HMS Misoa - a WW2 Landing Craft Tank (LST) - the wartime memories of a young Royal Navy seaman in the Mediterranean (North Africa, Pantellaria, Sicily and Italy) and then the Normandy landings. His landing ship was called HMS Misoa and, although it didn't have the lines and style of a sleek cruiser, it came through many actions relatively unscathed.
My posting to HMS Misoa was not the result of careful career planning. For reasons I cannot now understand or remember I initially volunteered for sub-mariner training at HMS Dolphin but fell foul of the Naval discipline code resulting in my being confined to barracks (CB) on a couple of occasions. Nothing serious - just youthful exuberance combined with a little disrespect for authority! Anyway, I was returned to "general service" at Portsmouth barracks and worked as an ambulance driver while waiting for a posting. With the posting to HMS Misoa there was a mystery - nobody knew anything about it! To all intents and purposes it didn't exist on paper except, presumably, on files marked "secret." About 100 of us were transported by train to Liverpool where we boarded the troopship Monarch of Bermuda. We had no inkling as to our destination until we arrived off Gibraltar. We were housed in barracks and for a week I unloaded sea mines from railway wagons into the relatively safety of the tunnels in the Rock. Four of us then joined the destroyer HMS Venomous for Oran but were diverted into the Atlantic on a fruitless search and destroy mission involving German submarines. We made Oran in due course and that is where I first set eyes upon HMS Misoa. [Photo: the author Archie Spence c 1942].
She was no sleek-lined Destroyer or Cruiser - more like a dirty old oil tanker! She was one of three shallow draught tankers especially designed and built to operate in the shallow waters of Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo in the northern part of South America. The others were HMS Tasajera and HMS Bachaquera. As WW2 progressed the planners saw a need for vessels with a capability to move close inshore to off-load heavy tanks, trucks, equipment and men directly onto enemy held beaches - an essential requirement for any sizeable amphibious landings against entrenched defensive positions.
The three vessels required substantial modifications before they were suitable for their war-time role. Space was at a premium so oil tanks were removed from forward of the after bulkheads in an area of the engine room. Approximately half the tanks remained and these were used for fresh water and ballast. A deck was added above this area and a coating of asphalt, with 7 lanes for vehicles, was laid. The bow was cut off square and the resultant gap was bridged by a heavy steel door approximately 1 foot thick. Hinged to the top of the door was a massive extension which, together with the door, provided the 100 foot ramp needed to safely unload vehicles and men on or close to landing beaches. This was achieved through a system of winches and pulleys operated by the engine room crew. As the main door lowered the hinged extension was raised thus creating a continuous ramp when both sections reached a near horizontal position. Across the tank deck bolts were fitted for the purpose of securing vehicles by chains - a necessary precaution because the shallow draught of the vessels caused them to roll even 'on wet grass!' In operation the pounding of the waves hitting the blunt bow door sent a booming noise throughout the vessel. [Photo of Misoa taken in the 1930s courtesy of William Russell whose great uncle, William Marshall Russell, was the Master of the Ship when it was an oil tanker, prior to its conversion to a tank landing ship].
Above the tank deck there was a steel 'top deck' covered in 12" by 4" timber planks of various lengths. In this deck there were two large hatches aft with 2 X 50 ton derrick cranes nearby to lift clear broken down vehicles from the tank deck below onto the top deck. The bridge and wheelhouse were covered with steel plates as protection against shrapnel and gun platforms were placed around the top deck. These comprised a 40mm Pom-Pom gun, six 20mm AA guns and Lewis guns on stanchions, one forward and two aft. The Kedge anchor was located at the after end.
Sleeping quarters for crew and passengers were very constricted. They consisted of rows of round steel bars attached to the deck-head on which hammocks were rigged. On completion of the conversion work the designation 'Landing Ship Tank' (LST) was used.
HMS Misoa was 382ft in length with a gross tonnage of 4,900. The draught when fully
loaded was 15' aft 4' forward with a double hinged ramp reaching 100ft from bow door to shallow water. Carrying capacity was eighteen 30 ton tanks, twenty two 25 ton tanks or 33 heavy trucks.
Berths for 217 troops and a crew of 98 Combined Operations personnel were provided. Armaments comprised one twin 40mm, six 20mm, three Lewis guns
and one smoke mortar. She had a distinctive flat bow and an equally distinctive ships crest of a tortoise with the words Veni-Vidi-Vici - I came,
I saw, I conquered - around it.
Hearsay information from the commissioning crew indicates that sea trials and training with Commandos took place in and around Loch Fyne in Scotland where the Combined Operations Training Centre was located at Inveraray. (Any further information on sea trials and training would be very welcome.)
HMS Bachaquera was the first LST to engage in operational duties in WW2 off the beaches of Madagascar on the 6th of May 1942. HMS Misoa and HMS Tasajera made their active service debuts in Operation Torch - the invasion of North Africa at Oran on the 8th of November 1942. The 16th Infantry Regiment cleared "Z" beach for the 3 a.m. arrival of the 1st Armored Divisionís Combat Command B, under Brig. Gen. Lunsford E. Oliver. Misoa and Tasajera, rumbled up to the beach at 4 a.m. and put out pontoon bridges, to enable their loads of M3 Stuart light tanks to roll ashore. The process took four hours. Once the tanks and their 4,772 men were ashore, they seized the La Senia and Tafaroui airfields, and supported the parachute assault on them. In the wider area of conflict along the coast Misoa was later variously engaged transporting American men and equipment from Algiers to Bone, further to the east, until that part of North Africa was in Allied hands. Passage to Sousse in Tunisia followed to provide support for future operations involving the Eighth Army.
During this time the importance of supplying fortress Malta remained a priority for the planners and HMS Misoa made a couple of trips from Sousse to Malta with munitions and fresh meat and vegetables stored in the ship's large freezers. On return she made a routine call at a dry dock in Tripoli remarkably left unscathed after intensive bombing by the Allies. There were sunken ships all over the place and we negotiated a roughly zig-zag course to reach the only dry dock usable. That night there was an air raid on the nearby airfield and there were reports of German paratroopers in the area. I was on gangway sentry duty that night and only me and the dry-cleaners know how scared I was!" [Photo; The author (centre) with friendly French North Africans and two shipmates in Algiers c1943].
In between periods of hard work and danger we made our own entertainment. On one occasion we acquired a piano in Sousse. A small area of the tank deck was cleared and this became the place for a number of impromptu sing-songs. There were a lot of comedians and entertainers among the crew supplemented by the troops when they were on board. One memorable evening, while tied up at Sousse, the strains of the bagpipes could be heard. It turned out that the piper who led the troops at the start of the Battle of El Alamein, was marching up and down the quay alongside our ship. He and his mates enjoyed the traditional hospitality of the Navy which included several tots of rum! It was a most enjoyable evening for all. There were other distractions from the realities of war ranging from Roman ruins to local "fleshpots," both of which were educational in their own ways!
On completion of this work in early June 1943 HMS Misoa was loaded up with the tanks and crews of the Guards Regiment for passage to Pantellaria. We arrived about dawn. Overhead there were so many bombers that they were impossible to count. Such was the intensity of bombing that by mid-day the Italian garrison, totalling around 12,000, surrendered so the landing itself was relatively easy. The ship made for a small cove with road access inland. There was little to which the ship could be secured so we resorted to tying her to rocky outcrops. Our cargo of men and machines was successfully landed so my shipmate and I took a stroll into a nearby vineyard and helped ourselves to some grapes. The landings may have been unopposed but these heroic invaders beat a hasty retreat when an irate farmer, with pitchfork in hand, came to the defence of his crop!"
Later in the day HMS Misoa set off on the return passage to Sousse where more men and equipment were embarked, this time for the islands of Lampadusa and Linosa. Once more the Italian garrisons had surrendered. During this period HMS Misoa transported Italian prisoners of war to Sousse, guarded by paratroopers.
With this success behind them the next stage in the Allied advance was the invasion of Sicily. Operation Husky was scheduled for July 9/10. In preparation for this HMS Misoa embarked Eighth Army troops and tanks from Sousse for transport to a beach just south of Syracuse in Sicily. During the 2 months it took to pacify the island the vessel made frequent passages to Sousse with German and Italian prisoners, captured tanks and other equipment. The return journeys to places such as Syracuse, Augusta and Catania on Sicily, included supplies, materials, men and on one occasion a load of 'occupation' Italian Lira in dozens of ammunition boxes. It was for the use of allied occupation troops in Sicily and Italy and was kept under guard by military police during the passage. So frequent were the journeys across the Mediterranean at this time that they blur into the impression of a regular ferry service plying the goods of war to wherever they were needed in Sicily and Italy, and on return trips transporting captured Axis men and materials to north Africa. One memorable cargo consisted of friendly Arabs and their mules. The mess they left behind is best imagined than described in detail! However they performed well in remote, inaccessible mountains carrying supplies to the advancing Allied forces.
Secret negotiations for the surrender of Italian forces were concluded in Lisbon and an armistice was signed at Syracuse on the 3rd of September - the same day as the uncontested landing of Allied forces at Reggio in Calabria on the Italian mainland. Taranto was seized on the 9th again unopposed. On the way to Taranto I saw much of the Italian fleet, including 4 battleships and 6 cruisers, heading south for Malta to surrender to Allied forces.
Return to the UK - preparations for Normandy
Of our final days in the Mediterranean I remember that we loaded up with the latest captured German and Italian guns, tanks, communications vehicles and half-tracks. We left Taranto for Algiers and then on to the UK arriving at Plymouth in early January of 1944. The vessel needed repairs and modification for her next major role - the Normandy landings. These included the replacement of the forward single 40 mm Pom-Pom with a twin version, engine repairs, general maintenance work, the addition of some form of radar (?) and a complete camouflage repaint.
During the refit the crew were given leave and I spent my 21st birthday on the 16th January 1944 at home in Glasgow. A few weeks later, on completion of the refit, we were involved in sea trials in the English Channel from Plymouth in the west passed Portsmouth to Southend on Sea in the Thames estuary. As D-Day approached the ship was berthed at Tilbury Docks. We loaded up with Canadian troops and tanks and the ship was sealed. For three days we were confined to the vessel and because of this we learned more about the coming action than was usual. I was privileged to be with the troops when they were briefed on their mission including details of their landing zone on Juno beach and their objective of the city of Caen about 7 miles (12 k) inland.
Normandy Landings 6th June 1944 - D-Day
We set sail from Tilbury on June 4th before the decision was taken to postpone D-Day because of rough weather. As our convoy killed time sailing around the English Channel we were all apprehensive and many of us scared not knowing what the day would bring. The sea was choppy and many of the soldiers suffered from sea-sickness as our shallow draft vessel pitched and rolled. We arrived off Juno at about daybreak on D-Day and were close enough to see the action on the beach - it was like watching a film set. At one point two tanks came into view, one chasing the other, guns blazing. Two ton shells could be heard overhead as the German large gun emplacements attempted to destroy allied battleships out at sea. Our sister ship, HMS Bachequera, which was off the neighbouring Sword beach, was hit by an 88mm anti personnel shell. Damage was slight and casualties few. As the Coxswain it fell to me to take the Captain by launch to the Bachequera to see first hand if assistance was required.
We disembarked the men, their tanks and equipment the following day. By then the Germans had been pushed inland so there was little enemy fire on the beach itself. This done we returned to Tilbury Docks for a second cargo of tanks, vehicles and soldiers. On arrival at Juno disembarkation began but almost right away there was a mishap with a tank. It slipped sideways blocking the ramp and delayed the disembarkation to such an extent that the tide went out and stranded the ship on the beach until the following morning. During this time a couple of German fighters strafed the beach in a half-hearted attack. No damage was done and from the relative safety of my vantage point under the ship, painting the bottom, I had a clear view of the action. [Photos; HMS Misoa and HMS Tasajera on Juno beach 1944.]
There were lots of small craft operating in the area such as motor torpedo boats (MTBs) and motor gun boats (MGBs) whose job it was to help protect the beachhead and supply ships from enemy attack. We anchored off the beachhead and acted as mother ship to these vessels providing medical services, mess facilities, showers, and in the case of a shipmate and myself, a profitable and legal haircutting service! When the anchorage became safe our engineers also provided a repair and maintenance service. We became a semi permanent fixture off the beach as stores and provisions were brought to us from supply ships.
Most of this time was uneventful as we slipped into a routine but on the 18th of June we had a rude awakening in the form of a severe storm. Ships dragged anchors all over the place and one collided with the starboard side of our bridge causing structural damage and smashing a lifeboat. Since the bridge contained an ammunition locker holding 20mm A A shells all hands were deployed to remove them to a safer place.
The routine was interrupted for a second time towards the end of October when we took on board a Royal Marine outfit off Arromanches - men, vehicles and fighting gear. Rumour at the time was that they were bound for Walcheren, a heavily fortified island defending the approaches to the port of Antwerp in Belgium. While the Germans were entrenched on Walcheren the port, which was already in Allied hands, could not be used to supply the advancing armies. A couple of days after embarking the order was cancelled and the marines disembarked without sailing.
As the months passed and the Allies pushed the Germans eastwards, organised weekend visits were made to places of interest such as local mansions and movie shows in local barns. On one occasion my mate and I thought a trip to Paris would be nice. It was well over 100 miles (160 k) so we stayed overnight at an army barracks near Lisieux. We learned that there was still fighting in the Paris area so being "non-heroes" we set a new course for Rouen where a good time was had.
We remained on station at Arromanches until early 1945 when we were recalled to Harwich to dispose of obsolete Bangalore torpedoes by dumping them in the North Sea.
Our work done we returned to Inveraray on Loch Fyne, Scotland, the home of the Combined Operations Training Base where HMS Misoa was decommissioned - but not before four of us, who were cutter boat crew, were given medical checks prior to being drafted to the River Rhine in Germany to man landing craft operating across the river. As was often the case in the war there was a change of plan and the posting was cancelled much to my chagrin.
As a Scot I was proud to be a member of the ship's company. We came from the UK, Eire, Australia and South Africa and we stood together through all emergencies and enemy action. The ship was hit once by a skip bomb which failed to explode. Although there was slight damage to the mid-ship super structure there were no casualties. Over the years in the various theatres of action there were many near misses. HMS Misoa was a very lucky ship indeed and when in April/May of 1945, her crew, my mates and myself, dispersed from Inveraray to different bases throughout the UK, there was a sense of melancholy at the passing of a unique shared experience. I celebrated Victory in Europe day in Portsmouth on May 8 1945.
The ship had been my home for just over two and a half years. Living conditions were very confined and when the hammocks were slung out, walking upright was impossible. The sounding of action stations caused a form of organized chaos. When troops were on board the priority was for the naval crew to reach their action stations. Everyone wanted to be on deck at the same time so guards were posted to keep the troops below until all action stations were fully manned and operational. There was never any panic and we seemed to cope well with these deprivations.
The mess deck was part of the living quarters. Each mess comprised 12 sailors and a leading hand or senior hand, the latter to keep order and to deal with complaints. Seating arrangements were simple - 6 sailors each side of a long table. In weekly rotation two sailors were detailed as cooks with responsibility for ordering provisions from the NAFFI store within prescribed limits. The food was stored in large urns and as required taken to the galley where "real cooks" prepared the meals using steam as the heat source. Most of the food was dried - beans, peas, porridge, eggs, fruit, meat and tons of rice. Occasionally tinned vegetables and fruit were available. A tot of rum was issued with lunch which helped to brighten the day.
At 1100 hrs an announcement about the issue of the rum was piped throughout the ship. It was collected by senior members of the Mess. Across the Royal Navy there were three strengths of rum determined by the quality of living conditions - the greater the deprivations the stronger the rum! At the one extremity barracks and big ships received one part rum and two parts of water and at the other, which included HMS Misoa, neat rum was issued. In between the ratio of water to rum was 1:1.
There was no privacy to speak of and there was another major deprivation as well. On the occasion of a visit to the ship by Lord Louis Mountbatten he was left in no doubt about the men's main grievance - "No mail!" We never had any prior notice of the ship's destination but that didn't stop rumours and speculation. The usual form was for the Captain to make an announcement to the ship's crew over the intercom once the ship was at sea.
I was finally demobbed in April 1946 with two months leave due. My pay, during my period of service, ranged from two shillings and six pence (12.5p) to seven shillings and six pence (37.5p) per day. Settling back into 'civvy' life was never going to be easy and although I could return to my pre-war job with the NAFFI I preferred to try something different. The Labour Exchange suggested employment as a stone mason which I 'politely' declined. Next a visit to the Broomielaw down by the River Clyde in Glasgow where I signed up for the Merchant Navy. The next 15 years were spent variously on tramp steamers and oil tankers worldwide, rigger work on a dam in Victoria Australia, steel erector and shark fisherman in Tasmania, tuna fisherman in New South Wales, forestry work in Victoria, steel erector in Melbourne, Merchant Navy in New Zealand and, having married and settled down, 25 years in forestry until retirement in the mid 80s.
Much of the time in the Mediterranean was routine where, with the passage of time, one day has blurred into the next. However there were times of great danger which heightened my awareness of the terrifying nature of modern warfare. The runs from Algiers to Bone in convoy saw us attacked by German bombers using both conventional bombs and torpedoes. In the case of the latter the planes flew in so low that we were in danger of being hit by our own side's gunners as they lowered their sights to a horizontal position. We were also very vulnerable to air raids, of which there were many, while in port.
Pantelleria was quiet but in Sicily and Italy the Italians engaged in high level bombing while the Germans strafed the beaches from just a few hundred feet. We also found ourselves in the middle of a minefield in Taranto Bay with all the associated risks of being blown out of the water. A minesweeper came to our rescue and swept a safe passage for us.
Off the beaches of Normandy we disembarked our first cargo of men and tanks on D + 1 but we were close enough to the beaches on D Day itself to be aware of what was going on during the initial landings. Those brave men in the small landing craft knew that many of them would be killed or seriously wounded... and yet wave after wave of them made for the beaches. It would not have been human for those of us watching the action from a safer distance, to feel anything but gratitude that, on this occasion, we were spared the ordeal. As I watched the armada of small landing craft pass us by I said to myself, "Good luck you guys!" .... and that was the nature of total war. For the average serviceman the difference between life and death or serious injury was all down to luck - being in the right place at the right time. Although there were times of great danger on board HMS Misoa she, and her crew, came through unscathed. When I left her for the last time in 1945 I had far more respect and affection for her than when I first saw her as a "dirty old oil-tanker!" She was indeed a lucky ship! [Photo - the author c 2002].
HMS Misoa - a WW2 Landing Craft Tank (LST) by Archie Spence. Redrafted for website presentation by Geoff Slee.
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