Les Mortimer An AB called 'Charley' helped save Les
Mortimer's life but lost his own
Mortimer 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, his first ship, at the Simonstown naval base near Cape Town, whichwas under repair after hitting a mine.
On the 11 November Les
Mortimer was a lookout on the bridge when the first torpedo struck,
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.
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 that 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.
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 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
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:
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.
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'
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. Cyril Helyphotographed 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.
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
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.
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 was 46, "AB
(D/J17615), aged 46, son of John
and Alice Stocker and husband of Minnie Stocker of Blandford,
Dorsetshire" (Commonwealth War Graves
Commission). Charles William Odey was 33, the son of Thomas Job and
Mary Agnes Patrick Odey, of Buckland, Portsmouth. 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. Although only 33 Charley
Odey was probably the AB who helped save Les Mortimer and became entangled in the scrambling net as Venomous accelerated away in pursuit of the U-boat.
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
Melbournewhere his children and grand children live.
am indebted to his grand daughter Julie Nestic 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
The official Admiralty List of those who died when HMS Hecla sank can be downloaded as a PDF It contains the full name, rank, rate and service number of all those who died and those "missing presumed killed"
Return to the "Home Page" for HMS Hecla
to find out more about its history and the stories of other survivors