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





HMS Vortigern (D37)
HMS Vortigern - between the wars
Postcard from Stormy Fairweather's Collection in Hard Lying


HMS Vortigern was built on the Isle of Wight by J. Samuel White of Cowes. She was launched on 5 October 1917 and 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. HMS Vortigern was 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 Convoys.

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 Vortigern is a war grave and although visited by amateur divers the wreckage should not be removed.

Commanding Officers

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)
Lt Cdr Thomas B. Hill (Dec. 1928 – July 1930)
Lt Cdr Benjamin C. S. Martin (July 1930 - Feb 1932)
Lt Cdr Eric B. K. Stevens (Aug. 1932 – 1933)
Lt Cdr John H. Plumer (July 1933 -
Lt Cdr Walter J. B. Handley (June 1939 – 2 Jan 1940)
Lt Cdr Ronald S. Howlett (Jan. 1940 – March, 1942)
killed when vessel lost under his command

Officers

Lt Francis Barchard (Dec 12930 - Sept 1932)
Sub Lt Ian Easton (Sept - Oct 1938)
Lt Sidney James Hall (Feb 1941 -
Lt John Spencer (Nov 193- - Sept 1932)
Lt Richard Furneaux Stubbs (June - Sept 1939)
Lt John A. W. Tothill (Jan 1933 -  Jan 1934)


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

Lt R Lombard-Huson RNThe official report into the loss of HMS Vortigern in the North Sea off Cromer is in the National Archives at Kew, ADM 358/4052. 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 the image to view the full size original in the NPG. 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 the Wells 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.

HMS Vortigern, quarter viewThe adoption of HMS Vortigern by schools in Wells, SomersetI 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 from Liverpool.

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.
Bill Bradshaw

*************

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 sinking of the Vortigern and the loss of life, was the biggest loss on the East Coast Convoys

The names of those buried in the 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. 

Due to the wrecks position it was seen to be a hazard to shipping. Despite the site being a war grave the Vortigern was dispersed with the use of explosives and wire swept to a clear depth of 19mtrs. 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.

The V & W Destroyer Association held a memorial service at Lowestoft in May 1995 for the men who died when HMS Vortigern was torpedoed and presented her bell to the local naval museum


Click on the link to see a complete list of the Ship's Company with their fates on this website

HMS Vortigern, postcard between the wars?
Probaby taken soon after completion at Cowes on the Isle of Wight
Believed to be from a postcard

If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on HMS Vortigern you should first obtain a copy of their service record
To find out how follow this link: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/servicerecords.html


If you have stories or photographs of HMS Vortigern you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Bill Forster



Return to the Home Page of the V & W Destroyer Association
Return to the Index Page for the 69 V & W Class Destroyers