The official history of the Clan Line during the Second World War, In Danger’s Hour by Gordon Holman (Hodder and Stoughton, 1948), contains many accounts of courage and loss among the Merchant Navy crews who provided a lifeline for Britain as well as support for Allied military operations in every theatre of the war. We are used to images of ships on Atlantic convoys, their crews enduring the constant threat of U-boat attack, but an oft-overlooked role of merchant seamen was the huge part they played in seaborne assaults and the dangers they faced there as well. Just what this involved is shown in the remarkable voyage of one of these ships as she reached the east coast of India in December 1944:
‘… in far-off Vizagapatam, Madras, Captain Coultas and his Engineer Officers were being relieved after voyaging for more than twenty months in M.V. Empire Elaine. During that time they had served Combined Operations at the Sicily landings, had been on special service in the Indian Ocean, had carried an 85-ton tug and many landing craft to ports in the Eastern war zone, had run through the monsoon, taken part in the South of France landings and had then returned for further service in Indian waters' (Holman, p 193-4).
By the time Empire Elaine had reached Bombay a month earlier she had already clocked up 38,531 miles since leaving her home port of Glasgow in May 1943 and had sailed in 29 convoys, in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean, including the Bay of Bengal. This duration of this voyage alone makes her stand out, but there are two special reasons for my interest in this ship. The first is that during the 1980s I spent several summers investigating ancient shipwrecks off south-east Sicily, including the sector where Empire Elaine offloaded landing craft during Operation Husky in July 1943. The second is that one of her officers during that voyage was my grandfather, Lawrance Wilfred Gibbins, who had joined her after her launch on the Clyde in the summer of 1942 and left her at Bombay in October 1944, his log book providing the ship's mileage that I’ve cited here.
Empire Elaine was a 7,513 ton LSC (Landing Craft Carrier) built for the UK Ministry of War Transport, and the Clan Line was chosen to manage her because of their heavy-lift expertise in transporting locomotives to India before the war. The photo above shows her in early 1943 following her first voyage, a 10,622 mile round-trip to South Africa via Gibraltar; her weather-damaged hull was in the process of being repainted in preparation for Operation Husky. You can see her armaments to fore and aft and above the bridge - a single 4-inch gun for use against surface vessels as well as a high-angle 12-pounder and six 20mm cannon against aircraft. The guns were under the overall command of a Merchant Navy gunnery officer, in this case my grandfather, and were manned by a mixture of Royal Artillery and Royal Marines gunners as well as trained merchant seamen for whom the Clan Line even had a special rank, ‘Seaman Gunner.’
Her crew comprised some fifteen British deck and engineer officers and about 70 ratings. The deck officers were all professional seamen and most had started their careers as Royal Naval Reserve cadets on HMS Conway or HMS Worcester, 19th century ship-of-the-line that served as schools for future officers of both the Merchant and the Royal Navies. Officers of the Clan Line, popularly known as the ‘Scots Navy’, wore braid very similar to that of the Royal Navy, as seen on the uniforms of the two officers illustrated on this page. Despite the meagre armaments of their ships, these men were more than willing to take the war to the enemy when the occasion allowed. Captain Coultas, a veteran of the First World War at sea, had himself been decorated with the OBE earlier in the war for using his ship Clan Macbean in an attempt to ram a U-boat, saving the day ‘… by resolute handling of his unarmed ship, by brilliantly forestalling the enemy’s movements, and by courageously holding on his course, and so running into point blank gunfire from the submarine,’ and forcing the enemy to dive and allowing the ship to escape (The London Gazette, 19 March 1940).
On the Clyde, Empire Elaine joined assault convoy KMS 18B for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, leaving on 23 May 1943 and arriving at ‘Bark West' sector off south-eastern Sicily on the night of 9-10 July. On the way the convoy had been struck by U-boats off Algiers, resulting in the loss of three ships and many lives (see here for my account of those sinkings). My grandfather recalled offloading landing craft under fire from shore, and also under the arc of 15-inch shells from the monitor HMS Roberts that shrieked over Empire Elaine towards the Italian coastal batteries. At the north-east sector of the landings near Syracuse, the sea contained the bodies of British airborne troops whose gliders had landed disastrously short in bad weather the night before, though the SAS had successfully overrun the Italian battery on Capo Murro di Porco, the rocky promontory immediately south of Syracuse – only a few hundred metres from a Roman wreck that my team excavated under the southern flank of the cape some forty years later, where we found rusted belts of Italian machine-gun ammunition on the seabed discarded over the cliffs after the Italians defences had been destroyed.
Nine months later Empire Elaine was on the other side of the world delivering landing craft for the war against the Japanese in Burma. Having first been part of the force assembled for Operation Bullfrog, the cancelled seaborne assault of the Arakan coast of Burma, she sailed in convoy up the Bay of Bengal to Chittagong, near the border with Burma - the main supply port for the British campaign against the Japanese - on 8 April 1944, at a time when the port was under air attack and the Japanese were threatening to envelop eastern Burma and break through into India. Directly to the north the Battle of Imphal was raging, and on that very day the Battle of Kohima began. These were attritional struggles equal to the American island battles in the Pacific, but they eventually saw British and Indian forces stem the Japanese advance and turn the tide against them. The landing craft carried by Empire Elaine would have been destined for seaborne assaults along the Arakan coast of Burma, and for assaults further east that would have taken place had the Japanese not surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Enemy action was not the only hazard faced by Empire Elaine during her epic voyage: on 1 July 1944 she set out from Bombay for Aden as a one-ship convoy, escorted by HMIS Bombay, a corvette of the Royal Indian Navy, only to put back a week later ‘through stress of weather’ – she had run into the worst monsoon my grandfather was to experience in his forty years at sea. It was the second time he had been in a convoy that had been forced back by weather; in Clan Macnair in November 1941, in the thirty-seven ship convoy HX 162 from Halifax to Liverpool, his ship was one of many dispersed in a severe winter storm and forced to return and join later convoys and run the U-boat gauntlet again. In July 1944 after putting to sea from Bombay a second time Empire Elaine made it to Suez and then sailed across the Mediterranean for Operation Dragoon, the South of France landings, forming part of assault convoy SM 1C under US command and offloading landing craft close inshore under fire in Cavalière Bay. After that, the ship sailed across the Mediterranean and returned to the Indian Ocean, where she spent the remainder of the war transporting military supplies to eastern ports for the war against the Japanese.
My grandfather was not unusual among merchant seamen in having logged more than forty-eight months afloat in war zones, including many convoys during the worst months of the Battle of the Atlantic, and in having been at sea on the first day and the last day of the war. The Clan Line lost 30 of the 55 ships it managed during the war, and almost 700 officers and ratings. More than a quarter of British merchant seamen registered in 1939 were not alive in 1945 – a far higher death rate than any of the armed services. When I reflect on the crew of Empire Elaine and the many other merchant ships like her, I think of the motto of my grandfather’s and Captain Coultas' school, HMS Conway – ‘Quit ye like men, be strong.’ It was that ingrained sense of resolve that allowed these civilian sailors to make such a huge contribution to winning the war, and allowed some of them to endure its shadow for the remainder of their lives.
A note on sources
The two blogs that follow on Empire Elaine, on Operation Husky and Operation Dragoon, contain a full exposition of the primary source material needed to trace the service of merchant seamen and their ships during the Second World War. As well as the book by Holman cited above, a full account of all ships managed by the Clan Line and their wartime role can be found in Clan Line: Illustrated Fleet History, by John Clarkson, Roy Fenton and Archie Munro (Ships in Focus Publications, 2007), a superbly illustrated volume that must count as one of the most comprehensive fleet histories ever published for British mercantile shipping.
A large and fascinating collection of photographs taken by the official Royal Navy photographers of the British assault on south-east Sicily on 9-10 July 1943, including many images of merchant vessels involved, can be seen online in the Imperial War Museum collection website.