Lt.Cdr. Cecil Hamilton Holmes CO of HMS Witch from May 1941 - June 1942 Escorting Atlantic Convoys
Lt.Cdr. Cecil Hamilton Holmes, RN was CO of HMS Witch from 4 May
1941 to July 1942. He is the only wartime CO of HMS Witch
to have left a first hand account of his time as CO. It is brief and
informal but gives a real insight into what it was like to be CO of a V
& W destroyer escorting Atlantic Convoys from Liverpool to North
Cecil Holmes was born in Seoul, Korea, where his father worked for the
British Legation, on 18 March 1906. Cecil was one of four children, two
born in Japan where his father retired as His Majesty's Consul-General
at Yokohama and was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael
and St George (CMG) by King George V in his 1928 birthday honours. This
seems very remote from Northwich but his father's family came from
Ireland and he was born near Liverpool, not that far from Northwich.
He was 13 when he joined the Royal Navy in 1919 and by 1929 was a Lieutenant. At his own request he was sent to Japan to study the language from 1933-6. His family tree
has been traced by Nina Challenor and can be seen on Ancestry. By 1937
he was a Lt Cdr and on 20 January 1940 was appointed CO of HMS Scout, an S Class Destroyer based at Hong Kong, his first command. He was 33 and travelled to Hong Kong on the liner Aeneas with his 21 year old Danish wife, Lisbet Kampmann. He returned a year later to take command of HMS Witch
while it was having a six week refit at the Vickers Yard at Barrow in
Furness. His wife, now pregnant, stayed with his sister in large
house near Windermere. He joined HMS Witch
on the 4 May 1941 and in July they moved to the Gladstone Dock at
Liverpool, the base for the Atlantic escorts of Western Approaches
His son Jasper "was born in Northwich as it was seen as good luck for the ship" on 14 November 1941 (Kate Holmes, his daughter in law) which led to the adoption of HMS Witch by Northwich in March 1942 after a successful Warships Week National Savings programme. See father and son on the right.
I was sent a copy of his memoir and the photographs by the son and daughter in law of Lt Cdr C.H. Holmes RN - see below
Undated but thought to be the the names of the 47 ratings who joined HMS Witch at the start of her new Commission after her refit But could be the names of veterans who joined Witch when she was commissioned at the start of the war Found in the papers of Lt Cdr Cecil H Holmes and reproduced courtesy of Jasper and Kate Holmes
"The ship's company of about 200
consisted half of 'pensioners' older men called up from the
reserve at the beginning of the war, postman, caretakers, farmers and
Jacks of all trades. One of the best sailors in the ship had driven a
funeral hearse in a top hat and frock coat for years before the war.
The other half were young 'hostilities only' men who were kindly and
firmly pummeled into shape by the old hands. As a combination they were
grand. The young ones seemed to supply the youth and enthusiasm and the
old ones to supply the steadying influence and experience." Lt.Cdr.
Cecil Hamilton Holmes.
HMS Witch (I89) after refit in 1941 From the collection of Lt Cdr Cecil H Holmes , reproduced courtesy of Jasper and Kate Holmes
Cecil Holmes described the routine
of escorting Atlantic Convoys from Liverpool to ports on the
eastern seabord of Canada in Chapter 7 of his memoiir A Sailor Remembers:
"A convoy under a
retired senor officer called the "Convoy Commander" would be assembled
in Liverpool and Glasgow and an escort group of available destroyers
under the orders of the senior escort officer present.
These would set off north of Ireland and rendezvous with another
long-range escort group somewhere in mid-Atlantic. This group would
take the convoy over towards the Canadian coast where they would be met
by a Canadian escort group who would take them to Halifax, Nova Scotia,
their main naval base and convoy assembly point.
This was ideal but of course a thousand and one things could go wrong.
German surface raiders could appear (very rare) and scatter the
convoys. Very heavy weather or continuous fog or even icebergs break up
the convoy. The mishaps that could happen are too numerous to
mention, but it was always the escorts duty to try and gather up the
broken bits and get them home intact. The convoy MUST get through.
The type of attack the escorts hated most was one developed early on by the Germans and known as the "Wolf Pack" attack.
A u-boat sighting a convoy did not attack immediately but whistled up
her nearest colleagues and together they formed a pack of 3, 4 or 5
boats. These shadowed the convoy for a day or two and then one night
tore into the convoy like a lot of ravenous wolves.
The confusion was terrific and it was difficult to distinguish the
U-boats in the general slaughter and confusion. After expending their
munition they then retired - or what was left of them if we had been
lucky to sink one or two.
My personal life during the convoys was confined to the bridge and my
sea cabin just underneath it. This was a compartment about six feet by
six feet containing a bunk, a washtand, a small desk and chair. Here I
slept, ate, read or wrote, if I was not up top, awiting the unwelcome
cry "Captain on the bridge, Sir, please". I never dared go as far as my
spacioous quarters and bath aft; so for ten days or a fortnight I went
One of the most dramatic and vivid events described by Cecil Holmes in A Sailor Remember is the rescue of survivors from the American steamship SS Independence Hall which
broke its back and ran aground on Sable Island off the Canadian coast.
His description is combined below with the memory of an 18 year old
apprenctice on the wrecked ship and a letter of commendation praising
the rescue written by the only surviving deck officer.
Rescue of Seamen from the American Steamship Independence Hall 7 March 1942
The Independence Hall
was one of 122 "Hog Islanders" built at a new shipyard on Hog Island
south West of Philadelphia on the Delaware River towards the end of
World War 1. They had a reputation for being ugly but well built and at
the time Hog Island was the largest shipyard in the world with 50
slipways. She was completed in 1920 and named after Independence
Hall in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Rights and the American
Constitution were debated and signed in 1776 so had a special
significance to all Americans.
On 4 December 1939 she rescued 300 civilians including women and children from two British merchant ships, the SS City of Mandalay and SS Yorkshire, torpedoed and sunk by U-37 in the Bay of Biscay. Gaumont British News broadcast film of the survivors aboard the Independence Hall.
On 7 March 1942 the Independence Hall
became separated from Convoy SC.73 from Halifax to Liverpool and ran aground on
Sable Island. The survivors were desperately in need of assistance and
HMS Witch was there to help. Lt Cdr Cecil Holmes vividly described the rescuein Chapter Eight of his memoir, "A Sailor Remembers", based on "a radio broadcast I was asked to make some year or so later when the events were still fresh in my memory".
Sable Island is a long low sand pit lying some 200 miles off
the coast of Canada on the Newfoundland Grand Banks, commonly called
amongst sailors "the graveyard of the Atlantic". Cecil Holmes begins
his description of the rescue in the first person but when he describes
his own part in risking the ship and his men he changes to the third
person, referring to himself as "the captain" as if to put a distance
between himself and the dramatic events he describes.
Cecil Holmes (1906 - 81) was living in the village of Old Bosing near
Basingstoke when this extract from his memoir was published in the Gazette
on Friday 31 August 1979 - omitting to his annoyance the final
paragraph about being awarded a medal for "other buggers
efforts". The other contributions were published in Hard Lying, the magazine of the V & W Destroyer Association, and were contributed by Ray Hodgson, a HO PO Telegraphist in HMS Witch.
Two of the boats used in the rescue of the men from the SS Independence Hall were presented to TS Witch, the Training Ship of the Sea Cadet Unit at Northwichformed in 1942, the year HMS Witch
was adopted by Northwich, where Lt Cdr Holmes' son Jasper was born in
1941. The Sea Cadets used them on the Trent Weaver Navigation at
Northwich for many years.
Events leading up to the wreck
Philip F. Gresser an apprentice on the SS Independence Hall
I enrolled in the apprentice
seaman's programme Of the U.S. Maritime Service in July 1941. I was
eighteen years old and the U.S. had not yet entered the second world
war. My Father was second engineer on a Moore McCormack vessel Independence Hall,
a world war one Hog Islander. He telephoned me in New York where we
lived and advised me that there was a fireman/water tenders job open on
the ship which was then loading cargo at Philadelphia.
So I reported to the seaman's union
hall and was assigned to the vessel. On arrival I noticed that she was
loading a complete cargo of war materials. Barbed wire, munitions and
finally 13 tanks on the deck, six forward and seven aft of the midship
house. We sailed unescorted to New York, Boston and finally
Halifax, Nova Scotia where we were to become part of the convoy SC73 to
sail first to Scotland, then on to Murmansk. We sailed from
Halifax on March 6th 1942 in single file, we were to form a convoy
either some hours later or the following day. We were the third ship
from last, the last two, one of which was torpedoed and sunk. During
the day the weather worsened and by the following morning it was
On the morning of March the 7th,
the Bosun and other crew members were either trying to swing out or
swing in the two lifeboats on the lee side of the mid ships house when
the Bosun was gashed in the head by one of the round bars. The third
mate, Mr Lee, came back from the bridge with the medical kit to stitch
the Bosun's wound, and ultimately this is what saved Mr Lee's
life. Suddenly there was a tremendous bang and the fire
room bilge started filling with water, when the bang happened the
engine room telegraph went full astern and the engine was so
set. The oiler started the bilge pump to drain number three
hold, but the fire room continued to fill with water (none of us in the
machinery space knew that we had broken in two). By noon when I was
supposed to be relieved, the fire room floor plates were already
starting to float around and I was probably smoking two cigarettes at
the same time and already thinking that I would be dead before the day
was over. My relief was standing at the top of the boiler room yelling
at me that he was afraid to come down. The third engineer tied a rope
round me so that I could be pulled out of the fire room in the event
that I was injured or completely flooded out.
Sometime later someone came down
(it may have been my Father) and told me to come up on deck via the
engine room ladders. I went topside and out on deck, the first thing I
noticed was what appeared to be another vessel a few hundred yards away
from us. I asked what ship it was and was told, the other half of our
ship. About an hour later, the third officer, Mr Lee, told
us to prepare to abandon ship. We were told to get into the lifeboats
on the weather side, this we did, but as soon as we started to lower
them it became obvious that if we touched water we would be slammed
into the side of the ship and probably killed. We pulled the boats back
up on deck and went into one of the rooms. The house had rooms on both
port and starboard sides with two open passage ways running through
from for to aft. We all went into the crews mess rooms where there was
some food, and after we had broken into the slop chest. Those of us who
were wet were able to get some dry clothes, cigarettes and
We had just settled into the mess
room when some lube oil drums on the upper deck us broke loose and as
we rolled over from side to side, so did the oil drums. Eventually they
began to break through the overhead. We decided to abandon the mess
room for the top of the engine room. This was not as easy as it sounds
because great waves were coming through both the midships passage ways
and any movement had to be carefully timed and quickly done between the
waves. We made these moves one at a time until most of us were inside
the engine room fidley. The wiper, Richard Nathan (known to us as
'Shorty') made his move, his timing was off and a wave caught him and
carried him through the passage way and over the rail. He managed to
grasp on of the cargo masts and hold on for about half a minute,
screaming 'Help me, help me' but all we could do was to stand there and
watch him being swept away by a wave. Those few minutes haunted me for
a long time afterwards and it was a long time before I stopped dreaming
about the whole incident.
The weather was still bad and we
were all cold and wet some of us hugged each other to try and get warm.
There were now known to be seven dead. By now we had no food or water
and many of us were thirsty. We dare not smoke because of the lube oil
and kerosene which we afraid might catch fire. The radio
operator thought that he had got out an S.O.S. before the ship broke
and the antenna parted. We were aground off Sable Island
and sinking slowly, all we could do was to stay where we were and hope
and pray that our plight was known. We remained like this all
night. In the morning we heard an aircraft flying nearby,
and as it had calmed down slightly we all went to the top deck of the
house and waved whatever we could lay pour hands on to attract the
planes attention. It flew overhead and banked to let us know that he
had seen us and then flew off. We hoped that whoever he notified would
be there soon because the weather was still bad and we were still
A couple of hours later a Canadian
corvette showed up and came as close as it could and proceeded to try
and launch a boat. Almost immediately the boat capsized but luckily all
the men were able to get back on board the corvette.
Signals were exchanged and they advised us that they would try again
later when the weather subsided. An hour or so later a British
destroyer, HMS Witch
approached, again as close as it could in the very shallow water and
proceeded to launch one of it's boats. This boat also capsized and one
man was lost in the effort. When we heard this we really began to give
up hope. We thought that no one would do anything until the weather had
calmed down, we did not think that we could last much
The "Witch" launched another boat,
this one made it to us and proceeded to remove us, several at a time.
At this point there were 38 of us. The chief cook and the oiler had
died during the night. The cook by his own hand and the oiler had gone
crazy. A total of ten were now dead. Witch's
boat made several trips back and forth, using oars only, until we were
all safely on board. We were taken below, our clothes dried out for us,
given food and water and made to feel comfortable. I was given a
hammock to sleep in. The next morning we arrived in Halifax
where we were met by people of the Canadian Red Cross.
Philip F. Gresser
Palm Beach, Florida
Lt.Cdr. Cecil Hamilton Holmes CO of HMS Witch from May 1941 - June 1942
Island was a long, low wicked looking sand spit, running due east
and west about a mile broad, and 20 miles long. At each end was a
continuation of the island under water, shoals reaching for 15 miles or
more composed of quicksands with the surf breaking over them and
occasionally sticking out, was an odd mast of a wreck which had been
swallowed by the sands.
The situation when we arrived was that a
lovely new American merchant ship had been broken in two by the gale of
the day before. She had been carrying a lot of heavy tanks on the upper
deck and the weight of these had broken her back. The two
separate parts had floated ashore and were sitting on the sand.
There were two Catalinas flying around and
three Canadian men-of-war on the north side of the spit. We had
approached from the south and although we were only some couple
of miles away from them, we were nearly 50 miles away from them in
We approached the scene just after lunch and made the signal: "Can we
be of any assistance?" "You sure can", came the answer. Then the
Catalinas started to signal: "forepart of the ship no sign of life.
After part 20 men or more alive."
As we approached we came across two boats with men in them and we
thought at first that they were from the wreck, but on picking them up,
they were the boats from the Canadian ships which had tried to battle
through the surf to the wreck. But when within a few hundred yards a
very strong tide sweeping from north to south had swept them right past
and over the spit towards us and, for the time being, they had been
quite helpless, as they were unable to row against that strong tide to
get back to the wreck.
The officer in charge told us that the surf over the spit was simply
killing and they were lucky to have got through it allright. However,
it was calming down every minute and it was decided that, as there was
a nice stiff breeze from the south, perhaps a boat under sail might
have a chance against the strong southerly current,
The captain decided to take the ship slowly as near as he dared to the
wreck. There were no charts of this locality showing the depth of water
as the sands had a habit of shifting from year to year. Two men wth
lead and ine each were placed in the bows and the ship steamed dead
slow towards the after party of thge wreck on which itcould now be seen
there were a number of men.
Meanwhile, the whaler had been rigged for sailing and volunteers called
to man the boat. Did I say volunteers? It was more like a chucking out
party at a night club on St Patrick's Day in Liverpool. Everyone had
some very good reason why he should be specially selected to go.
However, the captain selected the pick of the ship's company with the
1st lieutenant in charge. Meanwhile, the ship was slowly approaching
the wreck. "By the mark ten" - "And a quarter eight" - "Deep six" came
the soundings in the fathoms from the leadsmen.
We were now less than half a mile from the wreck with every prospect of
getting quite close before having to stop due to lack of water when
suddeny, "and a half two" came the leadsman. The captain nearly jumped
out of his skin. The ship was drawing about 13 feet and 21/2 fathoms is only 15 feet.
"Stop boat" Half astern together" and gradually we drew back out of it.
It was now or never as the whaler was dropped and sent off towards the
wreck under sail while the ship was kept in position as near as
possible by moving the engines slowly ahead and astern.
Everyone was watching the whaler through glasses - 200 yards, 100 yards
from the wreck, now she's entering the surf. Will she make it? Just
then an enormous roller caught her and spun her round like a cork and
over she went.
The crew were flung into the water, but they had their lifebelts on and
the tide was bringing them towards the ship. One of the Canadian boats
was quickly manned and pulled out towards them against the tide. The
ship once more took herself as close as she dared.
The captain on the bridge was swearing fit to beat any Thames bargee.
He always did that when he got upset. It was a sure barometer.
One of the Catalinas dropped a rubber dinghy but it unfortunately
missed them. However, in 20 minutes the men were all safely aboard the
Canadian boat and being brought towards the ship where the doctor and
his party were waiting for them with blankets and hot stimulants.
Ten minutes later the captain sent a message down to the doctor asking
how the men were getting along. Back came the answer: "regret to report
one dead, sir, and the other five unconscious."
We couldn't believe our ears. The captain went as white as a sheet. It
was his responsibility. What we hadn't taken into account was that the
temperature of the water was 33F, one degree above freezing and could
cut like a knife. No-one can live long in that water.
Luckily, the other five recovered in a short time, but the one that
died was our chief bosun's mate - and quite one of the best in the
ship. But what to do now? There were still 30 men in that wreck.
After a general conference on the bridge it was decided that as the
tide was slackening up by now, to try and pull the Canadian boat, which
was sturdily built in under oars. Any more volunteers? Of course, there
were as many as you want, "Bad luck on the poor chief buffer, but there
are still men to be rescued way over yonder" (We were a West Country
The Sub-Lieutenant took the next trip in. "Gosh, she's got there,"
"Well done Subby, well done boat's crew." Back they came, heavily laden
through the surf with a dozen survivors very exhausted and cold
after their 48 hours on board the surf-covered wreck.
Subby was sent back with a fresh crew to bring off another bunch of
survivors. He had reported that there were still another 25 on board,
all in a pretty bad way. This second trip was frightful.
As the overloaded boat was on its way back, the biggest roller of the
whole afternoon then swooped down on it and, as the boat met the wave,
her bows went up. And she literally stood on her tail. By the grace of
God, however, she was not rolled over, but came down again like a knife
still pointing in the right direction.
The effort, however, had shaken the sub who, on his return, came up to
the bridge and reported to the captain that he didn't think the boat
could do another trip. "How many men left in the ship?" "15 sir," "It's
got to do it."
Both Canadian officers were clamouring to take the boat in again. The
RNVR sub and the midshipman were begging to be allowed to take the boat
in. Finally, one of the Canadians got it and the RNVR sub and the
midshipman were told that as a special favour that they could take an
oar with the men.
It was getting dark now, but off the boat went with the aid of a
searchlight and came back after half an hour or so with what, we hoped
was the rest of the survivors.
It was pitch dark now and, unfortunately, there were still half a dozen
men on board, including the only surviving deck officer of the ship who
had taken charge on board the wreck in a splendid fashion and looked
after putting the exhausted men down into the boats pitching and
tossing in the surf alongside, which has been no mean feet.
The tide had also turned now and was against the boat on her difficult
journy back to the ship. The searchlight lost her as she got alongside
the wreck for the last time and nothing more was seen of the boat for a
whole hour and we all thought she was a gonner.
Just as all hope was being abandoned, however, up she bobbed hard
against the tide making no headway, but only advancing literally inches
at every stroke. She made it at last and we hoisted her, wth the last
of the 37 men from the wreck, on board.
And then it was a "half asten together to get to hell out of it".
The Graveyard is another of those places I know that none of us ever
want to see again. When we were cleared we turned around and steamed
off to Halifax at high speed to get the men in and arrived there next
morninng to be greeted by quite a reception committee of ambulances,
nurses, doctors, US naval officers coming to thank us and, much to the
delight of the ship's company, a telegram from Mr Knox.
Well, that was the "old witch" that was. I've left her now and it is
extraordinary how one misses the old woman. She was a good old
thing and may she live for many years yet. So, in the words of the
usual escort's farewell, "I bid you goodbye and good hunting."
In due course I received the OBE (Military) for "Skill and seamanship
in rescuing survivors from a torpedoed merchant man" and the
Petty Officer in charge of the first rescue boat, the BEM for "bravery
and seamanship". Three officers received "Mentions in Despatches for
bravery" and also a "posthumous mentions" went to my friend, the Chief
I have never seen a finer example of an award being given for "Other
Buggers Efforts" but that is the way it goes. It was my responsibility
and mine alone, and if the luck had not held I would have been for the
Lt Cdr Cecil H Holmes RN
The Chief Boatswain's mate, known aboard ship as the "Buffer", was the only man who died. PO William Trick (D/J 98434)
was buried at the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was 37
years old, the son of Grace Trick and husband of Esme Joyce Louvain
Trick, of Holsworthy, Devon. The Sub Lt who took the first boat out
under sail was Christopher H. Fothergill. He
survived the war and retired as Cdr C.H. Fothergill and in later life
was a veteran member of the V & W Destroyer Association.
The rescue of the survivors from the SS Independence Hall took place on 7 March 1942 which, by chance, was the first day of Warship's Week in Northwich, which led to the adoption of HMS Witch by this Cheshire town where Lt Cdr Holmes son Jasper was born on 14 November 1941. The Northwich Sea Cadet Unit was formed that year and its Training Ship was named TS Witch. Ten years later in 1952 Bob Edwards (on right) joined the Sea Cadet Unit and told me in 2020 that:
"We had two dories and a couple of whalers from HMS Witch
and on Regatta Day we towed them with a motor boat up through Hunts
lock and helped out where we could. The motor boat was an old ship's
lifeboat we built cabins into with an old petrol engine, a Ford 100 E
side valve if my memory is correct."
These must surely have been the two whalers used in the rescue of the survivors from the Independence Hall. What happened to them? Bob Edwards remembered that the whalers from HMS Witch "were broken up at Hunts Lock and used for firewood, I presume by the lock keepers".
I am hoping that a former Sea Cadet will send me photographs of the
whalers being sailed by the cadets on the Trent Weaver Navigation. The
Sea Cadet Unit at Northwich merged with the Winsford & Middlewich
Sea Cadets in 2001 but if the Ledgers of the former Sea Cadet Unit can
be found they may confirm this story.
The men in the rescue boats Ray Hodgson, a HO Telegraphist in HMS Witch
was my home for three and a half years. I was an H.O. (Hostilities
only) Telegraphist and although my seamanship was not brilliant, I
could read Morse at 22 words per minute - that was my job. The boats crew in the rescue were mainly
Officers and men of the seaman branch. The only way that I could assist
was (with others) in the lowering and heightening of the rescue boats.
I was able to witness most of the operation and I was in awe of those
brave men of the boats crews who risked their lives to save others. The
sea was heavy and very, very cold. I and others were so
proud of the rescuers who did their job with the minimum of fuss in
"Lt Cdr Terry Janion lived
and died a man of great courage and fortitude. Born in Plymouth in
1917, he lived to the grand age of 83 years after a full, active and
very happy life. It was in 1933 that Terry fulfilled his boyhood dream
and joined the Royal Navy as "Boy 2nd Class". After training at HMS Ganges at Shotley, Ipswich, his first posting was to HMS Hood,
based at Portsmouth. Terry wanted to be based at Devonport and with
Admiralty agreement, was allowed to swop with Jock Wilson, and was
posted to HMS Rodney. This was a fateful day for both men, for shortly afterwards, HMS Hood was lost with all men. After HMS Rodney, Terry served on a succession of ships and at training establishments.
In 1940, just after the outbreak of war, he was promoted to Sub Lieutenant and drafted to the destroyer, HMS Witch. Whilst serving on the Witch,
in 1942, Terry was Mentioned In Despatches for an action which occurred
off Sable Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. An American ship, the
USS Independence Hall, had
foundered on a reef in gale force winds and had broken in half. Many
men were lost but 37 survivors remained on the forward section of the
ship. HMS Witch responded and positioned herself downwind of the Independence Hall and
as close as she dared. Terry and another Sub Lt by the name of
Fothergill each skippered a whaler and attempted to pull across to the
stricken ship. The seas were mountainous and the whalers were
frequently stood on their ends by the huge waves. Together with another
rescue boat from a Canadian ship, and after several extremely dangerous
approaches, they managed to rescue all 37 survivors but in doing so
Terry's whaler was capsized. All the crew were thrown into the sea. One
crew member, Petty Officer Trick rapidly drifted away from the
overturned hull of the whaler and Terry desperately swam after him. He
was unable to save him and PO Trick was the only casualty of the
After the Witch came service in a long list of ships and he ended his sea-going career as Commander of the minesweeper, HMS Truelove.
After active service, he completed his Naval service as Assistant
Captain of Devonport Dockyard before retiring in 1962." Crediton Courier
S/Lt Fothergill P.O. J. Taylor Ldg/Sea F. Hardman, A/B H. Dalby, A/B J. Dodd, A/B H Bannister.
S/Lt Fothergill, P.O. C. Dean, A/B S. Hale, A/B H Duncan, and one R.C.N. Rating
The two Canadian ships in attendance:- H.M.C.S. Niagara, Chedabucto also launched boats. Petty Officer Jan Trick lost his life in the rescue attempt.
Letter of commendation to the Admiralty
W.J. Lee, Third Officer, Independence Hall
From: W. J. Lee, surviving third officer, steamship Independence Hall. To: The Honourable The First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. Subject: HMS Witch. Commendations of Officers and crew.
1) As a private citizen of the
U.S.A. I feel it my duty to bring to the attention of the Admiralty the
heroic efforts of the Commander, Officers and the crew of HMS Witch.
Lieut, Cdr Holmes in Command.
2) At about 1430, 7th March 1942,
with the wind at gale force and seas mountainous, the American
steamship Independence was broken in half and grounded on a shoal off
Sable Island. Tremendous seas destroyed all lifeboats. At
about noon 8th March, three units of the Royal Canadian Navy arrived on
the scene and launched lifeboats which made valiant but unsuccessful
efforts to reach the wreckage. At 1700 that day HMS Witch approached
and laid his ship close to the shoal. Through his tenacity
and seamanship and the ability and courage of the pulling boat officers
and crew, four trips were made through extremely high surf which was
now doubly dangerous due to cross tide and wind. Thirty -seven
survivors, all remaining on the wreckage were taken off, the last after
nightfall. One crew member of HMS Witch, the Boatswain, was lost during
the rescue attempts.
3) Sub Lieut. Fothergill, who was
in charge of the first two rescue attempts, was responsible for the
removal of 24 Survivors. His seamanship is deserving of the highest
praise. While seas were running most dangerously, he brought his boat
back and forth through white water, a distance of about a mile each
way. At times his boat actually stood on end, yet he and his crew
maintained stroke and control.
4) Lieut. Eric Peterson, of the
Royal Canadian Navy, who made the final two trips, removed a total of
14 survivors. He too is deserving of praise for bringing his boat
through safely after nightfall.
5) After arrival on board, the
survivors were taken in hand by Officers and crew and every attention
and courtesy was shown us.
6) Lest it may not be brought to
your attention by official report. I should tell you that when the
Witch's boatswain was lost, Lieut. Janion went overboard in an
endeavour to rescue him, risking his life in extremely high
7) I append a list of those, by no means complete, who did their utmost for our comfort and arrival ashore.
8) I trust that you will regard
this as an expression or our sincere gratitude and admiration for the
splendid seamanship and high courage of these men of His Majesty's
Navy. Their actions were indeed in keeping with the highest traditions
of the Royal Navy.
New York Signed Walter J. Lee March 18th 1942. Sole surviving deck Officer. Steamship Independence Hall
HMS Witch (I89) after refit in 1941 From the collection of Lt Cdr Cecil H Holmes , reproduced courtesy of Jasper and Kate Holmes
Hog Island where the SS Independence Hall
was built in 1920 is now the site of Philadelphia's international
airport. Sable Island is still a hazard to shipping near the
Newfoundland Banks 200 miles south of Prince Edward Island off the
coast of Canada but you can explore it without getting your feet wet courtesy of Google Street view. The remains of the SS Independence Hall floated off and sank some miles north of Sable Island. See the report on wrecksite.eu