS Hecla

A Hard Fought Ship contains the most detailed account of the loss of HMS Hecla yet published
The hardback edition of A Hard Fought Ship published in 2017 is out of print but an e-book edition will be published in 2022
Take a look at the Contents Page and List of Illustrations

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