The Landing Craft Tank (LCT) was an amphibious assault craft designed solely to land tanks on beaches. At the insistence of the Prime Minister Winston Churchill it was developed in mid-1940 by the Royal Navy. The first LCT Mark 1 was launched in November 1940.
Several versions followed, with the most numerous Mark 4 built specifically for use in the English Channel on Operation Neptune, the code name for the naval phase of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in June 1944. With a displacement of 586 tons and powered by two 460 hp Paxman diesels, the Mark 4 could carry nine M4 Sherman or six Churchill tanks.
Eight hundred and sixty-five Mark 4 LCTs were built and gave excellent service, though construction was hurried and insubstantial with all of these vessels assembled from prefabricated kits in riverside yards; a number broke their backs in heavy seas or when landing.
I mention all this because my father, Sub Lieutenant Henry Smith RN served as First Officer on LCT 770, a Mark 4 version built by the Teesside Engineering & Bridge Company of Middlesborough and launched on 30 July 1943. In June 1944 at the age of only 19 years he landed this craft on the beaches of Normandy on D Day and over the following weeks. Like most of his generation he spoke little of his wartime adventures and I regret not learning more from him whilst he was still alive. But he wrote almost daily to my mother throughout 1944 and 1945; my task this winter is to collate these precious letters and try to piece together the full story of his time at arms. Watch this space…
The last known survivor of all these craft is LCT 7074, a Mark 3 lovingly restored and now a permanent display at Portsmouth’s D-Day Story museum. I’ve now visited this exhibit and it was a much, much bigger ship than I’d ever expected.
The restored LCT 7074 – a much bigger ship than I’d expected
I was joined by my eldest son Peter and his son Lonan – the three subsequent male generations of the Smith dynasty. It proved a surprisingly moving day that put my father’s service and his bravery starkly into context.
Three subsequent generations on deck – me, Peter and little Lonan
“Big tank, daddy!” – a picture of innocence
View from the Wheelhouse
Dad did mention a few things that I can now relate to much more clearly. I have seen the small officer wardroom where he lived and slept and sat to pen his letters to my mum. He taught me to cook the most delicious scrambled eggs and porridge “…because we had only the tiniest galley and it was the only scran we could really muster. The trick is to cook them slowly and stir all the time…”. I’ve seen the dark and airless engine room where the skipper, he and the crew hunkered down for a whole day on the Normandy beaches “…when the tide went out and left us stranded. We sat around the engines, at least that way we each had some armour to our backs.” The two heads, or toilets, shared by the 10 crew and up to 50 soldiers as they crossed the Channel in heavy seas. The vulnerable wheelhouse, where he commanded the ship during his watches; he spoke of the occasion when, dog tired after three days non-stop combat, he fell asleep halfway back to Portsmouth in the
middle of the crowded sea lanes and his helmsman gently woke him – a lad even younger than him, two terrified teenagers staring into the dark and the danger, bonded together as comrades in arms.
The Wardroom where my father lived and slept
The tiny Galley for the crew of 10
For the first time I could smell and see and hear some of the fear and squalor my father and his shipmates must have endured – the deafening noise of battle; the heaving deck; the cold; the wet; the hunger; the dirt; the vomit and more; and then death all around as their little ship sailed them straight towards danger. It must have been simply awful.
My visit allows me to imagine more clearly those same conditions being faced today as the war rages in Ukraine and my heart goes out to those poor soldiers on both sides of this latest pointless conflict. May right once again prevail and may peace come quickly.
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Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.