HMS Vortigern - between the wars
Postcard from Stormy Fairweather's Collection in Hard Lying
HMS Vortigern was named after the fifth century British ruler who
invited the Saxons to Britain to repel the Picts and Scots as recorded
in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She was built
on the Isle of Wight by J. Samuel White of Cowes, launched on 5
October 1917 and commissioned on 21 January 1918 and served in the final months of
the Great War and took part in the Baltic Campaign to protect the newly
established Baltic states from the Bolshevists. She was part of the 1st
and 5th Destroyer Flotilla serving with the Atlantic and Home Fleets in
the 1920s but was put in Reserve in 1934.
She was recommissioned in 1939 and took part in the Review of the
Reserve Fleet by King George VI in August. At the outbreak of war she
joined the 17th Destroyer Flotilla at Plymouth escorting convoys in the
Western Approaches and English Channel until the end of the year when
she and HMS Velox escorted
Convoy OG.14F to Gibraltar and joined the 13th Destroyer
Flotilla. On 3 July she was present at the attack on the French fleet
at Mers-el-Kébir (Operation Catapult) and in July was part of the escort for the battleships and aircraft carrier which attacked the French Battleship Dunkerque.
She returned to Britain later that month. On the 31 August she was a
member of the 5th DF escorting destroyers of the 20th DF laying mines
off the Dutch Coast when they were diverted to intercept a suspected
German invasion force but crossed a German minefield and two of the
destroyers in the 20th DF were sunk. Between September and
November 1940 she was converted into a Short Range Escort and then
joined the 12th Destroyer Flotilla at Rosyth escorting East Coast
On 15 March 1942 HMS Vortigern
(Lt.Cdr. Ronald Stanley Howlett, RN) was escorting southbound Convoy
FS.749 when she was torpedoed and sunk off Cromer on the Norfolk coast
by German E-boat S-104. The Convoy continued and although the sinking
of Vortigern was observed by
the other escort she was unable to stop and it was not until the
following morning that the 12 survivors out of the crew of 159 were
rescued by the corvette HMS Guillemot as described by her CO, Lt Samuel Lombard Hobson RN, in his book, A Sailor's War (St Martins Press, 1983), and by Bill Bradshaw, one of the survivors, below.
This is the highest number of casualties suffered by any escort for an east coast convoy. A list of all the men aboard and their fate
can be seen on this website. The wreck was a hazard to navigation and
was broken up with explosives and is now widely scattered but in
shallow water. HMS Vortigernis a war grave and although visited by amateur divers the wreckage should not be removed.
Lt Cdr Julian Harrison (Jan. 1918 – 12 Dec. 1920)
Lt Cdr Edmund F. FitzGerald (Nov. 1920 -
Lt Cdr Patrick W. R. Weir (April 1923 – Dec. 1924)
Lt Cdr Hamilton E. Snepp (Dec. 1924 - Dec. 1925)
Lit Cdr Frederick A. Richardson (Dec. 1925 – Dec. 1926)
Lt Cdr Charles W. T. V. S. Lepper (Dec. 1926 – 1928)
Navy List, April 1942 The officers serving in HMS Vortigern
when she sunk with the dates on which they joined.
Lt Cdr Ronald
S. Howlett and all his officers were killed except Gunner Watson and
the Midshipman D`Albiac who were both wounded.
Engineer Richard Fraser
Clark survived the sinking but was not present at the enquiry held by
FOIC Harwich on 15 March, the date of her sinking, so may have been too
badly wounded to attend.
The short single page report dated
1540/15/March is in the National Archives but can be seen as a PDF on
this site - see the link below.
Former Full Members of the V & W Destroyer Assoociation
Bill Bradshaw (Barking, Essex))
Please get in touch if you knew Bill Bradshaw - see his story below - or have a family member who served in HMS Vortigern
E-Boat Alley 15 March, 1942
The loss of HMS Vortigern
The official report into the loss of HMS Vortigern in the North Sea off Cromer is in the National Archives at Kew, ADM 358/4052 contains a brief report from FOIC Harwich relating
what happened based on evidence of survivors and a list of those
killed. The best description of events leading to the the loss of HMS Vortigern is by Lt Richard le Hunte (“Sam”) Lombard-Hobson RN, the CO of HMS Guillemot, in his book, A Sailor's War (St
Martins Press, 1983). Click on his thumbnail image on the right
to view the full size original in the National Portrait Gallery. On the
15 March Gullemot was leading a large southbound convoy of 52 ships. Guillemot
had been fitted with an early non-directional Type 271 RDF
(radar), a novel new system, and was four miles ahead of the convoy
with HMS Holderness and Wallace on the flanks and Vortigern
at the rear. The night was dark with no moon, the sea calm, ideal
conditions for an attack by e-boats and earlier that day the convoy had
been shadowed by aircraft. The e-boats were waiting inshore of the
convoy near Cromer on the Norfolk coast and attacked shortly before 10
pm. Vortigen was hit by two torpedoes and sunk within minutes. Holderness and Wallace counter attacked with gunfire and sank one e-boat and damaged another.
Lombard-Hobson let Guillemot drop slowly back along the seaward side of the convoy, found the end position where HMS Vortigern
had been empty and heard men in the water shouting for help. Two men
were pulled aboard out but he was at a loss to decide whether to launch
boats and life rafts laying his ship open to attack by an e-boat when
the decision was made for him by a cry from the RDF operator of a
confirmed echo from a stationary target. Lombard-Hobson ordered hands
to "Creeping Stations", a special drill he had devised to attack a
stationary target. The gunner's mate lay flat on a matress in the eyes
of the ship with a machine gun at the ready, other small arms close at
hand and the forecastle 4-inch gun at maximum depression while Guillemot
approached at dead slow speed producing no bow wave or wash. When the
echo merged with the radar ground wave they knew they were close but
could not detect the target until, finally, the searchlight was
switched on and an e-boat could be seen, asleep in the water with the
only sign of life a gunner in the stern "shedding a tear for Nelson".
The action was over in a minute, the seaman riddled with bullets and
the e-boat sunk, followed by total darkness as the searchlight was
suddenly switched off as the operator stumbled and fell on the deck
below, concussed, and chaos followed as an e-boat attacked from the
port side. Disaster was averted by a sharp turn towards the attacker
which raced alongside Guillemot too close for either vessel to damage the other.
HMS Vortigern was unofficialy adopted by four schools in Wells, Somerset, as reported in theWells Journal
on Friday 6 June 1941. They sent regular parcels to "HMS Wells"
with postage paid by Miss Chegwidden. It must have come as a dreadful
shock when the children leaned that their ship had been sunk. Wartime
censorship would have prevented her loss being reported in the press
and there is no further mention of her in the Wells Journal.Frank Witton had a narrow escape. He was posted from HMS Pembroke at Chatham to his first ship, HMS Woolston, in February 1942 but Woolston was at sea and he stayed aboard HMS Vortigern until Woolston returned to Rosyth. Frank survived the war and will be a hundred on 16 December 2022.
This first hand account was written by Bill Bradshaw, one of the twelve survivors, for Hard Lying, the magazine of the V & W Destroyer Association
"I joined the Vortigern
at Rosyth in early '41 after passing out as S/T at Vernon and Roedean
college Brighton. We did a lot of convoy duties and at one time we were
escorting a cruiser from Dundee, going South. We picked up a young
drafter there, the weather was terrible, no one was allowed fore or aft
unless absolutely necessary, but this young lad, on his very first trip
was washed overboard and was lost. I never even got to know him.
Whilst proceeding South we received
a signal to proceed to the Channel. Three German battleships were
trying to break out - the Channel Dash. Our sister ship Worcester was hit and one of my shipmates, Jim Adams was injured.
At the time of our sinking, we had
left Portsmouth on Sunday 13th March to meet up with the convoy. The
weather was again bad, corned beef sandwiches was all we could have. On
the night we were torpedoed, we were at action stations, I was on duty
middle watch, luckily. I had just switched on the degaussing motor
forward for we knew there was trouble in store because merchant ships
were being blown up. My duty was right aft with the depth charge party,
keeping in touch with the bridge by manning the telephone. The night
was pitch black, all we could see was the silhouettes of the merchant
ships. At about 0200 we were hit forward. I always thought that it was
two torpedoes, because the ship went down so very quickly.
I managed to free a Carley raft
which was lashed around upright by a thick sling. I had to punch the
wood toggle out with my fist. I damaged my hand but did not notice it.
These rafts had a lamp aboard which was activated on contact with the
sea, so we had a light. I remember the officers steward who
had his quarters aft came up to me on the deck and I told him to jump
overboard, we had no order to abandon ship because all those forward
had been killed. He said to me "I've got to go back to retrieve
something". I never saw him again. I took my duffle coat off, all I had
on was a boiler suit and my rubber safety ring. I jumped in and managed
to swim to the raft. I helped some of the others to get on. The oil
fuel and the sea were so very cold. Quite a few died and slipped away.
Our First Lieutenant was hanging on, but he too died and drifted away.
Two others died on the raft, one named 'Sharky' Ward our L/S LTO also a
three badge A.B. Sharky had only got married on his last leave. He came
We must have been adrift for about
eight hours, after a lot of singing and talking about different things
just to keep ourselves awake. We were of course overjoyed to see
a corvette, HMS Guillemot
on the horizon, searching for survivors. I tried climbing
the scrambling nets, but I was too cold, however I was hauled aboard,
put in the shower room and scrubbed down with hard brushes to bring
back the circulation. The M.O. refused us rum because we had swallowed
oil fuel. We were then taken to Lowestoft hospital. I was there for
three days, my feet and legs were very bad. Luckily I got over it and
was allowed home on leave. I received a telegram to go to Lowestoft to
help identify the shipmates that are now buried there. I was met at the
station by two Nuns, and taken to a 'mock up mortuary' a tin hut. It
really upset me to see the lads laid out there. Then I was
called to the Admiralty, and before Admirals and other high-ranking
officers had to answer questions about the sinking.
I finished my Naval career as a L/S LTO on two carriers, the Argus on the North African landings and the HMS Indefatigable out in the Pacific."
Lombard-Holbson and HMS Gulillemot were feted by headlines in the press
to divert the public's attention from the loss of HMS Vortigern with
most of her crew. When the next morning on 16 March a ship was sent to
look for survivors two men were found clinging to the bow sticking from
the water and a further half dozen were pulled from the water. Most of the dead were not recovered. The RNLI lifeboat H.F. Bailey, skippered by
the renowned Joe Bloggs, was also in attendance recovering bodies.
The loss of life from the sinking
of the Vortigern was the highest incurred in the loss of a ship on East
There were 159 men aboard HMS Vortigern when she was torpedoed and sunk off Cromer on the Norfolk coast by German E-Boat S-104 and only twelve survivors. The bodies of most
of those who died were not recovered and are marked "missing" on the list of men aboard HMS Vortigernwhen she sunk. The names of the fifteen officers and men from HMS Vortigern buried in the Beccles Road cemetery
at Lowestoft are: Lt
Cdr. R.S. Howlett DSC, Lt. P.A.B. Powell, Sub Lt. J.
Gilmour, AB J. Muir, AB D. McLeod Wierman, R.C.
Nutt, AB L.W. Grace, AB J Flynn, AB J.H. Jones,
AB H. Smith, AB J.R. Leigh, AB J.L. Stewart, AB D. Mcleod, H. Farrow. Petty
Officer George Blundell's body was washed up at Cromer one month later
and is also buried in Cromer cemetery.
The V & W Destroyer Association
held a memorial service for the dead near their graves in the Beccles
Road Cemetery on 19 May 1996 during their reunion at Great Yarmouth. Ken Foster, a Telegraphist in HMS Viceroy, was one of those who attended and Bill Bradshaw, was probably there as well. The service was appropriately conducted by a war veteran, the Revd Thomas Russell Hawthorne,
who grew up in Bolivia, flew Hurricanes in the RAF during the war and
was a POW in Poland and Germany for three years before graduating from Imperial College and becoming a civil
engineer. The order of service (see below) is on display in the museum of the Association of the Royal Navy Patrol Service.
The wreck of the Vortigern was a hazard to shipping and despite the site being a war grave was dispersed with the use of explosives and wire swept to a clear
depth of 19mtrs. This is probably when the ship's wheel was recovered.The site is now protected under the protection of
military remains act 1986. Diving on the site is permitted, however the
removal of items and disturbance of the site is prohibited. The wreck
is very broken in 20mtrs, widely dispersed with items of wreckage upto
400 mtrs from the main site. Norfolk Divers have dived the site.
In 1996 the V & W Destroyer Association presented the ship's wheel of HMS Vortigern to the Museum of the Royal Navy Patrol Service (RNPS) in Lowestoft
The Museum of the RNPSin
Sparrows Nest Gardens, Lowestoft, sent me photographs of the ship's
wheel and the order of service which are on display in the
Stannard Room named after Lt Richard Been Stannard RNR who was awarded
the first VC of the war for the evacuation of troops from Namsos,
Norway, in HM Trawler Arab in April - May 1940. Lt Cdr R.B. Stannard VC was awarded the DSO when HMS Vimy under his command sunk U-187
and rescued her crew on 4 February 1943. Richard Stannard lived in
Loughton, Essex during the war years, and Peter Tipler the former
Chairman of the Loughton Branch of the RNA (now dissolved) wrote an
account of the life of "local hero" Captain Richard Been Stannard, VC, DSO, RNVR.
The inscription reads "Presented by the V & W Destroyer Association 19 May 1996"
had been sent on loan to the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS) with its
own Port Division at Lowestoft, for the requisitioned fishing fleet of
500 ships. The fishermen were just given naval uniforms and returned to
their ships. Small ships converted to minesweepers, large ones for
anti-submarine duties, eventually expanding to 66,000 men. I had no
regrets; there was less naval discipline, friendly crews, no dull
moments and 1 shilling a day extra. The RN Patrol Service in 1940 alone
lost 122 trawlers, 46 sunk by mines, 36 by aircraft attacks, 17 by
collisions, 7 by unknown causes, 4 by E-boats, 4 were wrecks, 4 by
enemy gunfire, 3 flounder, 1 by a U-boat."
Elderly V & W Class Destroyers and HM Tugs of the RNPS were the mainstay of the escorts for East Coast Convoys
The airborne menace along the east coast from German aircraft based in
Norway, Denmark and north Germany was countered by the WAIR conversion
of V & Ws where High Angle (HA) 4 inch guns replaced the original
Low Angle 4 inch or 4.7 inch and a variety of close range machine guns,
pompoms and Oerlikons were fitted together with improved fire control
and ranging systems. These dual purpose 4 inch guns could also be used
to fight off the the German "schnell boote" in E-boat Alley where HMS Vortigern
was torpedoed. They retained all three boilers making them fast
short-range anti-aircraft escorts. The WAIR converted V & Ws were:
the Class Leader, HMS Wallace, with the future Prince Philip as 1st Lt, Whitley, Wolsey, Valorous, Vivien, Winchester, Valentine, Woolston, Vega, Vimiera, Wryneck, Verdun, Westminster, Vanity, Viceroy and Wolfhound.
All the V&Ws in the Rosyth Escort Force were WAIR conversions. I hope to add a list of all the V & W destroyers which escorted
East Coast Convoys to this site with links to their pages but in the
meantime if you would like to know more about their role as escorts for
East Coast Convoys you might like to start by looking at the website of
HMS Westminster which includes the transcription of the Diary of Midshipman Derek Tolfree
covering the period from 23 December 1942 - 9 March 1944 and a map of
the east coast convoy routes between the Humber and Thames estuaries
where HMS Vortigern was torpedoed.
V & W Destroyer Association
Click on the link to see a complete list of the Ship's Company with their fates on this website
Probably taken soon after completion at Cowes on the Isle of Wight Believed to be from a postcard