HMLCT 980 was one of hundreds of similar vessels that saw action on the Normandy beaches in June 1944 and again at Walcheren in Holland in Nov 1944. It gives a good description of the vessel, its specifications and life onboard after the action was over.
Let there be built great ships which can cast upon a beach, in any weather, large numbers of the heaviest tanks. (Churchill)
LCT 980 was in service from 1943 to 1945. This is being written almost sixty years later and there is only the writer’s memory to serve as a reference source except where otherwise noted. Discussions have taken place with Tony Chapman of the LST & Landing Craft Association and Geoff Slee of this website in an attempt to reunite some of our old crew members and this article is in response to a request by both for information about our particular ship.
During the Second World War (WWII) many of these vessels were built in the United Kingdom and in the United States for the express purpose of landing tanks on enemy beaches such as those of Normandy in France. Many other landings had taken place in the Pacific and in the Mediterranean theatres where LCTs and many other types of landing craft played an important role. HMLCT 980’s operations were confined to the European theatre.
LCT 980 Specifications
LCT 980 was one of approximately 730 Mark IV vessels constructed in the UK. These landing craft had a hull length of 187 ft 3 in and a beam (width) of 38 ft 9 in and their displacement was 586 tons. The forward draught was 42 inches and they could carry a maximum load of 350 tons made up of five large tanks, seven medium tanks, or any other combination of military vehicles. (Photo is of 980 in the Channel on D-1. Click to enlarge.)
The vessel was operated by a crew of twelve including two officers. The engines were two Paxman Ricardo diesels, each driving a 21-inch propeller. They could drive the craft at eight knots over a range of 1,100 miles. Twin rudders were provided for steering. The armament on LCT 980 consisted of two 20 mm Oerliken guns, two Parachute and Cables (PACs) and two Fast Aerial Mines (FAMs). All of this was intended to be used defensively against aircraft attacks.
The crew’s quarters were in the very stern of the ship and access was via a vertical ladder. Living conditions were quite primitive. There was no refrigeration and cooking was done on a stove which was also our source of heat in the crew’s quarters. Just forward of the crew’s mess-deck, separated by a watertight door, was the engine room containing the two large diesel engines, and two separate hand cranked diesel engines to drive the electrical generators rated at 5 kilowatts and 15 kilowatts which provided all of the DC electrical power for the ship’s operation. Two very large 24 volts batteries were used for starting the main engines and these were kept charged by the generators on the diesels. They could be charged from the service generators if necessary.
Ahead of the engine room was the sparse accommodation for the troops that we carried. They had access to their accommodation from the rear end of the tank space. The basic toilet facilities were located in the same area. Immediately above the troop quarters and engine room was the bridge structure containing the officers’ cabin and the wheelhouse.
The rest of the ship ahead of the bridge, the "tank space", was really a big flotation tank consisting of many water-tight compartments which could be pumped dry to increase buoyancy, or they could be flooded when we were underway with no troops or vehicles. Along each side of the tank space were water lines with hydrants for fire fighting. The entire ship’s bottom was flat and this allowed good access to the beaches for unloading. There was no keel. The deck of the tank space was equipped with drainage holes, and large rings were in place for fastening the vehicles firmly to the deck so that they would stay in position during a rough passage at sea. Heavy steel chocks were used to fasten the vehicles to the anchoring rings.
At the bow (front) the landing ramp door is clearly visible (see photo above). It was a very heavy steel door, hinged at the bottom and raised and lowered by two hand-operated winches, one on either side of the forward superstructure. Each winch was operated by two men. During landings, the door would be lowered until it rested on the beach and the vehicles would drive off, frequently having to do so through water at the beach edge. On the stern deck an electrically operated capstan was used to lower and raise a kedge anchor. The kedge anchor was occasionally used as an anchor in harbour, but its main function was to assist and guide the ship as it backed off the beach. There were few amenities aboard and the men slept in hammocks. The officers had bunks in their "wardroom". They ate the same food as the crew. Drank different stuff though!
LCT 980's Service Record
LCT 980 was put into service at Alloa, Scotland in late 1943 and I joined her crew in January 1944 as the Wireman, (ship’s electrician). I had been sent from Southend to the north-east corner of Scotland on the north side of the Firth of Cromarty. Recalling the names of the entire crew is difficult after nearly sixty years but some names come to mind..
Skipper – Lt. Peter A. Gurnsey, RNZNVR, (Photo
We briefly carried a wireless operator, "Sparks", after D-Day. If anyone reading this has any information pertaining to this crew, I would dearly like to hear from you. In those days we were all kids. I was about to have my eighteenth birthday and most of the others were only slightly older. Our officers were a little older than we were, the oldest being Tait. He was 29.
After I joined 980, we proceeded down the east coast of England. Along the way, we noticed several "huge concrete blocks" sitting on beaches with no sign of activity around them. We had no idea what they were but after D-Day we learned that the blocks were hollow and they were towed down the east coast and across the English Channel to Normandy where they were sunk to form the breakwaters for two Mulberry Harbours. One section of harbour made it all the way and the other was lost at sea and had to be replaced by a "wall" of sunken ships. You can read about The Mulberry Harbours elsewhere on this website.
In the months following our arrival on the south coast we completed many exercises in training for the invasion of Europe, including a final exercise under "live fire" at "Bracklesham Bay". All of this was for the main event which, for us, started 5 June 1944 when we set out in convoy for the French coast and Sword Beach. Shortly after we left the south coast of England, we all knew for sure what was happening as we were handed the attached pamphlet over the signature of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force (see opposite - will enlarge to full size). The crossing was a rough one for the soldiers we were carrying and they had to fight the German defenders as soon as they left our landing craft ramp door.
We had crossed the channel in two lines astern in the 41st flotilla of "T" squadron. During the night crossing there was little activity to be seen at sea but as dawn broke we knew we were into the war for "real". We spread out in line abreast as we approached the beaches. The sea was covered with hundreds of vessels of all sizes and the noise reached unbelievable levels. The stench of cordite was everywhere. This was to be our first taste of action with the enemy. Huge guns at Le Havre were certainly able to fire at us but they had other distractions such as the battleship H.M.S Warspite and several others making the day unpleasant for the German gunners. Still, we met plenty of opposition from smaller defences right along the beaches that we were attacking.
The first lines of defence were the beach obstacles that Hitler had caused to be installed to protect "Fortress Europe" and which lined the miles of coast. These obstacles were mostly timbered structures buried in the sands with an explosive device, such as a small mine, facing the incoming landing craft. Smaller landing craft could manage to find a way through but it was almost impossible for larger vessels to get through without striking one. There was a double row of these. The first was at low water level and the second at high water level. (Photo; beach obstacles).
At the time of landing, the tide safely carried us over the first row but our skipper had to pick one in the second row to strike with our landing ramp door rather than the side of our ship. The explosion blew a large hole right in the centre of the ramp door and the military vehicles which had to disembark were able to safely straddle the hole as they left. On the way into the beach it was my job to drop the kedge anchor when so instructed from the bridge. As soon as we came to a stop, and the anchor dropped, I had to tear forward to the port side winch locker where I took the left handle and "Ches" took the right handle. The disembarkation of the troops was under the direction of our first lieutenant, Tait. It was his job to take over the left winch handle from me as soon as the landing door was above the horizontal position, and I was to dash back to the capstan to haul in the kedge anchor but we were already starting to move astern. Before I had reached the stern an explosion occurred off our starboard bow sending a large piece of shrapnel into the winch locker striking Tait in the front of his head and killing him instantly. Ches later told me that I missed that one by seconds. My Maker must have been watching out for me that day!
As we were moving astern we started to drift to port and we struck one of the obstacles in the first row, crippling our steering. Using our twin propellers, our skipper managed to get us off the beach and a couple of miles out to sea. At this time, our coxswain, Bill Brentnall, sewed Tait’s body, along with one of the heavy tank chocks, into a hammock and he was committed to the deep. With operating engines but no steering we had to get back to England. Other landing craft attempted to tow us, both alongside and astern, but in the rough seas, the ropes and steel hawsers were not long before they chafed through. Eventually we made it back near to Nab Tower off the Isle of Wight. We were then taken in tow by an Admiralty Tug and safely delivered to Southampton Harbour where we sat for a long period before repairs were made.
A newspaper article of the day reported on the experience of LCT 980.....
LONDON June 12th 1944. TANK FERRY. BEACH LANDINGS. LIVELY TASK – DOMINION OFFICERS WORKING UNDER FIRE
"With one or two exceptions it was the worst weather I have experienced at sea in a tank landing-craft," said Sub-Lieutenant A.P. Gurnsey of Christchurch, commenting on the Channel crossing to France on D day. He was one of very many New Zealand officers in landing craft of all types.
"My craft rolled like a barrel all the way," he said. "Our job was to get the tanks ashore at the extreme left flank of the British front and we ran into absolute hell. Our zero hour was 8.10 a.m. and by the time we arrived the Jerries had woken up and were ready to give us a warm reception. They sniped and used mortars both very unpleasant. In addition there were beach obstacles and mines fixed on tripods."
"There were 12 landing-craft in our flotilla. It was a great sight to see them, line abreast, going full speed for the beach. We avoided those obstacles we could, but it was a case of hit or miss."
"One of the mines blew a hole four foot wide in my ramp door, but we got all our tanks ashore. There were a lot of mortar bombs bursting everywhere. One which exploded on the beach covered me with mud and water. It covered my craft, too, which was most annoying, seeing it had recently been given a nice new coat of paint. In addition to mortar bombs, shells also were coming at us and my starboard bow was a mass of holes about as big as your fist, caused by shell splinters. Unfortunately my No.1 was killed."
"When all the tanks were ashore I rang for emergency full astern, for a quick getaway, but no sooner were we afloat than a mortar bomb landed astern. The explosion was so violent that it stopped both motors, which had to be started up again. Then the coxswain reported that the wheel was jammed amidships which meant that we had no rudders and we were only able to turn round by using the engines. It meant that we were sitting under fire for about ten minutes longer than we should have been. Fortunately everything went all right and we reached England under our own steam."
We were eventually taken into a huge dry dock along with several other similar landing craft - five or seven of us. In that massive dock, looking down from the top, those landing craft sure looked awfully small. Our rudders and our landing ramp door were repaired as were any other minor problems. While there a replacement first lieutenant join us. He was a very decent fellow. I am almost sure his name was Urquhart. If I have misspelled his name, I certainly apologize. After the repairs, we made another supply run back to France on July 9th. Standing at anchor off the coast we watched the massive daylight raid by the Royal Air Force on the city of Caen, about ten miles away. One of the Lancaster bombers crashed into the sea on his way back north and a small vessel rushed to the scene in search of survivors.
After our return to England we were reorganized into the 22nd flotilla of "N" Squadron. Some of our crew are shown in the picture opposite. This is from a very small photograph which I treasure. Front, L-R, Ches, Harry, Mac, Jake -- Back: "Sparks" and me, "Wires." The picture was taken on the Starboard bow superstructure, and over my shoulder you can see the markings on our bridge - N22 980.
"N" Squadron, we discovered, was established to deal with any other landings that might be required along the European coast on the Channel and the North Sea. It was not until we were ordered to Ostend, in Belgium, that we were sent into action again. This time it was Walcheren Island in the River Scheldt estuary where heavy gun emplacements in the hands of the Germans made it impossible for Allied shipping to use the port of Antwerp. It was to the Royal Marines commandoes that the task was assigned and it could not have been assigned to better fighting men.
We took them in with much smaller equipment than we had landed in Normandy and their efforts have been documented elsewhere. Suffice to say here that those brave men cleared that island so that ships could carry supplies for our troops in their rapid advance to the German homeland. By 8th November the river was open. The big guns at Westkappelle no longer posed a problem. Unlike on D-Day we had little support from the Navy’s General Service but what we had was good consisting of battleship HMS Warspite and the Monitors HMS Erebus and HMS Lord Roberts. The only other general service ship in the action was the "Flagship", HMS Kingsmill, a frigate. A heavy price was paid by many of our landing craft but LCT980 made it in and out safely. In fact we made another supply run with food, fresh water, medical supplies and ammunition on the 7th November. (Photo above; Royal Marine commandos aboard LCT980, 20 minutes prior to landing. Courtesy: Gaumont British News).
It is worthy of note that many LCTs were converted for other operations. For example, some became LCG which had one large gun mounted for beach bombardment etc. Others for which I had been trained were made into LCT(R)s which were rocket firing vessels with tremendous fire power. I saw one of these hit by a German shell at Walcheren and it disappeared off the sea in one mighty explosion. While we were only about three hundred yards away, and I actually watched it happening, to this day I cannot remember the sound of the explosion. Many of our vessels were completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
We returned to Ostend and received orders from "on high" to proceed back to the UK in a violent storm with force-8 winds blowing. We formed a small convoy escorted by a Harbour Defence Motor Launch (HDML). Being flat-bottomed we took a severe beating from the rough and angry sea as we smashed down from the top of one wave into the trough before the next wave. I was standing at the port rail near our bridge, casually looking down the side and I noticed a weld opening and closing under the stress. I notified our skipper who came down from the bridge to see it for himself. He signaled the HDML to say he was leaving the convoy and we went into Newhaven to wait out the storm. After assessing the damage, we gradually crawled, port to port, along the south coast to Portsmouth where the big shots evaluated our damage and decided we were ready to be scrapped. We received instructions to make our way back through the Channel as the weather allowed. We had seen more than one LCT broken in half at the main weld between the tank space and the stern section. With the stern section actually towing the bow section, it presented a very strange image!
We continued as directed and after we turned north from the Channel we received instructions to proceed into the River Thames and up stream to London. After passing through the Tower Bridge we were stopped and our mast was cut off. Without that mast we presented a "sad" sight. We continued on passing under London, Blackfriars, Waterloo and Victoria Bridges. We turned around, almost in front of the Houses of Parliament and came back under Victoria/Hungerford Bridge, where we tied up on the south side of the river, along with several other landing craft, beside a waste paper plant... property on which I understand the "Festival of Britain" site now stands. There was an abundance of shore leave available but at our own expense for traveling. The "buzz" was that we were 'parked' above an underground railway tunnel to act as "cushion" in the event of an incoming V2 missile thereby saving the underground tunnel. While we were never able to get confirmation of that, we did get sailing orders almost as soon as the Peenemunde rocket-launching site was destroyed and the V2 attacks stopped.
We did have some lighter moments too. One day some young punks, who had not been drafted into military service, decided to taunt us from up on the walkway of Hungerford Bridge by throwing refuse at us. With the skipper’s unofficial blessing, we installed two fire nozzles on the fire lines beside the tank space. While the bridge was clear of people we set the nozzles at the correct angle to put two water jets on the bridge. In addition we decided to draw the water from the bilges where there was an abundance of diesel fuel and other oils. We waited patiently. Eventually, the punks came back and taunted us again but this time we started the big pumps and put one jet to their south and the other to their north. There was no escape except to go through it and we had another fire hose waiting to follow them whichever way they went. Need I mention that they never came back again?
With our sailing orders to leave the River Thames, we made a pathetic sight, sans mast, going back under those famous bridges. There was not even a place from which to fly our White Ensign. They did not even have to open the Tower Bridge for our exit. We slowly made our way to King’s Lynn where HMLCT 980 was to be broken up, in early 1945, and our crew parted company to go on to other assignments. For us, an era had ended. We were still just kids but we had learned a lot together as we had contributed to the freedom of our people.
Our skipper, Lt Peter Gurnsey, returned to New Zealand with his Scottish bride from Catrine and he taught at Christ’s College in Christchurch. He died several years ago from a heart attack and was buried at sea. His widow now lives on the North Island. He was a fine man and a good captain of our ship.
Very recently, coxswain Bill Brentnall and I were reunited by telephone and he and I have a lot of old times to rehash when we manage to meet in person. Bill lives in the Midlands of England at Redditch. He continued to serve in the Navy until 1953.
"Wires" emigrated to Canada after the end of WWII, in 1947, married a Canadian girl in 1951, worked for Canadian General Electric for almost twenty years and then went into teaching electricity and electronics at a local high school here in Peterborough, Ontario. He retired in 1985. We believe Gerald "Jake" Fox lives in Edinburgh but a phone call to what I thought was his number brought silence after the first "hello" from that end. (Photo; LCT 532 landing amphibians at Walcheren --- Identical to LCT980. Courtesy of Pathe News).
Cyril "Ches" Cheshire originated from Leicester, to the best of my knowledge, and Harry Smith came from somewhere in Yorkshire. I have no clues to the whereabouts of Les, Bunts, Scouse, Mac, Sparks or Sub Lt. Urquhart. Most of these men would be 78 to 80 years old in 2004. If you have any knowledge of these fine fellows, I would certainly like to hear from you.
~ On this Website ~
~ On other websites ~ 1) Find out about the German coastal defences on this Walcheren website with a printable list of English translations of selected words. Many interesting photographs.
~ Books (Overlord) ~
Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen E. Ambrose - 1994. ISBN 0-671-67334-3
Six Armies in Normandy by John Keegan. 1982. ISBN 0 7126 5579 4.
The Second Front - World War II by Douglas Botting and the Editors of World Time Books. 1978. ISBN 0 8094 2498 3.
Short Sea Long War by John des S Winser. Published by World Ship Society, Gravesend, Kent. ISBN 0 9056 1786 ? - the story of 119 Cross Channel ships commandeered by the R.N. to fly the White Ensign.
~ Books (Walcheren) ~
They did what was asked of them, by Raymond Mitchell. Pub by Firebird Books, 1996. ISBN 1 85314 205 O History of 41 [Royal Marine] Commando - the book covers the period 1942-1946, but has a detailed chapter on 41's role in the invasion of Walcheren.
In the Shadow of Arnhem by Ken Tout. xiv, 242 pages and 42 illustrations. Published by Sutton Publishing Ltd., Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucester GL5 2BU England. ISBN 0-7509-2821-2
Ken's book is published in English. The subtitle is: The battle for the Lower Maas, September-November 1944. Chapters 7 and 8 are about province Zeeland and most about Walcheren and South Beveland. Chapter 7 begins at page 116 to page 133 and chapter 8 starts at page 134 and ends at page 155. Jan H Wigard, Walcheran, Holland.
Battle for Antwerp; the liberation of the city and the opening of the Scheldt by J L Moulton. 1944 (London, Ian Allan, 1978) ISBN 0-7110-0769-1.
Tug of War - by W Denis Whitaker DSO. Pub 1984. ISBN 0-8253-0257-9. This Canadian author saw service at Dieppe and Walcheren. The book contains good detailed information on the Walcheren Causeway fight.
Battalion of Heroes: the Calgary Highlanders in World War II by David Bercusson. Pub by The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation 1994. ISBN 0-9694616-1-5.
Cinderella Operation by General Rawling. Pub by Cassell Ltd
The Eighty Five Days - The Story of the Battle of the Scheldt by R W Thompson. Pub by Hutchinson of London.
From Omaha to the Scheldt - the story of 47 Royal Marine Commando by John Forfar. Pub by Tuchwell Press Dec 2001. ISBN 1 86232 149 3. 300 pages with around 150 B&W illustrations and maps. John Forfar was the Senior Medical Officer attached to 47 RM Commando. For his heroism at Walcheren he was awarded the Military Cross.
Operation Neptune by Commander Kenneth Edwards R.N. Published by Collins in 1946.The book covers the naval side of the North West Europe campaign including Commando actions such as Walcheren.
Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Pub in 1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. ISBN 0 356 08432 9
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson pub 1961 by Collins.
His Majesty's Landing Craft Tank HMLCT 980 was written by Denis W. Garrod, "Wires".
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