In times of crisis or war, ships have been called on to perform tasks for which they were not designed. In many instances these tasks were assigned late in their service, when many were no longer considered modern enough to serve their intended purposes. Such was the case for the V- and W-class destroyers of the Royal Navy, and HMS Venomous was one of those ships.
When Britain declared war against Nazi Germany in September 1939, the Venomous was based at Portsmouth, England, as part of the Royal Navy's English Channel Force. Under command of Lieutenant Commander John McBeath, the venerable destroyer—considered in 1919 to be the latest word in fleet destroyer design—was assigned for the first six months of the war to escort convoys and patrol the "narrow sea" that is the English Channel.
By the end of April 1940, Denmark and Norway had fallen, and the Luftwaffe had increased its aerial mining operations against Britain and France by sowing mines in the Thames Estuary, the Downs, and along the coast off Dunkirk, Boulogne, and Calais. On 10 May, this period of relative inactivity called the phony war ended, as the Wehrmacht drove into the low countries of Belgium and the Netherlands and then into France.
On this day, McBeath's destroyer had just departed Cherbourg, France, escorting a single merchantman, when he received a message directing the Venomous to leave her charge and proceed with all dispatch to Dover. The following morning, the ship departed Dover on the first of what would be many cross-Channel dashes.
At flank speed, the old destroyer took a senior Dutch military mission comprised of two generals and their senior officers to Dunkirk. Not lingering, she dashed back to Dover, arriving just before dusk. Six hours later, the Venomous embarked 200 Royal Marines and departed just before midnight for the hook of Holland. With first light on 12 May, she met her sister ship, HMS Wild Swan, which provided cover as the Dutch pilot guided the old destroyer into the hook. While disembarking her Marines and their demolition charges, the Venomous experienced the first of many aerial attacks. According to one of her crewmen:
It was during the morning watch, and a bright sun was rising over the land. We were attacked by Stukas which came at us out of the sun. . . . As the channel was so narrow, we had no room to manouvre, so the Captain did the only thing open to him—he left the harbour at full speed with all guns that could be brought to bear firing in our defence.1
Her crew also claimed their first aircraft kill: An unlucky Stuka pulled out from its dive and fell within range of the ship's gunnery envelope.
Not Like the Great War
Spending less than 24 hours at Dover, the Venomous returned to sea on the North Goodwin Patrol on 14 May. The Goodwin Sands are located just north of Dover and south of the Thames Estuary. Her patrol route would take her in an east-west direction, emulating the old Dover Patrol routes used by the Royal Navy during World War I. But, unlike during the Great War, the North Sea and Channel were now filling with numerous ships and boats loaded with fleeing refugees.
Once on station, the Venomous' crew began the first of what would seem like an endless number of rescues, and on 15 May, the ship returned to Dover with 100 refugees and a Royal Navy demolition party that had earlier destroyed the port facilities of Ijmuiden, Holland.
Four days later, while on the North Goodwin Patrol, the ship's crewmen were completely surprised when out of the noonday sun came a Luftwaffe bomber. The unknown aircraft dropped a stick of bombs that detonated only 20 yards astern, but no casualties or damage were sustained. Later that day, the destroyer was attacked several more times while escorting a badly damaged merchant ship. This time, the Venomous was ready. Her antiaircraft gunners scored the ship's second victory when Midshipman Alan Esson's gun crew shot down one of the attacking minelaying seaplanes as it was trying to drop its mines directly on the ship. Although one mine detonated close-aboard, the old destroyer's luck held—no casualties or damage. Able Seaman James Eaton, however, "thought we were a goner."2 McBeath wrote that "our only defence was 'whirling spray' gunnery, plus high speed and lots of wheel."3
By the 20th, the Allies' situation on land was looking grim. German Panzer forces under Generalfeldmarschall Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist were advancing along the French Channel coast with little difficulty, threatening the British Expeditionary Force's (BEF) supply lines. However, the British and French still hoped the German advance could be blunted and the front stabilized.
A Crucial System and a Fortune in Platinum
On 21 May, McBeath took his destroyer into Calais, where 200 British refugees boarded the ship. The Venomous also took aboard instruments from the nearby Sangatte Indicator Loop station.4 The loop was a classified unconventional submarine-detection system, and recovery of the instruments was critically important.
After disembarking the refugees and equipment in England, the Venomous took aboard a demolition party, along with its two tons of explosives, in Dover. Leaving the port on the 22nd the party disembarked in Calais Harbor the same day. This was part of Operation Bungalow, the evacuation of British and French forces from Calais and the destruction of the port's infrastructure.
With the demolition team gone, more than 200 refugees, including 50 nurses from the Calais Base Hospital, arrived aboard. Then six He-111 bombers attacked the harbor. McBeath recounted: "About six bombs fell within 25 yards of the ship, but luckily there was no damage or casualties."5 The old destroyer was still maintaining her berth alongside the quay when an unexpected cargo and passengers arrived.
Under the escort of Lieutenant Arthur Taylor, the financial director of the Courtaulds rayon factory at Le Pont du Leu appeared. In their possession were four sacks containing 1.25 million pounds' worth of platinum; the precious metal had been smuggled out of the factory under the noses of the Germans. McBeath took charge of the valuable cargo and issued the Courtaulds official "a tin hat and a pistol in exchange."6
McBeath then ordered the Venomous to slip her lines and proceed at flank speed out of Calais. She arrived at Folkestone in less than three hours. With the passengers disembarked, the ship headed out, arriving back at Dover around 1800, bringing another challenging and exhausting day to an end.
Call for Reinforcements
At this point, the British General Staff decided to send reinforcements to Calais and Boulogne with the intent of slowing down the German advance on Dunkirk and protecting those British logistic centers. On 22 May, the Venomous, Whitshed, Vimiera, Vimy, and Wolsey were ordered to screen the troop transports carrying the 20th Guards Brigade across the Channel to Boulogne.7
On the 23rd, the guards disembarked from their transports without incident and quickly took up defensive positions outside the city. However, no sooner had they deployed than the guardsmen came into contact with advance elements of German panzers, infantry, and supporting artillery. Outnumbered and ill-equipped to take on the subsequent combined-arms assaults, they soon fell back into the city. For the guards and nearby French troops, the situation had become extremely difficult. The guardsmen were now fighting house to house.
With only an hour's layover in Dover, the Venomous was ordered to turn around again and head for the besieged French city. She joined with HMS Keith, Whitshed, Wild Swan, Venetia, Vimy, and nine French destroyers later that afternoon. The combined Anglo-French destroyer flotilla was ordered to engage German forces along the coast adjacent to Boulogne prior to evacuating troops from the town.
At 1900, while the destroyers were engaging German units advancing along the coast, the Keith and Vimy were ordered into the harbor to begin the evacuation. At this point, 60 Stuka dive bombers appeared overhead. Diving down toward the zigzagging destroyers, the Stukas waited until the last possible moment before releasing their bombs. McBeath recounted:
Ten attacks were made on Venomous and in each case salvoes of four 110 pound bombs were dropped. The ship was closely missed on all sides, the nearest salvo being ten yards off, and numerous splinters hit the ship's side and upper works, in some cases penetrating. Mr. Thompson (Gunner T) and three ratings were superficially wounded during the attack.8
The Germans Attack
By 1915, the Keith and Vimy had successfully embarked several hundred troops. However, these ships, their crews, and their passengers paid a heavy price. The attacking Germans poured heavy-weapons fire on both destroyers, killing and wounding scores of exposed sailors and soldiers. It was now the Venomous' turn to enter the harbor. Her commander recalled:
We entered the harbour, Wild Swan first, and Venomous second. We came under fire from gunmen, tanks and others. We opened fire with our 4.7's of which we had four and we on the "Bandstand" fired .303 rifles. We only had one pom-pom which was operational, the other one had jammed. I always remember [Roy] "Taff" Stallard on the good pom-pom. He received the DSM [Distinguished Service Medal] for that.9
McBeath had ordered Stallard to fire into the tree line along the shore in the hope of dissuading German snipers from taking advantage of the ship's exposure while alongside the jetty. But the enemy was waiting for HMS Venetia.
It became apparent to McBeath that the Germans had every intention of bottling up his ship and the other destroyer by sinking the Venetia in the inner channel to the harbor. Almost immediately, the Venetia's bridge and B gun mount were hit, killing or wounding all of the nearby personnel. The destroyer lost control and ran aground, blocking the channel. Despite the concentrated German fire, a Royal Navy junior officer, Sub Lieutenant D. H. Jones, was able to make it to the bridge and ordered the destroyer's engines full astern. He conned the ship backward out of the channel, thus keeping the entrance to the harbor clear.10
With more than 1,000 guardsmen manning defensive positions around the dockyard and/or taking shelter inside the port's warehouses, the Venomous and Wild Swan joined the action. McBeath piloted his destroyer alongside the quay on the west bank of the Liane River and ordered just a single bowline to keep the Venomous in position. McBeath constantly gave engine orders to hold the ship's starboard side alongside the quay, while the ebbing tide tried to push the ship down the river.
McBeath's gunners then fired on a German motorized reconnaissance unit that was seen moving down the city's main street. The ship's port-side pom-pom gun and crew-manned Bren guns and riflemen opened up on the exposed Germans, ripping apart armored cars and splaying motorcyclists in the street.
By that time, both destroyers were targets of heavy guns from the nearby captured French forts as well as German infantry and artillery units. Low tide, however, was playing in the ships' favor. Their profile was much reduced as their hulls were below the jetty, and much of the German fire was overshooting them. The Venomous, meanwhile, engaged the closest fort with her main battery of four 4.7-inch guns. It rapidly became a one-sided contest. The old destroyer's first salvo overshot the strongpoints, but the next and successive shots blew the facing off the nearest fort and down the hillside. Similarly, a German artillery battery taking up its position adjacent to the fort was hit and its guns quickly silenced.
The Venomous Counters
With the German gunners preoccupied, the Venomous turned her main battery on three captured French tanks that could be seen moving toward the guardsmen from the high ground. The tanks' advance was quickly halted, and in typical understatement the 2nd Welsh Guard's diary said, simply, "the naval 4.7 appeared to be the finest anti-tank gun yet invented."11
Spotting German movements took on greater importance once the decision was made to begin embarkation. As the first soldiers began climbing down onto the decks of the destroyers, lookouts on the Venomous watched nearly 70 German infantrymen moving into position in the upper levels of the town and above the destroyers and the exposed guardsmen. The Venomous opened up with her port pom-pom gun. The gunners purposely aimed at the houses and wall above the unfortunate Germans. Shattered masonry and rocks rained down on the luckless infantry, stopping their advance cold.
It did not take long for 500 guardsmen to settle in throughout the ship. With all that could be taken aboard, McBeath ordered the bowline cast off and the Venomous to back out from the harbor. Guardsmen with their own Bren guns and rifles took up position alongside their navy counterparts and prepared to return fire on any exposed Germans. Lieutenant Peter Kershaw, the Venomous' gunnery officer, reported to McBeath that he had only four shells remaining for the 4.7s. McBeath replied, "Then take out a third of that hotel."12
As the Venomous proceeded out of the harbor in reverse at 18 knots, her rudder jammed hard to starboard. Quickly, McBeath countered the effects of the jammed rudder by alternatively running his ship's two engines ahead and astern. With hardly a reduction in speed, he conned the Venomous clear of the harbor, and then swung her around and proceeded back across the Channel using the ship's engines to steer.
After disembarking the guardsmen at Dover, the Venomous headed to Plymouth for repairs and to provide her exhausted crew 96 hours of relative stand-down time. On 30 May, she left Plymouth, arriving at Dover that evening.
Back to Dunkirk
All on board knew their stay would be a short one, and within an hour of her arrival, McBeath was ordered to take the Venomous back across the Channel and make toward Dunkirk. After midnight on 31 May, the Venomous and HMS Whitshed departed Dover. Just before dawn, they arrived off the Bray Dunes, east of Dunkirk, to begin evacuating troops huddled among the sand dunes. Chief Petty Officer Hugh McGeeney recounted what he saw next:
We arrived in daylight and moved fairly slowly up and down parallel to the beach. To the west, fuel oil tanks were on fire and dense black smoke dispersed as it drifted across the scene. We saw occasional snatches of dog fights by our own and enemy fighters in breaks between the clouds. Also groups of soldiers formed queues on the beach but not in great numbers that first day.13
With the morning light, McBeath saw no way, outside of using his ship's boats, to efficiently and quickly embark the troops. With his lookouts' eyes peeled seaward for German E-boats and skyward for the Luftwaffe, McBeath ordered the whaleboat and motor launch swung out and lowered into the Channel. What ensued was a painfully slow process of ferrying troops from the beach. Only 45 had been embarked by 0500 when McBeath received a signal to proceed to Dunkirk to continue the evacuation directly from the harbor's breakwater.
The commander carefully piloted his ship into the wreck-filled harbor. Once alongside the breakwater, the waiting troops hurriedly embarked. Many carried their heavy kit bags and weapons. One unfortunate soldier missed a sailor's helping hand and fell between the ship and the breakwater. He sank like stone, never to be seen again. This had a sobering effect on the waiting troops, who now embarked in a more orderly manner.
With the ship's above and below decks crammed with soldiers, McBeath steamed out of Dunkirk and dashed back to England. Staying just long enough to disembark the troops, the Venomous hustled back toward Dunkirk, arriving off Bray Dunes just after midday.
The Luftwaffe Attacks
Again McBeath faced a situation in which he could use only his own boats to embark the waiting troops. Adding to the danger, the Luftwaffe had begun to target the beaches and the ships and small craft offshore. The Venomous and her boat crews were not only working the tricky ship-to-shore-and-back-again maneuvers, but now all concerned were dodging bombs. After a few hours, McBeath hurried his destroyer back across the Channel with only 200 troops.
Steaming at flank speed, the Venomous came under fierce and determined aerial attack. During this action the old destroyer was able to eek out a bit of revenge. One German aircraft made the mistake of flying within the "whirling spray" of the Venomous' guns. One of the old 4.7s scored a direct hit on the low-flying Heinkel, sending it into the Channel. The Venomous had splashed its third aircraft. Luftwaffe attacks continued almost up to the time that she arrived back on the English side of the Channel.
With a few hours' rest, the ship's company began to take on ammunition, and at 1200 on 1 June, McBeath took the Venomous out again, heading for Dunkirk. Shortly after passing the damaged destroyer HMS Ivanhoe, the commander received a signal from Dover Command telling him to return to port. With the losses suffered in its destroyer force, the Admiralty called off daylight evacuation for its larger ships. Echoing his men's thoughts, McBeath said, "I think everyone was thankful that we were no longer required to evacuate troops by day."14
An Incredible Feat
The first of June, however, was not over for the Venomous. She departed Dover at 1900, this time carrying a landing party that comprised 10 Royal Navy officers and 90 ratings. With some of the party dropped off at Bray Dunes, the Venomous took the rest into Dunkirk, and at 0215 the next morning, McBeath had his destroyer alongside the breakwater. After disembarking the landing party, hundreds of troops began a hazardous boarding process. It was an incredible feat, considering it was performed in the dead of night by bone-weary sailors and soldiers who had to navigate a 6- to 8-foot drop from the breakwater onto to the Venomous' decks. In the words of one soldier: "We embarked by sliding down on swaying poles. If you lost your footing you were crushed between the boat and the jetty."15
McBeath did not linger. By 0530, he had brought his destroyer back to Dover and spent the entire day in the harbor. At 1910, the ship was back out again, reaching Dunkirk at 2145. Once she was tied alongside, it took only 35 minutes for the ship's company to take on board and stuff nearly 1,400 men into the old destroyer. This included accommodating two BEF commanders, Major Generals Harold Alexander and Arthur Percival, as well as their staffs. All safely arrived at Dover before sunrise on 3 June.
After spending all day in the harbor, the Venomous left for her final Dunkirk run. Arriving off the city's harbor around 2030, McBeath took three hours to get his ship alongside the breakwater. Organization was now crumbling, and the old destroyer was about to suffer her first major damage. A tug rammed her portside amidships, leaving a deep dent in her side and breaking a steam-pipe casting to the ship's port dynamo. Enveloped in steam, the ship's company began to take on board hundreds of French soldiers who had been part of Dunkirk's rear guard.
With emergency repairs to the ruptured steam pipe completed, the Venomous departed Dunkirk for the last time just after 0230 on 4 June. On this run, she was ferrying 1,100 French troops, who for the most part refused to go below for fear of being trapped should the ship sink. Once the destroyer was clear of the harbor, it became obvious to McBeath that the Venomous was seriously overloaded and in danger of capsizing. With daylight approaching, he stopped his old destroyer to trim her. Hundreds of reluctant Frenchmen were sent below, even into the ship's engine rooms.
With this difficult job complete, the Venomous was brought back up to speed, and McBeath steamed her back into Dover Harbor just after 0600. After disembarking the exhausted French troops and an engineering inspection of her damage, McBeath was ordered to take the Venomous to Devonport for repairs. In the eyes of the ship's coxswain, the damage was considered sufficiently serious for him to persuade McBeath to splice the main brace and issue a "tot all round." With the first issue of rum distributed, McBeath directed the coxswain to pipe "up spirits" again.
Having survived on a very narrow and hostile sea, while bringing more than 4,000 troops back to England to fight another day, the Venomous was indeed a fortunate ship. As McBeath recorded, "We were very lucky—the whole party was over and we had come through it all without serious damage and without a single casualty."16
She performed operations that her designers never thought a fleet destroyer would conduct, most notably being one of the first ships to engage tanks at point-blank range. The Venomous continued to serve throughout the war, later modified as a long-range antisubmarine warfare escort and ending her days with six battle honors. John McBeath retired as a rear admiral, and the Venomous was scrapped in 1948. Today, her name lives on, in the guise of a Royal Navy Sea Cadet unit stationed in Loughborough, Leicestershire, England.
Captain Rodgaard is a former Naval History coauthor of the year. He has been commissioned by the University of Hertfordshire Press to complete the second edition of Commander Moore's A Hard Fought Ship. As a naval intelligence officer, Captain Rodgaard is presently assigned to the Source Directorate of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.
1. LCDR Robert Moore, RNR, A Hard Fought Ship: The Story of HMS Venomous (Loughborough, United Kingtom: Quorn Repro Limited, 1990), Able Seaman Harold Knapton's account as described on p. 30.
2. Ibid., p. 32.
3. LCDR John E. H. McBeath, RN, "A narrative of events between 9 May and 20 June 1940." From Mrs. Cecile Holman's collection of her father's papers, Rear Admiral J. E. H. McBeath, RN.
4. Peter C. Smith, Hold the Narrow Sea: Naval Warfare in the English Channel, 1939-1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 29. This device might have been similar to the one placed in the narrow channel entrance to Pearl Harbor in 1941.
5. Moore, A Hard Fought Ship, p. 33.
6. Ibid., p. 34.
7. The 20th Guards Brigade consisted of the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards, two antitank gun batteries and logistics elements. Guards Magazine, Spring 1941.
8. Moore, A Hard Fought Ship, p. 37.
9. Ibid., p. 40.
10. Ibid., p. 44.
11. World War II Dairy of the Welsh Guards.
12. Lieutenant Peter Kershaw's account from an interview recorded by LCDR (SCC) Robert Moore, RNR.
13. Moore, A Hard Fought Ship, p. 46.
14. McBeath, "A narrative of events between 9 May and 20 June 1940."
15. "A Hard Fought Ship," p. 48.
16. McBeath, "A narrative of events between 9 May and 20 June 1940."