USS Battleaxe/HMS Eastway
Back to Asbury Park was an anti-climax, but inevitable. Our contingent was soon entrained again and this time South through Washington and on to Chesapeake Bay, and to Newport News, Virginia in the deep South of the USA. In a large harbour, at the jetty we had arrived at, there was a ship tied up which, with no exaggeration, came as a surprise to all of us, at last the Battleaxe.
At first the 11,000 ton grey ship looked like two ships linked together. Well in reality that's what she was, with a huge dock in between, and a stern gate, and the forepart joined up with a bridge like any other warship. She had a 4.5-inch gun, and down each side of the dock a row of Oberliken (anti-aircraft) guns. But the most noticeable aspect was the two, one either side, sloping funnels. The dock was about 400 feet long, 40 feet wide, and about 30 feet deep. It could take a destroyer in, apart from the superstructure. We learned that below each of the port and starboard decks were a number of large square sealed metal tanks, which when filled with water by electric pumps, their added weight would sink the ship into the water at predetermined depths. And of course by pumping water out the ship would be brought back to the original level.
HMS Eastway: Casa Grande Class Dock Landing Ship
By opening or closing the water tight stern gate the dock could be filled or emptied, allowing LCT's or LCI's or other vessels to enter, and then dry docked and vice versa. The main functional idea of all this was to be able to carry out repairs to damaged landing craft at invasion duties.
The inventor was a Scotsman, but lack of space in overworked British shipyards resulted in the first four being built in USA, their names given as HMS Eastway, Westway, Northway, and Southway. Each ship had two engine rooms independent of each other but connected by a 'cat walk' which went right around the top of the dock. There were 12 electrical officers to operate and maintain the exceptional number of equipment circuits needed. On the ship there were ample cabins and mess decks to accommodate crews of those ships being repaired in dock.
We were shown our quarters. A 12- bunk mess, two decks below the water line with showers, lockers, heads, dining space, all spick and span. It was aptly known as the 'Artisans Mess'. The occupants to start with were; Petty Officer Writer (Pincher Martin), Petty Officer Joiner (Frank Rumney), Petty Officer Storekeeper (Jock Mullen), Petty Officer Shipwright (John Coan), Petty Officer Plumber (Ted Ingleton), a Petty Officer Butcher and Baker, myself, Petty Officer Radio Mechanic, a Chief Cook and three Gunnery Petty Officers (from the renowned Whale Island), Clack, Woollaston, and 'Ginger', and of course a Mess man (Able Seaman Henshaw) to look after our needs, cleaning, fetching our meals, making tea etc. The future looked very promising indeed.
Behind the bridge, a deck lower, was the open flag deck about 50 feet square, at the stern end of which was the mat with the rotating radar aerial (my pigeon) and below the radar office and flag office. Exploring this new ship further was most interesting, especially when I came across a cabin marked 'Barbers Shop'. This indeed was a most welcome rarity, because it was always difficult on smaller ships to get one's hair cut. So I promptly went in and found that it was immaculately fitted out with a large swivel chair, gleaming white washbasin and mirror, and to complete this grand sight, a seaman barber resplendent in white coat with scissors and comb at the ready. "Haircut sir?" he asked, and I settled in the chair to enjoy this tonsorial treat.
He quickly began to dress (?) my hair, he proceeded to scrape, cut and pull at my hair, it was ten minutes of sheer torture, and when he had finished (I didn't dare look in the mirror) I was so relieved to be out of his 'clutches' that I said on leaving the 'Inquisition', "Were you a barber in civvy street before call up?" "Me? No." he replied proudly, "I was a steeple jack!".
The next day the mystery of the name Battleaxe was delightfully solved. All the ship's company were gathered together on the flag deck and a USA Archbishop of their Church came aboard in full robes and addressed us all. He told us that when the ship was originally built for the US Navy her name was to be USS Battleaxe but on transfer to the Royal Navy, had its new name HMS Eastway. He then conducted a short service in which he 'christened' the ship with our name, and blessed her, and all who sailed in her!