1943 to 1945
This is the story of HMS Empire Battleaxe from two very different perspectives - the navy and the Marines.
Royal Marine Corporals Norman Sam Moss, PO/X107607 and William Robert Jones, CH/X113254, served in Combined Operations in WW2. Each wrote an account of their experiences. Sam's account was entitled My Bit During World War Two (2006) and Bill's account was entitled Bill’s Brilliant Military Career (2004). (Photo left; Sam Moss).
Sam and Bill were both coxswains in 537 LCA Flotilla on Landing Ship Infantry SS Empire Battleaxe later designated HMS Empire Battleaxe. During the invasion of Normandy they became separated from their mother ship for reasons which are explained below. This account does not therefore cover the movements of SS Empire Battleaxe during the few weeks following ‘D’ Day. Sam and Bill caught up with their ship in July 1944 when it was being provisioned in Greenock for its next trip. (Photos right; Bill Jones with close-up of his medals).
If you wish to move directly to the story of the Empire Battleaxe click on the appropriate links below.
My war service started in July 1941 and ended when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. I returned to civilian life in 1946. My story is set against the background of death and destruction and the fear families had of receiving a telegram informing them that a loved one was missing or dead... a background which I have chosen to play down but which should, nonetheless, never be forgotten.
At the time of writing I am 83 years of age and have at last found the courage to record my account of those terrible times perhaps laying some ghosts to rest in the process. I was one of the very lucky ones. I saw plenty of action and came through unscathed.
The Royal Marines taught me many skills and values... to gain
and give respect, self-discipline, seamanship and comradeship - skills and
values that proved their worth throughout my life.
Not long after my eighteenth birthday I was working on a farm near Crewe in Cheshire. Like countless thousands before me I decided to volunteer for the Royal Navy but was told by their Royal Navy recruiting office in Stoke on Trent that it was full… yes, full!!! As I left the building, despondent at the news, a larger than life Royal Marine Sergeant said "Come ‘ere son. Do you really want to join the Royal Navy and go to sea?" Meekly I answered "yes" and asked if he could help. Half an hour later I took the Kings Shilling! I was in the Royal Navy and returned home feeling very pleased with the day's events. On the 1st of October 1941 I reported to Eastney Barracks, Portsmouth.
On the first morning parade the drill sergeant screeched his words of welcome, "I am your mother, your father and the biggest bastard you are ever likely to meet." Later on I heard other troops repeating the same words so they were probably part of the training manual. Even American troops were 'welcomed' into the Navy in the same way.
After a brief introduction to the unit my six weeks basic training began at 7am on the second morning. It was cold, wet and windy on the parade ground and many of the lads were half asleep on their feet. That soon changed as the drill sergeant began barking out his orders... and this was only the start! Apart from the drilling we were introduced to every aspect of life in the Royal Navy and issued with a blanco khaki green uniform Number 4, plus all the webbing that would hold the things we needed to fight and survive in the field.
Our hair was cut to regulation standard and we were introduced to the pleasures of washing and shaving in ice cold water. No showers, hot or cold! One day was like another and every morning we, and our equipment, were inspected in close detail. Everything was required to be spotless, boots polished and all clothes washed and ironed to a high standard.
At this time I wished I'd paid attention as my mother washed and ironed my clothes. When the drill sergeant arrived on the square I would think of my mother and wondered if my efforts would pass muster. He was as hard as nails but was immaculately kitted out with creases on his uniform that were sharp enough to slice bread!
The drill sergeant was capable of teaching us all a lesson or two. Sorting out misfits in a few weeks was a routine challenge for him... none of us wanted to run around the parade ground carrying full kit while the others returned to barracks for a cup of tea! Many young lads said they'd never take orders from him, but, in the end, they did to a man! On odd days he was almost human but generally he was viewed as an ill-tempered man with a foghorn attached to his vocal chords!
Lee Enfield 303 Rifles with bayonets were issued at the start of the training, but no bullets at this early stage. Weighing in at nine pounds the rifle was heavy to carry on parade even with the distraction of marching to the regimental band. After three weeks training we were in fighting order and another fifty pounds of kit was added which we thought was the full kit. However, another thirty seven pounds was added a couple of weeks later taking the total to ninety six pounds. Obstacle and assault courses became more difficult and marches became longer! Physical training, swimming and other physical activities made every moment of rest and sleep precious and extremely enjoyable.
At the end of November 1941 our basic training was over and we were given a short period of leave. I returned home to Crewe to see my family and friends. Not one man amongst us invited the drill sergeant to come and stay!
A week later I began my first tour of duty at Leith Docks, Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth. The Firth was heavily mined against enemy assault and for the next few weeks I patrolled a barbed wire enclosure. The duty roster was twenty four hours on followed by twenty four hours off. On a duty day we worked on a four hour rota. At night if something was heard we would challenge "Who goes there?" More often than not it was seagulls annoyed because something or someone had disturbed their sleep! I soon realized that this was not the calling to sea I had imagined so I requested a change of direction and volunteered for the Royal Marine Commando, then based at Winchester in the south of England.
My first six weeks at Eastney had been tough but Winchester was far more challenging. There was again a natural antipathy between the lads and the drill sergeant. Many of the lads broke under the strain of the arduous training and unremitting discipline. The drill instructors had a way of dealing with contempt; those to be disciplined stood facing their fellow marines as they marched off the parade ground to warm barracks. They were then marched and drilled sometimes for several more hours.
Route marches began at 0700 hours, initially twelve miles, then twenty miles, all in full fighting order... fifty-six pounds of kit and rifle. We would run for an hour then walk for a mile covering nine miles each time. We underwent unarmed combat training and struggled our way over and through the dreaded assault course. No excuses were accepted. We slept outside in all conditions regardless of the time of year using bivouacs made by combining two ground sheets to form a very small tent. It was not as comfy as it sounds!
All went well for a few weeks, then, on manoeuvres in North Wales, I contracted severe tonsillitis. Armed with medication I was given home leave to rest and recuperate. I stayed with my family in Crewe but things had changed; my friends had disappeared, the whole town was quiet... all the young folk had gone! On return to my battalion after the operation I was ushered into a small office and told that I had lost so much training that I was being returned to Eastney. After all the hard work and angst I was back to square one!
This time at Eastney I was better informed and had the benefit of hindsight so I volunteered to go to sea, something I'd always wanted to do. I joined the Royal Marine Combined Operations and found myself in North Wales for a six week intensive training course. This took place at three different camps, Llangelyn, Llwynwril and Barmouth.
Being an eager recruit I loved the challenge of learning Morse code and semaphore (to modest speeds), knots, bends, hitches, splices and the rules of the sea. Ever present were the drill marches and assault course training. My training ended in Barmouth where I gratefully and happily accepted my Coxswains Certificate.
When I returned home on leave for a short time I departed the camp in marching order with a full kit bag, rifle and the latest addition to my kit... a hammock. The total weight was over one hundred pounds. Crewe was a busy major intersection on the rail network but my appearance drew no attention. The presence of the Salvation Army at most mainline stations was a welcome sight. The volunteer women were always ready with a cup of tea, a bun and a big smile and the ladies in Crewe were amongst the best. What a welcome they gave everyone. On behalf of all service personnel who passed through many a railway station…..thank you ladies, we were most grateful.
A telegram arrived instructing me to report to Cromarty Firth on the north east coast of Scotland. I was to join the infantry landing ship the SS Empire Battleaxe, she was a fine ship, loaned and leased to Britain by America for the duration of the war. Little did I know I would serve out the war with her. She was the biggest ship I had ever seen, that first day was daunting.
In the summer of 1942 I volunteered for The Royal Marines. I was inspired by a poster showing a marine, rifle held out front, charging up a beach. The Royal Marines were part of the Royal Navy and they accepted 17 year olds whereas you had to be 18 for the army. After a thorough medical examination which, in my case, included a visit to a Harley Street specialist, I was duly accepted for service in the Marines. However, I continued my employment as a draughtsman in the electrical switchgear drawing office at Crompton Parkinsons in Chelmsford, Essex.
Information below about ports of call and dates for Force X were provided by Eric [ Nick ] Carter CH/X113354 also a coxswain in 537 LCA Flotilla. After landing their troops on Normandy's Sword beach Nick's craft returned to the Empire Battleaxe with an injured soldier and then back to the landing beach with the Beachmaster, a Naval Commander. As they left the beach their craft was hit below the waterline by heavy machine gun fire and eventually sank. Nick did not rejoin Empire Battleaxe until the ship was due to sail from Greenock as part of Force X.
On the 2nd of February 1943, the day after my eighteenth birthday, I travelled on a railway warrant to the Royal Marine Barracks at Lympstone in Devonshire. After being kitted out I joined Squad 528 under Colour Sergeant Hall, ex Gallipoli, for six weeks initial training.
This initial training involved the regular use of Blanco khaki green No.4. on all my webbing equipment (straps, belts etc), ensuring my teeth were healthy, hair cut according to regulations, washing and shaving in cold water, being inspected frequently and trotting around the parade ground to the band first thing in the morning! For the first two weeks our training on the parade ground was undertaken in drill order with ammunition pouches and a Lee Enfield rifle. For the second two weeks we were in fighting order with a 56lbs pack. The last two weeks were in marching order with 96lbs not including the nine pound rifle. Apart from the parade ground drilling there were marches that increased in length and weight carried - initially a seven mile route march, then twelve miles and, by the end of the 6 week course, twenty miles. (Photo above; the squad at Lympstone in March 1943. Bill is in the front row 2nd from the right).
We all learnt how to clean, maintain and fire our rifles and a Bren Gun. I achieved a 'marksman’s' score which entitled me to wear a crossed rifles patch on my sleeve. I believe some remuneration was associated with this achievement.
At the end of this initial six week period I was transferred with the majority of the Squad to the 22nd Battalion based in an area of Devonshire called Dalditch between Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton. The camp comprised Nissan huts in an area of rough moor land. We jogged and marched for miles over the hills of Devon sometimes based for 72 hours in a two man tent formed by combining two ground sheets. The marching and jogging was occasionally interrupted to attack a mythical enemy. We were ‘C’ Company in the battalion and trying to prove we were commandos!
Any invasion of enemy occupied Europe would involve a large scale amphibious assault. It was not surprising therefore that we practised landings from LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) on Slapton Beach. This beach was on the south coast of Devonshire. From the landing craft we dashed up the fairly steep shingle beach throwing ourselves down and bringing our weapons up to the firing position. I was given the Bren Gun which was a bit heavier than the Lee Enfield rifle. In operational terms it was half way between a rifle and a machine gun, perhaps best described as an automatic rifle. (Photo; Royal Marines landing in strength on an enemy coast).
After the charge up the beach we shed our gear and weapons and swam fully clothed with our boots on... not an easy task as illustrated by an observer's wry comment about the direction I was swimming in... forwards or backwards. I never did understand the purpose of the exercise but it seemed to be very important. It may be associated with the fact that this area of coast was used by the Americans to train for the invasion of Normandy. My experience of dashing up this beach and attacking the enemy made me think back to the recruiting poster referred to in the beginning of this story.
At the Dalditch camp chemicals were added to the water supply which was a likely cause of the runs or diarrhoea amongst the men. The problem was recognised by the officers and consequently permission to leave the parade ground was not needed since time was often of the essence! In the quiet of the night I'd leap, half clothed, from my bed and dash outside to the toilet blocks silhouetted against the sky on a nearby hill. They were half open to the elements. It was often a lonely dash until I found all the seats fully occupied!
I gained the impression that the 22nd Battalion was a holding camp for partially trained personnel. Around this time the planners were developing combined operations using various types of landing craft and as part of this process it was decided that the crews of the minor landing craft, designed to put men ashore, should be marines rather than naval sailors... the theory being that if the craft became disabled, the crew would grab their rifles and storm ashore with the troops. As a consequence we spent 2 weeks at the Dartmouth Naval College in Devonshire for training in the handling of small plywood landing craft personnel (LCPs) on the beautiful river Dart. An aptitude for handling these boats resulted in you becoming a coxswain, any knowledge of engines resulted in you becoming a "stoker" and the remainder became deck hands.
The 20 mile or so return journey from Dartmouth back to Dalditch camp is etched in my memory since we marched! We came up through the seaside towns of Paignton, Torquay, Teignmouth and Dawlish to a little place called Starcross on the west side of the mouth of the river Exe. There was a ferry from Starcross to Exmouth and we were reminded that the last ferry left at 6:00pm. If we did not make it we'd need to march further up river to get across at the first bridge. This knowledge focussed our minds and kept us going.
As we marched by the coast at Torquay RAF personnel lolling around thought we were something to laugh at. We all had our problems! We made the last ferry at Starcross and were amazed and delighted to find trucks waiting for us on the other side to transport us back to the Dalditch camp. We had already marched over twenty miles so we'd earned the ride.
We were moved to the coast of Northern Wales spending two weeks at each of three camps at Llangelynn, Llwyngwril and Barmouth. We were now learning boat skills including Morse code to a very modest speed and likewise semaphore signalling with flags, a range of rope skills, bends, hitches, knots and splices, the use of the compass for navigation and the rules pertaining to river and sea voyages. We continued to march and drill perhaps to show the local Welsh Guards how it should be done!
Our next move was to South Queensferry on the east coast of Scotland in the shadow of the famous Forth Bridge which we sailed under and marched over. We were now part of the 537 Flotilla, the second to be formed from the Royal Marines. Flotilla 536 was formed a week or two ahead of us. We became an eighteen craft Flotilla of LCAs (Landing Craft Assault). This meant eighteen crews of four plus others to man the winches etc a total of just over ninety marines supported by a small contingent of Naval personnel to repair the boats and look after the engines.
Towards the end of 1943 we left our shore establishment at South Queensferry and were temporarily accommodated on the battleship The Royal Sovereign. This 29,000 ton ship built 1914-1916 had eight fifteen inch guns and was anchored nearby while waiting to enter the Royal Navy dry dock at Rosyth. She was due a refit prior to being loaned to the Russians for the remainder of the war. During this period some of our eighteen craft were tied up by the Royal Sovereign with the remainder accommodated at South Queensferry.
We were now sleeping in our hammocks strung above the mess deck tables where we had our meals. The lower decks were ventilated by noisy fans via ducting. We became acclimatised to the noise and were more likely to wake up if the fans stopped for any reason!
Much time was spent carrying out day and night flotilla exercises often routine and occasionally memorable. One of the latter arose when all 18 landing craft were proceeding in line ahead down the Firth of Forth. We found ourselves confronted by either HMS Rodney or HMS Nelson... in any event a sixteen inch gun battle ship. It sounded off four blasts of its horn meaning "get out of my way I cannot get out of yours." Obeying the Flotilla leader's flag signal we smartly executed a turn to starboard ending up in line abreast heading for the right hand shore.
One evening I was in charge of the duty boat... the boat taking people ashore or back to the ship as required. On leaving South Queensferry for the last trip back to the Royal Sovereign a thick fog descended. I set course on a compass bearing and safely arrived at the ship feeling pleased and relieved. It helped confirm the view in my mind that we had become competent seafarers.
We now met up with our Parent Ship SS Empire Battleaxe - one of 12 or so bearing the 'Empire' name (photo opposite). She was built in the USA to an original British design but modified and adapted for her new role. The most obvious modifications were the use of diesel power in place of steam and welded plate construction instead of rivets. Both reduced the time taken in construction and fitting out - important attributes for the urgently required so called liberty ships provided by the Americans under the lend/lease scheme.
The 'Empire' ships were built to carry eighteen LCA’s and to accommodate about one thousand troops. They had a speed of 14 knots. Some of the ships had provision for an additional landing craft usually an LCM (Landing Craft Medium), capable of transporting vehicles to the beaches. The LCAs were hoisted on and off the vessels on huge hoists (davits), not unlike those used for life boats and the LCMs were hoisted onto the ships by crane and put on the stern deck. This additional craft was normally carried when operating with American troops. The ship was manned by Merchant Seamen with DEMS, Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships personnel to man the main armaments of one four inch gun towards the bows and 0.8 inch Oerlikons mounted on the upper deck.
These ships formed the majority of the infantry carrying ships in the three British invasion forces being formed for the Normandy landings.- G (for Gold), J (for Juno) and S (for Sword), the last included the Empire Battleaxe. ‘S’ Force also had HMS Glenearn, a converted 18 knot cargo liner of about 10,000 tons carrying two LCA Flotillas of twelve craft each.
The small landing craft vessels were especially designed for their intended purpose of landing men and supplies directly onto the beaches of enemy occupied territory. They were sometimes incorrectly referred to as barges, perhaps because the use of barges had been contemplated at one time. The craft were well designed and built in small shipyards along the south coast of England with previous experience of yacht and small boat building.
The LCAs were forty four feet long, ten feet wide and weighed ten ton. They were designed to carry a platoon of men (30 to 33) in three rows of ten or eleven men on three thwarts running the length of the main part of the boat - and in the order they would normally march in.
There were two steel doors in the bow of the landing craft and in front of these was the ramp. On arrival on the beach the ramp was lowered and the bow doors opened to allow disembarkation, rapid disembarkation when under fire. The ramp was controlled by two ropes taken to the rear, the protected side of the steel doors. At the front right was a compartment some two feet by three feet for the coxswain with a steering wheel in front of him and to the right two engine telegraphs going back to the engine compartment at the rear.
In order to obtain a good view ahead and alongside the coxswain usually stood with his head and shoulders above the protective steel front and sides. When the craft came under fire he could sit down, close a lid over the top of his position and peer out through small slots forward and to the right. On the left of the boat, in line with the coxswain’s compartment was a position for a Bren Gun or similar weapon able to fire forward from behind the armour plating.
Over the top of the compartment for the platoon of troops, running down each side of the boat was a gunwale or decking about two feet wide with sufficient space under for the section of troops to sit on their thwart and the five or six feet space between was normally open. To the rear of this area was the engine compartment with two V eight petrol engines where the stoker sat in the middle watching the telegraphs indicating the coxswain’s requirements and operating the throttles and gear levers as required. Behind this compartment were the fuel tanks, the twin propellers, two rudders and exhaust pipes. On deck above the engine compartment were mooring cleats, hoisting eye, engine air inlets, fuel filling inlets, a kedge (an anchor from the rear) and an access hatch for the stoker.
Running the full length of the boat was a large timber beam forming the keel of the boat and to which was fixed two lifting eyes at the front and rear to enable the craft to be hoisted onto a parent ship. About this keel the boat was constructed of double diagonal mahogany planking with a waterproof membrane between. The area occupied by the troops to the rear of the front steel doors was lined with three sixteenths inch thick steel sheeting, reckoned to be bullet proof. The inside walls were lined with cork to ensure that the boat would not sink in most circumstances.
The boat was capable of approaching an enemy beach with almost complete silence any noise being towards the rear.
(Photo; a view of an LCA showing a platoon of men sitting on the thwarts. In the foreground one of the front steel doors is in the open position. Part of the coxswain’s compartment can be seen on the left and the compartment for a weapon is on the right. This is an early model of an LCA probably 1941 or 1942).
The Empire Battleaxe now sailed up to the Cromarty Firth off the north east coast of Scotland where the Flotilla commenced more realistic and serious training under normal sea-going conditions. It was vital to practice the hoisting of the craft onto the ship and lowering them into the water. Significant forces were involved in these procedures even in calm weather when the davits lifted the 10 ton craft over the side. But in rough weather the weight of the craft was instantly transferred from the davit cables to the sea and back to the cables as the sea fell away... dangerous stuff as we endeavoured to control the large multi-sheath pulley blocks hooked into the LCA’s lifting eyes.
When the craft were being lowered the ship was usually at anchor with the tide swinging the ship about the anchor chain. The sea would, consequently, be moving from the front to the rear of the ship. Under these conditions it was very important to unhook the craft at the stern first working forward. This gave the craft space to manoeuvre and avoided collisions. It was normal practice for the full complement of troops to be on board during these procedures... the stoker had to fire up the engines at the correct moment and to check that cooling water was circulating while the boat's crew endeavoured to prevent their LCA from hitting the side of the mother ship.
During the two months or so we spent in these northern waters we took part in two large exercises involving many other vessels including a cruiser. The Empire Battleaxe sailed into the Moray Firth and anchored some ten to twelve miles North of Burghead Bay. The fully loaded LCAs were successfully lowered and the troops landed just to the West of Burghead.
On leaving the mother ship the craft formed up in a two column line astern heading for the beach. Only when all craft were in position did we begin the approach. At a distance of about a mile from the intended landing zone, the craft would deploy to line abreast to hit the beach together ensuring maximum safety and fire power.
The compass bearing as the flotilla moved to the shore was identical to that which would be used a few months later on the approach to the Normandy beaches. Our flotilla was the most easterly and we were told to keep clear of Burghead due to the danger of rocks. It was no coincidence that a few months later off Normandy we were again the most easterly and warned to keep clear of the River Orne due to hazards. The planning was meticulous. The first of these exercises was the first time Force ‘S’ for Sword came together, one of three British Forces formed late 1943 and early 1944 to form the invasion fleet for Normandy.
The weather and sea conditions were sufficiently bad that some thought the exercises should have been postponed but, in the event, the experience of these conditions was invaluable since the conditions off Normandy were also rough. It was important to land the troops as safely and comfortably as possible on the chosen beach and then to get the craft off the beach and safely return to the ship. To this end, just before touching the beach, the coxswain ordered the craft’s kedge anchor to be dropped over the stern, this was later used to manually pull the craft back off the beach whilst the engines did their part going astern. The normal wave action of the sea tended to oppose this operation.
Unpredictable tide, sea and wind conditions on the beach could cause the stern to swing sideways resulting in the boat "broaching to..." ending up parallel to the beach. In this position the engines could not be used there being insufficient water depth for the propellers and the action of wind and tide could push the craft onto the beach. To avoid this happening ropes were taken from the rear bollards at an angle and held by two deck hands standing on the beach. These, in conjunction with the kedge, held the craft in position at right angles to the beach. If all else failed it was over the side and into the sea to push the boat back into the correct position.
To minimise the difficulties landings often took place on a rising incoming tide just before high tide. This might vary dependant on the slope and other characteristics of the beach but generally slack tidal water offered the most favourable landing conditions.
When not involved in the major exercises the flotilla undertook its own programme of training. The only occasion the weather conditions prevented the LCAs returning to their mother ships occurred on a mock landing near Nigg on the north side of the entrance to Cromarty Firth. They had a distance of five or six miles to go when a very strong westerly wind sprung up whipping the enclosed water of Cromarty Firth into steep waves about three feet high. With waves breaking over the craft’s front ramp they proceeded at slow speed tacking and keeping to the southerly coastline but they failed to make progress. After a couple of hours they turned around and made their way back to the little town of Cromarty where they found accommodation for the night.
On another occasion whilst in Cromarty Firth some craft moored in the little harbour of Invergordon. The crews were taken by surprise when a spring tide left little water in the harbour and some of the craft were left hanging on their mooring lines!
There were many kinds of landing craft designed for particular specialised functions. Bill's landing craft was designated an obstruction clearance unit (LCOCU). Instead of landing regular fighting troops we took on a section of Royal Marine Commando Divers who were equipped to locate and clear underwater obstructions using explosives. The Germans had constructed steel and concrete obstructions to impede and hole landing craft when they attempted to beach. There was provision on LCOCUs for an otherwise stored-away ladder to be fitted over the front ramp to enable divers to descend into the water. An asdic for detection of underwater obstacles was fitted to the left front of the craft such that it could be lowered into the water when required. The asdic was powered by a line of batteries between the right hand thwart and the right hand wall of the boat. Supplies of explosives, detonators and buoys to mark any cleared channel were part of the cargo.
The time came for the Empire Battleaxe to leave Invergordon and after a detour to Hebburn on the River Tyne for a gun replacement we sailed back up north along the east coast of Scotland, west through the Pentland Firth and south down the west coast, through the Irish Sea and east around Lands End to the Solent to lie between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Training exercises continued with a landing on the south coast of England near Littlehampton. During the night, after leaving the Solent, the force sailed towards the French coast to check the reactions of the Germans which, fortunately for us, was nil.
At the end of May Bill's craft sailed to Littlehampton for special exercises with Commando divers who were billetted in the town. After three days of practice on the beach west of Littlehampton, they loaded all their gear onto the craft resulting in it settling several inches lower in the water than normal. The journey back to the Empire Battleaxe was rough at times and 8 inches of water was pumped out of the bilges.
As D-Day approached the crew of Bill's LCOCU were informed that she was to be manned by volunteers because of the high risk of casualties arising from enemy fire and the explosive cargo. There was no appetite amongst the crew to back-out after undergoing months of training. On Friday the 2nd of June 1944 the ship was sealed and nobody was allowed ashore without special permission and an escort.
On the main deck there was a model of our landing beach with positions of three lines of steel and concrete obstructions clearly marked. Intelligence indicated that the third line was still under construction and one in three of the obstructions had a teller mine fixed to the top. Each boat was allocated a unique serial number in the three hundreds. A photograph album showing the appropriate part of the coast line photographed from sea level was provided to help in identifying our landing area. At the last minute D-Day planned for June 5th was postponed by a day to the considerable discomfort of all confined to their vessels.
The crews of 537 LCA Flotilla were all summoned to the main deck and given photographs of our individual landing areas, our LCA was to go ashore on Queen Red sector of Sword beach. We were told our training was at an end. This was it. The real thing. God bless you all! Few of us slept well that night, we were all nervous about what lay ahead of us come the morning.
I was on deck early as we made our way across the English Channel. Within minutes a destroyer near by was hit amidships (HNoMS Svenner (G 03) sunk by torpedo boats 12 miles west of Le Havre at 0535 hours), I watched in disbelief as she cracked in two and vanished in what seemed minutes. We all stood watching, our mouths suddenly dry. Was this really happening?
We were due at the beach sometime between 7.30hrs and 8.00 hrs and at about 6.30hrs the Tannoy ordered us to man the boats. We had some 10 miles to go as we loaded troops, lowered away, unhitched, formed up and got underway for our designated beach. The sea was quite rough and every man was issued with a few sick-bags... very few went unused that morning. 15 inch shells whistled overhead at an alarming rate and a constant hiss filled the air. Incoming fire hit the water around us as we made our approach. Having discharged our troops we weaved our way back to our mother ship through crowded waters as vessels of all kinds went about their individual tasks
Back at Battleaxe our LCA again took on troops and then headed once more towards Sword beach. This became a journey to hell and to this day continues to give me nightmares and doubtless many other veterans too who were witness to the scenes. The sights we witnessed are impossible to forget. They were immensely distressing for everyone. I'll never know how I managed to get my craft back to sea again that day!
We did not return to the Empire Battleaxe however since she had been recalled to England to embark more troops. We received a message by semaphore ordering us alongside another troopship to pick up a contingent of Royal Naval Commando. We were given the co-ordinates for our landing beach and having successfully landed the troops we went full astern and hit one of the beach obstacles which holed our LCA forward of the engine room. But luck was still with us. A three inch hole had been punched through the hull just above the water line. We filled it with blankets and with the bilge pumps on full blast we returned to the mother ship.
Following our next journey to the beach we asked permission from the Beach Master to go high and dry allowing us to carry out necessary repairs. I sent two of our crew off to forage for anything that might prove useful. The manner of items they returned with surprised me and in such a short space of time. Should I ever be stranded on a desert island I would hope to have those same two crew members with me!
With the sea at the time being too rough to launch we decided to remain until dawn of the following day. Having been without sleep for a long time we dug a trench and covered ourselves with our ground sheets, we were all close to exhaustion. The hope for sleep did not happen, all through the night we were constantly disturbed by sand flies. At least we missed the shelling and small arms fire that was going on around us that night. Dawn arrived and on a high tide accompanied by some pushing and heaving and our engines on full throttle astern we made it out to sea. We reported back to flagship HMS Largs which commanded all sea movements in Sword beach area. We tethered our craft and were offered a hearty meal of stew with cups of tea in abundance.
Having refuelled we were given our orders to continue ferrying troops and supplies to the beach for as long as required. Each night our LCA was refuelled and any necessary maintenance carried out ensuring our craft would be ready for service at dawn of the following day. We spent each night on board HMS Largs although sleep was difficult with the 24/7 activity. It was just part of the job and I've no recollection of anyone moaning about their lot. HMS Largs was a good ship to operate from. All onboard were looked after and cared for and we had at least one hot meal a day with as much tea as we wished.
At each pre-dawn briefing we were given our orders for the day ahead, which usually entailed meeting up with a troopship and carrying men or supplies to the beach. We did four or five ship to shore trips each day dependant on the cargo. The ships lay a few miles off the beaches and were in deep water to avoid enemy mines and fire from inland. Troops were embarked quite rapidly but stores often took longer because we had to ensure the balance was right. Our little LCA was often loaded to it’s maximum and sometimes well beyond!
Despite our care on the fifth we ran into trouble. The seas were rough and our cargo of stores shifted and before we could lash them down a large wave hit us and the stores lurched forward. Our LCA nose-dived and hit the next wave. We rapidly filled with tons of water. Above the noise I heard the call to "abandon craft." She went down in seconds. There was not even time to utter a quick prayer and in moments we were all bobbing about on the surface. As her crew we had mastered her little faults and she had become a friend.
We floated around on the surface swallowing seawater, shivering with cold and in shock but still clinging on to life. Luck, once again, was in our favour. A passing American tug had observed our plight and moved in to retrieve us from the sea. We were dried out and given some hot soup before being returned to our flag ship. We must have been a sorry sight as we clambered back on board HMS Largs. I had kept a daily diary of events and I kept it in the only safe and dry place onboard, in the engine room. Alas it had gone down with the LCA. It was a sad end to a job we all thought well done, but we were all still alive and able to fight another day!
The following day we were granted two weeks shore leave. We were all lifted by the news and of course extremely happy. Back at Eastney we were given new kit. Back home in Crewe I met a young girl who would later became my wife. I was just beginning to enjoy my leave when a telegram arrived with instructions to report to Greenock Docks, Glasgow... I was to rejoin the now HMS Empire Battleaxe graced with the pre-fix HMS following transfer from the Merchant Navy to the Royal Navy.
A new task force had been raised for service in the Pacific theatre, this force, which included Battleaxe had been designated Force X.
Our first sight on coming up on deck in the grey dawn of ‘D’ Day was a Norwegian destroyer just to the east of us. It was breaking in two amidships and sinking... the result of a torpedo attack. It was a shocking sight so early in the day.
Our landing craft were lowered from the Empire Battleaxe and we were soon in the water forming up to proceed to the our designated beach on the Normandy coast. We were to be the second wave of LCAs landing troops with a line of 'swimming tanks.' between us and the first wave. The tanks sat very low in the water and were not easy to see. We heard the whooshing noise of shell salvoes passing over us from the fifteen inch guns of HMS Ramillies or Warspite. The shells were destined for the German defences on and behind the Normandy coastline. There was also the sound of heavy German guns firing from the east. The most prominent feature on our part of the coast was a stark line of three story buildings just back from the shoreline, perhaps boarding houses at a seaside resort of La Breche.
The rough seas, and other landing craft charging in to the beach, made our task of putting divers down to clear obstacles almost impossible. One of our engines failed due to a rope around our port propeller and our best efforts to clear it failed.
A line of Landing Craft Medium (LCMs) came in. They were next up in size to the British LCA. The front of these landing craft looked so determined to get to the beach at all costs as they made their way past exploding mines with their front ramps in the air. Regardless, they came on relentlessly. Many of the slightly larger craft were flying barrage balloons as protection against low flying enemy planes.
It was vital that access to the beach was not impeded by disabled landing craft and it was our task to get them out of the beach area and into deep water. We found one abandoned LCA not far off the shore and drew alongside to attach a line. When we were in deep water we left it with an explosive charge on board to dispose of it. We were working in a dangerous environment with apparently innocuous small splashes in the sea where enemy bullets hit.
When a gap occurred between waves of landing craft coming in to the beaches we got on with our primary job of clearing obstacles. However, the absence of other targets during these periods concentrated German mortar fire on our position. We were lucky to survive and on one particular occasion a mortar shell fell on the position we had occupied just a few seconds before, Had our craft been hit it would have been totally destroyed by its supplies of explosives and detonators.
Despite our protests we were hailed several times by destroyers to take people ashore. In such situations rank matters so we acted as a ferry to the shore when required.
During the morning one particular house on the foreshore caused a lot of problems. It was later reported to be well reinforced with concrete and provided the Germans with a well positioned gun emplacement. A destroyer moved into range and its main armament demolished the house with its first salvo. Great shooting. The equipment of our diving team included a radio and we tuned in to the BBC one o’clock news. We learned that Churchill had to be restrained from visiting the beaches which raised a hearty laugh.
Just after this I heard an ominous clang and found myself sinking down in my little compartment with blood running down either side of my neck and down my oilskins across my chest. A lump of shrapnel had hit the rear of my steel helmet and my head. Paralysed but conscious I was dragged out into the well of the boat and replaced by one of the deck hands. A large wound dressing was put on the back of my head by our diving friends. One was measuring my very slow pulse and I heard another say "Oh don’t say he’s dying."
A nearby destroyer lowered a stretcher into our boat and I was soon strapped in, hoisted up the destroyer’s side, onto the deck and into the sick bay. I was soon stitched up by the sick bay attendant and was later walking around again. A day or two later I was transferred to a Landing Ship Tank (LST). These were the largest of the craft specifically designed to touch down on the beaches. They were noted for their large bow doors opening before the ramp was lowered and they accommodated many vehicles and personnel. This LST had discharged its vehicles and men and was loaded with wounded for the return trip to Blighty. Many of the casualties desperately needed help but this was difficult to provide under these severe war conditions. The limited medical staff were fully stretched.
Later in the day another boat came alongside to transfer more survivors and up came the crew of my craft! The night before they were tied up alongside a destroyer that made an emergency move during the night resulting in the loss of our craft. There were many examples of lucky escapes from death or serious injury one such was an RAF glider pilot showed us something lying in the centrefold of the wallet. It was a flat piece of shrapnel just over an inch in diameter that had penetrated his pocket and one side of his wallet. We arrived in Southampton on Thursday morning. The injured were decanted into special trains destined for a hospital in Basingstoke.
After x-rays and nearly a week in bed I was moved into convalesce in Ledbury, Herefordshire and some two weeks later to Cardiff for discharge from medical care and transfer to the Naval establishment at Westcliff, Essex, about five miles from my home. I was still due sick leave and survivors leave, because my boat had been sunk, and I returned home for three weeks. After about ten days I received a re-call telegram and on reporting back to Westcliff was sent on embarkation leave. I later travelled to Greenock on the Clyde to rejoin our ship which was now manned by Naval Personnel and therefore became HMS Empire Battleaxe.
It transpired that the Empire Battleaxe had made two or three more trips across to France to land more troops. On one of these trips one of our sister ships, SS Empire Broadsword, was sunk off the coast of France presumably hitting a mine whilst at anchor. By the time the bridge had piped "Royal Marines man your craft and go to assist," nearly half our craft had been lowered and were on their way. One of our craft tied up to the stern of the Broadsword and the coxswain dashed down to the engine room to check all were out. He returned to his craft and only just moved away before the ship went down, I thought this action should have had more commendation.
The flotilla only had casualties on ‘D’ Day itself... three suffered wounds and a stoker was killed by shrapnel entering one side of the engine compartment and exiting the other side killing him on the way. The armour plating stopped at the rear of the area occupied by the troops.
Official records show the one fatality was Royal Marine Gerald Pike. He was killed in action on June 6th 1944 and buried in France. LCAs in the flotilla on June 5 comprised 429, 496, 524, 584, 611, 653, 770, 778, 779, 780, 781, 792, 840, 898, 1215, 1251, 1252 and 1338, total 18 craft. Those listed on June 19th comprised 496, 524, 611, 770, 778, 779, 780, 781, 792, 898, 1215, 1251, 1252, 1338, with replacements 760, 987, 1392 and 1393 a total of 19 craft. From the June 5th list 429, 653 and 840 are recorded as war losses.
Later updated lists of war losses comprised 496, 584, 611, 779, 780, 792, 1215, 1251, 1252 and 1338 all in Normandy. It can reasonably be assumed that they were either ‘D’ Day losses, the details of which had not filtered back by June 19th or they were casualties of the great storm of June 19-22nd.
Of the 22 craft associated with Battleaxe over the period of the Normandy campaign 13 craft ‘went missing’.
Some of the surviving boats from the Normandy landings were now formed into a new force codenamed Force X. It comprised seven ships headed by a communication vessel HMS Lothian with the Admiral on board, the other ships were Glenearn, Clan Lamont, Empire Arquebus, Empire Spearhead, Empire Mace and Empire Battleaxe.We were sent to assist the American fleet in the South West Pacific. We left Greenock on the 3rd of August travelling to New York (14th to 18th), Charleston (21st to 22nd), Colon (27th to 28th) and then through the Panama Canal. The craft on the lower davits were lowered to make their own way through the locks. We were at Balboa 28th to 29th. Once in the Pacific Ocean we called at Bora Bora and Papeete in the French Society Islands (13th to 17th Sept) and then Suva in Fiji.
(Photos L to R: (1) Members of 537 Flotilla on board HMS Empire Battleaxe with Sam on the extreme right and Bill third from the left. The rear row are sitting on one of our LCA’s hoisted up on its davits. Note the lifeline to the left also the stern kedge and engine compartment ventilators; (2) A stern view of HMS Empire Battleaxe taking on fuel and water in the Society Islands probably Bora Bora and (3) HMS Empire Battleaxe in the Society Islands – probably Papeete).
The ships of the force now split up. Empire Battleaxe called at Espiritu Santos from 25th Sept to 3rd October, Finschafen (PNG) 7th to 10th October, Manus Isle (Admiralty Islands) 11th to 13th, Milne Bay (PNG) and then down to French New Caledonia arriving there on 20th October. In the area around Noumea we spent just over four weeks between the mainland and the string of beautiful unoccupied islands and a reef. The area was known as St Vincents Bay. We practised with American troops who, unlike the British, loaded the landing craft once it had been lowered into the water. The fully laden troops had to climb down the side of the mother ship on scrambling nets. This was not an easy task for the troops made all the worse by the movement of the landing craft caused by the action of the sea.
We left New Caledonia on the 21st November and arrived off Bougainville on the 25th and spent some 6 to 7 weeks in Empress Augusta Bay not far from a volcano discharging a plume of smoke. In that area we could see no villages or towns but we were living almost entirely on the ship since the majority of the island was occupied by the Japanese.
We spent Christmas 1944 here and received food parcels from Australia. The strategy was for the Americans to invade and take sufficient land to secure an airstrip and then move on to leave the Australians to clear the Japanese. This approach allowed the Americans to concentrate on the main task of getting up to the Philippines and onward towards Japan.
At Bougainville we were working with the Americans as usual but Sam’s craft was one of two assigned to the Australian Army to move men and supplies up the River Ouite. Obstacles and debris flowed down the River making the trip hazardous. The countryside was beautiful and the wildlife abundant. The Aussie troops had a good sense of humour and were courageous without frills. A letter was received from the Australian Commanding Officer expressing appreciation for their help and commending the endeavours of the men who crewed the two landing craft. Many of the men felt that they would have been better deployed in support of the Australians including their landings in Borneo.
We took anti-malaria tablets each day but despite this one coxswain went down with Malaria. The majority of us suffered the discomfort of 'prickly heat' and some were starting to develop a more serious skin problem that would start with small watery blisters which burst to form scabby sores.
In all these parts the abundance of sea life was very impressive. We saw flying fish, porpoises and even a large swordfish on one occasion and many other exotic species we could not identify.
Empire Battleaxe left Bougainville on the 14th January 1945 and
stayed in Milne Bay 16th to 27th then on to Oro Bay 28 to 30th arriving at
The ship’s crew was closed up to action stations at dawn and dusk each day.. the most likely times for an enemy attack. The guns of the Empire Battleaxe were augmented by three marines standing with strip Lewis machine guns on the port and starboard bow and port and starboard stern. They were equipped with steel helmets and in some cases naval ante-flash gear. They felt pretty vulnerable standing there on the open deck. The strip Lewis was based on a water cooled machine gun of the First World War without the water cooling. It had a circular ammunition pan on top with a capacity of just under fifty rounds of 0.303. There was an alternative pan holding just under one hundred rounds. Perhaps the rate of fire from twelve marines would protect the ship!
During this trip small skin blisters became much more of a problem with Bill one of the worst affected. He slept on the upper deck in the hope that the cooler conditions would aid recovery. The sick bay medics applied starch poultices to the right of his torso and right arm and then removed them to apply gentian violet. It was the patient's responsibility to wash the sick bay bed sheets usually heavily stained by the gentian violet. The trip saw Bill’s twentieth birthday pass by.
When we arrived at Subic Bay just off Manila gun fire could be heard as the Americans battled to recapture the Capital. The Empire Battleaxe was soon on its way heading north to the Lingayen Gulf (18th-20th) on the West Coast of Northern Luzon. The ship anchored and the landing craft lowered. Soon the American troops were on their way. Bill’s craft was on this occasion leading the flotilla and they had to negotiate a small opening to enter a lagoon to gain access to the landing beach. As they entered the inner water there was an unexpected strong sideways current that needed both rudder and engines to offset. Great craft... they headed the right way and made a completely unopposed landing.
Empire Battleaxe started the long homeward journey with American ex prisoners of war from the Philippines. Their condition was not great. We briefly called into Hollandia then to Milne Bay and then carried on down south leaving Papua New Guinea and travelling on down the east coast of Australia where we experienced one of the severest storms of our trip. It was necessary to constantly patrol around the ship to check that the craft did not move on their davits. Each patrol comprised a coxswain and two assistants. It was an unforgettable experience clambering from the ships side onto each craft to thoroughly check each landing craft and to make adjustments to the securing cables
On the 19th March 1945 the ship entered Sydney Harbour. Despite everything the Empire Battleaxe had been through, Bill overheard a ferry passenger comment to her companion, "what a scruffy ship." Whilst we were around the islands the crew had repainted the ship from grey, white and blue to various shades of green and brown to make the ship less noticeable when anchored against the background of the jungle.
The crew were granted four days leave with the choice of the City, the seaside or the country. Sam and friend, Norman Taylor, opted for the latter and were taken in hand by Mr & Mrs Doyle who were in Sydney as hospitality hosts. Their house was in the Blue Mountains where it was so peaceful and quiet compared to the constant noise of engines and warfare. The Doyles ran a ballet school together and whilst Sam and Norman wisely resisted the temptation to practice the art they did hold their own on the dance floor even wearing their boots! Mr & Mrs Doyle were a lovely couple who made them feel very welcome and arranged distractions such as rabbit shooting, visits to local breweries and underground beneath the mountains.
Bill, on the other hand, was soon on a train, with a few others, to the country town of Tamworth. He recalls the trams in Sydney were on strike and taxis at a premium. Servicemen were given priority over civilians; rather embarrassing.
They were met at Tamworth Railway Station and spent a few days with a Gwen and George Bailey in Brisbane Street, Tamworth. They were very well looked after and entertained although fuel for vehicles was in short supply. All enjoyed the three weeks the Empire Battleaxe was at anchor in Sydney Harbour.
On the 11th April 1945 Empire Battleaxe left Sydney on the journey back to Britain. The ship was to go into Falmouth in Cornwell for a refit. The crew needed refitting themselves as their tropical shirts and shorts were falling apart. During the journey home the ports of call were much as the journey out, Fiji (where Sam celebrated his 22nd Birthday), Tahiti, Panama Canal, New York and home. Just before reaching Bilbao by the Panama Canal, news of the cease fire in Europe reached them. On arrival home everyone went on leave without realising that they would never see their ship or landing craft again.
The word at the time was that all Combined Operation personnel were due to leave Britain in October 1945 no doubt for the invasion of Japan towards the end of the year. Those who served as coxswains had become NCOs and attended a special training course at Deal in Kent. It was here that Sam and Bill learned of the surrender of Japan and therefore peace in the Pacific.
For the record, basic pay was three shillings per day, with a deduction of one shilling per week for purposes not understood. To this, if appropriate, six pence per day would be added for Combined Operations, likewise sixpence per day if in tropical areas and four pence per day if one had reached the age of twenty and elected to have money rather than a ration of rum each day. Corporals pay would add another one shilling and sixpence per day.
On return to civilian life Sam was happy that the war was over but found the initial adjustment difficult. HMS Empire Battleaxe had been his home for so long and the men with him had become his family. In 1966 he moved to Ramsey in the Isle of Man where he lives to this day. He made a trip back to Normandy in June 2004.
Bill spent a short time in Portsmouth with plans to be a draughtsman in the Royal Marines. He was discharged due to such skills being in short supply in civvy street. He arrived home in late December 1945 or early January 1946 and was back in civilian clothes for his twenty first birthday. He emigrated with his family to Australia in January 1966 and continues to live in Doncaster east of Melbourne, Victoria. For family reasons he became known as Bob Jones.
This is the story of HMS Empire Battleaxe was written by Tony Chapman, historian and archivist of the LST and Landing Craft Association, from Sam and Bill's personal recollections. It was further edited by Geoff Slee for website presentation.
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