HMS Witherington was
named after Richard Witherington who
'fought upon his stumps' when his legs were cut off ("Ballad of Chevy
Chase") at the Battle of Otterburn (1388). Her keel was laid on 27 September 1918 at the James Samuel
White & Co. Ltd. shipyard in Cowes, Isle of Wight, and she was
launched on 16 January 1919 and commissioned on 10 October 1919 with
pennant number D76.
In the early 1930s she underwent a refit and was laid-up in Maintenance
Reserve at Rosyth as more modern destroyers came into service. She was
reactivated for a Royal Review of the Reserve Fleet at Weymouth in
August 1939 and brought
to war readiness. Witherington
joined 15DF in Western Approaches Command at Liverpool escorting
convoys to Gibraltar. In April after the German invasion of Norway she
was detached to Scapa Flow and assisted in the evacuation. At the end
of May her pennant number was changed to I76. OD Lionel Blaxon, one of three CW Candidates for officer training who joined Witherington at Plymouth in July, described his six months "sea time" on the lower deck whenshe was escorting Atlantic convoys from Liverpool and at Londonderry and Southampton.
On 11 March 1941 HMS Witherington (Lt.Cdr.
J.B. Palmer, RN) was bombed in the stern at Portsmouth
and beached on Whale Island to prevent her sinking. She needed
a new stern and the repairs and refit took over five
months. Lt Cdr Howard Joseph Instance, a survivor of the sinking of the
Royal Oak at Scapa in 1939, joined her as a Gunnery Officer when
she was recommissioned at Portsmouth. He describes in an online recorded interview at the IWM (Cat. 11904, Reel 3) six months escorting Atlantic convoys 20° West from Liverpool (where her "short legs" forced her return with an incoming convoy) and being sent with Whitshed and Viceroy to escort convoys from Boston to join the Atlantic convoys at Halifax, Nova Scotia. In February 1942 Witherington
had a head on collision in "Cape Cod fog" with a 15,000 ton Norwegian
merchant ship and lost 30 feet of her bow. She returned to Boston, stern
first, and a prefabricated bow was built in an adjacent dock and welded
on. In February 1942 she was adopted by the City of Durham after a successful Warships Week fund raising campaign. On 23 March 1942 the tanker British Prudence was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat U-754 north-east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The crew took to the boats and were picked up by HMS Witherington(Lt. R. Horncastle, RN) in fog on 24 March and landed at Halifax the next day. Four days later U-754 came on a fishing boat, the Ebb,
and from a distance of 50 yards opened fire killing the skipper and
four of the crew and sinking the trawler. The three surviving officers
and nine men were rescued fourteen hours later by Witheringtonand landed at Boston on 30 July. The next day U-754 was sunk by a Hudson bomber. There were no survivors.
HMS Witherington was converted
to a Short Range Escort (SRE) at ???? between April and September 1942.
In March she was part of the escort for Convoy HX.229 from Halifax
which was under sustained attack during the night of 16–17 March by five
U-Boats of the Raubgraf Group, two U-Boats of the Sturmer Group and one
U-Boat returning to her home port. There was no rescue ship for
HX229 and the survivors of the ten
merchant ships sunk were rescued by the escorts.
At the end of June 1943 she was transferred to Alexandria in the Mediterranean supporting follow on convoys for the Allied
invasion of Sicily. In November she was at Gibraltar for
Atlantic Convoy Defence. German U-boat U-340 was sunk at 0430 on 2
November 1943 near Tangier by depth
charges from the British sloop HMS Fleetwood (Cdr. W.B. Piggott, DSC, RD, RNR), the British destroyers HMS Active (Lt.Cdr. P.G. Merriman, DSC, RN) and HMS Witherington (Lt.Cdr. R.B.S. Tennant, RN) and depth charges from a British Wellington aircraft (Sqdn. 179/R).
HMS Witherington is believed to have been paid off at West Hartlepool in 1944 and was not
listed as an active unit in the October 1944 Navy List. In April 1945
she was being towed by tugs from Chatham to the Breaker's yard at
Charlestown near Rosyth when she broke her tow rope at the mouth of the Tyne
and was wrecked on the ballast stones at the bend in the south pier on
the night of 29 April 1945. The towing crew were taken off by the
Cullercoats lifeboat Westmoreland and the remains of the Witherington are a popular shallow water dive site.
For a detailed chronology of ship movements created by an anonymous researcher and sent to me by Jim Witherington in the USA click on the link.
Cdr James R. C. Cavendish RN (21 August, 1919 – 19 February, 1920)
Lt Cdr Vernon Hammersley-Heenan, RN (5 February, 1920 – 12 February, 1920)
Cdr Edward McC. W. Lawrie, RN (12 February, 1920 – 3 January, 1922)
Cdr Cecil H. H. Sams, RN ( January, 1922 – January, 1923)
Cdr Eric Q. Carter, RN (3 January, 1923 – July, 1923)
Cdr Edward McC. W. Lawrie, RN (July, 1923 – January, 1924)
Cdr Astley D. C. Cooper-Key, RN (1 January, 1924 – 15 January, 1926)
Cdr Edye K. Boddam-Whetham, RN (15 January, 1926 -
Cdr William E. B. Magee, RN (1 December, 1927 – 24 August, 1928)
Cdr Geoffrey S. Holden, 24 August, RN (1928 – 12 September, 1928)
Lt Cdr Francis Douglas-Watson, RN (12 September, 1928 -
Lt.Cdr. Geoffrey Cecil Fryer, RN (31 July - 4 Dec 1939)
Lt.Cdr. Jack Barrington Palmer, RN (4 Dec 1939 - April 1941)
Lt. William Edward Cranston Fairchild, RN (April - 23 Oct 1941, while under repair)
Lt. Richard Horncastle, RN (23 Oct 1941 - Aug 1942)
Cdr. Charles Graham Thompson, OBE, RN (Aug - 2 Oct 1942)
Lt.Cdr. Marcus Henry Reginald Crichton, RN (2 Oct 1942 - 19 May 1943) Lt.Cdr. Robert Basil Stewart Tennant, RN (19 May 1943 - July 1944)
Lt A R Barrow RN (23 Oct 1941 – early 1943)
Surg Lt J M Berry RNVR (8 Feb 1942 – 3 June 1943) Lt Hugh Te la Poer, Lord Beresford RN (27 July 1939 - April 1940) 1st Lt
Lt Sir William Blunden Bt RNVR (3 Sept 1941 - May 1944) in temp command April 1944
Sub Lt J F Borlace RN (19 Feb 1940 – late 1940)
Sub Lt P M Bugle RN (31 Jul 1939 – May 1941)
Surg Lt M Dingwall RCNVR (10 Nov 1941 – 8 Feb 1942)
Wt Eng S R Eastlake RN (11 Dec 1941 – 17 Jan 1944) Sub Lt Gwilym P. Evans RNVR (3 Feb 1940 - Feb 1941)
Lt. William E.C. Fairchild, RN (1 Sept 1940 - early 1944) CO while under repair 1941
Sub Lt J D Haig RN (23 Oct 1941 – early 1943)
Gnr (T) J J Hayward RN (Oct 1943 – Aug 1944)
Mid P A Hicks RNVR (31 Oct 1941 – early 1942)
Sub Lt D J G Holroyde RNVR (9 Apr 1941 – May 1944) Sub Lt David F. Johnson RN (31 July 1939 - April 1940)
Sub Lt D J Loeb RNVR (10 Mar 41 – May 1941) Lt Surg John C.M. MacDonald RNVR (3 June 1943 - April 1944) Lt (E) A D Marshall RNR (29 Jun 1944 – Dec 1945)
Lt A I C Murfitt RNVR (9 May 1942 – Aug 1944)
Sub Lt J H D Northcote RNR (8 Nov 1939 – Aug 1944) Lt William D. O'Brien RN (30 June 1940 - April 1941) 1st Lt
Gnr (T) H J Price RN (15 Aug 1941 – 7 Jan 1943)
Gnr (T) W E G Reeks RN (21 Oct 1939 – 15 Aug 1941)
Wrt Eng W K Revolta RN (16 Aug 1938 – 11 Dec 1941)
Sub Lt J McN Roberts RNVR (10 May 1943 – May 1944)
Surg Lt J E Simpson RNVR (Jan 1940 – 4 Nov 1940)
Sub Lt W B Smith RN (16 Dec 1942 – May 1944)
Lt (E ) G V Steel RN (17 Jan 1944 – 29 Jun 1944)
Surg Lt S F Taylor RNVR (4 Nov 1940 - 10 Nov 1941)
Gnr (T) J H Weatherburn RN (7 Jan 1943 – Oct 1943)
Former full members of the V & W Destroyer Association who served in HMS Witherington J. Bardgett (Morecombe, Lancs), R. Cornish (Dunstable), Ted Dawson (Eastbourne), J. Sheader (Scarborough)
Ted Dawson JX343136
Edward William Dawson known as "Ted" Dawson was 94 when he died at Eastbourne in 2018.
He enlisted in the Royal Navy when he was 18 on 23 February 1942 and
trained as a Telegraphist. He joined HMS Witherington on 17 December
1942 and left her on 21 May 1944.
His daughter has a folder of memoirs of his wartime service in Witherington and I am hoping with the assistance of Ted's family to provide a detailed account on this website.
Please get in touch if you knew one of these men or had a family member who served in HMS Witherington
In 1926 HMS Witherington
carried the Shah of Persia, Ahmad Shah Qajar, into exile, as the
old country of Persia was replaced by the country of Iran
and the modernising army officer Reza Shah, became the first shah of the Pahlavi dynasty.
The Pennant Number of HMS Witherington changed from D76 to I76 at the end of May 1940 Copyright reserved
Life as a CW Candidate in the Seamen's Mess
Lionel Henry Blaxell was born at
Rochford, Essex in 1920, the son of Cdr Henry M. Blaxell RN, and was 19 when
he enlisted in the Navy and did his three months basic training at HMS Collingwood,
a stone frigate at Fareham, Hants, in April 1940. He was selected as
“prospective candidate for a Commission RNVR, known
as CW Candidates and referred to by those in the know on the lower
decks as WC Candidates”. If word got out “you might be detailed as
'Captain of the Heads' ie cleaning the lavatories". The brief
quotations are from his memoir written in 1988 and self published as Through the Hawse Pipe 1939-46 (1990).
Blaxell was one of three CW Candidates drafted to HMS Witherington
at Plymouth on 8 July 1940, the other two being Hancock and Chambers.
They were among the very few HO (Hostilities Only) rating aboard the
ship in 1940. They arrived with kit bags and hammocks and were met by
the Quartermaster’s Mate (QM), know as the "Buffer" who showed them to
the Seamen's Mess and handed them over to the Gunner’s Mate, a PO, who
gave them a card, the colour of which allocated them to red, white or
blue watches for cruising stations and leave purposes. The Leading
Seaman of the Mess known as "Killick of the Mess" appointed the "cook
of the mess" which changed daily and the CW candidates took their turn.
Lockers served as seats at the mess table. The deckhead and
bulkheads “sweated” despite being treated with cork compound.
Blaxell belonged to the “forecastle party leaving and entering harbour”
and was on B Gun. He was impressed by "Sharkey", the Gun Captain, an
“old three badger RNR” who made his own plugs of prique tobacco
soaked in rum. On one occasion he showed what he was made of when his
gun misfired, a potentially fatal accident, and without hesitation he
removed the burning cordite and threw it over the side. Blaxell also
recalled the PO Cook, a Lancastrian, who when he went on leave was
collected by a chauffeur driven Rolls.
The First Lieutenant would have taken a special interest in the suitability of the three CW Candidates for officer training.First Lt William D. O'Brien RN had joined Witherington
in June after a dashing exploit to mine the Rhine, Meuse, Moselle and
Seine to hold up the German advance, one of Winston's bright ideas.
Witherington was at Southampton when the buzz went round that they were
detailed for a special top secret operation known as Lucid. This was
another of Churchill's ideas, to singe Mr Hitler's whiskers by
launching fire ships at the invasion barges assembling in the Channel
ports of Boulogne and Calais. The CO ordered "splice the mainbrace", a
tot of rum all round including underage seamen like Blaxell. The First
Lt "Paddy" O'Brien was to steer a fireship at the dock gates and escape
on a small boat at the last minute. Operation Lucid was canceled after
two abortive attempts in September and October 1940.
Witherington was moved to Liverpool before Christmas and
escorted convoys 22° West before returning to refuel at Moville on the
River Foyle and back to Gladstone Dock at Liverpool. Blaxell wrote in
his memoir that “many of our Class were on Merseyside and in Gladstone
Dock: Walpole, Wishart, Whitehall, Wolverine, Vansittart, Witch, Verity, Vanessa, Vimy, Wivern”. Witherington and her sister ship Verity
spent Christmas and Boxing Day at Londonderry and Blaxell recalled a
wonderful dance in the Town Hall with lots of local girls. The next day
they returned to Liverpool for a boiler clean and leave for half the
In January 1941 at the end of their six months sea time the three CW Candidates left for officer training at HMS King Alfred
at Hove near Brighton. Two months later Witherington was in Portsmouth
during the Blitz on March 11 1941 when three bombs passed through the
ship and one exploded on the seabed. O’Brien’s quick reactions and
initiative saved her from sinking. He ran her ashore on Whale Island
and a new stern needed fitting before she could go back to sea.
There were 93 cadets on Blaxell's three month course at HMS King Alfred.
Cadets under 20 who passed the course and the interview Board were
given a red lapel badge as Midshipman and those over 20 were appointed
Acting Temp Sub Lts. “We were now all commissioned ‘through the hawse
pipe’, meaning from the lower deck”. Nothing more is known about the
wartime service of Hancock and Chambers but Lionel Blaxell served in
Fairmile Motor Gun Boats (MGB) and Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB). He was
wounded and awarded a DSC while First Lt in MGB 322 (Lt G.D.A. Price RNVR, on right)
in an attack on a German merchant ship being escorted through the
Channel by a strong force of E-Boats on 19 July 1942. Most of his
memoir, Through the Hawse Pipe 1939-46
(1990), is about these small ships, the best known of which were the
"Dog Boats", Fairmile D MGBs. In December 1943 he was given command
of MTB 307 (10th MTB Flotilla) at Alexandria but his last
two ships in 1945, before he was discharged from the Navy as Lt Lionel H. Blaxell RNVR
(above left), were destroyers, HMS Easton (Hunt Class) and HMS Offa (O Class). He
received an OBE in 1977 for his work as Senior Commercial Officer at HM
Embassy, Stockholm, and was 87 when he died there in 2007.
First Lt William D. O'Brien who saved his ship when HMS WItherington was bombed in Portsmouth harbour on 11 March 1941
"Paddy" O'Brien had a long and distinguished career and retired asAdmiral Sir William Donough O'Brien RN in 1971
How Sir Richard Witherington met his death
For Witherington my heart was woe That ever he slain should be: For when both his legs were hewn in two Yet he kneel’d and fought on his knee.
The Witherington met
her end a few days before the end of the war when she was being towed by tugs from Chatham to
Breaker's yard at Charlestown near Rosyth. She broke her tow rope at
mouth of the Tyne and was wrecked on the ballast stones at the bend in
the south pier on the night of 29 April 1945. The piers at the mouth of
the Tyne took forty years to build and were completed in 1895. The
South Pier is nearly a mile in length. The rescue by the crew of
the Westmorland, the lifeboat at the small fishing harbour of Cullercoats two miles north of the Tyne was described in The Shields Evening News, Tuesday May 1st 1945. The towing company, Messrs. France, Fenwick Tyne and Wear Co. Ltd,was Newcastle based and the towing crew aboard the Witherington were all local men as were the crew of the Westmorland. The text has been taken from a microfilm which in some places is illegible.
CULLERCOATS LIFEBOAT RESCUE. DESTROYER WRECKED IN GALE ON TYNE PIER; CREW SAVED.
Caught by the fierce northerly wind which was whipping up the sea into
a fury, a destroyer on her way from the Tyne to be broken up in
Scotland, parted from her tow ropes and went ashore on the rocks at the
south of the South Pier on Sunday night. Her skeleton crew of Shields
men was taken off safely by the Cullercoats lifeboat.
The men aboard were Mr. Alexander Mitchell, of 24 Glendale Avenue,
North Shields, transport manager of the firm of Messrs. Alexander
Mitchell and Son, of North Shields, which provided the following
riggers: Ossie Stoker, 5 Abbotsford Park, Monkseaton, Joseph Esdale, 48
Vicarage Street, North Shields, Tom Stringer, 28 Windsor Gardens, North
Shields, Albert McCurry, Henry Street, North Shields and (unreadable)
Fothergill of Prospect (unreadable) .John Coulson, representing Anchor
Line of Steam Tugs, of (unreadable), which provided (unreadable) was
also on board.
The vessel had left the Tyne on her last voyage to be broken up at Rosyth.
TOW ROPE PARTED.
She was pounded so fiercely by the waves that her tow rope parted off St. Abbs Head.
Mr. Mitchell told a reporter "When the rope first parted off St. Abbs
at about 1.30 on Sunday morning, we drifted helplessly down to Berwick.
Finally the tugs got us in tow again, but the weather was so bad that
we decided to return to the Tyne and shelter until conditions improved.
We had rather a tough time coming south again as the sea was
particularly fierce and as we were nearing the Tyne our tow rope parted
The tugs again got us in tow with some difficulty and several ropes
were secured to the destroyer. As we reached the harbour, the fierce
winds caught the ship again and all the ropes parted, leaving us to
drift helplessly until the ship crashed on to the rocks at the south
side of the South Pier."
The ship was badly damaged and was being severely pounded by the heavy
seas. Tugs raced for assistance and the Cullercoats lifeboat under
coxswain James Taylor put to sea.
After a good deal of manoeuvring the lifeboat managed to get alongside and get all the crew off safely.
Because of the bad weather the lifeboat was unable to return to
Cullercoats, and the men had to be landed at North Shields Fish Quay.
The South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade was on duty and fired several
line-carrying rockets to the ship, but the breeches buoy was not needed.
The destroyer is lying on the rocks with the seas breaking over and pounding her to pieces. She is expected to be a total loss.
Standing up to their waists in water a number of Cullercoats women had
to launch the Cullercoats lifeboat Westmorland when the alarm was
received that a vessel was in distress off the mouth of the Tyne. The
lifeboat was in charge of Coxswain J. Taylor.
The South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade
The South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade (SSVLB)
was established in January 1866 to help the Coastguard prevent the loss
of life from shipwrecks on the south side of the River Tyne and the
coastal area south as far as Whitburn. The SSVLB Minute Book 4
contains this entry about attempts to rescue the crew of HMS Witherington:
the 29th April 1945 HMS WITHERINGTON, a destroyer, which was being
towed was wrecked on the South side of the South Pier about three
quarters of a mile distant from the Rocket House. This took place about
11.19 p.m. The weather and War Time obstructions on the pier militated
against the activities of the Brigade and all our gear had to be hand
transported under difficulties, ultimately the life-boat from
Cullercoats took seven men off the wreck. The Brigade had gear ready
for use when the life-boat came along at 12.30 a.m. on 30th April.
The correct name of the "Rocket House" where the saving equipment
including the Breeches Buoy and the rockets was kept was the LSA (Life
Saving Apparatus) Store but it seems to have been widely known as the
Rocket House and that name has stuck and is used today. It is a brick
built building alongside the wooden watch tower near the shore in the
above photo from the SSVLB website. The wartime obstructions on the
south pier prevented a motor vehicle conveying the equipment to where
the Witherington lay and by the time it had been manhandled there the Cullercoats lifeboat was already there.
The launch of the Westmorland on left and returning from a nightime rescue From left to right:
Ray Oliver standing on jetty with rope, James Tayloe Coxn (with back to
camera), George Taylor 2nd Cox., Robert Taylor in front facing camera
and Robert Oliver, father of Ray Oliver
These wartime photographs are not dated and do not show the rescue of survivors from HMS Witherington Courtesy of Frank Taylor
The RNLI Lifeboat Magazine 29 April 1945
This brief account of the rescue can be seen by clicking on this link to the RNLI website but my attention was first drawn to it by Frank Taylor, Operation Manager of the Cullercoats Lifeboat Station (on left in 2014) whose father, James Taylor (right), was Coxon of the Westmoreland
during the rescue and throughout the war. Frank told me that all the Taylors in
Cullercoats were related. Robert Taylor (in photo above) was James Taylor's brother and
Frank Taylor's grandfather, Joseph Taylor, was a cox'n of the
Cullercoats Lifeboat between the wars. The Westmorland
was a self-righting lifeboat acquired in 1940 after the loss in 1939 of
six members of the crew from the former lifeboat which capsized. The Westmorland was in service at Cullercoats from 1940 - 51.
APRIL 29TH. - CULLERCOATS,
NORTHUMBERLAND, AND SUNDERLAND, DURHAM.
At 11.30 at night a message was
received at Cullercoats from the Blyth coastguard that a destroyer was
in need of help at the entrance to the Tyne. A strong west-north-west
wind was blowing, with snow squalls and a rough sea. At 11.20 the motor
life-boat Westmorland was
launched. It was low water, and some of the helpers, among whom were
several women, had to wade in waist-deep to launch her. Searchlights
showed the destroyer ashore on the south side of the south pier. She
was HMS Witherington,
with a skeleton crew of seven on board, being towed to a shipbreaker’s
yard, and her tow had parted. The life-boat reached her at 12.20, and,
after several attempts, was able to go alongside and rescue the seven
men. She landed them at North Shields at two next morning. The
continuing bad weather prevented her from returning to her station
until the 3rd of May.
News of the Witherington was also sent by the coastguard to Sunderland, and the motor life-boat Edward and Isabella Irwin was launched at 11.40. She reached the Witherington,
but did not receive any response from her to signals. Her crew had
already been rescued. She attempted to get in touch with the coastguard
by wireless, but without success, and no reply was received to lamp
signals which she made to the beach. She searched for about two hours
and then returned to her station at 4.50 next morning.
Messrs. France, Fenwick Tyne and
Wear Co., Ltd., who were the employers of the rescued men, gave £100 to
the Institution in appreciation of the prompt and efficient help given.
An increase in the usual money awards on the standard scale was made to
each of the Cullercoats crew and helpers. Standard rewards to crew and
helpers, £34 19s; additional rewards to crew and helpers, £11; total
rewards, £46 19s. Rewards to Sunderland, £13 1s. 6d.
The Taylor Family of Cullercoats
Frank Taylor's father, grandfather
and great grandfather were all coxon of the Cullercoats Lifeboat.
Between them the Taylor family has over 400 years service with the
Cullercoats Lifeboat Staion. Frank Taylor's father, James Taylor,
was coxn of the Cullercoats Lifeboat throughout World War II and for
the service to HMS Witherington.
Other crew were as follows:-
William Gillender 2nd Mechanic
Alfred Tweedy Crew
His Mother was also involved in the
RNLI during the war years and was probably one of the women
mentioned above who got soaked wet launching the lifeboat through the surf. The Wreck of HMS Witherington
The wreck of the Witherington
is in shallow waters 7 - 12 m in depth and is a popular dive site, the
main hazard being the lines of fishermen along the pier. The
remains include the boilers, drive shafts, gears, valves and
generators. It's worth noting that only the mid portion of HMS Witherington
was built at Cowes on the Isle of Wight in 1919. The stern was removed
by German bombs at Portsmouth in March 1941 and rebuilt at Hull and the
bow was destroyed by a collision off the west coast of the USA in
February 1942 and a prefabricated replacement fitted at Boston. The wreck is owned by a local diver, Gordon Ortie, who
You can explore the wreck of the Witherington by clicking on the link to avideo of the wreck siteon u-Tube made in 2004.