~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

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~ HMS EMPIRE BATTLEAXE ~

Landing Ship Infantry (Large) or LSI (L)

This is the story of HMS Empire Battleaxe based on the recollections of Royal Marine Corporals, Norman Sam Moss, PO/X107607 and William Robert Jones, CH/X113254, who served in Combined Operations in WW2. Both wrote an account of their experiences. Sam's was entitled 'My Bit During World War Two' (2006) and Bill's was modestly entitled 'Bill’s Brilliant Military Career' (2004)! 

Sam and Bill were both coxswains in 537 LCA Flotilla onboard Landing Ship Infantry SS Empire Battleaxe, later designated HMS Empire Battleaxe. She was a Landing Ship Infantry (Large) or LSI (L) with a capacity to carry 1,000 fully armed troops, 18 Landing Craft Assault (LCAs) and 1 Landing Craft Mechanised (LCM). Each LCA had a capacity of around 30 troops + a crew of 4.

The Empire Battleaxe

The SS Empire Battleaxe was one of 12 or so bearing the 'Empire' name. She was built in the USA to an original British design but modified and adapted for her new role as a troop carrier. 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.

[Photo;  HMS Empire Battleaxe, Landing Ship Infantry (Large), August 1, 1944, Greenock. © IWM (A 25062).]

The 'Empire' ships were built to carry eighteen Landing Craft Assault (LCAs) 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 lifted on and off the vessels on hoists (davits) and the LCMs were lifted onto the stern deck by crane. This additional craft was normally carried when operating with American troops. The ship was manned by Merchant Seamen with Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) personnel to operate the four inch gun towards the bow 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, which 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.

LCAs Carried by the Empire Battleaxe

The LCAs were especially designed for their intended purpose of landing men and supplies directly onto the beaches of enemy occupied territory. They were occasionally incorrectly referred to as barges, perhaps because the use of barges had been contemplated at one time. They were well designed for their intended use and built in small shipyards with previous experience of yacht and small boat building.

[Photo; An LCA at rest.]

The craft were forty four feet long, ten feet wide, flat bottomed and weighed ten tons. They were designed to carry a platoon of 30 to 33 men in three rows of ten or eleven men on three thwarts running the length of the main part of the boat. The troops were usually seated in the order in which they normally marched.

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. At the front right, was a compartment about 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. However, when the craft came under fire he could sit down, close the lid over the top of his position and peer out through small slits 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.

[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.]

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, under which two sections of troops would sit on their thwarts. The five or six feet of space between the two gunwales was normally open.

To the rear of this area was the engine compartment with two V eight petrol engines. 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 the deck above the engine compartment were mooring cleats, a 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, 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 increase the craft's buoyancy.

With the engines close to the rear, the boat was capable of operating silently on low throttle.

Formation of 537 LCA Flotilla

The Empire Battleaxe 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 hoisting and lowering the 10 ton craft, even in calm weather. 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. It was dangerous work as the crew struggled 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. As a result he sea constantly moved from the front to the rear of the ship. In these conditions, it was very important to unhook the craft at the stern first then work forward. This allowed the engines to be used to create space to manoeuvre the craft and to avoid collisions.

[Map courtesy of Google.]

It was normal practice for the full complement of troops to be on board during these procedures. The stoker fired up the engines at the correct moment to ensure that cooling water was circulating, while the remainder of the crew endeavoured to avoid a collision with 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 they begin their 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 towards the Scottish shore, was identical to the bearing used a few months later on the approach to the Normandy beaches. To replicate the forthcoming Normandy landings, 537 Flotilla took up the most easterly position on the beach, with the attendant hazard of rocks at Burghead. In this way the reality of D-Day would be very similar, including a warning to keep clear of the River Orne due to hazards. The planning and training were meticulous. These exercises were the first time Force ‘S’ came together to rehearse the actual landings.

The weather and sea conditions were poor during the training exercises, with postponement a distinct possibility but, in the event, the experience of the rough conditions also emulated the conditions on D-Day. The object was to land the troops as safely and comfortably as possible onto their predetermined landing beach and then to immediately winch the craft off the beach, using the kedge anchor and reverse thrust from the engines, before returning to the mother ship or to some other location as directed by the Flotilla's HQ ship. To achieve the de-beaching manoeuvre, the coxswain ordered the craft’s kedge anchor to be dropped over the stern on the approaches, so it could be used to pull against during de-beaching.

With unpredictable tide, sea and wind conditions, the stern could swing sideways causing the craft to "broach to", during which it ended up parallel to the beach. In this position there was insufficient water depth for the propellers to operate, which compounded the problem. To reduce the risk of this happening, two deck hands ran a rope from each of the two rear bollards onto the beach at an angle, effectively holding the craft at a right angle to the beach in conjunction with the kedge anchor. 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 in most conditions, slack tidal water offered the most favourable landing conditions.

When not involved in the major group training 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. The flotilla had five or six miles to travel against a very strong westerly wind, which whipped up the enclosed water of Cromarty Firth into steep waves about three feet high. The waves broke over the crafts' front ramps and, despite tacking, they failed to make progress. After a couple of hours the flotilla turned around and made its 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, including the Lading Craft Obstacle Clearance Unit, LCOCU. Instead of carrying regular fighting troops, they carried a section of Royal Marine Commando Divers, equipped to locate and clear underwater obstructions, using explosives. The Germans' steel and concrete obstructions were designed to impede or hole approaching landing craft as they attempted to beach. The LCOCUs had a stored-away ladder that fitted over the front ramp so divers could descend into the water. There was also an 'asdic', for detection of underwater obstacles, fitted to the left front of the craft. 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 also 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 to the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England by a circuitous route northwards via the east coast of Scotland, westwards through the Pentland Firth and southwards down the west coast of Scotland, 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 test the reactions of the Germans. There was none.

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 on board. There was no appetite amongst the crew to back-out after undergoing months of training. On Friday 2nd of June, 1944, the ship was sealed and nobody was allowed ashore without special permission and an escort.

On the main deck of the Empire Battleaxe, there was a model of the flotilla's landing beach with the 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 LCOCU was allocated a unique serial number in the three hundreds. A photograph album showing the appropriate part of the coast line, taken from sea level, was also provided to help in identifying the 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.


D-Day; Sam's Account

Norman Sam Moss, PO/X107607 (Sam). Sam's story of joining up and early training is recorded below these recollections of his association with the Empire Battleaxe. If you wish to read it first, click here.

Of D-Day morning on board the Empire Battleaxe, Sam recalls, "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.

[Photo; Sam Moss.]

I was on deck early as we made our way across the English Channel. Within minutes, a nearby destroyer, HNoMS Svenner (G 03), was hit amidships and 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 a Tannoy announcement ordered us to man the boats. We had some 10 miles to go as we loaded the 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 of them 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

 

 

 

 

 

 


We embarked more troops from Battleaxe and 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 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!

This time we did not return to the Empire Battleaxe, 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 received permission from the Beach Master to go high and dry, allowing us to carry out essential repairs. I sent two of our crew off to forage for anything that might prove useful. The items they returned with so quickly surprised me. Should I ever be stranded on a desert island, I would hope to have those same two crew members with me!

When the repairs were done, the sea was too rough to launch, so 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 restful sleep we so needed did not happen since, 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, with some pushing and heaving and our engines on full throttle astern, we made it out to sea. We reported back to our flagship HMS Largs, which commanded all sea movements in Sword beach area. We tethered our craft to her and gratefully accepted a hearty meal of stew with cups of tea in abundance.

Having refuelled, we were given orders to continue ferrying troops and supplies to the beach for as long as required. Each night, our LCA was refuelled and maintenance carried out to ensure our craft was 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 could drink.

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 we were serving 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 trip, 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 foibles and she had become a home from home.

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 her 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."


D-Day; Bill's Account

William Robert Jones, (Bill) CH/X113254. Bill's story of joining up and early training is recorded below this Empire Battleaxe account. If you wish to read it first, click here.

Of D-Day morning on board the Empire Battleaxe, Bill recalls, "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 Obstacle Clearing Unit, LCOCU, was 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 the seaside resort of La Breche. The rough seas and manoeuvring landing craft made our task of putting divers down to clear obstacles almost impossible. One of our engines failed when a rope wrapped around our port propeller, but we could not free it.

A line of Landing Craft Medium (LCMs) came in. They were next up in size to the British LCA. They looked so determined to reach the beach, 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 innocuous small splashes in the sea where enemy bullets hit.

When a gap between the waves of incoming landing craft appeared, we resumed 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 when a mortar shell fell on the position we had just vacated a few seconds before, Had our craft been hit, its working stock of explosives and detonators would have totally destroyed it.

Despite our protests, we were hailed several times by destroyers to take people ashore. In such situations seniority and rank matter, 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, so 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.

Shortly 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, who showed us something lying in the centrefold of his 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.

The Empire Battleaxe made two or three more trips across to France to land troops. On one of these trips, a sister ship, 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 already 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."

Landing Craft Losses & Replacements

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 5th 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’.

Force X - The Pacific

Some of the surviving ships 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 included HMS GlenearnClan Lamont, Empire Arquebus, Empire Spearhead, Empire Mace and Empire Battleaxe. We were to assist the American fleet in the South West Pacific against the Japanese.

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 made 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.

The ships of X Force now split up. Empire Battleaxe called at Espiritu Santos from 25th Sept to 3rd October, Finschafen (Papua New Guinea, 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, embarked their fully armed troops when their LCAs were in the water, using scrambling nets down the side of their mother ship. The rise and fall of the LCA beside the more stable larger ship increased the difficulties for the troops.

After leaving New Caledonia on the 21st November we arrived off Bougainville on the 25th, where we spent 6 to 7 weeks in Empress Augusta Bay, not far from an active volcano discharging a plume of smoke. We could see no villages or towns and lived almost entirely on the ship, since the majority of the island was occupied by the Japanese.

We spent Christmas 1944 there and received food parcels from Australia. The strategy was for the Americans to invade, establish a beachhead and sufficient land to prepare 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 capturing the Philippines and then onward towards Japan.

[Photo; 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.]

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, however, beautiful and the wildlife abundant. The Aussie troops had a good sense of humour and were courageous without frills. The Australian Commanding Officer expressed appreciation and commended the endeavours of the crews of the two landing craft. Many 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 caught the disease. The majority of us suffered the discomfort of  'prickly heat' and some were developing a more serious skin problem causing small watery blisters, which burst to form scabby sores. However, in the way of compensation, the abundance and variety of sea life was amazing. We saw flying fish, porpoises, a large swordfish and many other exotic species we could not identify.

Empire Battleaxe left Bougainville on the 14th January, 1945, anchored in Milne Bay from the 16th to 27th, Oro Bay 28 to 30th, arriving at
Hollandia on the 2nd February, the then capital of Dutch New Guinea, now Jayapura in Indonesia. On entering Hollandia Harbour, we saw the
largest gathering of ships, including warships, since the invasion fleet we'd seen in Portsmouth just before the Normandy Landings. As part of a large convoy we steamed towards the Philippines with a number of medium sized landing craft under tow, because of their lack of range. This reduced the convoy to around 5 or 6 knots, resulting in a three week journey.

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 marines with strip Lewis machine guns on the port and starboard bow and port and starboard stern. They wore steel helmets and in some cases, naval ante-flash gear and felt pretty exposed standing on the open deck.

 [Photo; HMS Empire Battleaxe in the Society Islands, probably Papeet.]

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 rapid fire from twelve marines would protect the ship!

During this trip, Bill had a rash of small skin blisters. He slept on the upper deck hoping the cooler air would aid recovery. The sick bay medics applied starch poultices to his right 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. Bill’s twentieth birthday was celebrated on this trip.

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 heading north to the Lingayen Gulf (18th-20th) on the West Coast of Northern Luzon. The ship anchored and the landing craft were lowered. Soon the American troops were on their way. Bill’s craft was, on this occasion, leading the flotilla, during which they negotiated a small entrance to a lagoon giving 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, Milne Bay and then south leaving Papua New Guinea and travelling 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.

[Photo; A stern view of HMS Empire Battleaxe taking on fuel and water in the Society Islands probably Bora Bora.]

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 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.

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 was 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 and returned 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 to live in Doncaster east of Melbourne, Victoria. For family reasons he became known as Bob Jones.


Joining Up and Early Training; Sam's Account

Sam's war service started in July, 1941 and ended when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. He continues, "I returned to civilian life in 1946. I took part in many hazardous operations, when families and loved ones back home feared 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 that proved their worth throughout my life - to gain and give respect, self-discipline, seamanship and comradeship.

[Photo left; Sam Moss.]

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 at the Royal Navy recruiting office in Stoke on Trent but 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 certainly capable of teaching us all a lesson or two. Sorting out misfits in a few weeks was a routine challenge for him, since 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! Occasionaly, he was almost human but generally he was 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. 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 were sure 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 no more threatening than seagulls! These duties were not what I had signed up for so I volunteered for the Royal Marine Commando, then based at Winchester in the south of England.

Royal Marine Commando Training at 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 with 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, when I contracted severe tonsillitis on manoeuvres in North Wales. 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!

Combined Operations. This time at Eastney I was better informed, 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 and my first day aboard was daunting."

Joining Up and Early Training; Bill's Account

In the summer of 1942, Bill 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.

 [Photo; above the squad at Lympstone in March 1943. Bill is in the front row 2nd from the right and in the photo opposite.]

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.

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.

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 additional pay 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 to confirm my view that we had become competent seafarers!

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

Acknowledgments

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.

News & Information

Memorial Maintenance

We have a small band of volunteers who take turns to visit the memorial each month, particularly during the growing season, to undertake routine maintenance such as weeding keeping the stones and slabs clear of bird dropping, lichen etc. and reporting on any issues. If you live near the National Memorial Arboretum and would like to find out more, please contact us.

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Search for Books direct from our Books page. Don't have the name of a book in mind? Just type in a keyword to get a list of possibilities... and if you want to purchase you can do so on line through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). 5% commission goes into the memorial fund.

WW2 Combined Operations Handbook

This handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Submit your D-Day Story

2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and, to mark the occasion, The D-Day Story is asking the British public to share their experiences from the largest invasion ever assembled. Whether it’s an account of the day from a veteran or a tale passed down by a relative, we’re keen to showcase never-before-heard stories for an exciting campaign to be launched later in the year.

https://theddaystory.com/discover/about-us/tell-us-your-d-day-story/

The Gazelle Helicopter Squadron Display Team

The Gazelle Squadron is a unique team of ex-British Military Gazelle helicopters in their original military colours and with their original military registrations. The core team includes four Gazelles, one from each service; The Royal Navy, The Royal Marines, The Army Air Corps and The Royal Air Force. A fifth Gazelle in Royal Marines colours will provide intimate support for the team. Their crest includes the Combined Operations badge. The last, and possibly, only time the badge was seen on an aircraft was in the early mid 40s. A photo of the Hurricane concerned is included in the 516 Squadron webpage.

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Legasee Film Archive

As part of an exciting social history project, the film company Legasee has recorded interviews with veterans from any conflicts. These  films are now available on line. www.legasee.org.uk

 

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