'We were singing in the water' - Survivor of torpedoed ship to turn 99

Reg Bishop survivor of HMS Hecla sinking

Reg Bishop in 1942 after enlisting into the Royal Navy and again in 2017, wearing a Royal Navy polo shirt with his war medals. - Credit: Supplied by family

On November 11, 1942, a German U-boat fired four torpedoes at a British naval ship off the coast of north Africa.

When the HMS Hecla sank, almost 300 crew members died, while its 568 survivors were eventually rescued and escorted to Casablanca.

Some 79 years later, the sole remaining survivor of that night is Norfolk man Reg Bishop, who is now about to celebrate his 99th birthday. 

Reg Bishop, from Cawston in Norfolk, pictured in 2017

Reg Bishop, from Cawston in Norfolk, pictured in 2017 wearing a Royal Navy polo shirt with his war medals. - Credit: Supplied by family

Mr Bishop, who lives in Cawston, was a gunner on board the Hecla when she was attacked during the Second World War.

He was born in more peaceful times, on December 14, 1922, in Cley.

As a boy, he attended Blakeney School and later worked in a poultry farm before joining the building trade.

After enlisting in the Navy in 1942, he took his training at HMS Ganges in Shotley and then Chatham, before travelling on the Queen Elizabeth troop ship to Egypt.

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That August, he joined the HMS Hecla.

His memories of the night the ship went down were transcribed in 2017 by his daughter-in-law Mary Bishop.

HMS Hecla

The HMS Hecla, a British Royal Navy destroyer which was attacked by a U-boat off the coast of north Africa on November 11, 1942. - Credit: Supplied by family

He described being asleep in his hammock when the ship was hit and later giving his coat to a pal, Albert Barker, from Bacton, before never seeing him again.

His most vivid memory was of those stranded in the sea singing in the darkness, 'There'll always be an England'.

Around 16 hours after the attack, the survivors were picked up by the HMS Venomous.

Reg Bishop HMS Hecla sinking survivor

Reg Bishop as a young man. He served as gunner on board the HMS Hecla which sank after being hit by a torpedo in November 1942. - Credit: Supplied by family

After the loss of the Hecla, he served on the HMS Bonaventure, a midget submarine depot ship which sailed from Scotland to the southwest Pacific Ocean.

He was released from the Navy in 1946 and attended a painting and decorating course in Letchworth, where he met his first wife, Peggy, also from Norfolk.

They married and lived first in Blakeney and then Cawston. They had two daughters, Anita and Maureen, who is now deceased, and a son, Tim.

Peggy died in 1976 and six years later Mr Bishop married his second wife, Diane.

He worked as a painter and decorator until retirement and then with his son, Tim, at the family business, School Garage in Felthorpe, until the age of 85.

He will celebrate his birthday with his family on Sunday (December 12) and Tuesday (December 14).

Mr Bishop has three children (one deceased), eight grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

He also has two step-daughters, five step-grandchildren and five step-great-grandchildren.

Reg Bishop in 1942 after enlisting with the Royal Navy.

Reg Bishop in 1942 after enlisting with the Royal Navy. - Credit: Supplied by family

The night the HMS Hecla went down – in Reg Bishop’s own words 

"I was asleep in my hammock before the torpedo hit Hecla. I remember the ship shuddering and coming to a halt. This was because the first torpedo hit in the boiler room and we lost all steam.  

“I immediately got dressed in overalls, a coat and life belt and action stations sounded. I went up to A Gun in the pitch dark.

“Another torpedo hit and we were listing but didn't sink.  

“Then a third torpedo hit and we got the order to abandon ship. We all went to the Abandon Ship Stations first, on the upper deck.

“My pal, Albert Barker, had been sleeping on the upper deck when we got hit. He was wearing just his underwear and the water had come over the side and soaked him. I remember taking my coat off and giving it to him. I never saw him again.  

“I remember everything was calm, no panic, and I slid down into the water from the starboard side on a length of rope. I was alongside the ship and remember swimming to get away from it.  

“We were then hit by two more torpedoes which hit the opposite side of Hecla. I just wanted to get away from the ship before she went down. 

HMS Venomous 1942

The HMS Venomous bringing the survivors of the sinking of the HMS Hecla to Casablanca after they had been stranded in the water for 16 hours. - Credit: Supplied by family

The HMS Marne stopped to pick up survivors and was hit in the stern by a torpedo but she didn't sink. We heard a voice through a loudhailer from HMS Venomous telling us they would pick us up in daylight. Some in the water tried to get aboard HMS Marne but I didn't attempt it in case she went down.  

“Although I couldn't see much in the darkness, I was in the water surrounded by other sailors. I managed to grab hold of a Carley Float. It was so full of men that it was beneath the surface with only their heads above the water. I had to sit straddling the edge.  

“One of my vivid memories was hearing a single voice loudly sing out of the darkness 'There'll always be an England'. Others joined in with the singing and I joined in too.  

I don't recall any panic or fear that night, just waiting to be picked up and dozing every now and then. 

“When daylight came we could see the bodies of those who hadn't survived floating in the water. 

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