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 ~ US  LANDING CRAFT TANK (ROCKET) 439 ~ 

USLCT(R) 439

This is an account of WW2 United States Landing Craft (Rocket) 439 - USLCT(R) 439. This specialized landing craft carried 2896 5" x 4' explosive rockets (127mm x 1.2m) designed to soften up enemy coastal defensive positions immediately prior to the landing of the main Allied invasion force. The Commanding officer was Lieutenant (jg) Elmer H Mahlin. 2nd in Command was Ensign George F. Fortune the author of this article. (US Spelling used on this page).

Training Stateside

Training UK Preparation for D-Day D-Day
Post Normandy Workplace and Home Further Reading Acknowledgements

Training Stateside

On leaving college George Fortune volunteered for service in the United States Navy. In 1942, at the age of 22, he attended Midshipman School at Furnald Hall, Columbia University, New York City for three and a half months. Furnald Hall was one of 3 halls at the University used by the US Navy. Students stayed weekends with local people by invitation enjoying tea dances and excursions to places of interest.

He graduated in the top 15% of the 1000 students on the course and, as such, was allowed to choose his first posting to Section Base on Treasure Island which was close by the world famous San Francisco bridge and to his home! For 6 months he learned ship handling including 3 months at sea on Errol Flynn's sailboat "Zaca"….700 miles offshore. As the new ensign aboard George undertook the full range of duties of deck crew members including ship handling and climbing up the rigging to the top of the mast !

With sea skills behind him he was posted to Miami to learn the duties of radio officer. It was a very hot journey and en route he was taken to a hospital in Chicago for a fever check-up (mumps) and somehow ended up in Boston to learn about the duties of a radio officer and the operation of Rocket ships! However, by July 1943 he found himself in Miami at the Subchaser Training Center and after 3 month's practice in radio work and ship handling he reported to the Gunfire Support Craft Group in Boston, Maine for training in the use of various guns.

Training UK

During Thanksgiving week of 1943 (late November) he sailed to Scotland on the Queen Elizabeth. Because of her high cruising speed of around 33 mph (53kph) she traveled alone usually carrying 20,000 soldiers and sailors. US Navy officers stood watch at night. Their primary purpose was to enforce blackout regulations by guarding against any stray light. All parts of the ship were visited during a typical watch including the con, engine room and the occasional visit with the Captain. Lots of men succumbed to sea sickness and remained below deck.

On arrival in Scotland he was stationed at Roseneath Castle on the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow. Roseneath was commissioned on 15th April 1942 and named HMS Louisburg. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor and direct American involvement in the war, plans for the base were changed. It was paid off on 3/8/42 by the Royal Navy and handed over to US control as an amphibious training centre. It was used during preparations for the landings in French North Africa in November 1942. By 1943, following the success of the North Africa landings, Roseneath returned once more to British control as HMS Roseneath. However, sections of the base were retained by the US Navy for a 'Seabee' maintenance force and berthing/supply facilities for the depot ship USS Beaver and the boats of US Navy Submarine Squadron 50.

The officers and men lived in Quonset huts (similar to Nissan huts) each accommodating 20 men or so. Officers had one hut to themselves and the crews occupied the remainder. They slept on bunks with blankets and sheets and ate in a mess hall where, once more, officers and crew were separated. The accommodation was comfortable and clean though somewhat damp from condensation and "the food was basic and typically English, with only cabbage, potatoes, and brussel sprouts for vegetables, mutton for meat, no milk except canned and dessert rarely. Pretty grim! It was so sparse and military there; even the hard toilet paper had 'government issue' stamped on each sheet!"

Roseneath Castle was quite isolated so the ship's crews mostly stayed on the base. Officers were permitted to venture outside the base officially for the purposes of sightseeing. However, it was not always the case as George recalls; "together with a couple of crew members we took small boat trips from our base at Roseneath Castle to call on our big ships anchored in the area. We bummed anything that we could beg, borrow or beg louder for. The best was an ice cream maker that we later used to great effect in the heat of North Africa at Bizerte! We let other rocket craft use our freezer if they gave us some ice cream in return. It was in use constantly! I still have a table cloth that was given to me by a US tanker crew in Scotland."

While waiting for the delivery of 12 new LCT(R)s George remembers, "with Elmer's (my captain's) permission and the cooperation of the rest of the captains, I organized a training program for the deck crews of all 12 ships. Subjects included ship and line handling procedures for leaving and entering port, docking, the Command structure, daily watches, helmsman duties, signals and general seamanship. The specialized nature of the work of the Engine room personnel excluded them from the training. All available officers helped with the training which was undertaken in a positive atmosphere and good spirits. The  general consensus was that all had greatly benefited from the training." [Photo; Crew of LCT(R) 439. Officers 2nd row right George Fortune with left arm on hip and Elmer Mahlin].

Preparations for D-Day

The waiting was over when in March of 1944 the skipper, Elmer Mahlin, George and the crew picked up British rocket ship LCT(R) 439 at Troon in the River Clyde estuary on the west coast of southern Scotland. Although not known at the time there was only to be around 10 weeks to prepare the craft and crew for the D Day landings on June 6th 1944. The 500 mile journey to the south coast of England provided an excellent opportunity to break in the new 18 man crew. No problems were experienced with the craft.

As they prepared for the task ahead George recalls, "by spring of 1944 we were berthed about a mile up the River Dart with the commanding officer's quarters and offices in the home of Agatha Christie above us. One day after maneuvers and practicing at low tide we went aground near the sand bar Tennyson referred to in his poem “Crossing the Bar” (from Southampton to the Isle of Wight). In the process we damaged the craft's screws.  Replacements were arranged through our base and fitted by our men."

George also attended the Radar School at Hayling Island in Southern England for a week to learn the British Blind bombing techniques and stayed overnight in London and twice experienced the German bombing of the city.

Not all the preparations for the invasion passed without incident as George explains, "We hit a Personnel Carrier (PC) in the fog on our way back to the River Dart after taking a full load of rockets aboard from stores in Portsmouth. The PC had the watch leading our convoy of about 10 or 12 small craft. We were last in line and out of nowhere his craft loomed out of the fog heading straight for us! A collision was unavoidable. Its commanding officer was relatively inexperienced but in mitigation it was a dark and foggy day. But for the accident his vessel would have marked the 4000 yard buoy off Utah beach on D Day.

Because the fog was very thick one of our crew was manning the sound powered telephone on the bow to give us some extra warning of approaching craft. On sight of the PC he instinctively jumped down an open hatch and broke his leg. I hollered at him to 'get the hell out of there!' just before we hit.  I still remember the crew trying to get the life rafts into the water because they thought we were sinking. The skipper and I hollered at them to get back to their stations. Our bow being horizontal cut through the PC's bow like knife through soft butter. We came to a halt at the position of their 3" 50  caliber gun having cut through their chain locker on the way.

Our bow door broke loose and hung down. Two or three of our crew dived into the water to run a line through the eye bolt at the end of the door to crank it up! However, it proved to be too cold to work effectively so we proceeded slowly back to Dartmouth for repairs. My radar training at Hayling Island certainly helped to bring us safely back to the River Dart in near zero visibility. The fog might have been  a blessing because it protected us from U boat patrols! When we arrived in the Dart a Free French tug met us. Despite the comedy of them yelling to us in French, and us yelling back in English, we made it through. Good old Elmer Mahlin, our skipper, had brought us safely to anchor... he got us everywhere we were supposed to go and we did our job!

All our preparations for D-Day assumed that it would take place on June 5th but it was postponed at the last minute because of bad weather. Most vessels had already set sail for Normandy when the recall order was given. We were finally able to tie up to a buoy somewhere off southern England. Boy it was a nightmare trying to follow the ship ahead since the helmsman was not able to see over the tall blast shield in front of him. It was up to the officer on the con to tell the helmsman what course to follow."

D-Day

About D-Day George wrote to his family, "On D-Day I watched planes fall from the sky like exploding fireworks, ships around me turning turtle, blown up by torpedoes and wave after wave of Allied planes flying over and bombing the Utah beach landing area." [Photo; 439 en route to Normandy from Southern England in July 1944.]

As executive officer George pulled the firing switches on 439's first salvo of 1448 rockets which took about 3 minutes. They roared over the heads of the troops in the small landing craft en route to the beaches. The rockets landed on the beaches to ensure the German troops were disoriented when the Allied troops arrived shortly afterwards. Whilst our firing was on time and on target there was some drama on board 439 as the skipper became stuck on trying to take refuge in a hut provided to protect him from the heat of the rocket flames as they ignited.... his bulky anti gas outfit and life jacket snagged on the door to the hut and exposed his back to the fierce heat. Whilst his bulky safety apparel caused the problem it also saved him from severe burns. The crew wore their anti-gas outfits and life jackets for a week without taking them off!

After the initial salvo 439 reloaded and remained in the area of the beaches ready for further action for 7 days. During this time enemy planes came over at dusk to bomb our craft but the anti-aircraft gunners were too much for them... the gunners even fired at the Allied planes because they were so nervous!

Post Normandy ~  Bizerte, Algiers and Naples

"After the Normandy invasion in June of 1944 our next assignment took our then 9 rocket ship flotilla on a 1,500 mile journey through the Straits of Gibraltar to Bizerte in Tunisia, North Africa where we stayed for 2 or 3 weeks. In July we headed north in support of Operation Torch, the invasion of Southern France, stopping off in Naples for fuel and provisions. The entrance to the harbor was full of ships which had been scuttled by the Germans to keep the Allies from using them and the harbor facilities.

On taking up position in the waters off Southern France between Marseilles and Monte Carlo a wing of American heavy bombers passed overhead on their way to the initial bombardment and we watched in horror as one opened up his bomb bay doors and let go a whole string of bombs. Boy, were we praying that they would miss us, and they did --PHEW !

At the time our 9 LCT(R)s were lined up in a row parallel to the beach and ready to fire salvos of rockets onto the beach barricades. The US Navy sent in a small fleet of radio controlled LCVPs loaded with explosives to blow up the enemy underwater defensive obstacles such as hedgehogs. These were designed to prevent landing craft from reaching the beaches to discharge their human cargos of fighting men. Unfortunately the Germans intercepted the controlling signals, turned the LCVPs around and headed them back towards our destroyers and cruisers. Our big ships could not depress their guns low enough to sink the craft so some PCs came in and blew up the 'hijacked' LCVPs.

We were ordered to steer east parallel to the coast until we could reach an alternative landing area. At this time we suffered our only casualty in battle. Syers was a motormac and was under strict orders o stay below deck until the all clear was sounded. He was writing to his folks and no doubt felt compelled go up on deck to see what was happening. The Germans started firing their dreaded 88s and bracketed us twice with the exploding shells throwing water spouts up on our deck. Elmer was on the con and I was checking the crews, radar, and signalmen. Someone hollered 'Man Down!' As medical officer, I examined Syers but I was sure he was dead. We took him to a nearby hospital ship that was with the invasion fleet and said a prayer as we transferred him. Although a difficult and unwelcome task Elmer wrote a letter to Syers' parents. He was a good skipper, always did what was right! [Photo; Elmer H Mahlin].

After the landings in southern France we anchored in the then safe surroundings of Ajaccio Bay. We swam in the sea there and visited Napoleon's home, Naples and later the harbor at Bizerte in Tunisia."

Workplace and Home

"USLCT(R) 439 was our workplace and our home for 4 to 5 months since we lived on board at all times - even when berthed. The officers slept in bunks above the engine room and mess room and the crew slept in hammocks forward of the mess room. A cook served substantial hot, healthy food similar to what was available at shore based establishments. We loved our ship and worked together as a family. Leaving her for the last time was an exciting experience but tinged with sadness since it was the start of a process that would see our "band of brothers" dispersed to the four winds.

On October 4th 1944 all the LCT(R)s were returned to the Royal Navy. They were not, as expected, sailed back to England but transferred to the British base at Messina on Sicily. All US Navy personnel were repatriated. Clearly the job of the Rocket Ships was done.

We returned to New York in September 1944 aboard the Army troop ship General Meigs and ran into a terrible storm with over 50 foot waves. Surprisingly this didn't bother the sailors who were too preoccupied gambling and generally having a good time."

In October of 1944 George was assigned to Commanding Officers Training at the Little Creek Amphibious training base which was near Norfolk, Virginia.

Further Reading

There are over 200 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

1) On this CombinedOps website read US NAVY LANDING CRAFT TANK (ROCKET) by Lt Commander Carr. His account concentrates on US Landing Craft Tank (Rocket) operations in Normandy and Southern France in the summer of 1944.

2) Specification of LCT(R) 439 at NavSource Website.

3) The National D-Day Museum is located in New Orleans, USA. Amongst many other exhibits and material it has the logs and records of LCT(R) 439 from Stu Mahlin of Cincinnati, Ohio, whose father, Elmer Mahlin, commanded the vessel outfitted with rockets for close-in support of landing troops. Mahlin was firing his rockets off Utah Beach on D-Day at 0635.

The craft was decommissioned off Sicily on 1 October 1944, and Mahlin took all its paperwork with him including every order he received during the war. This valuable material included the original log of LCT(R) 439, the US log starting 22 April 1944, when Mahlin accepted the craft from its British commander, along with the American officer's diary, orders, sea charts, snapshots and sea chest. Of particular interest is the American flag that flew from LCT(R) 439 on D-Day.

Also included in the collection are Mahlin's sidearm and records pertaining to his service as Commanding Officer of the Naval Reserve Training Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. What has been received comprises the most complete record of one sailor's service during World War II.

Acknowledgements

The information for this page was provided by George F Fortune who served as Ensign on USLCT(R) 439. The information was redrafted for presentation on this website by Geoff Slee and approved by the author before publication.

News & Information

 

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WW2 Combined Operations Handbook. This handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Legion d’Honneur Applications. In conjunction with events to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Normandy landings, the Government of France has advised the Ministry of Defence that it wishes to award the Legion d’Honneur to all surviving veterans; not only of the landings, but also the wider Battle for Normandy; the Invasion of Provence (Operation Dragoon); the Liberation of Paris and the Liberation of France.

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