World war veteran describes the horrors of Anzio

James Morley had never been any further than Morecambe when he joined the Royal Navy to serve in the Second World War.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 10th November 2016, 2:45 pm
Updated Friday, 18th November 2016, 12:21 pm
James Morley with his Anzio Beachhead Commemorative Medal and the Italy war medal
James Morley with his Anzio Beachhead Commemorative Medal and the Italy war medal

Aged just 19 he did 10 weeks of training at HMS Raleigh in Plymouth and he began his official role as an able seaman on a French Destroyer, known as the Mistral.

Throughout his five years in service, he fought many battles, most notably freeing Anzio, in Italy, in 1944.

For his brave efforts, the 96-year-old received an Anzio Beachhead Commemorative medal in 1994 to mark 50 years since the landing, which he described as “the worst of them all.”

James Morley when he served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War

James, of Hoghton, said: “This medal is the one I cherish quite a lot.

“Anzio turned out to be a blood bath, as the Germans were well prepared with their panzers, guns and troops.

“It had been reported that a couple of officers in a Jeep went from the beach straight to Rome without any opposition from the Germans and told the American commander that all was clear to Rome. But he decided to stay on the beach until re-enforcements arrived.

“This proved fatal as the Germans brought up heavy guns and re-enforcements of panzer units and long range guns which could reach the harbour entrance and cause a lot of damage to ships and personnel. If he had decided to go to Rome, all those troops would have been saved.

James Morley's Anzio Beachhead Commemorative Medal

“We were constantly going backwards and forwards to Naples or Tripoli for more supplies to land on the beach or in the town of Anzio. This was a bit scary as the German heavy guns could reach the harbour entrance.

“The British lost 30,000 lives and the Americans lost between 80,000 and 90,000 men.

“One evening I witnessed the worst sight any sailor would wish to see and it has remained with me ever since.

“HMS Spartan, a cruiser sent out from England to silence the troops with their guns at Anzio that were holding up the landing craft to supply the troops with their guns etc. An air raid warning was sounded on all ships. An aircraft was approaching, with a flying bomb. It got through our anti aircraft defences and he guided it down Spartan and it hit amidships. There was the most horrific explosion and the ship exploded like a huge firework. It became a fire ball with shells and bullets exploding all over the sky.

James Morley's Ushakov medal

“Within minutes Spartan was sinking and breaking up before our eyes and she was gone with more than 800 sailors on board and nothing remained.

“We searched all night for survivors but we found no-one, although I believe eight were picked up by other boats. I also witnessed the hospital ship St David being bombed and sunk, also two destroyers, HMS Jarvis and HMS Janus and three landing craft.”

James also spoke proudly of the his work in protecting the Russian Convoys, for which he has been awarded six medals from the Russian government.

He said: “I was promoted from ordinary seaman to able seaman whilst on the French Mistral. The Atlantic and Russian Convoys were required to bring vital supplies to England and the Russians.

James Morley's medals for his Royal Navy service in the Second World War

“The yanks were sending supplies over to us by the merchant navy and we had the task of protecting them against the submarines, bombers and surface raiders.

“On the Russian convoys we had to protect them, not only against the German fleet, which was based in Norway, but against the aircraft which were based in Norway.

“We had to put up with these hazards and the terrible weather round the North Cape, which could and did reach 30 degrees and more below zero. The waves of the Barrant Sea could reach 30ft.

“We could not use our guns or depth charges as everything outside was frozen solid.

“Through all this we had to get the supplies through to our own country and the Russians. The Russians have issued medals every 10 years for the effort we made for them.

“The two main ports in Russia were Murmansk and the Archangel and they were nearly always snow or ice bound.”

James Morley when he served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War

Another prominent event was the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944

He said: “For miles along the coast it was nothing but ships and tanks of all sizes who would be bombarding the coast prior to the landings.

“We lowered our small landing boats and we had to make our way to the assembly points off shore and then to make our way to the beach which had a code name of Sword Beach.

“From then onwards it became a shuttle service between ship to shore and when the tide was high enough, the larger landing craft could get onto the beach themselves and drop the tanks, guns and other personnel ashore.

“Any of the soldiers who were still on board had to get ashore as quickly as they could and do the dirty work as regards to the fighting against the German troops.

“On leaving the beach it was straight back to Southampton to reload with war materials and more troops. All in all, we made the crossing 54 times.”

One of James’s last duties in 1945 was to free British soldiers from Changi Jail, who had been held captive under appalling conditions,

Following this, they were called to repatriate families who needed to get back to Sumatra and Borneo. They then landed in Singapore to pick up Australian troops.

As they were met with Japanese troops, one of the Australians fell to the ground as he had been stabbed. Australians opened fire, leaving no Japanese survivors.

This was the last conflict James saw, as he then set sail to Morati in the Celebes, Indonesia, picking up more Australian troops to go home.

He said: “This was a new thing for us, to take troops home and not to take them to a fighting zone.

“We arrived in Brisbane to a great reception with crowds on the dock side, brass bands playing and the mayor and council to greet the homecoming soldiers.

James’s penultimate voyage was to Sydney, where he was offered a job as a painter and decorator but he declined due to family commitments.

It was from there that he set sail for home. He said: “I remember arriving at the station with my kitbag full of naval clothing, cigarettes, rolled plug tobacco and small bottles of saved run rations. Catching a tram from the station to Farrington Park, I got off the train at Waverley Park and walked to my house.

“I knocked on the door and was greeted by my wife and my son, who was then 18 months old.

“It was a strain for a while to get used to not taking orders from your superior officers. You now had to make your own decisions for once and hope you could adjust to civilian life once more.

“I have since been back to Anzio, with the aid of Hero’s Return and found most of the crews of the Jarvis, Spartan, Janus, St David are still on the sea bed off the shore at Anzio.

“I visited one of the many war grave cemeteries to find many memorial stones to some of the personnel from these ships.

“It brought back many sad memories. I have received eight of the recommended number of medals, including three medals from the Russian government for our efforts.”

Whilst James did witness many bloody battles and lost many friends, he did have some fun memories and revealed his family kept him strong. Whilst his ship was grounded in New York for repairs, he enjoyed a few days leave, where he saw Frank Sinatra and danced with Rita Hayworth.

He said: “We got tickets to a dance at the 55th Armoured Division Headquarters and this is when I had the privilege of dancing with two film actresses, Dorothy Lamour and the stunning redhead, Rita Hayworth.

“They were talking to each other and seemed to be at a loss of what to do. My friend dared me to ask them to dance. First I asked Rota and was made more than welcome by her for the invitation and after that I asked Dorothy and again was warmly welcomed. They were both interested in the war effort both in American and England, as well as my family and where I lived.

“It was a great privilege to have met and danced with them.”

One of his fondest memories was marrying his sweetheart, Annie, whilst on leave.

He said: “Before my call up I was engaged to Annie, who was my schoolgirl sweetheart from the age of 13 and 14. We were 18 and 19 and to be parted for the first time ever because of the war.

“It was during the 10 weeks away that we started to talk about getting married. We were married at St Matthews Church. The day was perfect, with the sun shining. As I only had seven days leave, we could not have a proper honeymoon, so we spent just one day at Blackpool.

“It was then back to the barracks at Plymouth and HMS Drake for duties, not knowing when I would see my wife again, or my family for that matter.”

James also recalled the moment he discovered Annie had given birth to his son, Jim, in 1943, whilst preparing for landings in Ferryville, Tunisia.

He said: “We were having a game of football between two of the landing ships when my friend Tony said our signaller was sending a message to us and being able to read semaphore got the news of my son’s birth.

“The game was stopped at once and we all went aboard for the wetting ceremony. On board we had seven ratings (navy personnel) who had been waiting for this kind of news and I was the last. I was put in my bunk to sleep it off.”

It was 14 months later when James was able to meet his son for the first - and only - time until after he had finished his service in 1945.

Annie sadly died in 1971, aged 50. James married Rosemary, now 80, in 1977.

James had lived in Blackburn, Longridge and Grimsargh before settling in Hoghton in 1986 and was a painter and decorator by trade.

For another story on a veteran who served in the navy during the Second World War click here

James Morley's Anzio Beachhead Commemorative Medal
James Morley's Ushakov medal
James Morley's medals for his Royal Navy service in the Second World War