Today I’m featuring a man whose career in the Royal Navy led him into many adventures.
Vernon Hammersley Heenan
Vernon Hammersley Heenan was born in Port Elizabeth, part of the Eastern Cape of South Africa. His father Robert Henry Hammersley Heenan was resident engineer for the harbour authority in the city (I featured him in an earlier article).
In 1903, shortly after his fifteenth birthday, Vernon enlisted with the British Royal Navy, becoming a midshipman the following year. It was the beginning of a career which saw him serve in two world wars and rise to the rank of commander. Early reports on his conduct describe him as “painstaking” and “zealous” though a later commander mentioned he could be “rather rough and boorish.”
In 1915 he was made Captain of HMS Seal, a B class destroyer. As the war continued he was transferred to captain other ships including HMS Boyne (1916), H.M.S Orpheus (1916) and H M S Vehement (1917). It was with the Vehement, a V-class destroyer that he earned a black mark on his career, when the ship was grounded and he was found by a Court of Enquiry to have been “negligent” . He continued to captain the destroyer as she undertook minelaying operations in the north sea. He was on board on August 1, 1918 when she hit a mine. The resulting explosion caused her forward ammunition magazine to detonate, blowing off the entire forward section of the ship, killing one officer and 47 ratings. The blast propelled Vernon Hammersley 400 yards through the air. Hospitalised in Hull, a severe contusion kept him unfit to serve until 3 October. A Court of Enquiry into her loss found no blame attributable to her captain.
He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander on October 1, 1918.
Returning to duty he was posted to HMS Vittoria, another destroyer that had been converted to a minelayer. While in command, the ship was torpedoed by the Bolshevik submarine Pantera off the island of Seiskari in the Gulf of Finland on 31 August 1919. A Court of Enquiry determined that there was no blame attributable to Vernon Hammersley Heenan
For his services during the war, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star and the Victory & British War Medals.
Hammersely Heenan and a shipping disaster
After the war he continued to captain Royal Naval vessels. In February 1920 he was appointed as commander of the destroyer HMS Wrestler. The ship was in the River Clyde on October 9, 1921 when the steamship Rowan got into difficulties in fog and collided with two other steamers in quick succession. The Rowan sank within a few minutes of the second collision and all passengers and crew were thrown into the water.
The Wrestler was one of the ships that responded to the SOS call, taking part in the rescue operation. In all, 77 of the 93 or more people on board the Rowan were rescued and taken to Greenock. Vernon Hammersley Heenan was praised by the Royal Navy for his work to rescue the survivors.
At his request he retired from the navy with the rank of Commander on 2 November 1929, to persue a quieter life at home in London with his wife Victoria (nee Wood) and two children.
World War II
The outbreak of World War II saw him return to duty as Acting Commander, commanding several destroyers including HMS Watchman, HMS Douglas and HMS Viscount. He was mentioned in despatches in 1943 for showing “zeal and patience … in dangerous waters … and setting an example to wholehearted dedication to duty, upholding the high traditions of the Royal Navy.”
Vernon Hammersley Heenan died in London in May 1954, at the age of 66.
Preston. V and W Class Destroyers 1914–1945. p. 26.
Naval Oficers Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/51/289.
Royal Navy Officers, Medal Roll, 1914-1920. The National Archives ADM/171/89 -93
England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007, St Pancras, vol 5d page 388