I have been corresponding with two gentleman, Bill Foster and Warwick Owen about the life and time of one of Port Elizabeth‘s great benefactors, Herbert McWilliams. Specifically about the sinking of the ship HMS Hecla 70 years ago today (one authority states that the ship actually sank on 12 November, though) and McWilliams famous sailing dinghy design, the Sprog.
I find myself wondering what McWilliams would say today if he were able to contemplate the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Hecla and his recollections of that horrible night?
Long time Port Elizabeth residents will remember the magnificent thatch roofed home that belonged to Herbert McWilliams and Albert Milde, his longtime friend and partner. Tragically the Poop was gutted in a dramatic fire during 1986 and most of his paintings and drawings were burnt. The Herbert McWilliams and Albert Milde Charitable Trust was established in their names after the death of Herbert McWilliams in 1995.
I am sure many a river fisherman will remember how Herbert and Albert would graciously allow them to launch from their slipway close to the Swartkops River only on their return from sea to experience even better hospitality with the offer of a warm drink from a special bottle. Somehow Herbert and Albert were able to keep their larder well stocked with the choicest fresh fish!
As young working stiffs the Longhair and I stayed in Amsterdamhoek and were privileged to crack the nod to a few of the famous Amsterdamhoek Sunday Lunches that included Herbert and Albert. Our memories are of great company, sparkling repartee, delicious naughty skinner, magnificent food and fine wine.
At these soirees Herbert and Albert were held in great esteem by their peers and deservedly so. It was only later that we realised just how accomplished Herbert really was as an architect, naval architect, Olympic yachtsman, artist, publisher and benefactor.
As an architect McWilliams drew up the plans for many well known Port Elizabeth landmarks, including; The Zwartkops Yacht Club (1931), Astra Theatre, Barclay’s Bank, Grand Theatre, Guardian Assurance Building, Plaza Theatre – Uitenhage, SA Reserve Bank, St Andrew’s College – Additional Buildings, St Dominic’s Priory Chapel and Refectory and St Patrick’s Church.
McWilliams practised in Port Elizabeth from about 1934. His father was the Port Elizabeth architect, WJ McWilliams. Herbert was born in Walmer, educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown and entered the office of Baker and Kendall in Cape Town in July 1924 where he remained until 1926. In October 1926 he enrolled at the Architectural Association, qualifying in September 1929. His experience in London included spending eight weeks in 1928 in Goodhart Rendel’s office followed by four weeks in 1929 in A Trystam Edward’s office. In 1930 his Associate papers were signed by both VT Jones, who was in London staying at the Constitutional Club, and by his father, WJ McWiliams, in Port Elizabeth. He returned to South Africa in 1931 and entered his father’s office (Jones & McWilliams) as chief assistant. His buildings are described as being ‘characterful’ and defying ‘categorisation’.
As a Naval Architect McWilliams designed the Sprog Dinghy and launched the first one, Stripy (later renamed Stroppy), in March 1946 at the first post-war inter-club regatta. Interest in this Herbert McWilliams designed dinghy was immediate and the Sprog soon became the largest dinghy class in South Africa. Sprog Dinghies are to be found in the United Kingdom, Philippines, Australia and Honolulu. Up until 2006 the Sprog was the one design dinghy sailed at all South African Universities championships. Other yachting designs that McWilliams had a hand in were the Winger, Extra, Utra, Echo, Bill-ho and Kitcraft. The Extra is still sailed today and some classic wooden examples of this speedy craft are to be seen.
Herbert McWilliams represented South Africa in the 1948 London Olympic Games sailing in the Firefly Class.
His artistic talent stood him in good stead during the Second World War. He joined the Navy as A/B RNVR in HMS Shropshire from 1940-1941. In 1941 he served with the Coastal Forces in North Sea, transferred to the SANF with which he took part in the invasion of North Africa, Sicily, South France, etc. His ship, HMS Hecla, was torpedoed five times in one night and was rescued by HMS Venomous off the North African coast on Armistice Day 1942. His vivid description of that night written within days of his rescue and the extraordinary ink wash drawings of Hecla sinking, now in the Imperial War Museum, London, will keep the memory of its loss alive for generations to come. He returned to Alexandria in about 1943 where he had previously spent some time and was by chance able to hold an exhibition of his depictions of the invasion of Sicily, many being bought on the spot by the War Artists’ Commission. In 1943 he was appointed as War Artist, Naval Correspondent and Cameraman, acting as Naval editor, artist and photographer of “Parade”, published simultaneously in Cairo and Naples and later Calcutta in which capacity he reported naval activity in the Mediterranean, Aegean eventually transferring to the East Asia Command, taking part in the occupation of Rangoon.
McWilliams’s skill in drawing led him to be a sought after illustrator of books and articles, among these being ‘Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa’ (1933) by GE Pearse, in which some of his sketches appear.
Many of McWilliams paintings are to be found in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum.
In 1934 McWilliams published a book about his adventures with four friends in a converted lorry – “The Diabolical: An account of the adventures of five people who set out in a converted Ford lorry to make a journey from Palestine to England across Asia Minor and the Balkans” (Duckworths) (1934).” The Diabolical, by Herbert Hastings McWilliams, was published by Duckworth.
The Herbert McWilliams and Albert Milde Charitable Trust was purposed towards: “Philanthropic intermediaries and voluntarism promotion, Grantmaking foundations, Private foundations, including corporate foundations, community foundations and independent public-law foundations.” Much of the money was ploughed into the Echo Foundation and in support of deserving individuals like the NMMU BCom Honours (Accounting) degree students who fail at first attempt, but who obtain an average final mark of at least 40% for their studies, are assisted in their second year by the trust.
Albert Milde was a private individual, reputedly of aristocratic Hungarian birth, orphaned at an early age, his inheritance overseen by Swiss trustees.
I remember the corporate that I briefly worked for was offered the chance by the Charitable Trust to sign a long term lease with no escalation with the lease money to be paid directly to the Echo Foundation. To this day I do not understand why they refused this generous offer!
Another one of the beneficiaries of the Milde McWilliams Trust is the NMMU School of Architecture and the Milde McWilliams Memorial Lecture a legacy.
BUT, it appears that posthumously Herbert McWilliams will continue to contribute to society with the Spring 2013 publication of a book of his letters to his mother during his time in the war, titled War at Sea: Letters Home by Bill Foster of Hollywell House Publishing.
Bill explains the upcoming book thus; “After officer training in England and service on a Fairmile ML with Coastal Forces at Lowestoft, McWilliams was posted to the destroyer depot ship HMS Hecla two months before it was torpedoed off the coast of North Africa. A letter describing the tragedy and ink washes done on the back of naval signal forms with a throat brush from the sickbay within hours of his rescue by HMS Venomous make this one of the most compelling accounts of a naval disaster ever published.
“He trained with Combined Operations in Scotland and Egypt for the landings in Sicily and was under constant attack by aircraft while Senior Naval Officer (SNO) on merchant ships offloading equipment on the invasion beaches. A final chapter describes his time as artist, photographer and war correspondent on the services magazine, Parade.
“An introduction by Clayton Holliday, retired Director of the art gallery in Port Elizabeth which McWilliams designed and where many of his paintings hang, describes McWilliams’ work and his life with Albert Milde at their home on the Swartkops River. His old friend and neighbour, Roux van der Merwe, describes his lifelong passion for sailing and his design of the Sprog and other racing dinghies.”
Click HERE to be notified as soon as War at Sea: Letters Home, 1941-1945 by Herbert Hastings McWilliams becomes available.
There are a number of ships named Hecla (after and Icelandic Island), the Hecla that McWilliams served on was the fifth Hecla – a Destroyer Depot Ship launched in March 1940 and according to uboat.net; “On November 12th, during the Allied landings in North Africa, HMS Hecla was torpedoed just after midnight by U-515 and sunk west of Gibraltar in position 35º43’N, 09º54’W.
References and Contributors to this article:
- Bill Foster – Hollywell House Publishing
- World Naval Ships Forum: Contributions by Bill Foster
- Warwick Owen – the author of FITS – 22 local short stories (who was on occasion allowed to do minor work on McWilliams’ Rolls Royce!)
- John Wright, Chairman of the Sprog Class
- Members of the Rum Club
- Members of the now defunct Swartkops Yacht Club
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