Petty Officer Leonard Officer
Leonard Abrams' story illustrates the contribution regular 'big ship' naval personnel could make on being drafted into Coastal Forces. As coxswain of an ML in the Mediterranean, he would have proved a valuable asset to the boat's young officers and crew, being an experienced hand they could have relied upon for leadership and support.

Leonard Abrams – My Dad

My father, Leonard Abrams would have been 100 years of age on 7 May 2022. To commemorate his life and my gratitude to the best father anyone could wish for I have decided to try to write his back story. It is probably also the back story of hundreds of British men and women who fought in WWII and who have fought to protect our freedom before and since. Thus his story, although personal to me is dedicated to all of those brave souls or as dad would say ‘better men than me, gungadin!’

According to the 1911 Census a child of 6 years of age named Florence Maud Abrams lived in a tenement in the East End of London with her mother, father, and two other sisters.

By the 1921 Census Florence was 16 years of age and working. However, my father was born out of wedlock on 7 May the following year, 1922, to Florence Abrams, paper bag stringer in the borough of St George in the East. He was born in the Mission of Hope in South Croydon, a home for unmarried mothers to have their children and for the children to be offered for adoption. The Mission of Hope, like many of its kind at this time in the UK offered a safe, albeit strict Christian home for woman away from the stigma of an unwanted or out of wedlock pregnancy.

There was little regulation on adoption until the 1970s so childless couples had the good fortune to find a suitable child. However, girls were more popular and boys not so.

There are no further records of Florence until her death in 1969. It seems she never married or had other children.

To the best of my knowledge, Dad stayed with the Mission of Hope attending a school in Purley until he was handed over in October 1936 at the age of 14 to Shaftesbury Homes and the Royal Naval Training ship, Arethusa. He remained there until November 1937 when he joined the Royal Navy as a boy rating. Life on the Arethusa suited him as he grew 2 inches in height, put on 25lbs in weight and added 2 and half inches to his chest!! He was awarded a prize in woodwork and his character was recorded as ‘very good’. He kept the skill for woodwork all his life as he would whittle objects from a piece of wood with an old bone handled knife and often made items like boxes – one of which I still own that he made for Mum.

In 1937, Dad found himself on HMS Ganges, the Boys Training establishment, Shotley then to HMS Iron Duke in Portsmouth. He was a ‘boy telegraphist’. His first ‘real’ ships were cruisers, HMS Effingham and HMS Hawkins. He was rated as Boy class, 1 and 2.

He then joined the HMS Resource, a fleet repair ship out in the Mediterranean before joining the HMS Warspite.

HMS Warspite

Dad was 17 years of age, enjoying naval life ‘floating around in the Med’. However, as Dad would say ‘Hitler decided to take a ‘walk through Poland and all hell broke loose!’ On September 1st 1939 World War 11 was declared.

The following is an extract from an article HMS Warspite - A Personal Account where the author Richard Rhys Jones talks about his own father’s time on HMS Warspite and he can be allowed to tell this part of the story.

Fred Jones with Leonard Abrams
I have since discovered a photograph of, who I believe is, the late Fred Jones aged 36 years standing next to my father (right) at 17 years!

…Fred Jones joined Warspite in May 1937 after the 24-year-old ship had undergone a full-scale re-fit in Portsmouth dockyard…Her crew numbered 1284, including Chief Petty Officer/Gunner’s Mate Fred Jones, who was captain of 'B' turret.

Leaving Portsmouth, HMS Warspite sailed for the Mediterranean to become the flagship of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound. She was based in Alexandria which, with war imminent, was to be the fleet’s base.

On 3 September 1939 Admiral Pound received a signal from the Admiralty that read: “Commence hostilities at once with Germany”, and Warspite was sent to escort 30 merchant ships in convoy across the Atlantic from Canada to Britain.

When the armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi was sunk by the Scharnhorst in the North Sea, Warspite joined a search for the German battle-cruiser, but she slipped away in the foggy Icelandic weather.

Her first major action was the Battle of Narvik, fought on 13 April 1940 to prevent the shipment of iron ore from the Norwegian port to Germany. Warspite and nine destroyers left Scapa Flow and entered Ofot Fiord to attack German ships and shore defences. The Swordfish aircraft was catapulted off, bombed and sank a German submarine at its moorings, and reported the position and strength of the defenders.

Although Warspite was bows-on to the targets and could fire only the four forward guns, nine German destroyers were sunk and the port facilities were badly damaged.

…The German High Command revealed later that a second submarine ordered to torpedo the British battleship ran aground whilst submerged and took no further part in the battle.

HMS Warspite in action
HMS Warspite in action ©IWM A 18492

After a further bombardment of Narvik port, Warspite sailed for Alexandria and arrived on 10 May 1940 to become the flagship of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham.

When Italy entered the war in June, Cunningham’s fleet carried out a sweep of the central Mediterranean, guarded convoys taking ammo and stores for Wavell’s campaign in Egypt and dodged high-level bombing by Italian aircraft.

Finding the battleship Giulio Cesare off the port of Calabria, Warspite scored a direct hit at a range of 26,000 yards. It was the longest-range gunnery hit on a moving target ever recorded and the Italian ship was put out of action for the rest of the war. The other Italian warships with her turned tail and sped away.

The “Grand Old Lady” next supported the Eighth Army by shelling enemy fortifications along the coast at Bardia, Fort Capuzzo and Tripoli.

By early 1941 the Nazis realised that the Italians no longer had the heart to fight and sent their own air and ground forces to the Mediterranean. But not before the Italian Navy was caught at night by Cunningham’s fleet off the Greek coast at Cape Matapan. During the action, three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk in a barrage lasting less than five minutes.

Chief Petty Officer Jones reports:
22:25:30 Enemy in sight on Warspite’s starboard side.
22:27:15 Turrets loaded, ready and on target.

22:27:55 We open fire with broadsides.

22:28:00 Hits secured on first cruiser, which bursts into flames along its full

22:28:40 Second broadside fired on same target, now sinking.
22:29:18 Third eight-gun broadside fires at next cruiser, which also bursts
 into flames.

On 21st April 1941 Warspite opened fire with her 15-inch and 8-inch batteries on the quays and ships in Tripoli harbour, causing great damage. She was then engaged in convoy work and survived heavy attacks by the Luftwaffe due to the terrific anti-aircraft barrage put up by the fleet – but she was not so lucky when covering the evacuation of British troops when the Germans attacked Crete.

Cunningham’s entire fleet was again bombed and machine-gunned by German planes, and Warspite was hit by a 500 lb armour-piercing bomb on the starboard side forward where C.P.O. Jones had been standing one minute before while he was repairing a jammed ack-ack gun.

The 4-inch guns and all the gunners were blown overboard and the explosion started a fire that put all four 6-inch guns out of action. One boiler-room had to be abandoned and the ship’s speed was considerably reduced.

An officer and 37 men were killed and 31 others wounded.

Richard Rhys Jones

Dad had shrapnel in his leg and was treated by medics at Alexandria.

Fred Jones was mentioned in dispatches “for gallant and meritorious action in the face of the enemy” and awarded oak leaves that were sewn on his medal ribbon.

My father was also mentioned in dispatches in 1944 and was also awarded the oak leaves which were on his medal ribbons. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. An award of which he was so very proud. However, more about this award later….

The photo shows Dad standing on the left of one of HMS Warspite’s lifeboats.

Warspite limped back to Alexandria and was patched up before sailing to have major repairs done in USA. Many crew moved on to serve on to serve on other ships. My dad joined HMS Resolution, as did CPO Fred Jones. They both served on HMS Resolution until October 1941 until they sailed into Portsmouth where Dad joined the Naval Barracks of HMS Victory.

Dad then moved to HMS St Vincent, another training establishment followed by HMS Vernon, Torpedo School. He was now an Able Seaman.

On 9 April 1942 Dad, with the rating of leading seaman, joined the destroyer, HMS Rotherham.

Rotherham, a destroyer was commissioned for service in August 1942. After a period of training at Scapa Flow, she was assigned to serve in the South Atlantic, operating as convoy escort between Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Cape Town and Durban, South Africa for the rest of the year. The destroyers parted company with the convoy to return to Durban where they arrived in the morning of July 3rd. During and after the convoy Dad became part of the Coastal Forces.

Image below: HMS Warspite entering harbour at Valletta, Malta, with a banner commemorating her participation in the Battle of Narvik

Coastal Forces

Coastal Forces had been formed in late 1940 to defend coastal convoys and attack those of the enemy using torpedo boats, motor gunboats and motor launches. From June 1943 he was assigned to the Naval Base HMS Mosquito (a.k.a Nile) based in Alexandria, Haifa, Beirut, Bhenghazi and Port Said. They were operating on some extremely dangerous missions mostly at night on Harbour Defence Motor Launches and Motor Torpedo Boats. Two of mention are HML 1158 and MTB 2015 (formerly MTB 515). He was rated Coastal Forces Coxswain.

HDML 1158 formed part of the 113th ML Flotilla, which along with others is noted in the Admiralty Red List for December 1944 as being operated and administered by Coastal Forces Mediterranean. Certain of the MLs in the Mediterranean intersected with the work of Special Forces and the like, launching raids, or helping to liberate the various occupied islands of the Aegean.

The crew of HDML 1158

It is now only just being recognised the contribution the crews of the Light Coastal Forces brought to the war however the two awards earned by Dad go some way to illustrating the bravery of men him. His first award of Mention in Dispatches was in relation to a serious fire onboard one of the boats in harbour at Beirut.

Petty Officer Leonard ABRAMS Service No: P/JX 155834 HDML 1158 Mention in Despatches: For brave service in firefighting when one of H.M. Motor Launches caught fire.

London Gazette: 19th December 1944

A full account of the incident is provided by the citation—also published in the London Gazette—for the posthumous award of the Albert Medal, for saving life at sea, to Lieutenant Douglas Mortimer Connor RNVR on ML 387.

On 5th March, 1944, fire broke out in the starboard corner of the engine room of one of H.M. Motor Launches at Beirut. An explosion occurred immediately afterwards and the fire spread rapidly throughout the ship. Lieutenant Connor straightway organised all the fire-fighting gear on board and sent a runner to inform Coastal Forces base and Naval Base so that the civilian and Naval fire-fighting organisation might be got into action as soon as possible. The heat from the burning ship was intense and it was well known that with the burning high octane petrol the ship was likely to blow up at any moment. The burning ship was a grave menace to other shipping berthed alongside and Lieutenant Connor made valiant efforts to make fast a tow line so that she could be towed out of the port. So great was the heat, however, that the tow line parted. At about 19.15 a third and more violent explosion occurred in which Lieutenant Connor lost his life. Lieutenant Connor well knew the risks involved, but sacrificed his life in an endeavour to prevent the spread of the fire which might well have become a major conflagration involving the loss of many lives.

London Gazette: 19th December 1944

The second award that my father was so proud of, was the Distinguished Service Medal.

Petty Officer Leonard ABRAMS Service No: P/JX 155834 HDML 1158 Distinguished Service Medal For distinguished service, efficiency and zeal whilst serving in…Light Coastal Forces, in the clearance of the Aegean and the relief of Greece during the period 1944-1945.

London Gazette: 14th August 1945
The letter notifying my father of his DSM and the date of publication in the London Gazette

No person’s story would be complete without a story of shipmates – the people that the armed forces fought shoulder to shoulder with for months on end and became ‘family’. One such friendship was Ken Bevis, Petty Officer P/JX154966. From what I understand they had gone through training together and were together until, I believe, 1943. Ken sent dad a letter dated 22 April 1944 which found him at HMS Mosquito. The letter was a newsy one asking about Dad’s girlfriend at the time, Eve and telling him he was up at Anzio and how he missed being with his ‘partner in crime’ and ‘Us Special Forces blokes’. The letter with a photo enclosed was his last and Dad received it after Ken had been killed. He was killed at the Elba Landings on 17 June 1944 and is buried at Bolsena War Cemetery, Italy. He was mentioned in Dispatches posthumously — he was 22 years of age.

Ken Bevis who was killed during the landings on Elba — Operation Brassard

Dad served with Coastal Forces on Motor Torpedo Boats and Motor Launches until March 1945 when he returned to the Coastal Forces base, HMS Hornet, at Gosport.

Service Record: The complete service record of Petty Officer Leonard Abrams
Ship Dates Rating Details
Ganges08.11.37–04.08.38Boy TelegraphistTraining Establishment at Shotley (Boy Telegraphist)
Effingham01.10.38–28.10.38––.––A Cruiser which was part of the Reserve Fleet at Portsmouth (1932–1939) and lost May 1940.
Dunedin (Hawkins)29.10.38–02.02.39––.––Dunedin a Cruiser lost in the South Atlantic in November 1941 (torpedoed). Hawkins a Cruiser in reserve at Portsmouth which underwent modernisation there during 1939. Most likely assigned to Dunedin with his accounts held by Hawkins.
Resource03.02.39–02.05.39––.––Fleet Repair Ship based in the Mediterranean
Warspite03.05.39–22.08.41Ordinary SeamanBattleship (Artic Star?)
Resolution22.08.41–13.10.41Able SeamanBattleship – Undergoing refit in USA and passage back to the UK during timeframe in question Paid off (retired) and used as Stoker Training School, Southampton, by 1943
Victory14.10.41–23.01.42––.––Portsmouth Main Barracks
St Vincent24.01.42–20.03.42––.––Forton Barracks, Gosport
Vernon21.03.42–16.08.42Acting Leading SeamanTorpedo & Mining Establishment at Gosport, Portsmouth. Training School based in Roedean School, Brighton during the given timeframe.
Victory III (Rotherham)17.08.42–30.09.42––.––Victory III was Portsmouth Barracks. Rotherham was a Rotherham Class Destroyer commissioned March 1942.
Yana ?? (Rotherham01.10.42–03.06.43––.––HMS Rotherham had arrived at Durban on 26th May 1943. Rotherham was transferred to the Indian Fleet at Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at this point, so it is either something in South Africa, or possible Ceylon ahead of its transfer, but I can’t find a match
Oseagan ??04.06.43–08.08.43––.––Possibly in connection with South Africa, or with a period of passage while transferring from South Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nile (Mosquito)09.08.43–16.03.45Acting Petty OfficerMosquito was a Coastal Forces base at Alexandria, with eventual offshoots at Haifa, Beirut, Benghazi & Port Said
Hornet17.03.45–18.03.47Temporary Petty Officer Q.M. 2Gosport, Coastal Forces Main Base. Q.M.2 Gunnery proficiency (Oerlikon, Vickers etc)
Victory19.03.47–02.04.48Petty OfficerPortsmouth main barracks
Hornet03.04.48–29.10.48––.––Main Coastal Forces base at Gosport, Portsmouth
Victory30.10.48–01.11.48––.––Portsmouth main barracks
Victory23.11.48–18.01.49––.––Portsmouth main barracks
Maria? (Pembroke II)19.01.49–02.11.49––.––Chatham main barracks
Victory03.11.48–05.12.49––.––Portsmouth main barracks
Excellent (ML 2223)06.12.49–12.07.50––.––Gunnery School, Whale Island, Portsmouth. ML 2223 was formerly ML 223, and then became ML 6002
Gamecock 13.07.50–09.09.51––.––Bramcote, Nuneaton, Royal Naval Air Service Air Mechanic Training School
Zodiac (Osprey) 10.09.51–23.11.52––.––Zodiac was a Zambesi Class Destroyer commissioned March 1944. Osprey was the Torpedo Research & Development base at Portland
Zodiac (Victory IV)24.11.52–26.01.53––.––Zodiac, Portsmouth
Zodiac (Bellerophon)27.01.53–10.04.53––.––Reserve Fleet base at Portsmouth
Victory11.04.53–22.09.53––.––Portsmouth Barracks
Ricasoli ? (Phoenae)23.09.53–26.02.55––.––Ricasoli was a barracks at Malta
Victory27.02.55–06.05.55––.––Portsmouth Barracks

Post-War Naval Career

The day after his 23rd birthday on 8 May the war in Europe ended – VE Day. May 9th commemorates the surrender of Russia.

Dad was a Petty Officer by this time and was at Haslar until March 1947. He served at HMS Hornet, HMS Bruce, and HMS Victory

A quote from an RN Forum: I met an RN-Coastal Forces Veteran way back who had been an engine room throttle jockey on similar craft. The engine room often swimming with petrol due to vibrations at pipe joints. He survived one hit/explosion/sinking but his kid brother wasn’t so lucky. He went on to become a Lion Tamer. Truly brave. The Battle of the Narrow Seas by Peter Scott is a first-hand account of the Coastal Forces private and very vicious war.

Whilst based at HMS Victory in Portsmouth Dad met Mum. She was from Dungarvan, County Waterford in Southern Ireland and was a nurse at Queen Alexander Hospital in Portsmouth. I do not know what happened to Eve, his previously mentioned girl-friend, but I do know I am glad he met mum! She was Mary Murray (known by her family as Alice).

They fell in love and married at St Josephs Church in Copnor, Portsmouth on 29 July 1950. They spent their honeymoon in Jersey.

They lived in a flat in Southsea, Dad was stationed for a while in Bramcote and Mum would visit him when she could.

He was then posted to HMS Zodiac, said to be his favourite ship until April 1953.

HMS Relentless
HMS Zodiac (© IWM A 30685)

My brother was born in January 1953. In August 1953 Dad was posted to Malta and Mum and Bernard joined him there. He was stationed at HMS Ricasoli, Phoenecia. Mum, Dad and Bernard lived in Kalkara – a place where mum said were some of their most happy and carefree days. Dad was a Chief Petty Officer and they had a wonderful time there. I visited Malta with Mum many years later the beautiful house and island that gave such happy times. (They named their house in Southampton ‘Kalkara’ after those days).

Mum, Dad and Bernard returned to UK in 1955. Dad, after a further posting back at HMS Victory was transferred to the Royal Naval Emergency Reserve (Special List) and left the regulars to join ‘civvy street’. He worked for the GPO and was the voice of the ‘Speaking Clock’ at one point! I was born in Southsea, their first permanent home in September 1956. Dad loved his life in the Royal Naval and had found a family and comrade ship that civilian life never quite gave.

However, he and Mum were in love and happy. They were the best parents who gave us, as Dad would say everything he never had as a child — we were 'his legacy to this life’. I had the best childhood holidaying in Hayling Island in a caravan, flying to the Channel Islands, spending long summers in Ireland with our aunts, uncles and cousins. Dad taught us to swim in the sea and to love and respect it as he did.

Dad got promoted in 1963 and we moved to Southampton to a house with a garden complete with an air raid shelter!! They loved the house so much and so did we — our own bedrooms, a large garden and still not too far from the sea.

Dad developed Rheumatoid arthritis which they said was caused from blood poisoning after shrapnel wounds he suffered on HMS Warspite. We will never know. But he was often in a lot of pain with his joints but never complained and offered himself and his love to us all completely. He did not suffer fools but offered the advice of a sage that I still miss to this day.

Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Phillip disembarking at Malta
The scene in Valletta Harbour for the Queen's visit
Chief Petty Officer Leonard Abrams
Climbing the rigging in Valletta Harbour, Malta
At the naval motoring school on Malta
HMS Ricasoli at Malta
Crew of HMS Ricasoli at Malta at sea

Coastal Forces Veterans Association

Fast forward to 1974…I had passed my driving test and Dad had heard a radio broadcast about the Coastal Forces Veterans Association. There meeting was to be held in Lake Road, Portsmouth. He asked me to drive as he knew there might be a drink or two involved. He was very excited to meet ‘old shipmates’.

The Early Days of the Coastal Forces Veterans Association by Peter Bickmore (edited)

"To foster the spirit of comradeship which existed in both Wars. Times may change and we with them but friendship changes never."

These were the challenges set before us by our founder C.P.O. Coxswain Gordon Stevens DSM in the formation of the Coastal Forces Veterans Association. With the help of local Radio and Newspapers Gordon Stevens and 16 interested locals from the Portsmouth area met in the Florence Hotel Southsea on April 19th 1974 the reunion of shipmates who served in Light Coastal Forces was launched, a voyage that was to change the lives of many and create interest around the world where Coastal Forces were based during WW2.

It was in May 1974 when on the Saturday Radio 2 Charlie Chester Programme he announced that a group of matelots in the Portsmouth area were seeking sailors who served in Little Ships during the war to form an association “to swap a few yarns” and “ah yes! I was there”. The first meeting took place on July 7th at the Royal Navy Club Lake Road Portsmouth. The inaugural meeting that took place on September 29th in the Victory Club at H.M.S. Nelson Portsmouth was the day that the Coastal Forces Veterans Association set sail, ensuring for the next 33 years shipmates would be re-united and new shipmates and families would bond together in that same spirit of comradeship.

Memories of that first meeting

After some 30 years since we picked up our demob suits, raincoat and trilby hats, along with our War Gratuity and Post War Credit of Wages statement, we approached this meeting with some apprehension, so armed with our precious black and white photographs, our memories of Portsmouth somehow prepared us for what was to become the beginning of a new and nostalgic chapter in our life. With the committee now in place and a voluntary subscription of £1 per year. Recruitment at that stage had been very good with a coach party from Birmingham, and groups from London, Ramsgate, Cornwall and East Anglia areas there to be the pioneers in the formation of Branches of the Association that ended with 20 throughout the Country.

Looking back on those 33 years of the Coastal Forces Veterans Association the timing of its inception in 1974 was fitting, coming some 30 years after the ending of WW2 when at that time, we wanted to leave it all behind, revive our family life and to cope with the re-adjustments that befell us including work finance and for many of us marriage and the setting up of a home and Family. Come 1974 with the family grown up and a little more cash in our back pocket the time was right to resume and savour those times of comradeship again.’

Peter Bickmore Coastal Forces Veterans Association

That first meeting shaped something that meant something so much to my Dad and so many other men – that connection of memory, of shared experience, of an understanding of the loss…

Leonard Abrams, former Chairman of the Naval Association at HMS Wessex
Leonard Abrams, who was a member of the Coastal Forces Veterans Association

Royal Naval Association

For Dad it was the start of another journey and from there he joined the Royal Naval Association and in 1980 he was unanimously voted in as Chairman of the RNA at HMS Wessex. He had suffered his first heart attack late in 1978 and the RNA helped Dad get his life back on track with the help and love of us but mainly Mum. They adored one another - she was his greatest supporter and he hers.

Dad served the RNA as their chairman through many ceremonies and dinners with either myself or mum accompanying him when the opportunity arose. We were so proud and he stood so tall (in my eyes), so stoic ‘passing the port’ or addressing the assembled ‘shipmates’. He wore his medals — Distinguished Service Medal, 1939/45 star, Atlantic Star, Africa star, Italy Star, War medal and oak leaf so proudly. I also find that since 2013 there is an Artic Star that Dad would have been able to wear. This was awarded, albeit belatedly, to all those involved in the Artic Convoys and exploits on the HMS Warspite would have qualified him for that award. He continues, to this day, to make me so very proud.

Leonard Abrams attending a Naval Association meeting
Leonard Abrams, former Chairman of the Naval Association at HMS Wessex

When Dad passed away on 7 November 1985 the Royal Naval Association, the Burma Star Association, the Coastal Forces Veterans Association sent condolence. He was 63 years of age. My Dad was so sadly missed by all he had ever met. As the date was a few days before Remembrance Sunday I was so honoured to see black pennants on the Associations flags and the veterans wore armbands to mark his passing. The best complement I was ever paid was on that day. A gentleman asked me if I was Len Abrams’ daughter – I had to be, he said, you are so like him. I love that and it made me very sad but so privileged.

My mum lived her life alone from that day never wanting to find another companion as she loved my dad always. However, she lived a full live continuing nursing in many ways including years of generous service to the Red Cross. She had many friends and holidayed often visiting myself here in Cyprus, visiting her family in Ireland, cruises with friends, and spending time with my brother and his family. She passed away in 2017, aged 93, after a battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

I have discovered so many things whilst writing my dad’s back story, many with grateful thanks to Kevin of Coastal Forces Veteran’s web site.

There are also so many bits of this story ‘missing’ but not missing just stored in my heart and the hearts of others. So, in conclusion of this short story of my Dad I close as I began in grateful thanks to ALL the men and women who served and continue to serve, who gave their lives to change ours. I celebrate my Dad’s 100th birthday with so much love. I will love you, always xxx

Image below: A cartoon drawing of ML 6002, a Fairmile'B' Motor Launch of Coastal Forces, with the faces of the crew attached. The artwork is an illustration of the great sense of camraderie shared by the crews of these 'little ships'.
Crew of ML 6002