First Radio Officer Arthur Coxhead: Survivor of the Empire Javelin
By John Coxhead
Arthur was at risk from the start in what was called the Battle of the Atlantic. It was essential to keep supplies coming from the USA. Later the Allies needed to support the USSR after its Pact of Steel with the Germans was broken in June, 1941. Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa: the invasion of Russia. Convoys shipped military aid and supplies through deadly Arctic waters to Archangel and Murmansk. The merchant marine, which subsequently received very little recognition for its bravery and sacrifice, suffered great loss in the 5 year battle:
Ships lost by U-boat= 1,315
Ships lost all enemy causes= 2,177
Crewmen lost by U-boat= 22,898
Crewmen lost by all enemy causes= 30,132
Ships normally travelled in convoy, usually at the speed of the slowest vessel. Most were unarmed, except of course for the destroyer escorts. Although a 1st Radio Officer hired out by Marconi International Marine Communication, Arthur did learn to use a gun. It was a big one. He got a certificate of proficiency, dated 29th December, 1942, after attending a Merchant Navy A/A Gunnery Course in Alexandria. He was qualified to fire, clean and oil the Oerlikon, H.K.S., Marlin and Lewis. This was an anti-aircraft canon supplied mainly to the Royal Navy from the spring of 1941.
Between July 1931 and April 1940, Arthur’s Certificate of Discharge record shows most of his sailing was done on two ships. The first was the 4,927 ton M.V.Port Fairy, and from March 1937 he served on the 5,612 ton Trojan Star. The majority of voyages were to New Zealand with a couple to Australia. When war broke out his destinations were no longer identified, simply giving the description of voyage as “Foreign”. However, entries showing where he signed on do give the game away: Glasgow, Liverpool and New York feature a number of times. This is when he served on the 1928 built, 5,853 ton, Greystoke Castle doing convoy work. I have found one convoy that took him to Gibraltar:
Convoy number MKS 042 AUGUSTA 05/03/44
Convoy number MKS 042G GIBRALTAR 13/03/44
So, he must have seen a bit of the hotly contested Mediterranean. The army in Italy needed supplies. I know that at some stage he met up with Percy. It was not the best of reunions. Sharing a room they both snored each other into insomnia, almost coming to blows - and so parted shortly thereafter. After a five month spell on the Neuralia, Arthur signed on at Southampton with the 7,177 ton HMS Empire Javelin. This was 26 November 1944.
The Blue Line was a shipping company run by the Vestey family of Liverpool. Its main purpose was the transport of meat from their businesses in Argentina and other South American countries. In 1943 the Consolidated Steel Company of Wilmington California was nearing completion of a C1-S-AY1 type cargo ship ordered by the Vesteys, the Cape Lobos, when it was requisitioned by the British Ministry of Works and Transport (MOWT). It was renamed HMS Empire Javelin, turned into a troopship, fitted with davits to carry landing craft and delivered in January 1944.
On 6th June 1944, HMS Empire Javelin set sail for Normandy. This was D-Day and she was carrying Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment of the US 29th Infantry Division. Just after 6.00 am the ship disgorged her passengers into landing craft for them to become the first assault wave on Omaha beach. Most of those young Americans would die that day.
On 16th December, Hitler launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes forest in an attempt to divide Allied forces and reach Antwerp. This was his last throw of the dice: the Battle of the Bulge. Caught unawares and initially hammered by the Germans, there was an urgent need for the Americans to reinforce and plug gaps. The main body of the US 15th Army that had been billeted in Doddington Hall, Cheshire, moved out on December 25th and headed for a staging area in Southampton. Next afternoon, Boxing Day, 208 officers and 624 men boarded the HMS Empire Javelin. They had to share space with the crew and 652 British soldiers who had just enjoyed a spot of leave and were now returning to their units.
At 11.20 am on December 28th, HMS Empire Javelin set sail for France in a small flotilla headed by an escort, l’Escarmouche (translated as Skirmisher). L’Escarmouche was a River Class frigate, originally named the HMS Frome when launched in June 1943. It was transferred under its new name to the Free French Navy on 3rd March 1944. The weather was good with a slight north-easterly blowing. In line behind the frigate, all ships had been instructed to steam at 12 knots, zig-zagging as a precaution against possible submarine attack. After three hours Barfleur on the Cotentin peninsula came into sight. Almost immediately – 14.20 Hrs – there was a huge explosion to starboard on HMS Empire Javelin. At 5.05N 01.00W, half way between the Isle of Wight and France, Arthur’s ship had been drilled by a torpedo, killing seven crewmen.
There was some panic on board. What do you do with over a thousand soldiers when a ship has been holed? By 1500 Hrs fire had spread to the engine room when suddenly there was another explosion, this time towards the stern. A German submarine had loosed another torpedo to finish off the stricken ship. Taking on water rapidly, HMS Empire Javelin had started to go down at the stern. The order was given to launch lifeboats but there were too few. Priority was given to the wounded. Having given chase to the submarine, l’Escarmouche returned at 15.15 Hrs to lend assistance. Finding HMS Empire Javelin stabilising in the water and now apparently free from immediate danger she returned to the hunt after taking on board some survivors.
The respite was brief. Just before 1600 Hrs HMS Empire Javelin signalled, “I am sinking”. Arthur must have been busy in his radio room tapping out Morse. The weather had now deteriorated, water was choppy in an easterly wind and the stricken ship was low in the water, rolling from side to side. L’Escarmouche returned and tried to come alongside for a rescue but the manoeuvre was dangerous. If the frigate got caught in Empire Javelin’s davits and superstructure, it risked being capsized. A second try, this time approaching the port side of HMS Empire Javelin, was more successful. The French hull and gangway were constantly pounded by what was now a wreck. Despite this, some 1500 were transhipped to the frigate, many jumping from one deck to the other. It was all quite orderly and panic free. Others ended up in the sea, the lucky ones finding a single life boat whilst others clung to rafts. 13 soldiers were missing and another 20 had been injured. Night had begun to draw in.
David Rindone of Cornville, Arizona e-mailed me to say his father, Lewis D. Rindone, – 25 at the time - was on board HMS Empire Javelin: "My father was rescued by L'Escarmouche, the French frigate and subsequently transferred to LST 325. My father was in the Signal Corps and, as he was a photographer, had the presence of mind to go back below and grab his camera before abandoning ship. He feels that he is the only one who had a camera and, as a result, apparently is the only one who recorded the sinking of the ship as well as other miscellaneous photos."
David also gave me a website where I could grab the photos and see an interview with a veteran, Mr Mohr, who shared the experience: "All of a sudden there was a big boom. Well, when you’re hit you feel it before you hear it. The lights went out pretty quick. I tell you one thing, when the emergency lights came on that was a welcome thing. All the other ships left us except this little frigate that was trying to find the submarine. That was a real sinking feeling to get up on that deck and see all them other ships steaming out – leaving as fast as they could get out of there. We were all rightly concerned there because we knew the ship was sinking and we, you don’t have a chance to swim at 36° water, 4 or 5 or 6 miles to land you know. So you’re not going to make it.
There were 6 men on the thing that were killed and 20 more injured. The injured were put in a lifeboat. And the British Captain had a guy, a French frigate tie up to him and the British captain said you’re going to take all these guys off. So we were ordered to line up and we ran across the back of the Empire Javelin. There was blood on that ship there. You know how it is on a ship. We had trouble working our way around – glass. Jumped over to this other little ship. It’s quite an experience to jump from one ship to another on a sea going up and down. They had three men on the crew. They just grabbed us, tackled us and throwed us up against the wall. But as I say that British Captain probably saved our bacon. I’ll always feel that way making that frigate tie us to us - take us all off. Otherwise I don’t think we’d ever made it. This is a part of the experience I don’t often share, but we were standing on the deck looking at the water knowing that it was colder than dickens and we were liable to be in it in a few short time. And that ship went down. I remember saying, “Lord, I guess it’s up to you. I wouldn’t give a lead nickel for our chances.”
What happened afterwards being rescued by the Escarmouche and going on that little boat increased my faith in the Lord, if he’s going to take care of you. Some of them said I was identically the same as I was before but I don’t know. I couldn’t say. You’d have to get somebody else’s opinion who knew me before and afterwards, I guess. I think you change. You have to adapt to different things because you think you are taught not to kill or take anything, then you start training to kill and things like that. So it does begin to shake you up a bit."
Mr Mohr’s wife commented that he would always check the windows at home. He was just making sure of an escape route. He had a hard time sleeping for at least a year.
L’Escarmouche was not designed to rescue and accommodate over 1500 souls and their equipment. There was a danger of destabilising the frigate. The French gave strict orders for the even distribution of people throughout their ship, some occupying the bridge, others the hold and the remainder in the engine room. HMS Hargood, a Captain Class frigate, then arrived on the scene and was able to take some of the rescued soldiers and crew from L’Escarmouche. Meanwhile, the commander and five officers of HMS Empire Javelin had chosen to remain aboard their ship. A sailor heard cries from the hold. The first torpedo had trapped some of the crew below decks. With incredible bravery French engineer Goarant and mechanic Iaffont jumped onto HMS Empire Javelin taking oxyacetylene cutting equipment to open the twisted and blocked panels of the hold. After what seemed an incredibly long hour and risking imminent sinking, they released the trapped crew and transhipped to the French frigate.
This was just in the nick of time. There was another explosion. HMS Empire Javelin suddenly lifted out of the water with its bow pointing skywards and then sank rapidly going down at the stern. The HMS Empire commander and his five officers had quickly abandoned ship, jumping into the icy Channel. Arthur could not swim. What was the point if ever he had been sunk in mid-Ocean? However he could doggy paddle and was able to make his way to the Frenchman who had just dropped his large whaler into the sea for them to clamber in.
Two LCTs (Landing Craft, Tanks) had arrived at the same time as HMS Hargood. Despite a worsening sea and several attempts LCT-325 took on 700, for which its American Lieutenant Commander Mosier was awarded the Bronze Star. At 1725 Hrs L’Escarmouche prepared to come alongside the second LCT but the wind had strengthened and night had fallen. The frigate was ordered to make for Portsmouth but at 2150 was then ordered to turn back and steam for Le Havre instead. She arrived at 0350Hrs the following day, safely depositing all her charges. Arthur’s log notes that he signed off from the Empire Javelin trip “at sea”, 28th December 1944.
The sinking was not reported by the U-Boat. Instead it was picked up by B-Dienst, the German Naval code breaking organisation. They may have been listening to Arthur. For a long time records suggest it was U-772 that torpedoed the HMS Empire Javelin. Its commander, Kapitänleutnant Ewald Rademacher, was six weeks out of Trondheim, Norway, with orders to attack any ship in the English Channel supporting Allied forces in Europe. These were not good times for Grand Admiral Dönitz’s submarine fleet. After great success in the first years of the war the Germans began to fall behind technologically at sea. Using better methods of detection, attack and defence, the Allies began to win the Battle of the Atlantic from 1943. The rate of U-Boat sinking had climbed alarmingly, virtually to suicidal proportions. At least U-Boats were now equipped with a snorkel allowing them to remain submerged for longer, making them significantly less subject to detection.
In the early hours of December 30th Squadron Leader W.J.C. Taylor of RCAF 407 “Coastal Strike” Squadron – the Canadians – was flying his obsolete Vickers Wellington over the Channel from his Chivenor base when he made radar contact with a submarine. Switching on his Leigh Light, a 22 million candlepower searchlight, he spotted a snorkel and targeted it with a pattern of six depth charges. Taylor claimed the sinking of what was thought to be U-772. For this he received the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). Maybe he should have returned it because more recent research says that U-772 was already at the bottom of the sea, depth-charged with all 48 crew lost when the frigate, HMS Nyasaland, caught it just south of Cork on 17th December. It is thought Taylor’s attack was actually on Oberleutnant Gerhard Meyer’s U-486. This submarine had a number of kills to its name. The most serious was troopship SS Leopoldville, sunk on 24th December with the loss of 763 American soldiers.
Meyer and his crew survived attack. The British submarine HMS Tapir, captained by Lt. J.C.Y. Roxbourgh, DSO, DSC, RN, would claim revenge the following April just north-west of Bergen when it torpedoed and sank U-486 with its full complement of submariners. David Ridone adds a coincidental twist: ". . . . my father was supposed to embark on the Leopoldville, but was among an excess of troops and consequently were marched back in full field gear to their bivouac. I can only imagine the griping that was heard before the news of the sinking of the Leopoldville and the thankfulness afterwards."
L’Escarmouche would continue on escort duty for the rest of the war. She would do 147 crossings in total. One of the last was on 5th April, 1945, with convoy VW16 when SS Cuba was sunk by U-1195. L’Escarmouche gave chase laying hedgehog depth charges. The submarine was sunk with 18 survivors escaping via its torpedo tubes. The SS Cuba was the last allied merchant vessel to be sunk during the war. Marconi wrote to Arthur’s Croydon home address on January 9th 1945:
"Dear Sir, We have learned, with much regret, of the loss by enemy action of the vessel on which you were serving in the capacity of Radio Officer. We were very pleased, nevertheless, to receive news of your subsequent safe arrival in this country, and we are particularly gratified to know that you escaped physical injury. At the same time, we realise that as a result of this ordeal a period of recuperation is necessary and we, therefore, trust you are taking full advantage of the leave of absence which has been granted to you and that you will eventually return to duty none the worse for such a trying experience. In conclusion, we would express the earnest hope that in the future you and the ships you sail in will meet with nothing but good fortune."
The event entitled Arthur to wear the officer’s Torpedo Badge. Arthur was certainly due something, but possibly not a Torpedo Badge. Failure to identify any submarine as the culprit has had some suggesting that HMS Empire Javelin was mined. He returned to sea on 2nd February 1945, sailing in the Chantilly for the remainder of the war. Lord Leathers delivered a victory message with words that included: ". . . in the face of continual and merciless attack by the enemy, you have maintained the ceaseless flow of sea traffic on which the life and strength of this country depend. The Board of Admiralty have also asked me to express on behalf of the Royal Navy their admiration for the great contribution made by the Merchant Navy to the common victory through all the perils and rigours of more than five and half years of war at sea."
The War Medals Department of the Board of Trade saw to it that if he had a mind to do so, Arthur could display the: Pacific Star, British War Medal, Africa Star and clasp, Mercantile Marine War Medal, Atlantic Star and clasp, Italy Star.
Arthur’s brother Cyril, I can polish off in a sentence. All I know is that he was up to something in East Africa. Like the man, it was something of a mystery.
Courtesy of John Coxhead
© 2010 John Coxhead all rights reserved
Arthur Henry Coxhead in uniform.
Page published July 26, 2010