Obituary: Sole remaining survivor of ship torpedoed in Second World War

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

The sole remaining survivor of a British naval ship sunk by U-boats during the Second World War has died at the age of 99.

Reg Bishop, who lived in Cawston, was a gunner on board the HMS Hecla when she was attacked off the coast of north Africa on November 11, 1942.

Almost 300 crew members died that night.

Of the 568 survivors, Mr Bishop would live the longest, for another 79 years, becoming a "tower of strength" for his family and remaining active deep into his final decade, with only Covid restrictions stopping his regular visits to Mecca Bingo on Aylsham Road in Norwich.

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 was born 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 recollection of the night the ship went down was transcribed in 2017 by his daughter-in-law Mary Bishop.

He was asleep in his hammock when the first torpedo hit and he rushed up to A Gun in the pitch dark.

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

After another two missiles hit, crew got the order to abandon ship.

Mr Bishop described giving his coat to a friend, Albert Barker, from Bacton.

"He was wearing just his underwear and the water had come over the side and soaked him," he said. "I remember taking my coat off and giving it to him. I never saw him again."

Even as the ship was being attacked, Mr Bishop said, everything was calm.

"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," he said.

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

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

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. 

Around 16 hours after the attack, the survivors were picked up by the HMS Venomous and evacuated to Casablanca.

After the loss of the Hecla, Mr Bishop 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.

Reg Bishop in 1942 after enlisting with the Royal Navy.

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

Peggy died in 1976 and six years later Mr Bishop married his second wife, Diane, who he had met while working at the Bernard Matthews factory in Great Witchingham.

Mr Bishop later worked as a painter and decorator with Bisley's in Aylsham until retirement.

He then worked with his son, Tim, as an MOT assistant at the family business, School Garage in Felthorpe, until the age of 85.

Among his hobbies were vegetable gardening, travel and bingo. He would be seen at Mecca Bingo in Norwich well in his 90s and it was only the pandemic which stopped him from attending.

Mary Bishop described him as a "non-judgmental and easy-going" man.

"He loved to talk. He could strike up a conversation with anyone about anything," she said.

"He led a remarkable life and he was a tower of strength for the whole family. He would help any of them."

Mr Bishop died on June 4 at his home.

His funeral will be at St Faith's Crematorium in Norwich on June 24.

Mr Bishop is survived by two of his children, eight grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

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