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.
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."
remembered this incident vividly:
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.
Burial at Sea
By mid afternoon HMS Venomous
was almost out of fuel and ignoring orders to head for Gibraltar just
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.
photographed the burial and wrote on the reverse: "
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.
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
After survivor's leave Les
Mortimer was sent on a course at the Whale
Island Gunnery School and then joined the LCT (Landi0ng Craft Tanks)
being built for the Normandy landings. AB Leslie Mortimer served on
LCT-703 which made thirteen trips to the Normandy beach heads. After
the war he worked at Austin Motors' Longbridge plant at Oxford before
to Australia in 1948. Les is 89 and lives in an outlying district of
Melbourne where his children and grand children live.
am indebted to Julie Nestic, the grand daughter of Les Mortimer, for having supplied the
photographs and a typescript of this brief memoir he wrote in 1998.
His service certificate and other documents
can be downloaded as a PDF from Australia's Department of Defence web site
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'. There are two Able Seamen (AB) called Charley on the short
list of men who died aboard HMS Venomous.
Most of those 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'
Charley Stocker who 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, came from Blandford in Dorset
and at 46 was probably the oldest man on the lower deck of HMS Hecla, "AB
(D/J17615), aged 46, son of John
and Alice Stocker (nee Sansom) and husband of Minnie (nee Dibben) of Blandford,
Dorsetshire" (Commonwealth War Graves
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 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 open to doubt but the story of Charley Stocker is told below.
Charley - 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
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.
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
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
Charles' 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
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
, 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 75 years ago this year.