Every Name A Story Content

Hawthorne, C.E., O/Smn., 1943

HMS Rosemary

On Plymouth Naval Memorial is the name of D/JX 366573 Ordinary Seaman Charles Ellis Hawthorne serving with the Royal Navy who died 26/04/1943.

Charles Ellis Hawthorne was born on the 18th May 1920 at Haltwhistle, Northumberland. He was the son of Arthur, who was at born Thirsk on 29th August 1879], a Resin size maker to the Paper Trade and Sarah Ann Hawthorne, born London, 14th July 1880, who were residing at 278 Conyers Road. They were married in 1903. They had 4 children by 1911, Rachel, born 1904, Catherine, born 1906, Arthur, born 1909 and Thomas born 1911. In 1911 they were residing at 3 Walker Street, Low Teams, Gateshead, with her grand parents.

In 1939 they were residing at 48 Harvey Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland. With only 2 children.

D/JX 366573 Ordinary Seaman Charles Ellis Hawthorne was a member of the crew of a L.G.C. (L) 16, a Mark III landing craft converted to a gun boat without the for'ard covered in. When two of these craft made their maiden voyages on April 25th and 26th 1943 to cross the Welsh Sea they were hit by one of the worst storms in history. Both vessels sank - there were 3 survivors. The episode was covered up during the war.

On Easter Sunday 1943 (25 April), gale force winds and wild seas were lashing at the coast.

Two landing craft, - Landing Craft Guns, or LCGs - were battered by the elements and, on the evening of what should have been a time of quiet contemplation, were sunk within sight of the shore. There were just three survivors.

Manned by Royal Navy personnel but carrying nearly 70 Royal Marines, the LCGs were unwieldy craft, ill designed to cope with such wild conditions. They had been built as LCTs (Landing Craft Tanks) [Mark III's]- but had been converted to LCGs ready for the planned invasion of Sicily in the Mediterranean.

Each of the two landing craft had been hurriedly fitted with 4.7 inch guns, weapons intended to attack Italian and German shore defences. More significantly, in order to quicken the conversion process, only part of the open deck of each craft - essential when carrying tanks, of no use whatsoever to a floating gun platform - had been covered in. It left almost half of the LCGs decks open to the elements. As Vernon Scott has written:- A number of sailors and marines had jokingly suggested that if filled with water, this space would make an ideal swimming pool; others had expressed deep anxiety about the problems such a gap would cause in heavy seas.
Vernon Scott - An Experience Shared

LCG 15 and 16 had left Belfast, en route to Falmouth, a few days before. They had had no sea trials and it was intended to use the cruise to discover just how seaworthy the ships really were. The two craft docked briefly at Holyhead, and as they headed south across Cardigan Bay the weather began to deteriorate alarmingly.

Faced by mountainous seas and already shipping water into their open decks, the LCGs sought permission to enter Fishguard Harbour and then Milford Haven. For some inexplicable reason permission was refused and the landing craft had no option but to proceed on their way. By the time they arrived off Freshwater West they were in serious difficulty.

Angle lifeboat was undergoing repair and could not be launched but the crew, along with Angle Lifesaving Company and men from nearby Angle Aerodrome, rushed to the beach and cliff top at Freshwater West. They were helpless as the wind and waves were too strong for them to do anything but watch the tragedy unfold.

Within sight of the beach LCG 15 was overwhelmed and disappeared under the waves. Her companion vessel sank later in the night.

Marines and sailors were pitched into the cold, dark sea. Many of them were drowned; others were battered to death against the rocks on this part of the coast. Seventy-two young servicemen from the landing craft were killed in what was the worst maritime disaster, not involving enemy ships, of the whole war. Over 50 bodies were pulled from the sea but many were never recovered.

As if that wasn't enough, further tragedy was waiting in the wings that night. The old sloop HMS Rosemary was returning to Milford Haven after escorting a convoy to Scotland when she was ordered to the scene of the disaster. LCG 16 was spotted just off St Ann's Head at the entrance to the Haven and the men on board, clearly thinking that rescue was at hand, began to wave and leap about.

The weather was now so bad that it was impossible to get a line across to the stricken landing craft and, in desperation, the captain of HMS Rosemary asked for volunteers to launch and then man the ship's tiny whaler. That, it was felt, was the best chance of getting a line across and taking the LCG in tow.

Without thought of their own safety, six men immediately volunteered. The boat was launched and was soon lost to view in the crashing seas. Soon afterwards it was engulfed and swamped by a huge wave. All six crewmen drowned. Soon afterwards LCG 16 also sank.

It was later said that attempting to launch a small boat such as a whaler in seas like that was simply inviting disaster but, at the time, the primary aim of the Rosemary's captain and crew was to save the men on LCG 16. Emotions were running high and the sloop's crew could hear and see the panic of the men on the landing craft.

Quite why the LCGs had been refused permission to enter Fishguard and Milford Haven has never been fully explained. There was an inquiry but, with the war still raging, it was something of a cover up and no-one has ever been called to account for a decision that cost over 70 young lives.

Perhaps more inexplicable is the reasoning behind allowing the two landing craft to take to sea with their decks partially open to the elements. As all sailors who saw the conversions quickly realised, in anything like a heavy sea the LCGs would be little more than death traps. And yet they were allowed to sail across what has always been recognised as one of the most dangerous stretches of water around the British Isles.

Survivors Stories
Sergeant Jetten, [Survivor], aboard LCG 16 stated that : It was around noon that I noticed LCG 15 was well ahead and we were not making the same headway, also the change in weather was causing a lot of motion to the craft and a few white faces were to be seen. Our two volunteer cooks, one a naval rating aand one a Marine, were the first victims, what with the smell of cooking and the roll and heave of the craft, so it was decided to relieve them before there were added rations to the pans. LCG 16 developed a fault in the compass, and LCG 15 was now disappearing over the horizon. Rough weather routine was adopted. The captain was not happy with the loss of engine power. All watertight hatches had to be closed because of the amount of water we were shipping, and the space for'ard between the end of the deck and the bow, was starting to look like a swimming pooll. This was caused by flotsam coming over the top and continually blocking the outlets. As fast as the outlets cleared, in it would come again.

Stoker Dennis Dryhurst, [Survivor], was in the engine room. Stated that: The propellers and rudder were out of the water most of the time so we virtually had no control . The other stoker and myself were on our feet all the time coping with the main and generating engines each side of the craft. Everyone on board from the captain down to the last man worked hard and tried to keep each other in good spirits. We even arranged with permission from the captain to attend the wedding of one of the lads when we reached Falmouth. He was only eighteen.

There followed an immediate secret Court of Inquiry at which a Sergeant Maurice Jetten, [who was aboard LCG -16, he was a veteran in a mostly raw young company, a strong six footer, aged twenty three, he had been in the Marines since the age of fourteen, and had joined the LCG after service in a cruiser on convoys to Russia and Malta], gave a full report on the disaster and the main cause of it, the deck over the former tank-hold not being extended to the bow, with the result that the craft was flooded and the pumps could not cope.

This resulted at Belfast for the craft to be finished off with a complete upper deck before proceeding to sea.

At Portsmouth later Sergeant Jetten received the personal thanks of the First Lord of the Admiralty, [Mr A. V. Alexander] for the clarity of his report. That was the official side. The other side had come when the sergeant's wife saw him for the first time after the disaster. He looked prematurely old and haggard and had his few belongings wrapped up in brown paper parcel. For a long time afterwards Sergeant Jetten suffered from nightmares and kept reliving the experience and thinking about his lost shipmates.

At Milford Haven too, where the stark reminder of the tragedy was a common grave with thirty-nine gravestones, they could not forget the disaster. The very strong feeling was that men should never have been sent out in those craft in such stormy conditions, and that the boat from HMS Rosemary should never have been lowered in such seas- this latter feeling apparently being shared by some of her officers who had walked off the sloop when she returned to Milford Haven harbour. The demand for a public inquiry grew.
The upshot was a question put in the House of Commons by an M.P., Mr. C.G. Ammon, who asked the First Lord of the Admiralty 'Whether he has any statement to make concerning the sinking pf two barges off the coast of Wales and the consequent loss of the lives of a number of soldiers'. Six weeks after the tragedy the First Lord gave his reply in the Commons.
There is no question of the disaster being due to negligence, he said The fundamental cause of the Milford Haven tragedy was that the weather changed suddenly in spite of facourable forecasts….The vessels were sailed in good weather and with prospects favourable but unhappily the weather , after a sudden change, deteriorated with a rapidity unusual even for St George's Channel. The commanding officers decided nevertheless that they could make Milford Haven. When they arrived off the Haven 'conditions were severe with a full gale blowing on shore and with a heavy and confused sea. FOIC Milford Haven at once took steps to secure that every possible attempt was made to bring these craft safely into harbour. The six men from Rosemary had been lost in a courageous rescue attempt.

Mr Ammon said it was alleged in the neighbourhood that the accident could have been prevented had the officers on the spot had the authority to cancel the instructions. The First Lord replied: There is no word of truth in any suggestion of that kind. The commanding officers had full instructions what to so in certain circumstances and the Flag Officer on the spot took every possible step, Another M.P. asked the leading question, Is the First Lord satisfied that these craft are correctly designed and seaworthy? the reply was They are extremely good craft for their purpose and they have made long voyages. .But it was common knowledge to those concerned that prior to the tragedy the LCGs had not made any voyages at all.

The statement was regarded by many as unsatisfactory. The prime cause of the disaster-the incomplete decks, was known only to the Admiralty and the LCG men and for security reasons could not be made public, [though the defect was admitted later in an Admiralty staff monograph], but the still bitter local feeling was that the two craft should not have been allowed to sail on in such weather, which had not turned quite as suddenly as implied.

The information of Second Coxswain David J. Lewis of the St Davids's lifeboat, which had been supplied with all the naval messages, was that the commanders of the two craft had twice sought shelter. On approaching Fishguard they signalled for permission to shelter as the weather was deteriorating with westerly winds. They were ordered to carry on their passage. On reaching the approaches to Milford Haven that again asked for permission to shelter, as now a west south –west gale was blowing. They were again told to carry on their passage.

There was also the apparent misunderstanding over the non-availability of the Angle lifeboat and the delay in calling out the St David's boat. Coxswain Lewis: If we had been called out sooner we could have been at the position before dark and definitely would had more than one survivor.
Many questions remain answered.

The War Of the Landing Craft Paul Lund & Harry Ludlum. 1976. W. Foulsham & Co.Ltd, Yeovil Rd., Slough. ISBN 0572009356 pages 92-104.

The above book gives an excellent account of the tragedy.

The names include six from the North East. These are: E.J. Derrick; J.T. Williams, both from Silksworth; Robert William Smith, buried in Sunderland Bishopwearmouth Cemetery; Edward Hindmarsh from Wallsend; Edward Blakely from Gateshead and Charles Ellis Hawthorne from Byker.

A War Memorial has since been created at Milford Haven to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

Charles Ellis Hawthorne is remembered on our List of Ships’ Crews.

The Milford Haven tragedy
The CWGC entry for Ordinary Seaman Hawthorne

War of the Landing Craft Extract

If you know more about this person, please send the details to janet@newmp.org.uk