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HMS Hecla:
Destroyer Depot Ship for Convoy Escorts
Havelfjord, Iceland, March 1941 to early 1942

Hecla on Clyde after commissioing
HMS Hecla on the Clyde after commissioning in March 1941
Note the three ship's cranes
Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne

On the 10 May 1940, the day that German forces swept into the low countries and on into northern France, 748 ill-equipped Marines had landed at Rekjavik to take control of Iceland for fear that Germany would seize this vital staging post on the Atlantic. Within a few months Britain had 25,000 troops in Iceland, ignoring Iceland's protests at this invasion in flagrant disregard of its declared neutrality.

The Atlantic Convoys would never have survived without the Atlantic escorts but the escorts were themselves very dependent on the presence of a destroyer depot ship. The escorts for the Atlantic convoys which brought both food and amraments to Britain  were often elderly V & Ws with "short legs" like HMS Venomous. Their fuel capacity was too small to accompany the convoys all the way to ther ports on the east coast of Canada and they were prone to frequent breakdowns. There were too few Royal Fleet Auuxilliary (RFA) "oilers" or escort oilers chartered by the Admiralty's Departmernt of Trade to refuel the escorts at sea. The escorts would dash into the sheltered deepwater harbour at Havelfjord west of Rekjavik to berth alongside HMS Hecla to refuel and undertgo essential repairs before dashing out to meet the next incoming convoy.

HMS Hecla was a destroyer depot ship with 20,000 square feet of workshop area, built at John Brown's shipyard on the Clyde. She was a strong well built ship, the entire hull had a double skin with a space of between three and four feet between the two hulls. She was laid down on the 23 January 1939 and launched on the 14 March 1940 but was not commissioned until the 6 January 1941. HMS Hecla was named after an active volcano in Iceland and was the seventh ship to bear this name.

Schoolmaster Greg Clarke was told by Captain C.G.B. Coltart RN on New Years Eve 1940, "Schoolie, you are the youngest officer aboard and, therefore, will ring out the old year with eight bells and ring in the new with eight bells." Greg Clarke was the last surviving officer who served on Hecla when he died at his home in Portsmouth in 2011 aged 95.

Edward Coleman described HMS Hecla  in his memoir, Navy Days (Andrew Books, 1999):

"it carries a high proportion of skilled men,  has lots of workshop space, some recreational space, not for her own crew so much as for the men from ships being serviced."

Harry Cliffe gave a more detailed description of the facilies and the conditions they endured in Havelfjord:

"I returned home for my first time since joining the Navy on seven days survivor’s leave after which I joined the newly commissioned HMS Hecla in December 1940.  She was built at John Brown’s Clydeside shipyard and cost more than £1,000,000 (a fortune in the 1930s). Hecla was a 12,000 ton depot ship, capable of servicing and supplying three flotillas of 24 destroyers for a year in remote parts of the world where dockyard facilities were not available. She was almost 600 ft long and 66 ft wide with 20,000 sq. ft of workshop space, one 10-ton and two 4-ton cranes. Teams of divers, shipwrights and the like could carry out most underwater repairs and replacements to vessels moored alongside, where they could also be supplied with electricity, water, fresh bread, etc. A large galley and canteen kept everyone fed while the bakery could turn out 6,000 lbs of bread daily. Hecla was still on the Clyde during the Blitz when Greenock was almost flattened. Hecla supplied the port with bread for several days before sailing to Iceland where most of 1941 was spent moored in isolated Havalfjord repairing Battle of Atlantic escort vessels."

In March 1941 HMS Hecla was sent to Havelfjord in south west Iceland where she "mothered" the destroyers escorting the Atlantic convoys. Her displacement of 12,000 tons was more than ten times that of Venomous and her sister ships. Venomous was notoriously unreliable and spent a lot of time alongside Hecla in 1941 and got to know her well. Her crew enjoyed the space aboard the large 12,000 ton depot ship, the fresh baked bread (the bakery could bake 6,000 lb of bread a day), the laundry and medical facilities (including an operating theatre).

"I still recall the 140 mph Icelandic gales, snow-covered mountains and the ship’s upper decks covered in twelve inches of snow which had to be pushed overboard every morning before breakfast, trying, of course to miss the destroyers moored alongside!  Then there was the first U-boat captured intact (U570) which moored alongside Hecla before it was towed to the UK to become HMS Graph which was later lost. Sir Winston Churchill also paid a brief visit onboard." Harry Cliffe

HMS Hecla at Havelfjord
HMS Hecla in Havelfjord with destroyer  escorts moored alongside, 1941
Including HMCS Collingwood (K180) and HMCS Baddeck (K147), Canadian Navy Flower Class Corvettes

Photographed by George Male

HMS Venomous was a regular visitor as her engines often let her down. Canadian escorts moored alongside Hecla brought foods unobtainable in England. "Freddo" Thomas, the RDF operator on Venomous, made friends with a rating on Hecla who asked him to post food parcels to his family when Venomous returned to her base at Londonderry. This was strictly forbidden but "Freddo" was  happy to oblige and was rewarded with fresh baked rolls from the ship's bakery which made him very popular with his mess mates. They were to meet again under very different circumstances - on the night of the 11-12 November 1942.

IcelandWaterfall in Iceland

Sn  Night over Havelfjord
Top: Some crew members appreciated the wild Icelandic scenery
Bottom: The snow covered hillside (with "beer canteen"?) and the sun setting over Havelfjord

Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne

"The only shore facility was a nissen hut beer canteen where the only excitement was the occasional unarmed combat between US, Canadian and British sailors."    George Male, sick berth attendant.

They had to provide their own entertainment aboard ship, usually films or an occasional drama performance. Evelyn Laye, a popular actress, was the star at a concert party put on by ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association. ENSA had to spread its resources thinly and may have earned its reputation for providing 'Every Night Something Awful' but the audience look happy. The concert was held in the summer of 1941 on the well deck where a temporary stage was erected.

Concert party aboard HMS Hecla, Iceland, Summer 1941Evelyne Laye with senior officer on HMS HECLA, Iceland, Summer 1941
The audience at the concert on HMS Hecla
An ENSA concert party was staged on the deck of HMS Hecla that Summer
It starred Evelyn Laye (1900-96) seen on right wearing an officer's hat
As a young man the future King George VI was infatuated with Evelyn Laye but both behaved with the utmost discretion
Courtesy of Kenneth Brown, son of CPO Norman Brown, SBA on Hecla, who died on Armistice Day 1942

Captain James Abernathy McCoy, Cap (D) at HMS  Eaglet, the RN base at Liverpool, may have accompanied the ENSA Concert Party to Iceland and sat alongside Capt Colthart, the CO of HMS Hecla. The bare headed four ringed Capt with blonde hair and a smiling face resembles Capt McCoy in the photograph below taken from his entry on uboat.net.

Captains Colthart and McCoy Summer 1941
Capt Colthart RN, CO of HMS Hecla, on left
At the concert party in Summer 1941
Capt James  A McCoy RN
Capt James A. McCoy RN

George Male made a few errors identifying some of the faces in the audience in a letter to Ken Brown, the son of Norman Brown who died when Hecla sank on Armistice Day 1942.

In the forefront (second row) hatless and bearded is my friend, Don Preece, a gifted artist, who died 1.11.42, on his left, round faced is Buckingham, Regulating Petty Officer, his senior is the Master-at-Arms, Johnnie Harber who is half way back, third in from left, short hair, round face, flattened nose with visible collar badge.
    The front row of officers from the left is Lt Cdr D'Oyly [an error, this person has now been identified by his son as Lt Cdr H.C.R. Alexander RN, the Navigation Officer] bearded; he was a relative of the Royal family & had a signed picture in his cabin of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the young princesses. Next to him is Captain Colthart who left the ship later and was replaced by Captain Law. Colthart has his hand to his face. Smiling beside him and also with 4 rings on his arm is Paymaster Captain Monk
who went down with the ship. [a further mistake, both these officers are Captains in the RN but Monk was RNR, the "Wavey Navy", so it can't be him] Immediately behind Captain Colthart the smiling thin-faced officer is Surgeon Lt Steve Hetherington.

Click on the link to read George Male's letter to Ken Brown.

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 and next to him on the right is Lt John Steavenson RNVR, the son of a doctor

Courtesy of Dr Peter Hetherington

With British forces hard pressed in Egypt and the Mediterranean and growing Icelandic resentment of British and Canadian forces occupying their land President Roosevelt agreed to take over the defence of Iceland from Britain and dispatched 36,000 US troops in June 1941 (Project Indigo).

Winston Churchill stopped off at Havelfjord on the 16 August while returning home on the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, after signing the Atlantic Charter with Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, in Newfoundland. He held talks with Iceland officials, inspected the combined British and US Marine forces and came aboard the destroyer depot ship, HMS Hecla. He attended a service in the ship's chapel where the "Jack Dustie", AB Ernest Victor Frowde, known as "Fingers Frowde", played the organ.

Churchill boardinng HMS Hecla
Winston Churchill being welcomed aboard HMS Hecla by
Captain C.G.B. Coltart  RN and his senior officers

Courtesy of George Male

Churchill on HMS Hecla

Winston Churchill leaving HMS Hecla at Havelfjord
Courtesy of George Male

Herbert McWillliams, an OD on  the County Type heavy cruiser, HMS
Shropshire, was one of those who saw Churchill at Havelfjord and his ship was part of the escort for HMS Prince of Wales when it left Havelfjord on the 18 August for with Churchill aboard:

When he appeared I was disappointed, I expected a big man and he is really quite small. He was dressed in a navy blue blazer with brass buttons, and wore a cap without a badge; he looked rather like a porter on a railway station. He was by no means quite sober, having come straight from a luncheon party on the flagship. He had a most odd expression, rather like an obstinate little boy caught near the pantry with jam on his fingers, or a comedian appearing on the stage expecting a laugh. But when he began to speak it was clear how he exercises power and authority over so many. I didn’t like his speech all the same; none of us really cared to be told that we should feel thrilled at being so lucky as to have this wonderful chance to fight the Nazi evil! I would rather have heard something about his interview in mid-ocean with Roosevelt. Naturally, I was very glad to have had the opportunity of hearing him speak; I stood only a few yards from his rostrum, and had whiffs of his huge cigar which once, accidentally, he put into his ear instead of into his mouth. He really was “pissed”!

Fourteen months later  McWilliams took passage on
Hecla for the invasion beaches in Algeria and his remarkable paintings and vivid description of  its loss on the night of the 11 - 12 November 1942 in A Hard Fought Ship have preserved the memory of that night for generations to come.

Captain's Motor Launch

Top: The Captain's motor launch at speed
Bottom: U-570 being towed into Havelfjord after its capture on the 27 August 1941

Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne (top and bottom left) and George Male (right)

Shipwright Bill Clayton from Plymouth remembered U-570 being towed into Havelfjord after its capture on the 27 August. It remained alongside Hecla for three weeks being made seaworthy. On the 29 September  U-570 proceeded to Barrow-under-Furness under its own power with a prize crew and was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Graph (P715), the only submarine to serve on both sides in the war. Jim Coulton, now living in Lancashire, went aboard the U-boat and Engine Room Artificer (ERA) Jabez Skelhorne helped repair it and salvaged tubes of German cheese and a large lump hammer to take home which his grandson, Simon Skelhorne, still uses today. Uboatarchive.net contains a lengthy detailed report beginning with a description of its capture compiled by the USN at Havelfjord with the full co-operation of the temporary RN crew on 28 September 1941.

Iceland's main town and capital, Rekjavik, was close to where Hecla was moored in Havelfjord
Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne

George Male had a poor opinion of Iceland's capital Rekjavik. He thought it was a shabby place and the people were not at all friendly. Prior to the war the Germans had piped hot water forty miles from thermal springs to supply all the houses in the town and had become very popular. The British expelled the Germans when they took over the island as a base for the convoy escorts but did nothing for the Icelanders and their presence was naturally resented.

USS Hughes alongside Hecla while under repair, 1941

"Peter E. Karetka, served USN 1940 to 1946, aboard the USS Hughes DD-410 honourably and proud as a signalman. We anchored just beyond the breakwater at Rekyavik for liberty in that city. I was ashore at the time. USS Hughes DD-410 while at anchor was rammed by a freighter,  nationality not known. We tied up alongside HMS Hecla for repairs for an extended period, we had to wait for plate steel to arrive from the USA. The hull was split to about 10/12 inch's above water line.  While alongside HMS Hecla we were invited as guest's for meals and movies on the fantail. I was in possession of their menu's and hat band. The Skipper of Hughes, Donald J. Ramsey, an Englishman (sic), was a proper host  while at anchor at Havalfjord. He invited members of the British garrison for meals and gave them a guided tour of the ship."
E-mail communication from Peter E. Karetka ("Flags").

Photograph of USS Hughes on right (Courtesy of Simon Skelhorne)

In September to safeguard against a possible breakout of Tirpitz from its base in Norway the USN sent Task Force 4 to Iceland. This comprised the aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, the battleships USS Mississippi and USS Wichita, the depot ship USS Vulcan, and a screen of four destroyers.

HMS Hecla Iceland
HMS Hecla at Havelfjord in the Summer of 1941
Courtesy of Dr Peter Hetherington
HMS Vulcan and USN destroyers, Havelfjord 1941
Two USN destroyers of the Benson / Gleaves Class and the destroyer depot ship, USS Vulcan (on right) at Havelfjord, Summer 1941.
Photographed by Eric Pountney, Wireless Telegraphist on HMS Venomous

Outward Bound, Xmas 1941

For Christmas 1941 the ship's own theatre company, the "Hecla Players", put on performances of Outward Bound by Sutton Vane, a huge success on the London stage in 1923 and on Broadway in 1938-9 but a rather ominous choice for HMS Hecla:

"The play is about a group of seven passengers who meet in the lounge of an ocean liner at sea and realize that they have no idea why they are there, or where they are bound. Each of them eventually discovers that they are dead, and that they have to face judgment from an Examiner, who will determine whether they are to go to Heaven or Hell."

Three of the eleven who took part as players or back stage assistants would not live to see another Christmas: Eric C. Bond, Ordinance Artificer, Donald A. Preece, Leading Supply Assistant (and talented artists) and Cyril B. Boyle, Electrical Artificer, died on the night of the 11 - 12 November 1942 when Hecla was torpedoed off the coast of north Africa.

The programme was printed aboard HMS Vulcan, the American destroyer depot ship which had joined Hecla at Havelfjord in September.
  USS Vulcan replaced Hecla as the depot ship for the convoy escorts and in March 1942 Hecla returned to the Clyde for a short refit.

Hecla left Greenock on the 15 April 1942
with Capt E.F.B. Law RN in command as part of Convoy WS.18 "outward bound" for South Africa to join the Far Eastern Fleet, a welcome change from the tedium of Havelfjord.

USS Vulcan, the destroyer depot ship at Havelfjord after HMS Hecla
USS Vulcan joined HMS Hecla at Havelfjord in Summer 1941
She was the sole depot ship after HMS Hecla left and the United States entered the war.
  From the collection of Leading Seaman Arnold Ludlow, HMS Vimy

Mined off South Africa!

USS Vulcan replaced Hecla as the depot ship for the convoy escorts and in early 1942 Hecla returned to the Clyde for a short refit. With Capt E.F.B. Law RN in command, Hecla left Greenock on the 15 April 1942 as part of Convoy WS.18 "outward bound" for South Africa to join the Far Eastern Fleet, a welcome change from the tedium of Havelfjord.  On the 15 May 1942  Hecla rounded the Cape and as she crossed the Aghulhas Bank just east of False Bay struck a mine at 15.59 hours killing 21 of the crew (with 3 missing and 116 injured).

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.

You should read A Hard Fought Ship for the full account of the loss of HMS Hecla
A new edition of A Hard Fought Ship was published in May 2017

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

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