HMS Witch, the first
Royal Navy ship of the name, was laid down on 13 June 1918 by John I.
Thornycroft & Company at Woolston, Hampshire. Her construction
slowed after the Armistice with Germany brought World War I to an end
and she was not launched until 11 November 1919. She then was towed to
Devonport Dockyard at Devonport, Devon, where her fitting-out took
place slowly, and she was not completed until March 1924. Witch was commissioned in March 1924. She saw little service and was soon decommissioned and placed in reserve at Rosyth, Scotland.
Witch was recommissioned for
the Royal Review of the Reserve Fleet by King George VI in 1939. After
a month at Rosyth escorting east coast convoys she was transferred to
Western Appproaches Command st Plymouth and then ast LIverpool.
On 9 Ap[ril 1940 she took passage to Scapa Flow for service with
Home escorting military convoys to Norway after the German invasion
(Operation RUPERT/R4). In June 1940 she returned to Rosyth escorting
east coast Convoys.
Witch continued her convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic
into 1942 and was "adopted" by Northwich, Cheshire, in March 1942 as a
result of a Warship Week National Savings campaign. In 1942, she
underwent conversion into a short-range escort.
In February 1943 Witch ransfered to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for service with local escort forces there. In April 1943, Witch and Wolverine rescued 53 survivors of the British merchant ship Empire Whimbrel, which the German submarine U-181 had sunk on 11 April 1943 420 nautical miles (778 km) southwest of Freetown.
By May 1944 she had returned to the UK and begun operations in the
North Sea, which she continued until the surrender of Germany in early
Lt.Cdr. Cecil Hamilton Holmes, RN (4 May 1941 - Jul 1942)
Lt.Cdr. Sidney Richard James Woods, RD, RNR (Jul 1942 - late 1943)
T/Lt. Arthur Reginald Browne, RNVR (late 1943 - 6 May 1944)
Lt. Walter James Taylor, RN (6 May 1944 - 4 Mar 1946)
Former Full Members of the V & W Destroyer Assoociation J. Clarke (London), T. Davies (Prescot, Merseyside), Cdr C.H. Fothergill RN (Wolking, Surrey), R. Hodgson (Kettering),
A. Miles (Ludlow, Shropshire), E. Restall (Bristol), J. Whistance (Darlaston, West Mid)
Please get in touch if you have a family member who served in HMS Witch
The peacetime Navy
Crossing the Line, 1927 From Hard Lying - Courtesy of Stormy Fairweather
Dressed up for a water polo match with a team from HMS Whitshed, 1928
Or should the captions for these two photographs be reversed? From Hard Lying - Courtesy of Stormy Fairweather
Rescue of Seamen from
American Steamship Independence Hall 7 March 1942
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
following is a report of the rescue of 24 survivors from the American
Steamship Independence Hall. 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." Ray Hodgson
Philip F. Gresser, Palm Beach, Florida 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.
Letter of commendation to the Admiralty
W.J. Lee, Third Officer
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
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.
Those manning the rescue boats:-
Sailing whaler First Lieut. Terence L. Janion RNVR
From Crediton Courier
Newspaper: "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
Gunner (T) B.C. Kavanaugh P.O. W. Trick, Yeo' Sigs C. Johnson. L/Sea J Witley. A/B S. Welch
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.