Empire Javelin Disaster

The following narrative is an extract from the History of the 15th Army and is the official account of the Empire Javelin sinking. Current censorship regulations now permit the distribution and mailing of this account.

The main body of Headquarters, Fifteenth U. S. Army, departed from Doddington Hall by train for a staging area at Southampton, England, on 25 December 1944 and boarded the Empire Javelin, a British ship, on the afternoon of 26 December. There were 208 officers and 624 enlisted men in this group.

At 0900 on Thursday, 28 December, the ship sailed for Churchtown. Clear, crisp air and a smooth-running sea marked the Empire Javelin's passage, under convoy, out of the harbor waters and into the English Channel. The crossing was uneventful until the ship was at about mid-channel where, at about 1440 hours, a terrific explosion rocked the vessel. The blast, which came without warning of any kind and which was later ascribed to a German mine or torpedo, was below the waterline on the starboard side of the vessel, slightly aft of mid-ship. It left the Empire Javelin completely crippled; she was unable to turn her propellers and her rudder was useless.

A general alarm was sounded at once, and all the troops, numbering 268 officers and 1215 enlisted men, assembled on the main deck. In the meantime, the French frigate L'Escarmouche, commanded by Captain de Lesquen du Plessis-Easso, which had been nearby when the blast occurred, came alongside and stood by. The Empire Javelin's officers studied the damage in the hope that emergency repairs could be made and the vessel saved, but at 1600 hours, somewhat more than an hour after the explosion, it was decided to abandon ship. The French captain edged L'Escarmouche alongside the British vessel and made fast to her port side, and then the troops boarded the frigate by jumping from the Empire Javelin's deck to that of L'Escarmouche.

The transfer of personnel to the French ship took but 55 minuets; the clock had not quite reached 1700 hours when the last American soldier was off the Empire Javelin. The transfer was none too soon, however, for a few minuets later, at 1715, another explosion shook the Empire Javelin in the area of Number 4 hatch, aft, and the ship began to settle at the stern. Ten minuets afterwards, at 1725, she vanished into the waters of the channel.

While the transfer of men was under way, several other ships, including two LST's had appeared on the scene. Approximately half the men aboard the frigate were transferred to one LST and taken directly to Le Havre; the other LST accidentally collided with the frigate and for safety's sake it was decided to keep the remaining troops aboard L'Escarmouche.

The frigate then started for Portsmouth, the nearest large British harbor. Later she received new orders and, before reaching Portsmouth, turned around and headed for Le Havre. At about 0500 29 December the troops, through the use of landing craft, were debarked at this French port.

The occurrence had not been without casualties. A checkup revealed that 13 men were missing in action as a result of the explosion and sinking and that 20 men had been injured, two of them seriously. In the opinion of Colonel Louis J. Compton, commanding the main body, the light casualty list was due to the soldierly conduct and discipline of the passengers, and the foresight and skilled seamanship of Captain McLean of the Empire Javelin, Captain de Lesquen du Plessis-Easso of L'Escarmouche, and the commanders of the American vessels.

Later, under General Order Number 3, Headquarters, Fifteenth United States Army, the Purple Heart Medal was awarded to eight Fifteenth Army Officers and 21 enlisted men "for wounds received as the result of enemy action 28 December 1944, in the European Theatre of Operations."

Major General Ray F. Porter, then Commanding General of the Fifteenth Army, on 13 January 1945 issued the following commendation to the Fifteenth Army personnel who had been aboard the Empire Javelin:

"The recent movements of this headquarters were accomplished under difficult circumstances for all personnel. Many officers and enlisted men were subjected to the greatest and most trying perils incident to war. The good order and discipline which prevailed and the courage and determination displayed in the face of great danger and the energy, high spirit and efficiency with which all performed their assigned tasks are sources of great satisfaction.

You have initiated a high standard of performance which it is confidently expected you will pursue and develop to the end that this headquarters will contribute material service in the march of out armed forces to ultimate victory.

I pay deserving tribute to the faithful and efficient service of these good soldiers whose lives were lost. I offer a humble prayer that the families and loved ones of our fallen comrades may find divine comfort in their hour of great sorrow and that our wounded may be granted speedy and satisfactory recovery."
(Courtesy of Dr. Bert R. Bratton, M.D.)

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Page published Nov. 24, 2010