Only one of the men who survived when HMS Hecla was torpedoed is known to be alive today
The men who were saved when HMS Hecla was torpedoed and sank off the north African coast on the 11 - 12 November 1942 formed the"HMS Hecla, HMS Marne and HMS Venomous Association"which held its first reunion at Stratford on Avon on the fiftieth anniversary of her loss in 1992.
Some left written accounts and Norman
Johns, the Secretary of the Association, put me in touch with others
who recalled their memories of that long night. The lengthy chapter in A Hard Fought Ship
weaves together their stories with the facts given in the reports of
proceedings written by the commanding officers and the memories of the
officers and men of HMS Venomous. The publication of the previous edition of A Hard Fought Ship in 2010 led to me being contacted by survivors in Australia, Canada,
New Zealand and the UK as well as by the families of some of those who
Norman John "crossed the bar" on January 3rd 2016, aged 92 years and the
Association he formed no longer exists but the publication of the new edition ofA Hard Fought Shipin May 2017 has led to further contacts with the families of the men on HMS Hecla
75 years after her loss on Armistice Day 1942. Whether they lived or
died the events of that night changed their lives and the lives of
Robert Alan Lancaster, Acting Engine Room Artificer 4th Class MX75372
I was contacted by Beth Lancaster, his grand daughter, who bought a copy of A Hard Fought Ship as a Christmas gift for her father:
Right: Robert Lancaster Snr (1947)
"My Grandad was on HMS Hecla
when she was hit by the torpedo. His name was Robert Lancaster. I
grew up with him often telling me about this traumatic time but as a
child, and despite the repeated telling of the story, I really didn't
appreciate the enormity of his experience until quite recently. He used
to tell me that he had to swim for fifteen hours before being rescued.
And how the first ship that came to rescue them was also sunk. My
father has better recollection of my Grandad's time in the navy. I know
that he was stationed in Simon's Town, near Cape Town (South Africa) as I
traveled there and visited the naval base and traveled on the same
trainline he had taken from Simon's Town to Cape Town (v beautiful as it
runs on the rocks off the seafront). My dad still has some of Grandad's
memorabilia including the life vest that saved his life. Without which
I wouldn't be here! My dad remembers the gathering that was held a few
years ago for survivors of the Hecla, but that Grandad felt that as a lowly petty officer, he would feel awkward being there."
Left: Robert Lancaster Jr (2019)
Robert Alan Lancaster was born at Starbeck, a large village
three miles east of Harrogate on 28 April 1923. He was the oldest of
three sons of an engine driver who had gone to East Africa with his
family to work as a train driver for Tanganyika Railways leaving his
eldest son behind. Robert Lancaster (all first born sons of the
Lancasters were named Robert) had left school and started work as an
apprentice fitter and erector in the locomotive works of the LNER at
Doncaster. Bob was called up for service in the Navy when he was
eighteen in 1941. From May - August 1941 he did his basic training to
become an Engine Room Artificer (ERA) at HMS Drake in Devonport, Plymouth, and in September was drafted to his first ship, HMS Hecla. Hecla
was a newly commissioned 12,000 ton Destroyer Depot Ship based at
Havelfjord, Iceland, to repair and service the Atlantic escorts for the
convoys which kept Britain supplied with food, fuel and armaments to
fight the war. Hecla
was never in danger in this secure sheltered harbour but Bob Lancaster
would have been kept very busy repairing the elderly V & Ws like
HMS Venomous which berthed alongside their "Mother ship". Click on the link for a detailed illustrated account of events while Bob Lancaster was serving aboard HMS Hecla in Iceland.
Left: The view from the boat deck of HMS Hecla of the distinctive craggy cliffs at Havelfjord Right: HMS Douglas was rammed in thick fog and lies alongside HMS Hecla awaiting repair Courtesy of Robert Lancaster Jr
USS Vulcan replaced Hecla as the depot ship for the Atlantic escorts and in March 1942 she returned to the Clyde for a short refit. HMS 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 Freetown and South Africa
to round the Cape of Good Hope and join the Far Eastern Fleet at its
new base in Mombassa, a welcome change from the cold and tedium of
Disaster struck as she crossed the Agulhas Bank to the East of the Cape and detonated a mine killing 21 men and severely injuring over a hundred. Hecla was lucky not to sink and limped back to the South African naval base of Simon's Town
on False Bay and was in dry dock under repair for six months. This was
a happy time for the ship's complement. They enjoyed the sun and the
hospitality of South African families who invited them to stay on
Bob Lancaster helped with repairs and was promoted from ERA 5 to ERA 4
and became a Petty Officer. The two photographs were taken on a run ashore
to Cape Town, a short train journey north from Simon's Town, with his
shipmate Jackie Thompson, PO John P Thompson, Acting Engine Room
Artificer 4th Class
(MX75368), who was killed when Hecla
was torpedoed. Bob is on the left in the photograph on the left and on
the right in the photograph with the two girls in front of the Rhodes
Memorial on the right.
HMS Hecla did not resume her
journey round the Cape to join the Eastern Fleet at Mombassa when her
repairs were completed. She received new orders to head north to
support the allied landing in North Africa, Operation Torch.
She left Simon's Town in October, called in briefly at Freetown where
she was joined by her destroyers escorts, an elderly V & W Class
destroyer, HMS Venomous, and the modern M Class destroyer escort, HMS Marne.
The events of the "longest night" when HMS Hecla was torpedoed and sunk and Venomous rescued 500 men while fighting u-boat ace Werner Henke in U-515 are described in detail in Chapter 13 of A Hard Fought Ship (2017).
The rescue of a local man from Doncaster received extensive coverage in the Yorkshire Evening Poston Wednesday 4 December (click the cutting to view full size).
Many years later Bob Lancaster wrote up his own account which is
reproduced here. It is very similar to that of other survivors and its
vividness comes from the knowledge that it is written by somebody who
was there and is describing in his own words the events he remembered.
Most of the survivors returned to Britain on the Reina del Pacifico,
a passenger liner requisitioned by the Admiralty for use as a troop
carrier. On arrival at their home port of Devonport they were kitted out
with fresh clothes, given a travel warrant and sent off on two weeks
survivors leave. Bob Lancaster arrived home a few days after the death
of his father who had returned home from Tanganyika while he was in HMS
Bob Lancaster spent Christmas at home but soon after returning to Drake at Plymouth he was sent on a diesel electric course
at Chatham before being sent to the USA to join one of the 78 Captain Class frigates being built
in the USA for the Royal Navy under the Lend Lease Agreement. They were designated as Destroyer
Escorts (DE) in the USN but as Frigates in the Royal Navy as they had
no torpedo tubes.
The use of diesel and turbo electric power plant speeded up the
production process by eliminating the need for gearing. They were
slower than the Royal Navy's steam turbine powered destroyers
(23 knots as against the 36 Knots of the V & W Class) but had "long
legs" (long range). The shipyards worked 24 hours a day, employed women
welders and were eventually able to turn out two destroyers a week.
There were 46
turbo electric (Buckley Group) and 32 diesel electric (Evarts Group)
Frigates in the Captain Class. The
intention was to name them after Captains in Nelson's Navy but he had
too few captains and it became necessary to go further back
in time. Bob Lancaster was to join HMS Byard, a turbo electric (Buckley) Frigate named after Captain Robert Byard, being built at Bethlehem Hingham Shipyard south of Boston.
Britain came officers and men in thousands to man this new
construction. They made the most of their stay in the US, that oasis of
food, skyscrapers, "old fashioneds" and pretty girls"
Reminiscences of The Spirited Horse, being the story of HMS Byard
According to his Service Certificate Bob Lancaster was at HMS Asbury
just outside New York on 1 May 1943 but since this was a transit base
for crews picking up ships allocated to the Royal Navy under the
provisions of Lend-Lease he would have been at Hingham preparing HMS Byard for service with the Royal Navy within a few days.
Warrant Engineer J.H. "Henry" Hathaway RN tells the story of HMS Byard in "Reminiscences of The Spirited
Horse" (1945) with illustrations by Robert T Back who had previously served in
and obtained postwar fame as a marine artist. The two paintings of
Captain Class Frigates by Robert Back are privately owned and are
not in "The Spirited Horse". The pennant number K315 identifies the one
at sea as HMS Byard but the harbour scene painted in 1944 (censors stamp on reverse) is probably also of HMS Byard.
The ship's company of HMS Byard with AB R.T. Back on left in second row from front
From "Reminiscences of the Spirited Horse"
had three commanding officers and the second Lt Cdr E.R. Ferris, CO
from January to June 1944, "was the first US citizen to command one of
His Majesty's ships by appointment. The previous one, Paul Jones, was
not appointed by "My Lords";The Spirited Horse
Her First Lieutenant, Lt J.W.
Edwards, DSC, RN, was one of the pre-commissioning party at Hingham.
"An energetic young gentleman, he had a great deal to do with the
successful commissioning and, later, smooth running of the ship. He was
and is a great favourite with the ladies. In fact it is on record that
the Stores Officer, Boston, requested the Commanding Officer to ask No
1 not to walk through the Stores Dept during working hours as his
presence prevented the female staff concentrating on their work. His
DSC was awarded for good work in the sinking of U841" From the Spirited Horse.
After Commissioning on 18 June 1943 HMS Byard and seven other Captain Class Frigates formed the Fourth Escort Group based at Belfast: HMS Bentinck, the Group Leader with Cdr E.H. Chevasse as Senior Officer, HMS Byard, Calder, Drury, Bazely, Pasley, Blackwood and Burgess. Captain D at Belfast, had his office aboard HMS Caroline, a First World War Light Cruiser which is now a museum ship. It would be inappropriate to give here a detailed account of the sterling service of HMS Byard
and her sister ships in the Fourth Escort Group recorded in the
"Spirited Horse (published 1945) but I have to mention the sinking of
U-841, the first u-boat to be sunk by one of the 78 Captain Class
Frigates in the Royal Navy. For those who are interested click on the
link to read some pages from the Spirited Horse as a PDF
On 27 August 1943 R.A. Lancaster D/MX 75372 passed his
examination as ERA 4th Class and Lt Cdr L.H. Philips, the CO of HMS Byard,
signed his Certificate. On the 21 November Warrant Engineer J.H.
Hathaway and Lt Cdr Phillips signed his Engine Room Artificers History
Sheet recommending him for the rating of Chief Petty Officer. CPO
Robert Lancaster made some rough notes on his service career which
brief remarks about what it was like to be in the engine room during an
attack on a u-boat:
"Apart from the
usual engine room noises, screaming turbine and pumps, etc which you
have to accept as part of the job, the noise made when in action
against u-boats from dropping and firing depth charges and gunnery are
tremendous and are felt as well as heard. Joint Group attacks on
u-boats were a regular occurrence."
Lt J.W.Edwards DSC RN (1921-98) was invalided
out of the Navy with TB and after the war married Betty Williams who
lives in a small village near Falmouth in Cornwall. One of her proudest
possessions is a beautiful model of HMS Byard, one of two, the other was installed in the Wardroom of HMS Byard. It was made and presented to the Mess by Mr R. Love, the son of Mr R.H. Love, RN, the first gunner of the Byard.
It took four months to make. The craftsmanship was praised by the
well know ship modeler and author, the Rev William Mowll.
CPO Lancaster remained in HMS Byard until 8 November 1945 when he returned to HMS Drake
at Plymouth prior to his discharge from the Navy on 20 July 1946. He
met his wife, Phylis Louise Amery, at Plymouth in 1946; she was in the
ATS at York. They married and had one son who in accordance with family
tradition was given Robert as his first name. Bob returned to his old
job at the Locomotive Works of the LNER at Doncaster where his son
still lives today.
Bob still had a hankering for his
life in the Navy and enrolled in the Royal Fleet Reserve at Devonport
on 4 June 1948 and was recalled to service during the Korean War in
June 1951. He served in HMS Caesar,
a Fleet Destroyer in Maintenance Reserve, and was given responsibility
for the generators providing power and lighting to all the Reserve
Fleet Destroyers. He then joined HMS Illustrious,
a carrier carrying out aircraft trials with the Home Fleet. He reverted
to Reserve status in December 1952 and worked as an engineer for a
variety of employers including the Ford Motor Company, Thorp Marsh
Power Station and British Nylon Spinners, Doncaster. He died on 23 Feb 2008 aged 85.
U-534 was built at Finkenwerder on the Elbe near Hamburg in late
1942 and was sunk off the coast of Denmark near Elsinore on 5 May 1945
while heading for Kristiansand in Norway. She was discovered in 1986 by
a Danish wreck hunter, Aage
Jensen, and raised on 23 August 1993 by the Dutch salvage company Smit
Tak.U-534 was part of the Warship
Preservation Trust's collection at Birkenhead Docks until the museum
closed on 5 February 2006. In 2007 the Merseytravel Transit Authority
acquired the submarine and cut it into sections to allow visitors
better visibility without entering the U-boat. It opened to the public
as the U-Boat Story exhibition at the Woodside Ferry Terminal on 10
February 2009. Former Chief Petty Officer Robert A Lancaster was photographed
by his son on on the deck of U-534 at Birkenhead before it was cut into sections.It
is an astonishing sight to see a veteran on the deck of a u-boat and
his son wearing the lifejacket which saved his father's life when Hecla was torpedoed.
Bob Lancaster Snr on the deck of U-534 and at the starboard control wheel in the engine room of the Frigate HMS Plymouth in the Birkenhead museum
And his son wearing the life jacket worn by his father when HMS Hecla was torpedoed Father and son were approximately the same age when these photographs were taken in the late 1990s and in January 2019 Courtesy of Bob Lancaster Jnr
Harry Lavender, Temporary Leading Stores Assistant MX82035
By the time my father, Harry, was 10 years old his Mother had
passed away and the whereabouts of his father was unknown. Fortunately,
this small boy was found living on the streets of Oldham by a kindly
Nurse who persuaded her married sister to take him into her family and
adopt him. His Mother's name was Giles but he took the name of his
adoptive parents when he was a young man. Time passed and the
boy grew into adulthood, married my Mother and War, ironically, was
declared during their honeymoon. Very soon after this my father was
called up and his father in law, a career Royal Navy man, suggested he
apply for the Navy. He did his training at a requisitioned Holiday Camp
on the Yorkshire coast and subsequently sent to Devonport. He managed
to get extra time off whilst hospitalised after injuring his knee in a
Navy Football Match. But soon it was time for active service - I
believe he served in corvettes (Morpeth Castle) before being assigned to HMS Hecla at Greenock.
Shipmates, Havlfjord, Iceland, 19 October 1941 Rear row from left: "Harry Lavender, Don Preece, Reg Hall"
Front row from left: "Perkins (Tavistock), Sturgess (Wales), Wood (Lancs)"
Leading Supply Assistant, Eric Wood (D/MX.65093) died when Hecla sank Courtesy of Christine Denovan-Smith, daughter of Don Preece
Supplies Assistants on HMS Hecla at Iceland, dated 2 November 1941 "Perkins, George D. Deller, Wood (astride Lavender), Plummer, Russ and Don Preece below" Leading Stores Assistants George D. Deller (MX68964)and Supplies PO George Plummer (D/X.126(U) died when Hecla sank Courtesy of Christine Denovan-Smith, daughter of Don Preece
hit a mine off South
Africa, lives were lost but she managed to get to the Naval Base at
Simon's Town. Several happy, relaxing months were spent here while the
ship underwent repairs. My father had wonderful memories of Cape Town
where he enjoyed the hospitality of welcoming South African families.
It was noticeable that the local population were either warm and
friendly or hostile, he discovered later the Afrikaans were officially
supportive of the Germans. I discovered recently while in
Simon's Town that the Hecla was registered into the dry dock on three separate occasions during the summer of 1942 finally leaving in October.
The rest of the story involves the sinking of the Hecla
by torpedo off North Africa. His Action station was in the
Magazine Deck and by the time he arrived there he found no one else on
duty so he went up top and found the highest point of the ship. He
stayed with the ship for as long as he could before he decided to
leave, the ship was listing so much he walked down the hull as if he was walking down a beach. He was in the water a long
time bobbing up and down before eventually he saw the lights of a ship
and made for her. Someone shouted “Jack, catch hold of the rope”, he
missed it the first time but got it on the second attempt and climbed
up the scrambling nets onto what he remembered as a very hot deck. It
was HMS Marne whose stern had been blown off by torpedo, lost her steering and was floating around aimlessly.
Not much more is recalled, he spent the rest of the War on North
Atlantic convoys then minesweeping in the English Channel towards
Calais - a decoy for the forthcoming Normandy landings.
My father returned to civilian life working in Shipping, import and
export, in Manchester. We were a family of five, three well cared for
children and wonderful loving parents. He was born on 12 September 1910 and passed away peacefully in
2000 just before his 90th birthday, predeceasing his wife, our
Mother, who reached the age of 97.
Charles Reginald Levein, Temp. Leading Seaman J113851 MPK
It is mainly the grand-children of the men who served in Hecla who contact me these days. Ian Levein ordered a copy of A Hard Fought Ship (2017) and explained by e-mail that:
was actually investigating my family tree and specifically my
grandfather who died on the ship. When I searched online for the ship,
the website and book came up.
he was from Plymouth he actually married my grandmother who is from
Aberdour in Fife. He died when my father was two and an uncle a
new born so not sure he would have seen much of his sons. However, his
legacy is that one of his grandsons, my cousin, Craig Levein,
went on to play, captain and manage Scotland's National football
team, playing for Scotland in the World Cup in Italy, 1990."
Ian Levein sent me this photograph of his Grandfather - but nothing else.
Edward "Ted" John May, Telegrapher SR 8184
Ted May was a Telegrapher in HMS Hecla from first commissioning to her sinking. His daughter, Julie Turner, bought A Hard Fought Ship to find out more about how Hecla
came to be lost and sent me a copy of his Service Certificate and scans
of his photographs so that I could tell his story on this website.
Ted May was born at Bristol on 2 July 1918. He was brilliant at
mathematics and was offered a scholarship at Bristol Boys Grammar
School but his father insisted he left school at 14 and started work in
a saw mill. Ted's father had been traumatised by his service in the
Great War and Ted was determined that he would not follow his father
into the Army. He volunteered to join the Royal Navy Special Reserve
(RNSR) on 28 June 1939, before the start of the war and compulsory
The RNSR had been introduced at the insistence of the Admiralty to
avoid the conscription into the Amy of merchant seamen, dock workers and
other young men with the background and experience to be of greater
value to the Navy than the Army. Volunteers had to sign up for four
years service and undergo six months training. Despite having started
an apprenticeship as a plasterer, the trade he was to follow after the
war, Ted was accepted into the RNSR and was trained as a Telegraphist.
Ted gave his Mother, Hannah Mary May, as his next of kin.
On the 19 June 1940 he joined HMS Centurion,
one of four King George V-class dreadnought battleships built for the
Royal Navy in the early 1910s. She had been converted into a radio
controlled target ship in the 1920s maintained by a crew of 242 who
sailed her to the firing range and them disembarked. Centurion
was armed with a variety of weapons in June 1940 as the threat of
German invasion increased and was then modified to serve as a repair
ship for the local defence ships based in Devonport.
On 14 September
his service certificate records that Ordinary Telegraphist Ted May was at HMS Dolphin, Gosport, home of the Royal Navy's submarine service which is near HMS Hornet, the base for the Motor Launches and MTB of Light Coastal Forces. The
rather poor photograph
is of the crew of Fairmile B Motor Launch ML 116
built at Tarbert on Loch Fyne, Scotland, in September 1940. It seems
probable that he was a member of the commissioning crew sent to Tarbet
for her trials and to bring her south to Gosport. HMS Dolphin in now the site of the Royal Navy's Submarine Museum.
Ted May, Telegrapher, is on the left in the front row of this photograph of the 12 man crew of ML 116 Courtesy of Julie Turner
Ted May spent Christmas Day 1940 in the Devonport Barracks (and
kept the printed Christmas menu for Breakfast, Dinner, Tea and Supper)
before leaving Plymouth on 28 December to join HMS Hecla while
she was being fitted out in John Brown's shipyard on the Clyde before
the start of her first Commission. In March 1941 HMS Hecla
was sent to Havelfjord
in south west Iceland as the destroyer depot ship, repairing the
destroyers escorting the Atlantic convoys to northern Canada. HMS Venomous was always breaking down and was a frequent visitor.
There was growing Icelandic resentment of British
and Canadian forces occupying their land. President Roosevelt agreed to
take over the defence of Iceland from Britain and in June 1941 dispatched 36,000 troops (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 Argentia in
Newfoundland. He was photographed coming aboard aboard HMS Hecla where he attended a service in the ship's chapel. AB Ernest Victor Frowde, known as "Fingers Frowde", played the organ.
The two photographs below taken on Hecla are quite well known and can be seen elsewhere on
this website but Ted May also had two other photographs taken during
Churchill's visit to Iceland on the 16 - 17 August 1941. One of
Churchill on the balcony of the Iceland Parliament building in Rekjavic
addressing an audience below and the other, probably taken on the same
occasion, of a senior officer in the Royal Navy with a younger
officer in the USN. Both are wearing aiguillettes on their uniforms, a
type of fancy braid work worn by an an equerry, ADC or Naval Attache.
The youthful officer in the United States Navy (USN) has been
identified as Lt Franklin Delano Roosevelt USN, the son of the American
President. At the request of his father he and brother Elliott
Roosevelt attended the summit at Argentia with Prime
Minister Winston Churchill. He returned from Argentia with Churchill in HMS Prince of Wales
and stood with him at parades in newly American-occupied Reykjavik,
Iceland, to symbolize American solidarity with Britain. The senior
RN Officer with the foreboding look is Cdr Charles
Ralfe “Tommy” Thompson, military aide to the Prime Minister.
Capt C.G.B. Coltart RN and his officers salute Winston Churchill as he comes aboard HMS Heclaand prepares to leave Courtesy of Julie Turner
Churchill on the balcony of the Iceland Parliament in Reykjavik and his
son Lt F.D. Roosevelt USN with a Captain in the Royal Navy looking on
below Courtesy of Julie Turner
USS Vulcan replaced Hecla
as the depot ship for the convoy escorts and on 11 December 1941, four
days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, America entered the
war. In early 1942 Hecla
returned to the Clyde for a short refit and with Capt E.F.B. Law RN in
command, she left Greenock on the 15 April 1942 as part of Convoy WS.18
"outward bound" for South Africa to join the Far Eastern Fleet in the
Indian Ocean, a welcome change from the tedium and cold of
Left: Ted May Telegrapher with Signal Lamp Right: Alfred M. Trethewey (MPK, when Hecla sank), Johnson and Edward John May in tropical 'Whites' on the journey south to round the Cape Courtesy of Julie Turner
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). HMS Hecla spent six months under repair at Simon's Town.
The offiicers and crew were welcomed into the homes (on"uphomers")
of hospitable South Africans and formed friendships which in many cases
lasted for decades - or were cut short by death when Hecla was torpedoed.
Ted May with Leni Bain (left) and Ted with two of his shipmates while guests of the Bain family at Cape Town on an "Uphomer" Courtesy of Julie Turner
Ted May and his two shipmates were welcomed into the home of Mr
and Mrs Bain in Cape Town, a short train ride along the coast from
Simon's Town where Hecla was
under repair. Ted became a close friend of the family and stayed in
touch after the war. The Bain family had a small construction
business and they invited Ted, a plasterer by trade, to take it
over when they retired in the 1950s but Ted was not happy about the
political situation in South Africa and did not take up this generous
offer. In 1970 Leni Bain was a guest at the wedding of Ted's daughter,
Julie Turner, who told the story of her father's wartime service in HMS
Hecla on this website.
In October HMS Hecla finally left Simon's Town for Gibraltar. After a short stop over at Freetown Hecla left with HMS Vndictive on 4 November. The two destroyer depot ships were joined by the destroyer escorts, HMS Venomous and HMS Marne,
near the Canaries on the 8 November and detached for Gibraltar to
support the ships taking the troops to the invasion beaches at Algiers
as part of Operation Torch.Ted May left no account of how Hecla was sunk and he was rescued but his daughter, Julie Turner, describes what she remembers being told:
"Dad didn't speak much about the sinking of the Hecla.
He was on a "raft" and left it to make room for someone in a great deal
of distress. He was in the water for, I thought, 18 hours but it
seems from the book that it was probably 15. He was a really good
swimmer (Bristol Champion at the age of 14) and had some help from a
piece of wood. He mentioned the munitions going off and killing people
in the sea. I wish I had known more about what he must have gone
through whilst he was still alive.
He liked to talk about being on the
American ship, he couldn't get over the fact that the Captain joined
the ratings to watch a film and he was given soap, towel and clothes
for free! The RN charged for everything."
Five out of the fifteen Telegraphers in HMS Hecla were reported as "Missing Presumed Killed" (MPK). Ted May would have been given two weeks "survivors' leave" on
his return to Britain and would then have returned to HMS Drake, Devonport
Barracks, Plymouth, to await a new posting. According to his Service Certificate
he spent six months at HMS Skirmisher,
a shore base in the small cathedral city of St Davids, in reality no more than a village in the south west tip of
Pembrokeshire, which appears to have mainly functioned as a
communications centre where bilingual WRNS "eavesdropped" on German
In July 1943 he joined Naval Party 1071, a large
draft of communication ratings which took passage on a troopship,
possibly the former Union Castle liner, Llanstephan Castle,to Bombay, India, via South Africa. For administrative purposes he was based ashore at HMS Excellent II, HMS Excalibur and HMS Braganza until 19 August 1944 but nothing is known about his actual duties during the year he spent at Bombay.
A "Home from Home" for home-sick sailors
"Sons of the Seas. Kissed by the breeze, step in please.
We ask you to dine, not with women or wine but on things sublime to
tickle the palatte, fresh food and mullet, to suit your wallet.
Give us a trial, we brook no denial, leave with a smile on your dial." Passkeema Courtesy of Julie Turner
By August 1944 he was back in Britain on MTB based at HMS Hornet,
the Light Coastal Forces base at Gosport. Undoubtedly, the most critical period in his wartime service was the voyage to disaster aboard HMS Hecla
which might so easily have brought his story to a premature end on
Armistice Day 1942 but in later life he looked back on his time in ML 116 in 1940 and
with the MTB at Gosport, Portsmouth, between August
and October 1944 as the most interesting period.
Motor Torpedo Boats and Motor Gun Boats of the Coastal Forces coming in off patrol. They are heading up Haslar Creek, Gosport, past HMS Dolphin on their way to HMS Hornet. Crown Copyright IWM A23968
His service certificate records him as being at Sirate (sic)
from October 1944 to July 1945 and at Colombo for a month and then
to HMS Drake
at Plymouth but nothing is known about his duties during this
time. He was discharged from the Navy on 26 November 1945.
He married Dorothy Davey (nee
Shepherd) in 1947. Dorothy's first husband also served in the Navy. AB
Alfred Thomas Davey (Service No. D/J 99230) had joined the Navy when he was 18 in 1920 and was on the aircraft carrier
HMS Gloriouswhen she and her two destroyer escorts were sunk by the Scharnhorst on 8th June 1940. There were only 43 survivors and Davey was one of more than 1,200 men on the Glorious whose lives were lost. His widow was left with two
children, Brian and Beryl (known as Kay). Ted acquired a family as
well as a wife when he married Dorothy. They had a daughter, Julie
Turner, and two grand children, Elizabeth and Sam.
Ted took up his prewar trade as a plasterer and taught at Bristol
Polytechnic for a while but spent a good part of his working life with the
Building Company as a foreman on large projects in
Bristol, including the Bank of England. He was General Secretary of the National Association of Operative
Plasterers, later amalgamated with the TGWU. He had his own building
firm for a short time and also worked with his brother at St. Anne’s
Ted loved rugby and was very involved with Barton Hill
Rugby Club. He helped build their clubhouse in the 1950’s and was
Chairman for a while. He and his brothers, Sam and Harry, were
life-long supporters of Bristol Rugby Club. Ted’s final job was with
Burroughs Computers, taking customers’ calls and allocating
engineers. After retirement he kept very fit, and did
plastering for family and friends. Ted died from a heart attack on the
29th September 1997.
PO Stoker Henry McAuley K7498
"My Great Uncle Harry (Henry McAuley) was a Stoker Petty Officer on HMS Hecla.
Harry was probably one of the oldest men on the ship at 51 years. He
was born on 27 June 1891 and had joined the Navy in 1910 and served through until 1930 and was then
recalled 1939 to 1945. He died in 1973 at the age of 83. Sadly I was
too young when he died to know any of his history although I do
remember him. It is only in the last couple of years while doing
family research that I found his records and made the connection
to HMS Hecla."
Henry McAuley in 1910 wearing the ribbon of HMS Vivid,
the Navy barracks at Devonport
Henry McAuley in 1919
Wearing his campaign medals and with crown, crossed anchors and two stripes on his sleeve
Henry McAuley in 1920 while serving in HMS Icewhale
Henry McAuley in 1930-2 with the three stripes of a Chief Petty Officer and a ribbon on his uniform
David McLaughlin has sent me the following outline of the life of his "Great Uncle Harry":
"Henry, known as 'Harry', McAuley signed on for 12 years service
in 1910 as a stoker and after shore training served through most of
1911 on the Scout class cruiser HMS Sentinel followed by the armoured cruiser HMS Argyll. From Aug 1912 to March 1914 he served on the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Cornwallis in the Mediterranean. After a short service of 3 months on the survey ship HMS Hearty Harry was transferred to the battleship HMS Ajax in September 1914 and served through most of the war in this post, seeing action at Jutland. During his time on Ajax he rose from leading stoker to Stoker Petty Officer.
From late 1917 to early 1920 Harry appears to be mainly shore based before being posted to HMS Ice Whale
in Gibraltar. He remained on this small whaler for 2 years. Harry
continued his service in the navy until July 1932 doing 2 years with
HMS Resolution and 3 years on HMS Capetown plus various shore postings.
On leaving the navy Harry returned to his pre-service trade of Sawyer
in the same Paisley sawmill where his father had worked, but on the
outbreak of war he returned to Navy service as Stoker Petty Officer and
was posted to HMS Hecla in Dec 1940. In early 1941 he served a month on the Corvette HMS Picotee before returning to Hecla. Harry was one of the lucky ones to be rescued when Hecla
He returned to the UK and continued to serve in the Navy
until July 1945 although he never served at sea after the sinking. After Hecla he had short spells at
HMS Drake and HMS Rosneath (Helensburgh) followed by two years at HMS
Hopetoun, a shore station on the Firth of Forth near the rail bridge,
before his final post in 1945 was three months at HMS Drake (Devonport),
the same place he started his service in 1910. Harry married Maria (Molly) Docherty in 1923 and had one child,
born in 1924. Unusually, Harry is related to me in two ways. His
wife, Molly, was my Grandfather’s sister while my Grandmother,
Margaret, was Harrys sister. I am one of the youngest of my generation
in our extended family so these people were all quite old in my early
It is only in recent years through discussions with older members of
the family that I was able to make the connection that the small, well
dressed man, wearing a trilby and driving a Triumph Herald was Harry. I
am told he was always impeccably dressed with shirt and tie. Harry and
Molly must have looked a slightly odd couple as he was only 5’ 4” while
Molly was very tall at 6’ or more. I have attached the unedited photo
of them together in the late 1920’s, and even sitting, Molly is at
shoulder height on Harry. Looking at his navy record for the second war
there is a small note “caught smuggling whiskey on board”.
Astonishingly, there were 190 stokers serving on HMS Hecla when she was torpedoed but only two of them, Norman Johns and Charles Brearley,
have left accounts of the loss of the ship and how they were saved but
we have brief accounts of the lives of Petty Officer Stoker Henry
McAuley and Leading Stoker A.R. Cripwell. The names of all the stokers are recorded on the crew list compiled by TNT Data Services. Their rates range from Petty Officer
Stoker, Chief Stoker, Leading Stoker and Stoker 1st Class to Stoker 2nd Class but there were also Acting and Temporary Acting rates. The most common rate was Stoker 1st Class.
There were only eleven Leading Stokers but if one includes the
Acting and Temporary Acting Leading Stokers there were thirty-one.
AB Daniel McLoughlin JX212871 "My
father Daniel McLoughlin was born at Liverpool on 15 January 1922. He
was the youngest of nine children and the family lived off the
Scotland Road in a very deprived area of Liverpool, where, in order to
survive, a man needed his wits and his fists, and only drink helped a
person to forget their poor circumstances. When he was eight his mother
went off with another man, leaving her kids behind. Two years
later his father, a stoker in merchant ships, died of a respiratory
illness and Daniel was looked after by the wife of his older brother
Daniel McLoughlin aged 18 (left) with shipmate on HMS Hecla in the Southport Road, Liverpool (centre), and with his fututure wife in 1943 (right) Courtesy of Jim McLoughlin
was a lagger at the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery in Liverpool when he joined the Royal Navy in
July 1940 and was an AB on the Hecla for the whole of her short service life.
He was aboard Hecla the night
she was sunk, and the story passed down through the family is that he
was rescued only to find himself swimming for his life again when
that ship was also torpedoed, so he may have been one of the few
managed to swim to the Marne
just prior to her being torpedoed, but I don't know that for certain.
He got his head burnt at some stage in the proceedings, I don't think
it could have been too serious a burn, although his hair never ever
My mother told me how upset Dad had been at losing a very close friend and shipmate the night Hecla
was sunk, so much so that he took a train up to Scotland to offer
condolences to the lad's parents. Another story Dad told mum was
of a man in the water who reckoned the Hecla
wasn't going to sink any time soon and that he had plenty of time to
get back on board to retrieve his gambling winnings from his
locker. Despite Dad advising him against it he went anyway and
while he was down below the Hecla
was hit by another torpedo and he lost his life. Whether the two
stories are about one and the same person I don't know.
The photograph top right taken in 1943 is of my father and his
girlfriend Elizabeth Devitt, soon to be his wife and mother of their
five children including me. Five who would not have been born
were it not for the crew of HMS Venomous plucking my father from the sea!
This amusing tale told by my mother illustrates the life he led at this time:
and a pal on Navy leave were queuing up at the Grosvenor Cinema on
Stanley Road Liverpool. A Jeep pulls up, two MPs jump out and berate
Dad and his pal for wearing their caps at a jaunty angle. An
argument ensues, culminating in one MP hitting Dad's pal with his night
stick. Dad lays into the two MPs, knocking them to the ground and the
two lads run off.
The hunt was on and they were soon captured and sent to the 'glass
house' on Aigburth Road, Liverpool (it is now a cricket ground). They
escaped over the wall but Dad's mate did not make it and was
caught. Dad made it over the wall and escaped, but not before a
guard, thrusting at him with his rifle, split his pants and sliced his
leg with the bayonet. Dad hid out in a partly bombed out house a
couple of streets away from where he lived in Lancaster Street as he
suspected the authorities would be watching his home. Mum lived on the
opposite side of Lancaster Street, further down from Dad's house.
A couple of days later a coal lorry
stopped outside Mum's house making its regular coal delivery. Imagine
her surprise when one of the filthy young men carrying sacks of coal
into her house revealed himself to be her boyfriend - my Dad! He
whispered where he was living (her mother never, ever, approved of Dad)
and asked if she would please come around with food, bandages for his
leg, and a needle and cotton for his trousers. The two kept up their
clandestine meetings at the bombed out house for some days before Dad
eventually gave himself up. I firmly believe that it was during this period that Mum and Dad formed their life long bond.'
His service records (besides showing he blotted his copybook by going
'on the run' a couple of times) indicate that he spent the rest of his
time training in one 'Combined Operations establishment' or
another until finally being transferred to the army in
August 1944. Men transferred from the Navy had a 149 prefix to their
Army Service Number. He found himself serving with the 2nd Battalion of
the Black Watch (No
14995166) at Malir near Karachi in India where he got his 'Airborne'
wings. The Battalion was training as parachute unit for the planned invasion of Malaya, Operation Zipper.He
landed badly during a parachute jump carrying full kit and his leg had
to be heavily bandaged. Earlier in the war the Army had learned to
cease recruiting taller heavier men for parachute regiments because so
many men back then had broken their legs on landing. He was a keen boxer as a boy in Liverpool and won medals for
boxing and rifle shooting in the Army.
Daniel McLoughlin is second from left in the white singlet while serving with the Black Watch at Malir, India Courtesy of Jim McLoughlin
His brother Martin was a motorcycle dispatch rider attached to the
Chindits brigade in Burma. He was captured by the Japanese and
spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp. On one
occasion, for a minor infringement, he spent days curled up in a bamboo
cage in the blazing sunshine. He came home skeletal and never ever put on weight again.
My father was discharged from active wartime duties in July 1946, and
relieved from reserve TA duties in June 1959. He died aged 49 in March
1971 after several years of ill health which started after cutting a
toe in work which did not heal properly (poor circulation to his feet
after years of smoking) and eventually turned gangrenous. This led to a
series of operations involving several amputations of his lower limbs.
His ill health was further complicated by inhalation of asbestos during
his working life as a lagger, and not helped by the Malaria he picked
up serving in the Army. His medals and Commando knife, prized possessions went missing soon after his death.
The McLoughlin's were originally from Ireland and when I retired from
my job as a chemical plant operator (at ICI Runcorn) I moved to Ireland
and began tracing my family history which revived interest in my
Edgar Steele McMinn, Stoker 1st Class (KX105564)
On the 6 February 2021 Alexa
Wignall, the grand daughter of Edgar McMinn, sent me this compelling
account of the memories which traumatised her Grandfather:
would like to share what I was told by my grandfather Edgar Steele
McMinn, a Stoker on the doomed ship. My grandfather died in 2000. He
did not talk much about his time during the war, in fact he would
actively change the subject when it was brought up. We knew that he was
torpedoed twice, once on the Hecla
and then again on the rescue ship. When the news of the sinking reached
the UK my grandmother was obviously very fearful for his life, and
waiting for news on survivors was a slow process. While waiting to hear
her mother-in-law wrote to her from Scotland saying that she had every
faith that he was alright, and that she did not need to worry because
he had been born with a caul, which everyone knows is a sign of good
luck and protection from drowning. Whether this calmed my grandmother I
am not sure, because obviously a caul does not prevent you from being
blown up, burnt alive or eaten by sharks. However, he returned home
safely, so perhaps there is something in it after all.
A few years before his death my
grandfather, in floods of tears, decided to tell me of his experience
during the torpedoing, and it was so clearly distressing for him I
really did not want him to continue, but somehow it had all come to the
surface and he felt he had to tell someone. When the ship was hit he
was below decks, presumably as a stoker in the boiler room. The
explosion threw him and his best friend, another Scotsman who he did
not name, across the room. Seeing his friend injured and out cold he
proceeded to give him a fireman's lift and start climbing the ladders
towards the upper decks. Now my grandfather was not a big man, but he
was strong (he boxed at bantam weight before and during his time in the
navy). He carried his friend up ladder after ladder until he got to an
officer who demanded he put the man down. It was only at this point
that he realised his friend was dead. He was then commanded to close
the hatch as the ship was sinking; he knew there were dying men below
and he felt that he was somehow responsible for dooming them. It was
one of the most traumatic things he had ever done. After evacuating the
ship he was in the water for a very long time waiting to be rescued. He
said he saw many men drowning, the ability to swim not deemed to be
something they looked for or enquired of enlisted men. My grandfather
could swim very well, and having this caul thing pointed out to him his
entire life might have crossed his mind..
That is really all I know as, like
I said, my grandfather choose not to talk about it except on this one
occasion, which was completely out of character. He felt so guilty at
leaving his dead friend and wished he could have done more. I think the
whole thing plagued him."
Edgar McMinn (1917-2000) lived another 58 years. He was probably rescued by HMS Marne which was torpedoed by the same u-boat which sank HMS Hecla. A
child "born with the caul" has a portion of a birth membrane remaining
on the head which is immediately removed upon delivery of the child. Bob
Hargreaves was also born with a veil (or caul) over his face which the
midwife removed and his Mother kept. Bob and his two brothers had
fragments of the caul sewn into their clothing as a lucky charm to save
them from being drowned, an old sailors' superstition. All three
brothers returned safely from the war.Bob Hargreaves served in HMS Venomous which rescued most of the survivors from Hecla.
George Morrell, Sick Berth Attendant (MX 58991)
George Morrell's son, David
Morrell, got in touch via the maritimequest.com forum on 27 June 2017:
"I believe my father was a crew member on HMS Hecla.
He died in 1975 but the family story is that he was torpedoed and
rescued by an American ship (a common mistake as Venomous berthed alongside the USS Augusta on arrival at Casablanca). He
was in the water with Edward (Eddie) Diggines who came from a village
on Dartmoor and was a cook. He would later marry one of my
fathers’ many sisters."
Morrell was born on 3rd July 1920 in Newton Abbot, Devon. He was one of
eight children. On leaving school he began working for the railway in
Newton Abbot and in February 1939 he joined the Royal Navy. He trained
at Drake as a Sick Berth Assistant and joined the crew of HMS Hecla on 25th December 1940. The photograph is cropped from a group photograph of the members of the Sick Bay team while Hecla was the destroyer depot ship at Havelfjord, Iceland in 1941. He was promoted to Leading SBA in January 1942.
I think the Hecla was his first and last ship. His future postings were all to Royal Navy hospitals.
After surviving the sinking of the Hecla
he was posted to the hospital of the Royal Marine Depot at Lympstone on
the Exe estuary in south Devon. At some stage towards the end of the
war he was posted to HMS Royal Arthur, near Skegness.
It was around this time that he met my mother, Joan Baker, who was living in
Bathford, a village near Bath. They married in 1947. Other postings then followed to Drake,
Plymouth and Helston. They also traveled to Malta together and by the
time they went to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) around 1955 I had been born and spent a couple
of years with them while he was at the RN hospital at Diyatalawa in the central Highlands. Finally we moved to Stonehouse in
Plymouth where my brother, Richard, was born. My father left the RN as a SBCPO in 1961."
My parents ran The Ham Tree in Holt, Wiltshire, until 1966 and then
took over The Seven Stars in Winsley, Bradford on Avon, until his death
in 1975. My mother continued to run the pub for a further ten years
until she retired.
He was very fond of sport and played Rugby, Cricket and Hockey. I
believe he managed Devonport Services RFC when they went on tour."
Brian William Coulson Shaw, Leading Sick Berth Attendant (D/KX.64151)
Until March 2017 Brian Shaw was just a name on the list of 858 men in HMS Hecla
on the night of 11 - 12 November 1942 with MPK (Missing Presumed
Killed) written alongside and a face in a photograph of the medical
team and Sick Bay attendants sent to me by the son of Chief Petty
Officer Norman Brown who was also MPK.
The Medical Team and Sick Berth Attendants (SBA) on the deck of HMS Hecla in 1941 when she was the destroyer Depot Ship at Havelfjord, Iceland
Brian Shaw is standing third from the left but Kenneth Collings only joined Hecla on her return from Iceland in early 1942
But in March 2017 I received a message sent via a form on my website in
December 2016 (which went astray) from a Louise Duncan in Cape Town,
South Africa. Louise was the daughter of a Cynthia le Roux who in 1942
was living with her parents, Pet (Petrus) and Minnie (Wilhelmina)
Abrahamse, on their farm Rondeheuvel at Hermon in Western Cape Province
while Louise's father was serving with the 8th Army in North Africa.
Cynthia Roux died in 1993 and Louise found in her Mother's papers
several letters from two Sick Berth Attendants who had stayed as
guests on an "uphomer" while Hecla was being repaired after detonating a mine on 15 May 1942. Louise Googled Hecla,
found my website and was hoping I could trace the families of Brian
Shaw and Kenneth Collings and she could return the letters to their
Hermon was a village about an hours drive east of Cape Town where
Louise's grandparents mainly planted vines on their farm but also had
wheat and sheep and cattle. Pet and Minnie Abrahamsem, "Oma and Opa" to
Louise, were Africaan and they had five Italian POW to help them farm
while Cynthia's husband and elder brother were serving in North Africa
with the 8th Army. Brian Shaw and Keith Collings only stayed with them
once in July 1942 but they had many other sailors on "uphomers" at Rondeheuvel. I was impressed to read an apology in one of Brian's letters to Cynthia for the mistakes he made in Africaan.
photos were taken at Bainskloof where they used to go for
picnics. It is a beautiful mountain pass at Wellington with a
stream where you could swim or just relax. It is about three quarters
of an hours drive from the farm. Our family loved to go there for
picnics on a Sunday;" Louise Duncan.
Brian Shaw and Kenneth Collings as guests of Cynthia and her parents on their farmin July 1942
Picking Sugar Bush Proteas in the Veldt
Kenneth Collings (left), Minnie Abrahamse and Brian Shaw
Picknicing at Bainskloof mouthin pass in July 1942
Minnie Abrahamse, Brian Shaw, Cynthia's young brother Pierre le Roux and Ken
Picking Sugar Bush Proteas at Bainskloof
Minnie Abrahamse, Brian Shaw and Cynthia with Pierre le Roux in front
Brian Shaw wrote to Cynthia three times before HMS Hecla
headed north to her fateful encounter with U-515 off the coast of North
Africa. The first page of the last letter dated 29 October is on the
left and the remainder of the letter can be read by clicking on the link. Brian Shaw had less than two weeks to live when he dated this letter. The postcard had his portrait on the front and the Christmas Card may have been received after his death.
final PS about passing the exams for promotion to Petty
Officer is especially poignant
as he would not live to "pick up the
"Regret Brian reported missing writing soon"
Portrait postcard: " Say no more - lost at sea enroute home"
"De Fumo In Flammam" Out of the smoke into the fire - all too apt since Brian Shaw would not live to see Christmas -
wasn't difficult to return the letters sent by Kenneth Collings (left)
as I had been contacted by his son in New Zealand in November 2012 and
his father already had a page on this website. Bruce was delighted to
receive letters written by his father to Cynthia le Roux in 1942 but it
was more difficult to trace the family of Bruce Shaw (right) despite
having his address on the top of his Mother's letters.
le Roux kept the letters she received from Brian Shaw's Mother after
his death. Florence was too grief
stricken to write but on 12 January her husband wrote
explaining her silence. Florence wrote from the
family home of Oakdale in Frodsham, Cheshire, in March and again on 21 April:
"We can't think of the words to
thank you for all your kind thoughts and messages to us in our dreadful
sorrow, no other word from the Admiralty has come along. Have you heard
from your brother that you feared was a POW in Italy? We do hope you
have got somewhere to write him. These shocks are almost more than we
Cynthia's brother Lionel was captured at Tobruk but ended up as a POW
at Stalag 7 in Germany. Click on the link to read her short painful letter.
helped me trace the only surviving members of Brian Shaw's family in
Britain. Gill Holt, a distant cousin, posted an enquiry about Brian on U-Boat.net in
January 2005 and on RootsChat a Family History Forum in May. I joined
as "Venomous Bill" and we were soon in touch by e-mail. She knew a lot
about Brian Shaw's ancestry but very little about his life. Gill Holt
and her brother William were the grand children of Brian Shaw's Uncle, William
Morris Shaw, and she told me all I know about Brian Shaw and his
family. I sent Gill Holt the letters he
wrote to Cynthia in 1942 but it is only now in August 2021 that I am
finally telling his story on this website where it can be read by the families of his shipmates on HMS Hecla. Brian
William Coulson Shaw was the son of William Coulson Shaw and his wife
Florence Hoskins Davies and was born at Crosby, Liverpool on 11 July
1913 and went to
Merchant Taylors' School For Boys, Crosby, which celebrated its 400th
anniversary in 2020. Brian and his siblings, two brothers and a
were all born in Liverpool where his father was in the grocery trade
but moved to Frodsham in Cheshire when his father retired.
present we do not know what he did between leaving school at 16 in 1929
and joining the Navy in February 1940 when he gave his occupation as
"clerk". He may have been distantly related via his Mother to Rear Admiral A H Hoskins who
chaired the Hoskins Committee whose report led to the establishment of
a trained Sick Berth Rating Staff in 1884. His Service Certificate is
not on the
National Archives website despite him being born more than a hundred
years ago but could be obtained by a family member.
Bruce Shaw and his three siblings never married and left no children.
Brian's parents died in 1950 and 1951 and Oakdale was cleared and sold
and their oldest son Edmund Morris Shaw and his sister Joan emmigrated
to Sothern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) soon afterwards. Gill Holt lives near
& grandparents are buried in Frodsham Parish Church. Brian is
remembered on the War Memorial outside the front of the church, on a
Memorial which stands on Frodsham Hill overlooking the River Mersey and
on the large War Memorial on Plymouth Hoe."
Bruce Shaw was accompanied by SBA Petty Officer Kenneth Collingson their "uphomer" at Rondeheuvel and
Louise Duncan also sent me scans of his letters which she returned to
his son, Bruce Collings in New Zealand, who told his father's
story on this website. Kenneth Collings wrote to Cynthis le Roux until
his death in 1989. Find out more about the medical staff and the Sick Bay team on HMS Hecla. Louise Duncan also found photographs and letters from men who served "in HMS Derg and I think the Coventry"
who stayed with her grandparents on uphomers at Rondeheuvel and is
hoping she can also return their letters and photgraphs to the families. Lt John Steavenson RNVR
Steavensons "are an old Berwick family and a previous John was Mayor
several times and I am a Freeman of the town by descent as a result"
(Hugh Steavenson) but Hugh's father, John
Steavenson, was born on 7 July 1918 at Darlington in County Durham. He
was the third child and second son of Dr Charles Stanley Steavenson and
Edith Lucy Pease Steavenson (nee Robinson). His father was the local
doctor at the nearby village of Middleton St George and also had a TB
sanatorium while his Mother was a talented writer and artist. He and
his brother were keen dinghy sailors before the war and the brothers
also built and raced cars. He was educated at Giggleswick School, an
independent boarding school near Settle in North Yorkshire which was
founded more than five hundred years ago.
Both parents were magistrates and his
father considered the only acceptable profession for his son was
medecine or the law and John was articled to the Town Clerk of
Darlington. He joined HMS Calliope
at Gateshead on 19 January 1938 as a Probationery Midshipman. She had
been built in 1887 as a sailing corvette but given a powerful screw
engine and was now the base for the Tyne Division of the RNVR. On 23
joined the out of date Revenge Class Battleship HMS Royal Oak
at Portsmouth but left her on 5 June 1939 three months before she was
sunk in Scapa Flow, Orkney, by U-47 wth 835 men, two thirds of the
ship's company, killed. He joined the mine-laying destroyer HMS Express (H61) on 5 June 1939 and was promoted to Sub Lt on 21 August but left a week later to join the Town Class Light Cruiser HMS Southampton (83).
On 5 September 1939 Southampton intercepted the German merchant Johannes Molkenbuhr off
Stadtlandet, Norway, but her crew scuttled the ship before she could be
captured. On 16 October 1939 she was struck by a 500 kg bomb released
from 490 ft by a Ju 88 of I/KG.30 which passed through three decks at
an angle and exited the hull, detonating in the water. She was repaired
and took part in the hunt for the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau after the sinking of the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi. Southampton joined the 18th Cruiser squadron at Scapa Flow
in February 1940 and on 9 April 1940 while operating off the
Norwegian coast was damaged in a German air attack. It was probably not
a coincidence that he was promoted to Acting Lieutenant that same day.
After repairs Southampton was on anti-invasion duties on the south-coast until she returned to Scapa Flow in October.
He received good reports from Captain Drew (HMS Royal Oak) and Cdr Oliver (HMS Express) but, how can one put it, rather "mixed reports" from HMS Southampton despite being promoted to full Lieutenant. Captain
Jeans: "This officer has deteriorated in recent months, In spite of
having every facility for learning he does not seem to be able to
absorb knowledge. No energy or zeal, untidy and does not appear to be
blessed with any brains". Captain Brooke: "An officer who is a good
mixer and very popular. He is, however, an unreliable watchkeeper and
an ineffective executive officer for, though he is keen to do his best,
he uses no forethought and little common sense; he is in fact a
pleasent feckless individual."
In November and December Lt John Steavenson was at shore bases, HMS Victory at Portsmouth, and HMS Spartiate, at Glasgow, before being posted to HMS Hecla on 23 December 1940 before she was commissioned on 6 January 1941. He would remain aboard HMS Hecla
until she was lost off the coast of Morocco on the night of 11 - 12
November 1942 and received a favourable report from Captain Coltart who
had a reputation for strictness with the crew but was known as "Uncle
Cyril" by his officers and was in command of Hecla when she was the destroyer depot ship at Havelfjord
in Iceland. He received favourable reports from Captain Law who
took over command during for the voyage south to join the Eastern Fleet when Hecla detonated a mine on 15 May 1942 after rounding the Cape andfrom Cdr D'Oyley who was CO while Hecla was under repair at Simonstown in South Africa.
"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 in line on the right is Lt John Steavenson RNVR, the son of a doctor
Courtesy of Dr Peter Hetherington
John Steavenson owed his life when HMS Hecla was torpedoed on Armistice Day 1942 to Lt Cdr H.C.R. Alexander, the Navigation Officer, who vividly described events in an unofficial report on the disaster and its cause
written much later which was sent to me by his son in Canada and can be
read in full on this website. He attributed the loss of HMS Hecla to the decisions made by Captain H.G.D. Ackland RN, CO of HMS Vindictive, the senior Officer in the Convoy.
This is the part describing how Alexander saved his own life and that of "a young Lieutenant called Steavenson":
then heard a young Lieutenant called Steavenson, asking for help from
the water so I threw down a ropes end from the seaboats falls and
hauled him up to where I was standing on the ship's side, just above
the rolling keel. He was very exhausted and I offered to share my
mattress when the moment came. The ship was soon almost exactly
180 degrees over but very deep in the water, but much rumbling going on
inside as enormous weights shifted and took charge. Then suddenly a
wave appeared to come up from the stern, we put my mattress on the
crest and were wafted as if by a magic carpet towards the bows. I
realised afterwards that the wave of course was not an ordinary wave
but the result of the ship sliding down by the stern with the
upending. And so we found ourselves swimming with this monstrous
fore-end of the ship towering above us. We could never have swum
clear if the forepeak had broken off in our direction, but no, John
Brown had built as good a ship as ever, and even the immense repairs
carried out in Simonstown remained faithful to the original.
Almost immediately the mattress became water logged and we abandoned it
to search for something better.
The moon which had betrayed us in
the first instance had set by now but the sky was clear and one could
see quite a distance and hear the vain despairing cries of various
sailors calling for their mates. The first useful object we found was a
launch's towing bollard, not ideal being too thick to hold but still
better than nothing. Then I noted a curious dome-like dark object some
fifty yards away and suggested we might go over to look at it, but
Steavenson said he was too exhausted. So I went alone and to my bitter
disappointment found it was an awning with an air bubble holding it up.
Anywhere I put some weight simply went down and let more air out on the
far side. So I went slowly back to Steavenson, rather crestfallen,
conserving my strength knowing we were more than a hundred miles from
the west coast of Africa.
I settled down to estimate the time
by watching the slow, oh so slow, movement of Sirius. After some three
hours, possibly at 4 am, a most extraordinary splash and crash coming
from about a hundred yards away worried me for a moment, thinking it
might be the submarine surfacing to collect evidence of its successful
exploit. My next thought was could it possibly be a whale? If so would
we finish up like Jonah? But when the object did not move I suggested
we should swim over and investigate. Stevaenson again said he was too
tired. When I reached the object I found it was one of Hecla's
25 ft motorboats - badly mangled but still floating awash to the
gunwhales - but non the less extremely attractive. So I again swam back
to young Steavenson and brought him to the boat and had no difficulty
in getting both of us sitting on the gunnels. After a short breather I
decided we might improve our chances if we bailed out the water, so
carried out an underwater search for a bailer. This was made easier as
I had discarded my short gumboots at some time during my various
explorations. It also proved unfortunate, however, because the bottom
of the boat was littered with broken glass from the cabin windows and
my socks as well as my feet were cut before, at last, I found a paint
pot and started bailing.
This did not last long because I
quickly tired, finding the pot incredibly heavy and only removing about
a cupful of water. During the short rest my hand holding the
precious pot happened to go into the pot revealing the reason for its
inefficiencies, namely that it was still three quarters full of paint!
I was tired and that is my only excuse for doing a really stupid thing,
namely flinging most of the paint over the side. It was only after I
had cleaned out the pot that I realised my folly, thinking of the
necessity of blocking anymore water coming into the boat I had noted
that the engine exhaust pipe was broken and letting water flow into the
boat. I had decided to block its passage by stuffing it with my pyjamas
which I had hurriedly put into my raincoat pocket when I collected my
The moment I emptied the paint pot
I realised my folly, the paint smeared on my pyjamas would have made
the obstruction infinitely more watertight! By this time, only one
survivor had floated past in the remains of the ships launch, up-ended,
the stern being deep in the water and the bows well out of the water
acting as a sail so that it quickly drifted past and went out of sight.
The northerly breeze was light and there were no waves at all thanks to
the oil on the surface - this made me quite sick even though I had only
swallowed a few drops, but it did act as protection against the cold.
Then two young motor mechanics swam to us and were hauled onboard. I
kept a sharp look out as all three of my companions were very exhausted
and sure enough was rewarded by the sight of a destroyer passing
miraculously close at very slow speed. My shout of "Ship Ahoy!" was
quickly joined by my three companions and HMS Venomous,
beautifully handled, picked us up in masterly fashion. I noted here the
difference between a survivor and a rescuer handling a heaving line, at
my end I took a turn on a bow cleat at the other end the seaman was
forced to let go. In spite of this we were all able to step on board to
The entries in his service certificate after Hecla was sunk are difficult to read and interpret but he may have returned to Britain from Gibraltar on HMS Duke of York before going on two weeks survivor's leave and being posted to the Gunnery Schools at HMS Usk and HMS Beaver, shore bases in Glasgow. In February 1943 he was posted to HMS James Cooke,
a Combined Operations training base occupying the remote Glen Caladh
Castle on the shore of the Kyles of Bute which became the Beach
Pilotage School for landing craft flotillas for the landings in
Normandy. This appears to have been a mistake but he
remained there until April 1943 when he was sent on the eight months "long gunnery course" at HMS Excellent, the Gunnery School at Portsmouth. His eldest son, Hugh
recalls he was then posted to the Admiralty at HMS President in Bath "as an
Assistant to the Director of Naval Ordnance" where:
met my mother, Daphne Pratt, whose family owned a boot and shoe factory
in Kingswood, Bristol, called Holdfast Boots, and they married on 19
April 1947. He told me that he was made an offer which he could
not refuse to join the Pratt family firm. He worked for C and J Clark
in Street to learn the shoe trade before joining Holdfast. It certainly
helped that he was related to the Clark family through his mother, one
of a long line of Peases, one of many great Quaker families. Holdfast
was sold to another firm of Bristol shoe manufacturers where he stayed
on for a few years until that firm went bankrupt under questionable
circumstances. Further jobs at other shoe factories continued until the
He had three children, Hugh Pratt Steavenson, Angela Bridget Steavenson and Charles Martin Pratt Steavenson. His younger brother Charles joined the Navy and served in submarines; "a keen Ocean racer, he was one of the unlucky 13 to perish at sea in the 1979 Fastnet race". Hugh is the only one alive today.
"My parents were
very sociable and had many naval friends who were based in Bath. By the
time my brother joined up in the mid seventies he complained that the
only naval people they still knew were all Admirals! I think they knew
at least three or four of those of their generation who had also served
in the war. Always very practical he decided to try his hand at antique furniture
restoration and was accepted on an antique furniture restoration course
at West Dean College in Chichester in September 1973. Sadly he was
unable to complete the course as he died on 23 January 1974 aged just
John Steavenson has seven grand children but his early death meant they never got to know him.
This is not the end of the story as John Steavenson's widow "married
another former RNVR officer, Adrian Butler" who served in two V & W
Class destroyers, sister ships of HMS Venomous which rescued John Steavenson when HMS Hecla
was torpedoed in 1942. "Adrian was also a Bristol businessman who made
the boxes into which the shoes made by my father’s firm were packed.
Coincidentally, he raced cars pre war and also sailed!" (Hugh
Steavenson). Daphne Steavenson's second husband, Lt Adrian H.G. Butler RNVR, served in HMS Westminster and HMS Woolston, and tells an amusing story about the eccentric 1st Lt of Westmister, Lt John A.H. Hamer, and "monkey business in the Wardroom".
Strangely, Hugh Steavenson shared a flat with John Hamer's son for two
or three years and met his father shortly before his death.
For further details of the life and wartime service of Lt John Steavenson RNVR see his entry on the unithistories.com site. Leading Stoker
William James Taylor (D/KX.108222) "My
only brother aged 22, D/KX.108222 Temporary Acting Leading Stoker
William James Taylor, was reported Missing Presumed Killed when HMS Hecla sunk off Morocco in the Mediterranean on 11 - 12 November 1942, I was only 4 years old but will always remember this tragedy.
I attended the 1992 reunion at Stratford upon Avon
and took some old pictures of my brother Bill, showed them around to
some survivors and he was recognised by his shipmates, who told me Bill
was seen swimming and helping others to the ship attempting to rescue
the stricken crew in the water. It transpired that he was exhausted by
his efforts to save his shipmates and was lost, killed by drowning."
Leslie Thomson Ordnance Mechanic 5th Class (MX90541)
was contacted in January 2019 by Leah Berry in Australia about her
father's Uncle, Leslie Thomson, who was "Missing Presumed Killed" (MPK)
when Hecla sank:
Bill, I am writing this on the spur of the moment, after reading some
of the moving stories of those who were crew members of the HMS Hecla
when she was torpedoed in 1942.
father George Thomson is nearly 84 and currently having respite in a
nursing home. We were talking before about his Uncle Leslie Thomson,
who was aboard the Hecla when she was torpedoed. Leslie Thomson was
born 21st September 1907 in Liverpool UK, his parents were George James
Thomson and Emma Smith. Leslie
was apparently a fellow who liked to keep to himself and when company
came calling would 'hide' in his bedroom. My dad remembers him being
quite a surly fellow and not very patient, that could be as my dad was
only a young boy and Leslie a man in his early thirties.
don't know anything much about how he came to be in the Navy but
obviously it was during the war that he joined up, and apparently,
according to my dad, it was the making of him......he loved the life
and the sea. Leslie's own
father was a Bosun on the sailing ships at one time, then a foreman at
Cammel Lairds in Birkenhead. When the Hecla was torpedoed my great
grandma received a telegram saying Leslie was lost at sea......I will
include a clipping from the Liverpool Echo
showing how she was still clinging to the hope that he was alive. I'm
sorry there isn't a lot to tell but Leslie hadn't married and had no
children....that we know of......
My dad came to Aus as a 17 year old
with a friend of his....off on an adventure. His mother and father
followed in 1954 as he wasn't one for writing home much. They all ended
up in Victoria. My Gran, Mabel always wanted to go home to the UK but
never made it....
dad is still mentally fit and can remember the most minute details of
the war years, even though he was a boy (b. 1935 Birkenhead UK).
He remembers my great gran Emma having a little 'shrine' on the
sideboard devoted to Leslie, with his framed picture and his navy bits
and pieces surrounding it, and woe-betide anyone who touched it!
Leslie's death affected her greatly and she never really recovered from
her youngest son's death."
George Thomson's daughter Leah Berry sent me this charming
wedding photograph of her father's Uncle Leslie as
a surly looking 12 year old (seated cross legged on the the right of the front row)
at the marriage of his sister May Winwick Thomson (1894-1963) to
William Allen Edge in 1919.
The wedding of Leslie's 25 year old sister to William Allen Edge in 1919
Leslie's parents, George James Thomson and Emma Thomson (nee Smith), are either side of the bride in the row behind
Leslie's father was a bosun on sailing ships including the Lord Downshire and then a foreman at Camel Laird's shipyard
Seventeen year old Ernest Thomson (third from left rear row) was Leslie's elder brother and Leah Berry's Grandfather Courtesy of Leah Berry
Thomson had two brothers and three sisters and was the youngest of the
six. The family moved from Liverpool to Saughall Massie on the Wirral
and Leslie was working on a nearby farm when he was conscripted
into the Navy "for the period of the Hostilities" in 1939. He was 32
and unmarried but Leah is hoping that distant relatives
in England can provide a photograph and further details of his life.
At the time of his death he was a Petty Officer Air Fitter in HMS Hecla with service number D/MX.90541 (Plymouth Naval Memorial). He may have joined Hecla
when she was first commissioned in January 1940 and spent a year in
Havelfjord, Iceland, while she was the Destroyer Depot Ship for
Atlantic Convoys. HMS Venomous often berthed alongside Hecla during this period. After returning to the Clyde for a refit Hecla headed
south to round the Cape and join the Eastern Fleet at Mombassa but
after detonating a mine spent six months under repair at Simon's Town
in South Africa before meeting her end off the coast of North Africa on
Armistice Day 1942.
Thomas David Arthur Waldock (KX97148), Stoker 1st Class MPK
"Tommy" Waldock was born at Plumstead in London SE18 in 1920 and was 22 when Hecla sunk.
He was a keen boxer. He was the eldest of four children, the others being Harold, who also
served in the Royal Navy, Iris, and James. The brief details of his
life given here were supplied by his youngest brother, Jim Waldock,
born twenty one years later at Greenwich, London SE10, in 1941. The
body of Thomas Waldock was not recovered and he is marked as Missing
Presumed Killed (MPK) on the crew list and his name is also on the
official casualty list issued by the Admiralty. Jim Waldock was one
year old when his brother died and does not even have a photograph of
him and has lost contact with his siblings. If a member of his family
or the family of Tommy Waldock's shipmates in Hecla have photographs of stokers on HMS Hecla do please get in touch via the e-mail address of the publisher at the foot of this page.
AB Fred W.J. Wardle (JX237211) and AB Terence Mahoney(JX237247)
Laura Tawn e-mailed me as follows:
"I am the grand-daughter of Able Seaman Fred WARDLE who was aboard HMS Hecla
in November 1942. His best friend was Able Seaman Terence Mahoney who
sadly did not survive. Granddad named his son, my Dad, after Terence
& I wondered if there were any family members of Terence I could
Terry Mahoney's sister, Mrs V.J. Jeatt and her son Matthew, travelled
from Windsor to attend the reunion at the Falcon Hotel in Stratford on
the 11th November 1991. Terry Wardle and his daughter Laura Tawn would
very much like to hear from them.
Petty Officer William J Triggs (BEM) JX138571 MPK
Fred "Slinger" Woods was born in Lancashire and was a member of the Sick Bay team on Hecla and
lived in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia, with his
daughter Lorraine. who mailed me a year ago: "My Dad is actually in
hospital at the moment, recovering from
an operation to fix his broken hip. Unfortunately he fell onto the
concrete floor in the garage a few weeks ago. I tell you, he's a
tough old nugget. I'll let him know about Reg Bishop, but he
won't be able to see the photos, until he is allowed out of the rehab
ward, in a couple of weeks time." Sadly, Fred did not pull through and died in February 2018.
Go to Part One (A - L) to continue browsing the life stories of the men in Hecla on 11 - 12 November 1942 Or return to the index of names at the top of Part 1