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

Lt.Cdr. Cecil Hamilton Holmes
  CO of HMS Witch from May 1941 - June 1942
Escorting Atlantic Convoys

Portrait of Lt Cdr Cyril H Holmes RNJasper Holmes and his father soon after the war endedLt.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 America.

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 Command.

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

Naval List for HMS Witch, February 1942Naval Lit for HMS Witch, April 1942
The members of the wardroom of HMS Witch when Lt Cdr Cecil H Holmes RN was the CO from 4 May 1941 to July 1942
The entries for HMS Witch in the Navy List for Februry and April 1942 - HMS Witch was adopted by the Cheshire town of Northwich in March 1942

Ratings at start of new Coommission for HMS Witch after  refit in 1941 refit
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 Wiytch (I89) after refit
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 smelly."

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

SS Indepemdence Hall (Holbroken Maritime Museum)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 rescue
in 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 Northwich
formed  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 horrible.  

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 boots.  

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 slowly sinking.  

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 longer.  

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

Sable Island, CanadaLt Cdr Cyril H. Holmes RN"Sable 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 steaming distsance.

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 ship).

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 Boatswain's mate.

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 high jump."

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.

Bob Edwaards, Traaing Ship Witch, Northwich Sea Cadet Unit 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.

You can read the whole  of Chapters 7 and 8 of "A Sailor Remembers" describing Cdr Holmes'  time as CO of HMS Witch  as a PDF

The men in the rescue boats
Ray Hodgson, a HO Telegraphist in HMS Witch

"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 difficult conditions." 

Sailing whaler

First Lieut. Terence L. Janion RNVR
Gunner (T) B.C. Kavanaugh
P.O. W. Trick,
Yeo' Sigs C. Johnson.
L/Sea J Witley.  A/B S. Welch

"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 rescue.

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

1st Whaler

S/Lt Fothergill  P.O. J. Taylor
Ldg/Sea F. Hardman,
A/B H. Dalby,
A/B J. Dodd,
A/B H Bannister.  

2nd Whaler

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 seas.  

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     

Personnel of H.M.S. Witch referred to in para 7.
Lieut. Commodore Holes R.N.  Lieut. Janion. R.N.V.R Lieut. Souter R.N.V.R.  Surgeon Lieut. Gates R.N.  Sub-Lieut Fothergill R.N.V.R.  Commissioned Engineer Saunders R.N.
Sub- Lieut. Breckell, R.N.V.R.
Midshipman Bickett, R.N.V.R.  

Aerial potograph of HMS Witch in 11942
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

If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on HMS Witch 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 Witch you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Bill Forster

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