Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationHMS VERSATILE

HMS Versatile
                  Courtesy of Elaine Marsh

Click on the links within this brief outline for first hand accounts by the men who served on HMS Versatile and for a more detailed chronology see

HMS Versatile was the first Royal Navy ship of the name. She was laid down on 31 January 1917 by Hawthorn Leslie and Company at Tyneside, launched on 31 October 1917,  completed on 11 February 1918 and commissioned into service the same day. She was one of several V & Ws fitted with mine rails on either side of the hull. During 1919, Versatile took part in the British campaign against Bolshevik forces in the Baltic Sea during the Russian Civil War. She then served in the 1st Destroyer Flotilla in the Atlantic Fleet.

On 23 March 1922, Versatile was steaming off Europa Point, Gibraltar, at 20 knots with other destroyers while British submarines practiced attacks on them. The submarine H42 surfaced unexpectedly ahead of her. Versatile went full speed astern  and put her helm over hard to port, but rammed H42 abaft the conning tower, almost slicing the submarine in half. H42 sank with the loss of all hands. An investigation found H42 at fault for surfacing where she did against instructions. In 1931, Versatile was engaged in minelaying in the Heligoland Bight off the mouth of the Elbe as shown in the photographs taken by Lt Colin G.W. Donald RN. Later that year she joined her flotilla in a three-week cruise to ports on the Baltic Sea. In October 1936 she was decommissioned and placed in reserve at the Nore.

The Royal Navy recommissioned Versatile in 1939 and she was  deployed with the 11th Destroyer Flotilla for convoy defence duty in the Southwestern Approaches based at Plymouth. In May 1940 – the month in which her pennant number was changed from D32 to I32 – Versatile was detached from convoy duty and assigned to operations related to the evacuation of Allied personnel from the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. On 12 May 1940 she ran aground on the Dutch coast but was towed off by the destroyer Walpole. Early on 13 May 1940, Versatile took part in Operation Ordnance, the evacuation of Allied personnel from the Hook of Holland, with HMS Malcolm, Windsor and Vivien. That evening, she was escorting the destroyer Hereward, upon which Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was embarked for passage to Breskens, when German aircraft attacked at 20:45 hours. One bomb struck Versatile's upper deck, flooding her engine room,  killing nine men, wounding a third of her crew and leaving her dead in the water. This is described by the grand daughter of an anonymous stoker who served in HMS Versatile from 11 April 1940 to 29 September 1942. The destroyer HMS Janus (F53) towed her to Sheerness, England, for repairs.

After completing repairs in June 1940, Versatile was assigned to the 21st Destroyer Flotilla at Sheerness and began convoy duty in the English Channel and Southwestern Approaches. On 27 June 1940, about 150 nautical miles west of Ushant, France,  she rescued 13 of the 40 survivors of the Royal Navy special service vessel HMS Cape Howe, operating under the cover name RFA  Prunella to conceal its identity as a submarine decoy vessel or "Q-ship", which the German submarine U-28 sunk on 21 June 1940 with the loss of 56 lives.

On 25 August 1940, Versatile and Vimy were transferred to the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands and operated in Scottish waters and north to Iceland until oil leaks and problems with her Asdic and degaussing coil in October required repairs and a refit on the Tyne. She then joined the Rosyth Escort Force protecting east coast convoys from attack by e-boats and bombers in 1941-2. Versatile was "adopted" by Tipton in Staffordshire in a Warship Week fundraising campaign in February 1942.

In January 1943 she was converted to a Long Range Escort (LRE) at Grangemouth which increased her range by removing one boiler making more room for fuel but reducing her speed; she was also fitted with the Hedgehog AS weapon. In November 1943 she joined the B7 Escort Group escorting Atlantic Convoys. In November while escorting Convoy ONS.23 she ran into such heavy seas and shipped so much water she was forced to return to her base at Londonderry. This may have been the occasion graphically described 46 years later by Lt D. Langston-Jones RNVR.  Arthur Robinson, an ERA in the Engine Room, gives a frank if indiscrete account of events in Hard Lying,

She was under repair at Milford Haven and Belast from February to early April when preparations were in hand for Operation Neptune, the invasion of Normandy. Newer frigates and corvettes took over the Atlantic long range escort duties and Versatile and the older escorts were relegated to escort duties in the English Channel. On D Day, 6 June 1944, she was escorting components of the Mulberry Artificial Harbours being towed from England and Rear Admiral W.G. Tennant RN embarked on Versatile to inspect the towing of the components.

Once the allied armies were ashore Versatile and the other escorts were based at Portsmouth and Plymouth escorting shipping to the beaches before joining the Nore Command at Chatham escorting shipping to Ostend and Antwerp until the end of the war. An insight into life on Versatile during this period is given below by Sub Lt Alan Marsh RNVR.

By the 26 May 1945 Versatile was in the Humber reduced to Reserve and by the 8 June at Rosyth where she remained until May 1947 when she was handed over to the British Iron and Steel Corporation (BISCO) and on 6 August was sent to M. Brechin at Granton, Scotland, for scrapping.

The naval historian Robert Ruegg (1933 - 2012) wrote a six page account of the wartime service of HMS Versatile which can be seen as a PDF by clicking on the link.

Commanding Officers

Cdr Gerald C. Wynter, RN (19 January, 1918 -  November, 1920)
Cdr Evelyn H. B. L. Scrivener, 19 May, 1920 – 14 June, 1920  (temporary)
Cdr Victor L.A. Campbell RN (Sept 1920 - Dec  1922)
Cdr Lawrence D'O. Bignell, R  (14 September, 1922 – 21 May, 1923)
Cdr John Fawcett, RN (April, 1923 – 7 Feb. 1926)
Cdr Alexander L. Fletcher, RN (9 Feb 1926 – 1 April, 1926)
Lt Cdr Martin J. C. de Meric, RN (1 May, 1926 – 31 March, 1927)
Cdr Colin S. Thomson, RN (31 March, 1927 – March, 1929)
Lt Cdr Walter N. T. Beckett, RN (March, 1929 – 25 June, 1929)
Cdr Edmund G. N. Rushbrooke, 25 June, 1929 – November, 1930
Capt John F. B. Carslake, RN (8 November, 1930
Capt Claude P. Hermon-Hodge, RN (4 August, 1931 – 10 August, 1932)
Cdr Rhoderick R. McGrigor, RN (10 August, 1932 -
Cdr Cecil B. Turner, RN (January, 1934 -
Lieutenant (in Command?) Francis A. L. H. Watson, RN (1 August, 1935 -
Cdr. (retired) Thomas Andrew Hussey, RN (15 June 1939 - June 1940)
Cdr. (retired) John Henry Jauncey, RN (June 1940 - 29 Apr 1941)
Lt.Cdr. Jack Barrington Palmer, RN (29 April 1941 - Nov 1942)
Lt. Denis Guy Douglas Hall-Wright, RN (Nov 1942 - early 1943)
Lt.Cdr. Geoffrey Stuart Corlett, DSC, RN (1 Sep - Dec 1943)
Lt. Gilbert Charles Potter, DSC, RN (Dec 1943 - 3 Oct 1944)
Lt. Alfred Lee Harper, RN (3 Oct 1944 - mid 1945)

Wartime Officer 1939 - 1945

Click on the link for a list of wartime officers - arranged alpha
betically and by rank.

Former Full Members of the V & W Destroyer Assoociation who served in HMS Versatile
A. Bettell (Milton Keynes), J. Curbishley (Knutsford, Cheshire), E. Hampton (London), J. Heron (Hull), J.Lynch (Abergavenny),
Alan Marsh (Budleigh Salterton), E. Quarrie (Carlisle), Arthur Robbinson (Middlesborough),

Please get in touch if you have a family member who served in HMS Versatile

Channel Escort, 1944-5

Sub Lt Alan Spencer Marsh RNVR

Crossing the Line in SS Llanstephen Castle 1940The Ridge, Bloemfontein, South AfricaAlan was born in 1925 at Iver in Buckinghamshire, the younger of the two children of Spencer and May Marsh.  His father was a retired army Major who had served during the First World War and in India, before becoming a schoolteacher.  The family moved to Chelmsford where Alan spent most of his childhood and attended the King Edward VI Grammar School. In June 1940 he collected some shrapnel from a local field, a fragment of a shot-down Heinkel.

Alan Marsh was one of 308 children evacuated to South Africa,  traveling from Liverpool to Cape Town on RMS Llanstephan Castle, under the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) programme, on 24 August 1940. The programme was ended less than a month later when the evacuation ship SS City of Benares carrying 90 children bound for homes in Canada, was torpedoed and sunk on 17 September 1940.

Alan and his friend Johnny Beswetherick were billeted with the Champion family at "The Ridge" (on right) in Bloemfontein and educated at St Andrew’s School.  Johnny was a year younger than Alan but got them into trouble by organising a party while the Champions were away which led to them being sent to St Andrew's as boarders instead of day boys.

Elaine Marsh recalled that:

"He was at a very impressionable age when he went to South Africa and must have had to grow up quickly.  Although he was a quietly spoken man, he seems to have always had an outgoing personality which must have stood him in good stead.  I think he found the new environment stimulating and revelled in the climate and abundant new impressions.  He had many girlfriends (with amazing Afrikaans names!) during his time there – and told me it was where he ‘discovered there was more to life than Meccano’!  He managed to travel around a bit and visited Kruger National Park as well as resorts such as Karridene and Gum Tree with the Champions or the family of a school friend."

After matriculating in 1943 he was keen to return home and sign up. He returned to England
on RMS  Queen Mary which had been converted into a troop ship but also carried passengers. 


Alan Marsh at Greenwich 1944Alan Marsh 1948He volunteered for the Royal Navy on 6 September. Having matriculated (and being the son of a retired Army officer) he was selected for officer training under the  'Y' scheme which recruited educationally qualified young men while still at school. He did his basic new entrant training as a naval rating at Raleigh and on HMS Diomede, a Danae Class Light Cruiser which had been newly converted into a training ship at Rosyth. He then did his officer training at HMS King Alfred, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Officer training establishment at Hove, East Sussex. He was sent to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich on a two week training course before joining HMS Versatile at Londonderry as a Midshipman on 20 July 1944.

Alan Marsh served in HMS Versatile as a Midshipman and Sub Lieutenant from July 1944 until  she was decommissioned in 1946. Although he was a member of the V & W Destroyer Association he did not write anything for publication in the Association's magazine, Hard Lying, and I am indebted to his widow Elaine Marsh for the scans of photographs from his album and the few random memories of his wartime service in Versatile. The photograph on the left was cropped out from a photograph of the young officers attending the course at Greenwich in June 1944 and the one on the right was taken in 1948 after he left the Navy. When Versatile was sent for scrapping he took possession of the Ship's Log for the last quarter and the wooden name plate with the ship's name spelled out in brass letters wich was sadly lost. In later life he corresponded with one of his fellow officers whose frank comments bring this account of his time in Versatile to life.

Versatile had been converted into a Long Range Escort (LRE) and she met some of the East bound Atlantic Convoys from New York City to Liverpool (HX.308, HX.314, HX.348 and HX.351). Alan Marsh joined Versatile after the success of the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches when the u-boats abandoned their bases on the Atlantic coast of France and the Atlantic convoys reversed their direction.  Instead of rounding the north of Scotland and meeting the Rosyth Escort Force at Methil on the Firth of Forth for the journey south down the east coast to the Thames estuary they took the direct route through the English Channel. HMS Versatile left her base in Londonderry and moved to Chatham on the Medway and became one of the escorts for the convoys in the Western Approaches and the Channel.

Versatile was known affectionately by her officers and men as 'Tilly' and the ship's dog was given the same name. Vanquisher, usually Versatile’s partner on convoys along the south coast, was known as ‘Squisher’.

The Ship's dog on the Bridge with Sub Lt ASlan Marsh RNVR

The Ship's dog "Tilly" and"Guns", Gunner (T), Warrant Officer G W Butler RN, share a Watch on the open bridge of HMS Versatile on a fine day
Tilly was named after Versatile which was affectionately known by those who served in her as "Tilly"
Courtesy of Elaine Marsh

From left: NK, Lt A. Harper - the father, NK, Salter?
Officers in Versatile & Maid Marion
From left: Derek Langston-Jones & David Mayne

Alan Marsh wrote the names of the officers he served with in a notebook and got back in touch with one of them in 1990 after an absence of 46 years and in their letters they reminisced about their time together in Versatile, including some frank exchanges about senior officers which are revealing about attitudes in the Navy as well as personal prejudices. 2nd Lt Derek Langston-Jones RNVR recalled an incident on an Atlantic convoy which might have led to the loss of the ship:

"I wonder whether you were with us on that terrible Atlantic convoy when a port-hole aft was left open and we shipped 400 tons of sea water which caused our stern to sink level with the sea? Our Captain (Lt Cdr Corlett) was a big shipman, an Asdic specialist not used to destroyers. For that voyage our First Lt was not with us and an RN submariner was taking his place. The Captain sent for the First Lt and consulted him as to whether he should give the order to abandon ship! Imagine abandoned in the middle of the Atlantic! Fortunately, the First Lt, a level headed chap, advised against this. Not many onboard knew about this. Had our own First Lt been with us I dread to think what might have happened. He was that awful promoted Warrant Officer, Bob Spiller, a former Gunner's Mate, also a big shipman not used to destroyers who was later "sacked" by Potter (a real destroyer man). I have often joked that I took part in three invasions but scarcely saw a shot fired in anger. This flooding of the vessel was my nearest bit of danger. There followed a Court of Enquiry following which Corlett was relieved of his command. When the signal arrived with the order for him to hand over the command he was in the wardroom and offered to help the doctor decipher the message. A bit of a shock for him. We were most unhappy with him. He was always criticising the RNVR officers and kept a "black book" from which each week he used to read out the various mistakes we had made.  Not a pleasant experience. However, all changed when Gillie Potter assumed command. You will remember Bill Brading the Engineer Officer, later promoted to Commander. I often think of those happy days with Jackie France, David Mayne and yourself, and of course Bill Brading."

The Convoy described here  is thought to be ONS.23 which left Liverpool for for Halifax on 17 November 1943. Lt Cdr G S Corlett DSO RN was in command of Versatile from 1 September to December 1943 and since Alan Marsh joined at Londonderry on 20 July 1944 he was not aboard when this "incident" took place. Corlett's  successor as CO was also regular Navy but got on well with his RNVR officers. It is worth mentioning that by 1945 80% of officers were RNVR and many had been given command of their own ships but some RN officers continued to regard them with suspicion as no more than amateurs.

Baptism of the daughter of the CO aboard ship

Baptism of Berenice Lee Harper, the daughter of the CO, Lt. Alfred Lee Harper, RN at Chatham in October 1944
Double click the image to view full size for close up of the family and officers
Courtesy of Elaine Marsh

Lt Alfred L. Harper succeeded Lt. Gilbert "Gillie" Charles Potter, DSC, RN as CO on 3 October 1944 and arranged for his eighteen months old daughter Berenice to be baptised aboard Versatile in the inverted ship's bell by a naval chaplin, Neville Hetherington. Her mother was Bernice Harper (nee Shaw), the name they choose for their daughter was similar - but different. The society magazine The Tatler published a photograph taken at the ceremony and we are hoping the family will get in touch and provide a scan of the print.  In accordance with tradition the child's name was engraved on the inside rim of the bell.

When Lt Harper left
Versatile to join HMS Middleton as her CO on 10 June 1945 he sent for Alan Marsh's former shipmate Lt Derek Langston-Jones RNVR "not because of my fine seamanship, nor because of my skills as a navigator but because he knew I had experience in organising parties and knew a thing or two about good food!" Mike Alston joined HMS Middleton as an eighteen year old in 1943 and fifty years later wrote Destroyer and preserver The story of HMS Middleton and her ship's company - 1941-1946 (Maphigrada, 1993) drawing on the memories of his eighty fellow members of the HMS Middleton Association.

Going fishing!

FishingFishing - the catch

Versatile depth charged a shoal of fish identified by the Asdic as a U-Boat near Beachy Head and the ship's company enjoyed fresh fish for dinner
Courtesy of Elaine Marsh

The callsign of Versatile was "Skylight"

Elaine Marsh recalled Alan telling her that the callsign of Versatile was "Skylight" and Frank Donald explained -

"The Callsign in 'Skylight' would have been used by Versatile for RT (Radio Telephone) voice communications, used bridge to bridge in the later stages of WW2. A principal purpose was to co-ordinate close anti-submarine operations, a hazardous business particularly at night. Two darkened escorts would be circling the contact at very close range, limited by the very short sonar ranges of the day, they would take turns to attack, turning inwards to run over the submarine to drop their depth charge patterns. Even after ahead throwing weapons (Hedgehog, Squid mortars) were introduced their range was only about 300 yards, so the ship still had to approach the submarine though, as they did not have to run over it, they could hold asdic contact (at least until the bombs went off). Collisions continued into the 1960s."

Until RT became available the Navy relied on
"bunting tossers" and signal lamps (Visual Signalmen) for ship to ship communication and Wireless Telegraphy ("Sparkers") for longer range communication. Voice communication was not secure and despite its adsvantages usually avoided at sea in wartime. Mick Barron, a telegraphist in HMS Westminster escorting east coast convoys, described voice communication by German E-boats as their "secret weapon". Westminster had two Hungarian interpreters who spoke German and listened in on voice frequencies. Mick saw the Hungarian coder turn white when he heard an e-Boat ask permission to fire at the escorts.

The mining of the Horace J Binney on VE Day

The salvage of the Horace Binny off Deal 1945

HMS Versatile was on hand to assist in the beaching and salvage of the Horace Binney
Deal is on the East coast of Kent just south of the North Foreland

Alan Marsh described the mining in his notebook:

"Routine continued as usual for the 21st D Flotilla based at Sheerness. HMS Versatile sailed over to Southend on the afternoon of May 7th 1945 to pick up a convoy of American Liberty Ships and escort them to Flushing. Leaving Southend at about 2.30 am we proceeded down the Thames Estuary past Ramsgate bearing West down the swept  channel at Dumpton buoy just north of the Goodwin Sands.

All went well until we reached NF6 buoy just North of Ostend when about midday as we were passing one of the Liberty Ships and I was pondering who on earth Horace J Binney was whose name was on the bow when there was a nasty thump  of an underwater explosion and HJB gave a shudder, her pennants fell across her deck and a haze of dust rose from her. She had detonated a mine. Two or three seconds later men popped out of hatches and doors like jack in boxes."

After the War ended ...

RNVR Identity card for Alan Marsh 1948

Club membership Card

Alan Marsh remained in the Navy after the war ended on the day he saw the Horace J Binney mined but left HMS Versatile soon afterwards. He was posted to HMS Mayina, a shore base in Ceylon and from there to HMS Maid Marion, an armed yacht requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1939 and being used as a tender to the submarine flotilla based at Trincomalee. In March 1946 he left Maid Marion and joined HMS Bushwood, a deperming ship based at Trincomalee. This was his last sea going appointment before leaving the Navy in March 1947. He was a member of the Royal Navy Volunteer Supplementary Reserve until August 1948 and a member of the RNVR Club (now known as the Naval Club).

He was still a sub lieutenant but only 22 years of age and young enough to start a new life.He took a degree in Chemistry at London University where he met his future wife, Trudy. Trudy's full name was Gertrude Hilton Hackles. She came from Falmouth in Cornwall and they married in 1950.  Alan became an industrial chemist and worked for Courage’s Brewery for the rest of his life, retiring as their Chief Chemist.  He lived at various addresses in and around Farnham and Guildford in Surrey for most of his working life, his last house before retirement was at Wrecclesham, near Farnham. His last working base was Courage's Reading Brewery although he had to visit breweries all over the country and abroad. Alan and Trudy had two daughters , Patricia and Jane, and four grandchildren.

He moved to Budleigh Salterton a small seaside town  near Exmouth on the south coast of Devon when he retired in 1987. His first wife died in 2000 and he met Elaine Norsworthy through the Croquet Club, one of the biggest in the country, who "introduced Alan to new experiences and adventures, returning to South Africa, winning croquet competitions, eating garlic" which led to their marriage in 2008.  He died in December 2013.

Alan Marsh at Chania, Crete with depth charge thrower and triple torpedo tubes

Alan Marsh and Elaine visited the Maritime Museum in Chania, Crete, in 2002 and she photographed him leaning on a depth charge thrower (with George VI R) similar to those on HMS Versatile
On the right is a triple antisubmarine torpedo launcher dating from the 70s - or later.

It would be impossible to overstate the significance of his time in HMS Versatile, his first ship in which he served as both midshipman and sub-lieutenant.
He looked back on this time with pride and great affection all his life.

Painting of HMS Versatile by Eric Tufnell

Painting of HMS Versatile by Eric Tufnell  commissioned by Alan's parents and presented to him after the war
Photograph courtesy of Lucilla Phelps FRPS

Model of HMS Versatile

A 1:350 scale white metal model of HMS Versatile made by Skytrex Ltd and given by Elaine Marsh to her husband
Photograph courtesy of Lucilla Phelps FRPS

If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on HMS Versatile you should first obtain a copy of their service record
To find out how follow this link:

If you have stories or photographs of HMS Versatile you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Frank Donald
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