A Tragic Event at Anzio, Italy in 1944

Adaptation of a talk given at a Members’ Evening in 2006

Many family historians have traced interesting stories of their relatives’ service during the First World War, but at present there are a lot fewer from the Second.  I was keen to find out about an episode from my father’s time in the Royal Navy of which he would speak very rarely, and then only in a general way.  It was however to have a profound effect on his life and that of his family after the War.

My father Maurice Herbert Holifield was the second son and third child of a family of six, born in Wembley Middlesex in 1913.  He was a very gentle, patient, easy-going man, rarely losing his temper.  He married my mother Florence Cecilia Bradwell (Celia) in 1938, and they moved to a small bungalow between Pinner and Rayners Lane where I was born in 1940.  In 1941 Dad was called up and opted to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR).  He said his choice was governed by the fact that he hated heights so would be no good in the RAF, he didn’t like walking much, so that ruled out the Army, but he could swim so the Navy seemed the least of the three evils! 

After initial training he served for a while on minesweepers round the British coast, eventually being promoted to Lieutenant in 1943. He was later on the Queen Elizabeth when it was used as a troop ship bringing Americans over from New York to Europe, and remembered fondly the enormous hospitality of the Americans towards those in uniform.  The incident I was interested in however took place at Anzio in Italy.  Dad had mentioned that he had been to Naples and picked ripe oranges off the trees – there was no comparison in taste with those we could buy in the shops after the war - and had visited the volcano Vesuvius which was very smelly.  

He also said, when I asked him when I was about sixteen why he never went to a Remembrance Day service, that he didn’t need a special day to remember his fallen comrades, he would remember them all the days of his life, a very telling and poignant reply.  In his effects after his death in 1988, I found a pair of little metal oak leaves which he had told me had been awarded to him at the time his ship was sunk.  

When Dad came home after the war, he suffered from depression and dreadful nightmares.  He was advised on health grounds to leave his office job in the bank, and take on manual work in the open air.  From being a schoolboy, he had always been interested in growing things, he had an allotment from that time, and kept bees and chickens, so he was at last able to take a course at an agricultural college, then buy his own farm near Gweek in Cornwall in 1948, with the help of a sickness pension from the bank and a gratuity from the Navy.

What was the cause of his depression?  It was clearly related to his experience during the war, and in 2006 I felt that as a tribute to him I should like to find out what happened at Anzio, spurred on by the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the ending of the war in Europe.

Firstly through the Internet I read a number of articles on the Anzio campaign, called “Operation Shingle”, and an associated website listed all the minor vessels of the Royal Navy which had been lost during WW2.  A passing remark of Dad’s had been that he was thankful he hadn’t been a soldier having to exit a landing craft under enemy fire.  This led me to think that his vessel may have been a landing craft.

Another remark was that he had been on the quay at the time the ship sank, which also implied that it was after the initial landings, during the period when the landed forces were being supplied with stores and equipment by vessels from Naples and southern Italy. 

http://freespace.virgin.net/gordon.smith4/WW2BritishLosses4Amphib.htm listed all the landing craft losses, and the date and place where they sank.  There was only one which had been lost at Anzio during the period after the landings, LCI(L) No 273, which was sunk on 17 March 1944, so I decided to pursue this one first.  

These craft were American, but had been leased to Britain under the Lease Lend programme.  They had a displacement of 387 tons fully loaded, and were 160 feet long with a speed of 15.5 knots.  They had a crew of three officers and at least twenty-one men, (although I think Dad’s had more than this in the complement) and could carry almost two hundred troops or seventy-five tons of cargo in three troop holds.  As a comparison, they were slightly larger than the three masted sailing barques which were commonly used in the 19th century to travel all over the world with cargo!

I consulted the National Archives Catalogue on their website searching in the Admiralty documents under “Anzio”, and found a reference to a file dealing with bravery awards to members of the crew of this vessel when it was sunk at Anzio (ADM1/29571).  This sounded as if it could be the vital evidence I was seeking, so on the next visit of the Rugby Family History Group to The National Archives at Kew, I requested this file and opened it with great anticipation.

There it was!  A report by my father, who was the Commanding Officer, on the circumstances of the loss of the Landing Craft, together with the recommendations by the Commander in Chief Mediterranean for the award of gallantry medals to two of the crew, and a Mention in Despatches for Dad. 

The landing craft was hit by a heavy bomb in the early hours of the morning while lying alongside the jetty (mole) at Anzio.  From a later survey it appeared that the bomb hit the jetty about three feet from the ship’s side, and ricocheted off, exploding against the ship’s side.  The force of the impact blew away the bows and No 1 troopspace completely, and the ship immediately began to list.  The men on the bridge were all thrown to the deck and a rating suffered severe injuries.  Four ratings in No 3 troopspace and the rest of the crew off duty in the Mess Deck (no numbers given) managed to get clear.  

In No 2 Troopspace were twenty-one ratings, but the blast had blown away the companionway and jammed the escape hatch.  Once Dad and the First Lieutenant, Christopher Finlayson, had managed to force it open, they saw that the men were too injured to get out on their own.  Finlayson and Leading Stoker Thomas Forrest (of the Canadian Navy) climbed into the severely constricted hold to try, with the aid of only a small handtorch for light, to help them up through the escape hatch.

The hold had been badly damaged by the bomb, and as the vessel was listing badly, all the crewmen had been thrown into one corner with baggage and broken pieces of metal from the bunks.  They managed to help two men up through the hatch, but as they were getting the third man up, the vessel listed even more and water began to gush in through a damaged bulkhead. They tied a rope round the injured man and lowered him into the water as the vessel capsized, he was picked up shortly afterwards by a motorlaunch.  Sadly the other men did not survive.

For their bravery in rescuing the three crew members, Lt Finlayson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and Stoker Forrest the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).   Dad was Mentioned in Despatches as he “gave a splendid example of leadership, and did all that was possible to save lives and his ship”.  The awards were made on 3rd June and published in the London Gazette on 20th June 1944 in Supplement 36672.

I now see why Dad never needed to be reminded of his lost crew.  Such a traumatic experience would have remained with him always, but he did overcome the health problems it caused, and make a success of his farm.  He was a loving husband, father and grandfather, and was respected and admired by all those with whom he had contact.  He was a public spirited man, and served on many committees of local organisations during his life.  His example of leadership clearly showed here as time was never wasted on his committees!  Also as a tribute to his tireless endeavours in fundraising for it, Gweek Village Hall after his death was renamed the Holifield Memorial Hall in his honour.

Ann Luntley