“Never change a ship’s name!” warns seafaring lore.
However, for the first U.S. Navy destroyer to be christened as USS Herndon (DD 198), its transfer to Great Britain in 1940 and subsequent new name of HMS Churchill (I 45) seemed not to have bestowed excessive bad luck on the ship in the four years it served the Royal Navy during World War II.
Unfortunately, despite the thorough efforts of Wallsend Slipway shipyard employees to completely obliterate the name Churchill from the destroyer before it was transferred to the Soviet Union in 1944, Neptune, god of the sea, must have been exasperated by that point. The ship, renamed Deyatelnyi (“active”) by the Soviets, was sunk less than 7 months later by a German submarine.
But a unique artifact bearing the Churchill name was preserved, quite literally at the last minute, and today it resides on the hearth of a former shipyard employee in Devon: the ship’s name plate, bearing its crest, which had been attached to the front of the bridge.
Interestingly, it is the usual custom of the Royal Navy not to name ships after living individuals, so considering that Sir Winston Churchill was elected Prime Minister in 1940, how is it that this custom was so blatantly ignored in the naming of Churchill? Even Wikipedia calls the Prime Minister “her namesake” – but officially, and supposedly, this is incorrect.
USS Herndon was acquired by the Royal Navy as part of the “Destroyers for Bases Agreement” reached between Great Britain and the United States after the outbreak of World War II. These obsolete World War I-era destroyers, according to Neil Coates in his article “Five Bells: The Churchills – A Naval History,” had originally been “mostly named for U.S. naval officers, some of whom had been rather too successful in the War of 1812 for their names to be retained by the Royal Navy!”
The British solved that dilemma by deciding to rename this group of destroyers after towns that were common to both Great Britain and the United States. They were afterwards referred to as “Town” class destroyers. And what would you know? The very first “renaming” just so happened to be Churchill, after towns located in both Nevada (U.S.) and Gloucestershire (U.K.).
Immediately, the public generally assumed – or perhaps knew – that the ship had been named after the Prime Minister, as evidenced by a Daily Mail cartoon at the time. Churchill himself, however, credited the namesake to the Duke of Marlborough. It seems few people bought the story that Churchill was really named after towns.
At any rate, Churchill served the Royal Navy well, performing convoy escort duty in the Atlantic Ocean and weathering two separate attacks by the Falke group of German U-boats in early 1943. Three other ships in Churchill‘s group were sunk in the second attack, but Churchill‘s luck held.
In February 1944, due to mounting defects and the greater availability of newer and better destroyers, Churchill was pulled from active duty and docked in Tyne. In March, authorities decided to transfer her to the Soviet Union.
For an old destroyer that was ostensibly not named after Sir Winston Churchill, shipyard employees say that the prime minister’s office took rather a pointed interest in ensuring that the ship was completely scrubbed of all references to its name.
According to seafarers’ legend, this must be done anyway in order to avoid incurring the wrath of Neptune and cursing the ship with bad luck – but it seems unlikely that that was the reason for an incident that one man, Robert “Bob” Jenkins, would relate years later to his young son Dave. Dave recalls,
The day before handover to the Russian Navy, The Wallsend Slipway yard manager Jim Tocker was contacted by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s secretary who ordered that the ship be searched and any trace of the Churchill name be removed and disposed of as Mr. Tocker saw fit. The ship was searched and at the last minute it was noticed that the ship’s crest name plate was still attached to the ship’s bridge front! It was removed and retained in Jim Tocker’s office.
The Soviet Navy renamed the destroyer Deyatelnyi and put it into service as a convoy escort. She was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in January 1945 while escorting a convoy to the White Sea – the only one of the “Town” class destroyers transferred to the Soviets that was sunk.
Churchill the ship may have been gone, but her bridge crest was lovingly preserved. Many years later, when Bob Jenkins became the manager of the Wallsend Slipway, Jim Tocker gave him the Churchill name plate.
It was fitting that this memento continued to be safeguarded by a man who had begun his career in shipbuilding at the age of 14, after his school was bombed in the war. Beginning as a blacksmith’s striker at a shipyard on the River Tees, Bob eventually ended his career as the managing director of Tyne Ship Repair Group, which had seven different ship repair yards located along the River Tyne.
Dave says that after Bob acquired the name plate, “My dad made a small wooden stand for the plate and it was kept on his hearth in our home in Cullercoats on the North Sea Coast, I remember it always being there. My dad told my brother and I the story when we were only boys and I can remember its significance to us when the state funeral of Winston Churchill was televised.”
Dave also points out on the plate itself, “There is a small round dent on the rim which my father told me was caused by shrapnel when the ship was damaged on active service.”
After Bob passed away, Dave inherited the bridge plate, and continues to display it on his own hearth with pride. He had once tried to get his father to take it to the BBC show “Antiques Roadshow,” but his father had refused, saying it probably wasn’t very valuable and people would not be that interested in it. Perhaps not, but the name plate serves as a physical reminder of Churchill’s presence in history, and brings to life unique details of a story that might otherwise have been forgotten.