A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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In memory of my father
Norman Holmes (1911-42)
Electrical Mechanic 5th Class (C/MX 89523) on HMS Hecla


"My father was the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls, born to George Arthur Holmes and Florence Holmes, my grandparents. They lived in Hazel Grove, south of Stockport, Manchester, near the Derbyshire Peak District. He married my Mother, Hilda Weatherby, at Monton Methodist Church on the 9 May 1940. They were both active members of Egerton Lawn Tennis Club. I do not know where he was educated or even where he met my mother, perhaps at tennis or Youth Holiday Fellowship holidays that were very popular at that time in the North of England. He was working as an insurance clerk for the Co-op Insurance Society, Manchester, when he volunteered for war service as an Ordinary Seaman (OD) on 15th April 1941. I was born in Eccles, Lancashire on 25th November 1941, less than a year before his death, so sadly never knew him." David Golby

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Norman Holmes did his three months basic training from April - June 1941 at HMS Glendower, a former Butlin's holiday camp at Pwllheli, Caernarfonshire, in North Wales followed by three weeks at HMS Pembroke, the shore base at Chatham.

Despite having worked as a clerk before the war and having no previous experience of electrical work he was selected for training as an electrical mechanic and spent nearly  four months at HMS Southampton, Victory V, in the South Western Hotel, in Portsmouth, acquiring a basic knowledge of electrics, the difference between DC and AC applying it to circuits and motors. He was then posted to HMS Vernon, the Admiralty's Torpedo, Mining and Electrical Training Establishment, where he applied that knowledge and furthered his training in electrics to acquire a deeper professional understanding of his core subject subsequently used on a vast array of electrical machinery. In May 1941 HMS Vernon had relocated to Roedean School for Girls, Brighton, the girls having been evacuated to Keswick in the Lake District. He was there from 8th November 1941 to 13th March 1942 and on completing his training was rated Electrical Mechanic 5th Class and wore the anchor known as a "Killick" identifying him as a Leading Hand on the left sleeve of his blue jacket despite having no seagoing experience.

Norman Holmes was posted from Chatham Barracks to join HMS Hecla on the Clyde on 31st March 1942 after she had completed a short re-fit following a year as the destroyer depot ship for the Atlantic escorts at Havelfjord, Iceland. 

Ratings under training at HMS Glendower?

Norman HIolmes - training at Victory V, HMS Southampton?
 Two photographs of Norman Holmes and "shipmates" under training
Norman Holmes is first from left in the photograph taken during basic training at HMS Glendower (top) and fourth from right in the back row of the photograph at HMS Vernon (bottom)
Courtesy of David Holmes Golby

"The ship sailed in Convoy WS-18 from Liverpool/Clyde on 15th April 1942. Prior to sailing my father was given Draft Leave and I have a studio photograph of him in uniform taken on 13th April 1942, just two days before he sailed. Sadly this was to be the last my mother was to see of him. The ship was initially bound for Freetown, West Africa, to arrive 29th April 1942." David Golby


Norman's first letter home after Hecla left the Clyde was posted on arrival at Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa

Norman Holmes letters are still in their original envelopes stamped “ Received from HM Ships and Passed by Censor” despite being some 73 years old. They were recently discovered by a cousin of David Holmes Golby while going through his own fathers’ papers.

Letter from Norman Holmes to parentsNorman Holmes on HMS Hecla, 1942

Norman Holmes and shipmates on HMS Hecla, 1942
Norman Holmes on right with another Electrical Mechanic on left with 'shortie' centre
Who are these two unidentified shipmates of Norman Holmes?

Courtesy of David Holmes Golby

HMS Hecla
c/o G.P.O. London

(Somewhere at sea)
Date snowpaked out - by censor?

Dear mother & father,

I'm starting this letter now, but it will probably be about ten days before it is posted as we're now in the next stage of our journey.

Crossing the LineYesterday we had a free day for the "crossing the line" ceremony. The night before, King Neptune spoke over the loudspeakers, and said that we were nearing his domain and wished to know our business etc. The skipper replied, saying that we'd come to fight the forces of evil, etc etc. Neptune then said that he, together with his Queen & retinue would visit the ship at 9 o'clock on Weds, morning to renew old acquaintances, and to initiate new. A stage had been built on deck with two chairs that tipped over backwards, fastened on the edge over a canvas plunge.

The costumes were exceptionally good, & also the speeches when King Neptune was received by the Skipper. The retinue consisted of fishermen, bears or other officials who administered soft soap pills to the victims, and also lathered and showered them - the lather being some kind of blue water colours.

The first victims were officers who had never crossed the line before, & it was surprising how many hadn't - the Commander for one! As a matter of fact one fellow in our Mess has spent over twenty four years at sea and this is the first time he's crossed! Yet I was on my first trip!

The fishermen scoured the ship for anybody trying to avoid initiation, while the bears - dressed in rope skirts - were in the plunge waiting for the victims.


The ducking chair
The "Crossing the Line" ceremony was photographed by Kenneth Collings
Neptune and his Queen Amphitrite both survived the torpedoing of HMS Hecla

The Commander was the first to be initiated and though he was spared the plunge, a pill was administered, and his  face and hair were absolutely plastered with blue - his eyes must have been full of it. Actually, the officers had the worst 'doing' of the lot as all were well and truely ducked. THE M.O. - charged with being an 'inoculation jimmie squirter' and so causing great discomfort to the lads - was rather obstreperous and pushed a couple of the retinue into the bath. He had a whole tin of blue poured over his head, pills administered and was then put into the chair and tipped into the bath, where the bears took great pleasure in pushing him down every time he appeared on the surface!

After the officers had been dealt with it was the turn of the Chief POs and then the lads. At times, it developed into a free for all, & fishermen were thrown in together with officials - one poor chap was thrown in with his wristwatch on and all his belongings in his pockets.

Crossing the Line Certificate

After arrival in South Africa a commemorative scroll was designed by
Don Preece and a booklet containing the "script" for the ceremony was printed

Neptune and his Queen Amphitrite both survived the torpedoing of HMS Hecla

No check was kept of who had been through and who hadn't and quite a number escaped, myself included. The ceremony lasted about four hours and finished with Neptune and his Queen entering the bath. Altogether it was an interesting and amusing day.

Monday (May 18) In port

On the 15 May Hecla detonated a mine after rounding the Cape of Good Hope and 21 men were killed and many more injured.  Hecla was under repair at the South African naval dockyard in Simons Town for six months. Norman made no mention of this when he continued his letter on the 18 May from Simons Town.

Norman Holmes, "Ted" Wynn (?) and shipmates on HMS Hecla - at Simonstown?
 Norman Holmes and "Ted" (with killick on sleeve) are easily identifiable in the centre of this photograph
It was probably taken on HMS Hecla after arrival at Simonstown
Courtesy of David Holmes Golby

"We arrived at this place early Saturday morning and it would appear that we will be here for some time, so i'll be able to write more often. It's a beautiful spot with just a nice climate. I'm sure I'll enjoy the time we are here.

I went ashore on Sunday at 1 o'clock and caught a train to a town about 20 miles away [Cape Town]. It was a beautiful day, hot & sunny. The train - electric, by the way, follows the coast and winds round several little bays. These bays would be ideal for a holiday, & the scenery behind them is really lovely.


When I reached the town, my first visit was to a fruit shop, where I treated myself to a pound of grapes - price 6d! There is everything here in the way of fruit - grapefruit, oranges, apples, pears, etc. & also milk chocolate (never heard of it!). In fact, there doesn't appear to be a shortage of anything.

Norman returned to his ship by train and then -

"I had supper in a local canteen, I couldn't resist eggs, bacon, tomatoes & coffee! Regular glutten aren't I? It seemed quite strange to see the town all lit up, curtains back and shop windows ablaze!

I understand that the local inhabitants are exceptionally good with the lads - in fact one of our chaps was asked five times by very decent people if he would like to spend the evening with the family! Two others went to a dinner-dance which was free of charge to the forces.
"


"At home" in South Africa with the Koch Family

Norman Holmes and "Ted" (Wynn?) at the home of the KOch family
This was a happy period in the short life of Norman Holmes. He and a friend known only as "Ted" but believed to be Edward Wynn MX89441, like Norman an Electrical Mechanic 5th Class with the killick of a Leading Seaman on the left sleeve of his blue jacket, were invited to stay in the home of the Koch family at Mowbray, a suburb of Cape Town.


They were photographed there with the shy black child, Betty, the daughter of the family housekeeper. David Golby described the family:

"The Koch family were an English speaking family of German and Scottish descent. There were four sisters (Iris, Violet, Mavis and Revah) living with their father, their mother having passed away. A fifth sister, Ivy, lived in Johannesburg with her nephew, Robin Malan and niece, Daphne, and their mother. Ivy and the Malan family visited the Koch family in Capetown every Christmas."

David Golby describes how his widowed Mother kept in touch with the Koch family for many years:

"After the war, we mainly kept in touch with Ivy and her nephew Robin (Malan) who would have been roughly the same age as myself or perhaps a little older and who became a long time childhood pen-pal.  For many years after the war, the aunts would send my mother boxes of crystallized and dried fruits at Christmas and we very much looked forward to receiving them. Crystallized fruit was unheard of, certainly in post-war Britain and even if available, would not have been affordable to us.  On my birthdays they would also send me circular slides for my American View-Master Stereoscope, depicting a wide variety of places and scenes in South Africa, all of which I still have to this day, although we have eaten all the fruit!

Robin, my long time pen-pal, wrote a children’s book about his life as a young boy growing up in South Africa, that he called Sonny Jim and his sister. He had the book published in 2009 and kindly sent me a copy. In the book he refers to himself as being‘Sonny Jim’. He writes about Simonstown Naval Dockyard and that sometimes the warships in the dock were open for the public to go and look over. One Christmas the visiting sailors said they could take their entire family, including all the aunts, around on Boxing Day. Before leaving home they all dressed up for the occasion, ‘Sonny Jim’ put an orange dahlia in his jacket lapel.

He was shown around a ship by a sailor called Steve, who carried him on his shoulders so that he could see more, so he must have still been quite young. At the end of visiting time, he describes in the book how he ran to the other side of the ship, took the orange dahlia out of his lapel and threw it over the railings into the sea and then went back to the others.  ‘What did you do that for, his mummy asked’. ‘Well David’s (that’s myself) daddy hasn’t got a grave has he?  Maybe the flower will float all the way to where David’s daddy is lying at the bottom of the sea’. ‘I see’ said mummy, ‘well you be sure to write and tell David about that’. As I say, this moving recollection became known to me only after being published in a small children’s book, written by Robin six years ago, although clearly not forgotten by him."


David Golby describes how his father met his death

After major repairs, HMS Hecla was declared seaworthy and left Simons Town as part of Convoy CF.7, on Tuesday the 20th October 1942 arriving at Freetown, Monday 2 November 1942. Hecla left Freetown with Convoy CF.7A on Wednesday, 4 November 1942 bound for Liverpool and was joined off the Canaries by HMS Venomous and HMS Marne.  As we know, HMS Hecla was sunk by 5 torpedoes fired from U-boat 515 on the night of 11 - 12 November 1942 with the loss of some 282 men out of a total compliment of 858.


"My father was one of those who lost his life that night, being reported as ‘missing presumed dead’.  I seem to recall being told as a child that my mother had a visit from one of the survivors who told her that my father had been able to escape from the sinking ship and he had last seen him holding onto the ropes of an overcrowded life-raft. Like so many others that night, he must have drifted away before rescue arrived.  I do remember being told by my mother long after that one thing that had particularly haunted her at the time was that these were known to have been shark infested waters, as mentioned by one of the survivors in another account that I have read, in that case marksmen having been deployed to protect those men still in the water."

Returned letter -  after loss of HECLA

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My mother re-married an old friend in October 1943, a former army major, who by today's standards was fairly strict. However, he was also a very kind and generous man and couldn’t have been a better father to me.  I have a half sister seven years younger than me who has lived in New Zealand for most of her adult life. My mother died in 1970 on her 55th birthday and my stepfather died in 1979 at the age of 64.  Shortly after my mother re-married in October 1943, we moved down south, my stepfather having been brought up in Kilburn, north west London.  I still have many happy memories of my times spent as a young lad in the north-country during frequent visits by steam train, to stay with the Holmes and Weatherby (my mother’s maiden name) sides of the family. We also had many family holidays during and after the war in Pwllheli, North Wales, where my own father had done his initial training.

My name was changed to my stepfathers’ surname of Golby by Deed Poll in October 1948 when I was nearly seven years old, but the family name of Holmes was retained as a middle name and has been passed on to our son, now aged 40 and our grandson aged eight, so hopefully the original family name will live on for many years to come in memory of the sacrifice made by my dad, Norman, like so many others, for the good of future generations. They will always be remembered.

His name is commemorated in perpetuity on the Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel Reference 63.3

Compiled and written by his son, David Norman Holmes Golby (aged 73)

Dated 5th August 2015  


Return to the "Home Page" for HMS Hecla
to find out more about its history and the stories of survivors - and those who died.

A Hard Fought Ship contains the most detailed account of the  loss of HMS Hecla yet published
Find out more about the book and read reviews of the book.
A new edition will be published in Spring 2016

 

 


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