'The summer of 1940 was long, hot, and earth shattering. On the beach at Southsea, the water of the English Channel seemed less frigid than usual, although it was far from warm. I built a sand castle, surrounded it with Martello towers, each made from one bucket of sand, and created an impregnable fortress - until the tide came in. But before the tide had completely destroyed my handiwork, we had to leave. Walking along the seafront towards the dockyard to meet my father had been a ritual for the past week as HMS Venomous was undergoing repairs after a collision.
We were about two thirds of the way to the dockyard gate when I spotted them, and tugging my mother's hand, we stopped. Three ships were leaving harbour, making lots of black smoke. There, in the centre, was D75, HMS Venomous. I said 'There's Venomous'. He won't be coming home tonight." She didn't reply, just turned around and grabbing my hand, began walking back the way we had come.'
The 'sitskrieg', the phoney war, was over as German tanks burst through the Ardennes, long claimed by military experts to be impassable to tanks, soon overrunning Belgium and Holland, then into France, and reaching the channel coast.
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had fallen back under the onslaught, made a sharp but brief counter-attack at Arras and, trapped in the centre of a huge pincer movement, began an orderly retreat.
In a two-pronged attack, the Germans reached the channel coast just south of Boulogne and further north, close to the FrancoBelgian border. They were not far from a town called Dunkirk, and the BEF was trapped in between.
The evacuation of Boulogne
Under command of a South African, Captain John McBeath RN, Venomous had made many sorties across the channel, landing troops and rescuing Dutch civilians. On May 23, Venomous was ordered to evacuate troops from Boulogne, in company with HMS Keith, Vimy, Wild Swan, and Vimiera. The harbour at the mouth of the River Liane is small and is surrounded by hills upon which much of the town is built.
As they approached, they were unaware that the Germans had already occupied the high ground. Venomous and Vimeira began firing from outside the harbour as Keith and Vimy entered. The force was soon attacked by 60 German 'Stukas' that released their bombs at 1 000 feet [305m], sinking the French destroyer, L'Orange. Captain McBeath later recorded that '[t]en attacks were made on Venomous as salvoes of 110 pound bombs were dropped. The ship was closely missed on all sides; the nearest salvoes were only ten yards [9,14m] off and numerous splinters hit the ship's side and upperworks'. Some of her crew were superficially wounded.
All ships began engaging the enemy armour, artillery and infantry that were in strength on the shore north of the city. The ships' 4,7-inch guns proved more than a match for the German Panzers [armour] and artillery. Keith and Vimy lay alongside the quay as the MV Mona's Queen began loading troops. None were hit by bombs from the Stukas, but the exposed bridge attracted the attention of snipers and machine gunners. Cpt DJR Simpson of HMS Vimy was killed on his bridge by machinegun fire and Lt Cdr CGW Donald received fatal wounds. After Keith and Vimy left the harbour, Venomous, Venetia and Wild Swan entered. The Germans began directing accurate fire upon the ships below.
Venetia, the last to enter harbour, was subjected to heavy fire from the coastal batteries recently surrendered by the French. She was hit, first upon her two forward 4,7-inch guns, killing their crews. Her bridge received a direct hit, wounding the CO, killing the ship's navigator, and seriously wounding all other bridge personnel. Sub-Lt D H Jones RNR was aft, and took over command of the ship now dangerously drifting and in danger of blocking the harbour entrance.
Venomous returned fire with every gun she could bring to bear, including members of the ship's company opening fire with their Lee Enfield rifles. Action now switched to the former French battery as Venomous trained her 4,7's on the fort and opened fire. The first salvo was over the target, but the second produced a direct hit, blowing away the side of the fort and part of the hill. Pieces of guns and mountings fell down the hillside. AB Ian Nethercott, an antiaircraft gunner on HMS Keith, watching Venomous' 4, 7 -inch guns in action, commented: 'They brought down the walls of two houses on top of a German tank. Another tank took a direct hit and flipped over backwards. She fired at two columns of men that simply vanished.'
One thousand guardsmen were sheltering on the quay, as a column of some seventy German troops advanced. Midshipman Esson swung the portside pompom into action, blowing down a wall and several houses upon the enemy. As troops began embarking, a troop of German motorcyclists with machine-guns mounted on their sidecars, drove onto the quay and prepared to open fire on the troops awaiting their turn to board. The Germans were rapidly neutralised by the Venomous' anti-aircraft pom-pom.
McBeath gave the order to cast off at 21.15 after 35 minutes alongside. Going astern out of the harbour at eighteen knots, packed with more than 500 guardsmen who had joined her crew in firing at the enemy, her steering gear jammed. By judicious use of the ship's engines, she steamed stern first out of the very narrow channel. Venomous was docked for damage repairs, but on May 27, she was ordered to embark troops from Dunkirk.
The evacuation of Dunkirk
Dunkirk harbour had been heavily shelled and bombed and was blocked. Trying to bring troops off the open beach using the Venomous' boats was incredibly and dangerously slow, and ships were ordered to load troops from the mole. This was a skeleton breakwater, never intended for berthing ships. In a strong tide, it was difficult to secure alongside as the ship's crew had to pass wires and ropes through parts of the concrete bases supporting the wooden top structure. There was no way that troops could board directly, the usual route being to slide down poles spanning the gap between the walkway and the ship.
Venomous made five trips to Dunkirk, usually returning so laden with troops that she was in danger of capsizing. Under constant air attack and frequent artillery shellings, in addition to attacks by German torpedo boats, losses began to rise. Admiral Ramsey, in charge of the evacuation, withdrew all the new destroyers, leaving the task to Venomous and sisters. Now twenty years old, they were expendable!
On the night of June 2, already loaded with troops and preparing to leave for Dover, Captain McBeath was ordered to await the arrival of some senior officers and their staff. His first lieutenant reported to him, later: 'We've got a couple of generals on board, Alexander and Percival. I have put them in your cabin and one of them has hopped into your bunk with his spurs on'. After delivering her passengers safely to Dover, Venomous made her final trip to Dunkirk the following night, returning with 1 100 French troops aboard.
The evacuation had come to an end. The original estimates had been that, at best, some 45 000 troops could be saved, but good weather, stout ships and high courage had wrought the miracle of Dunkirk with the rescue of 350 000 men. Of those, Venomous brought back 4 410. The destroyers brought back the largest number of men. Their narrow hulls and cramped quarters were unsuited to carrying large numbers of men, but their high speed allowed them to make fast and frequent sorties.
Following repairs after Dunkirk, Venomous returned to the usual duties of a wartime destroyer. Her duties included anti-invasion patrols in the English channel, escorting a Gibraltar-bound convoy, then escorting the new aircraft-carrier, HMS Formidable. Based in Londonderry, she then escorted outgoing and incoming North Atlantic convoys as far as 25°W.
Early in 1942, she was part of the escort for the Russian convoy, PQ15. Three of the 25 ships were sunk by torpedo aircraft. In June, she was assigned to convoy WS 21 S as part of 'Operation Pedestal' and, later, 'Operation Bellows', escorting HMS Furious on three sorties to fly off fighter aircraft for the protection of Malta. On the last of these, HMS Eagle, one of the older aircraft carriers, was sunk by a U-Boat and Venomous rescued over 500 of her survivors.
In October, she escorted convoy HX 4A to Gibraltar, an advance convoy for 'Operation Torch', the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. Attached to the Gibraltar Escort Force and in company with HMS Marne, she escorted HMS Vindictive and HMS Hecla that had arrived from Simon's Town, South Africa. Just before midnight on November 11, HMS Hecla was torpedoed. Venomous and Marne stood by to recue survivors and HMS Vindictive sailed independently. As survivors of Hecla were being rescued, HMS Marne was hit by a torpedo, blowing off her stern. Venomous left the survivors and began hunting for the submarine.
After a heavy but unsuccessful attack, she returned to rescuing survivors of both ships. Swimming steadily to reach a nearby lifeboat, Lt Herbert Hasting McWilliams, a South African, was able to grab a lifeline. HMS Hecla sank, but HMS Marne was still afloat. McWiliams held onto the lifeline, but, as Venomous approached, the boat capsized. McWilliams climbed the scrambling nets and reached the safety of Venomous' deck.
A further sortie, following the detection of a possible submarine, had Venomous leaving the survivors yet again and the rescue was completed only the next day, when Venomous had 498 survivors on board. A tug arrived to tow HMS Marne, and Venomous, by then low on fuel, detached to Casablanca to refuel. At Casablanca, then occupied by the Americans, Venomous was refuelled whilst the survivors, feted by the Americans, had a welcome meal, hot showers, ample supplies of Coca-Cola, and were given new clothing. Next day they re-boarded Venomous and sailed to Gibraltar.
From then until July 1943, Venomous joined the Gibraltar Escort Force (13th Destroyer Flotilla). She escorted convoys into and out of the Mediterranean and escorted other Mediterranean convoys, often to the newly-liberated ports of North Africa. On July 10, the Allies invaded Sicily ('Operation Husky'), where Venomous escorted the minelayer, HMS Abdiel, to the assault area. Venomous later escorted Convoy MWS 38 from Alexandria to the assault area, continuing her escort role until the beginning of October when she escorted Convoy MKF 24A to England. On October 23, she was taken in hand at Falmouth for a complete refit that lasted until 27 July 1944.
She was now showing her age and could no longer meet the stringent demands placed upon wartime destroyers. She spent some time as an aircraft target ship and was only restored to a semblance of her former glory when she took part in Operation 'Apostle' after hostilities with Germany had ended. She sailed from Rosyth on 13 May 1945 for Kristiansand, Norway, to accept the formal surrender of German naval forces. Ecstatically feted by the Norwegians, AB Bert Upton later wrote, 'What a fantastic reception we had. The Norwegian men, women and children came out to us in small crafts, boats, rafts, anything which would float. I can still see them climbing up the ship's side'.
The end was near for HMS Venomous. She had been living on borrowed time and, after returning from Norway, she paid off her ship's company. Built in 1919 for a very different war, she had been designed as a Fleet destroyer to operate in the North Sea. She had achieved considerably more than her designers could ever have imagined and, ironically for a destroyer, had saved far more lives than she had taken.
Venomous passed into history. She was a lucky ship that successive crews remember with affection. The last words are left to one of those who served on board her often overcrowded lower deck, described in Professor Christopher McKee's book, Sober Men and True. AB James Eaton said: 'She was a very happy ship and I am very proud to have served in her. I would do the same again if I could - good old Venomous'.
The South African connections
John Edwin Home McBeath was the only South African who joined the Royal Navy as a seaman and rose to the rank of rear-admiral. Born in Natal, his father was a retired senior officer in the Indian Army. McBeath attended Hilton College. He lived in Massachusetts before joining the Royal Navy. He first served on HMS Hood, attended a mates course and later received his commission. He took command of Venomous in January 1940 and was both mentioned in despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for the actions at Boulogne and Dunkirk. During the war he commanded destroyers in the North Sea, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Arctic. After the war he became the King's Harbour Master at HM Dockyard Singapore, following which he commanded HMS Chequers as Captain (D) First Destroyer Flotilla (Mediterranean Fleet).
In 1952 he became Flag Captain and Chief of Staff to Flag Officer Commanding the Reserve Fleet, serving on HMS Duke of York and HMS King George V. He was 'lent' to the Royal New Zealand Navy as Chief of Staff and first Member of the Naval Board. On returning to England, he became Naval aide-de-camp (ADC) to Queen Elizabeth II. He retired as a rear-admiral in 1954, but continued to be involved with naval activities as Honorary Commodore of the Sea Cadet Corps, in which the name of Venomous lives on as a sea cadet training ship, commanded by the late Lt Cdr Robert Moore RNR, a co-author of this book. In addition to his DSO, McBeath received the OM (Chevalier) from France in 1939 for his valuable services in rescuing survivors of the French steamer Yolande, when wrecked on the coast of Shangtung (China) in March 1938. He received the DSC for his part in the raid on the Vaagso Islands, and in the 1975 New Year decorations he received the CB.
Herbert Hasting McWilliams trained as an architect in Cape Town and London. He joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman and was commissioned in 1942. After a few months as a sublieutenant in coastal forces, he was promoted to lieutenant and drafted to Simon's Town, where he joined HMS Hecla for passage to North Africa. After she sank, he was rescued by Venomous. During her brief stay in Casablanca, McWilliams sketched her sinking, a copy of which is on the back cover of the book. In 1943 he was posted to Combined Operations, but his skill as an artist was noted and he was appointed naval editor, artist and cameraman of the service magazine Parade. He went on to become a well-known war artist and his work is in the Imperial War Museum in London and the Ditsong: National Museum of Military History (formerly the South African National Museum of Military History) in Johannesburg.
After the war, McWilliams returned to his home town, Port Elizabeth, where he designed racing yachts and many wellknown buildings, including the library and the uniquely designed yacht club. He was a great benefactor and a Trust bearing his name continues to assist university students in Port Elizabeth.
HMS Venomous - The ship
Venomous was a V&W Class destroyer, built in 1919, one of a total of 69 of which an incredible number of fifty survived the war. When launched, these ships were one of the world's most advanced designs, having four 4,7-inch guns, six 21-inch torpedo tubes, one 12-pounder and a maximum speed of 34 knots.
The ship's battle honours were:
Atlantic 1940-1943 Arctic1942
North Africa 1942-1943 Dunkirk 1940
Malta convoys 1942 Sicily 1943
About the Book
HMS Venomous-A Hard Fought Ship was published in 2010 by Holywell House Publishing. It is available from the publishers, www.holywellpublishing. co. uk, or from Amazon.co.uk. It is also available from www.bookdepository.co.uk, £ 12,64 post free and should be available in South African bookshops in June or July. It was co-authored by the late Lt Cdr Robert Moore RNR and his good friend, Capt J Rodgaard, USN, Naval History Author of the Year 2000, who took over when Bob Moore died.
Malcolm A Birkin
Pretoria May 2010
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