Mystery about Chick’s death

The Royal Pier Hotel on the corner of Southsea Terrace and Bellevue Terrace as it looked at the time Chick Henderson was killed.
The Royal Pier Hotel on the corner of Southsea Terrace and Bellevue Terrace as it looked at the time Chick Henderson was killed.
The loss of HMS Eurydice during a squall.

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I was listening to a new show on Radio Solent last Sunday when Bob Roberts played that well-known Cole Porter number Begin the Beguine.

It was a recording by the Joe Loss Orchestra and the singer was Chick Henderson, a 1930s crooner.

Chick Henderson.

Chick Henderson.

Chick was as popular as Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck were to become 30 years later. In fact he was the first British singer to sell a million records.

However, this handsome frontman was called up for the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war and died in Portsmouth in questionable circumstances.

Most reports say he was in the merchant navy, but as he was later commissioned as a sub-lieutenant he would have been a Royal Navy officer. I think the fact he served in the armed merchantman HMS Comorin makes writers think he was a merchant seaman.

Two incidents involving sinkings are reported in his biography which are not quite correct. One thing we do know is that Chuck was lucky to escape from both incidents as he was a non-swimmer – unlike today when it is a prerequisite for everyone who joins the navy.

His biography claims he was torpedoed twice, but I have yet to find any evidence of the second incident.

His first ship, Comorin, was not torpedoed but caught fire in the Atlantic on April 6, 1941. Twenty men died but 455 survived. The following morning Comorin was sunk by HMS Lincoln.

And then there is the mystery of his death. In the records it says he was killed in Southsea by shrapnel from a V1 flying bomb, but I reckon there seems to be some kind of cover-up by the navy.

His biographer relates a different tale. Frank Wappat writes that a lone German pilot got through the radar and attacked the Royal Pier Hotel in Southsea Terrace. German intelligence might well have known that naval officers were using the hotel as a billet.

On June 24, 1944, and coming in at low level, the pilot machine-gunned the front of the hotel killing just one officer, Sub-Lieutenant Henderson. He was in his room on the top floor and as the fighter pilot strafed the building, Chick was hit.

His wife, Pamela, said she received a letter from naval chaplain the Rev CB Taylor RNVR the very next day, but he told a different story. He said that he, along with Chick, were on their way to a shelter and could hear the sound of the V1 in the sky.

All of a sudden Chick fell and seemed to be unconscious. Carried into the warmth of the hotel, a doctor was called. A splinter from an exploding shell or some other outside agent pierced his side. He did not regain consciousness and the chaplain goes on to say it was a quick, painless death.

However, the naval version is quite different again. The telegram stated that Chick was killed on active service and gave the impression he was killed while fighting the enemy. This is what ‘active’ means in this context.

And to make matters more confusing, Surgeon Commander Teasy told Pamela that Chick had gone out to post a letter and was never seen alive again.

As all the people involved in the incident are now dead, I don’t think we will ever know the truth.

Chick was born Henderson Rowntree in Hartlepool in November 1912 and was later a good friend of Al Bowley, another great British crooner. When Bowley was killed in an air raid on London in 1941 Chick he took leave to attend the funeral. Did anyone ever meet Chick or know him?