H.M. Landing Craft Tank (HMLCT) 861 was a unit of the 38th Flotilla of Assault Group S3 Support Squadron. Their task on D-Day was to support the first assault wave by providing withering fire onto enemy targets on or near to the landing beaches and thereafter to discharge their cargo of tanks and men onto the beaches.
After two years as a sea-going radar operator I was a Temporary Sub. Lieutenant RNVR and the commanding officer of the Mk4 HMLCT 861 which I commissioned in Alloa, Scotland, during August 1943. Second in command was Midshipman Eddie Burton and there were twelve crew members. For most it was their first sea-going draft and all, with the exception of the officers and Motor Mechanic Lickess, were under twenty years of age.
The craft was 187 feet long and close to 40 feet across the bows and had two Paxman-Ricardo diesel engines each of 500-hp. The draft was variable by flooding or pumping watertight compartments. [Opposite; water colour of HMLCT 861 by J Adams of Portsmouth. Photograph copyright Martyn Cox 2008. This image must not to be reproduced.]
We sailed up the east coast of Scotland and down the west coast to Troon in Ayrshire where there was a Combined Operations base. We worked-up in and around the Firth of Clyde for several months before going to Inverness to meet a section of the 76th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, under the command of Lieutenant Turnbull whom we would be carrying to France.
There we worked long and hard in the Moray and Cromarty Firths through a cold and rough winter undertaking beaching exercises and repeated night landings on Culbin Sands and other isolated beaches. We were sometimes accompanied by our sister craft of the 38th LCT Flotilla to practice working together in formation and landings. The Flotilla Officer, Lieutenant Commander Tom Unite, was a genial and well liked South African. The crews were well motivated and worked with a will and determination. We became well acquainted with our army guests who reciprocated by entertaining us at their base at Fort George.
In the late spring of 1944 we sailed south and through the Dover Straits to Portsmouth and in early June we were re-joined by our detachment of the 76th Field Regiment. We embarked four self-propelled Priest 105mm howitzers mounted on a Churchill tank chassis and two half-track reconnaissance vehicles at Gosport hard (the name given to a concrete area on the shore line) and then joined many other fully loaded craft at anchor in Fareham Creek.
There was a lot of excitement and anticipation in the air which was heightened when cheering broke out in Portsmouth Harbour. It increased as a motor torpedo boat came into view carrying King George VI and Winston Churchill. They waving and cheering along with the rest. What a morale booster it was and the signal quickly spread…."Winnie wants to come with us but George won’t let him!"
On the afternoon of June 5th, the day after the false start owing to bad weather, our contribution of six craft set sail to Nab Tower to join up with our part of the fleet, which, in turn, was part of the greatest armada the world had ever seen. Minesweepers had laid lit buoys to provide a mile wide corridor and we sailed down this discretely illuminated sea-way in rough conditions. When it became dark we kept station on the dimly lit stern light of the craft ahead. Throughout the night streams of aircraft flew overhead, squadron after squadron. We were all going the same way, it was a long, long night with very dark heavy cloud overhead.
We approached Sword beach between Ouistreham and Hermanville on a pre-determined line of bearing. We opened bombardment at a distance of 11,000 yards from the beach. Our fire was reported by Forward Observation Officers in a small craft well inshore and before long we received a new target our original target having been obliterated.
The fire-power of the 24 guns carried by our six LCT was quite awesome in itself but we were small in comparison to the totality. 16 inch shells were roaring overhead from a nearby battleship, hundreds of shells were being released by rocket firing LCTs, the guns of close support Royal Navy ships were firing in rapid sequence, swimming tanks and LCAs full of troops were making for the beach. The area was alive with activity and noise and it became almost too much to take in and witness.
At 2000 yards from the beach we ceased fire, it was just H-Hour, 0725 hours on the morning of June 6th 1944. Through binoculars the beach appeared within touching distance, the flail tanks were trundling up the beach exploding mines as they went, closely followed by the Sherman swimming tanks and wave after wave of soldiers. HMLCT 861 turned away and sailed on a reciprocal bearing and the gun crews changed from bombardment to combat ammunition.
At the appropriate distance we turned once again to go in with the fifth wave and we beached under the direction of a beach-master at H-Hour+1 hour…that being at 0825 hours. It was a case of ‘down ramps’ and our army friends left with all speed and our blessing. Then, it was up ramp and away, but our kedge anchor was fast against some underwater obstruction and the capstan could not shift it, I had to order the cable to be chopped. [Photo; Mk6 USLCT 776 found on June 8th by the crew of LCT 861. Richard Fawcett recalls that she was towed to Portsmouth by LCT 861. See 1 below.]
As we approached the assembly area some three miles off-shore Petty Officer Motor Mechanic Lickess reported that 861 was making water below. Beach obstructions had penetrated a number of water-tight compartments but with continuous pumping 861 was holding her own. On reporting to our HQ ship I optimistically expressed the view that we could make it back to England under our own power which we did. On arrival back in England 861 went straight into dry-dock. There were over twenty holes in the bottom of the craft but because the hull was a series of water-tight sections welded together she retained enough buoyancy to keep afloat.
The dock engineers reported that the damage would take some ten days to repair so I requested four days leave for each watch. We had spent many months without that luxury. The flag officer’s office was agreeable so, on the toss of a coin to determine who went ashore first, I found myself back home in West Bromwich two days after D-Day.
On D-Day our flotilla lost one landing craft, sunk by gunfire on the beach but with no casualties. The commanding officer of another LCT won the DSO for his rescue work on the beach.
HMLCT 861 of the 38th Flotilla made seventeen more crossings to different areas such as Gold beach, Utah beach and Cherboug and later Dieppe and Le Treport. We carried American soldiers, tanks, reapers for forward airfields, a detachment of the Grenadier Guards, Bailey Bridge pontoons. The 861 followed up behind the army until she developed an alarming crack amidships and her task was at an end. By Easter of 1945 she was paid-off.
My memories of the crew of LCT 861 now fail me as this is written during August 1996. I remember Lieutenant Eric Crees our commanding officer, Signalman Thompson, Stoker Turnbull, Wireman (Electrician) Keppel, Motor Mechanic Lickess, other names recalled are Winrush, Dyatt and Bales.
Our initial task on D-Day was to support the first wave going ashore. Our craft carried 6 tanks to my recall and before landing them they were deployed to give covering fire to the small LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanised) that were off-loading troops on to Sword beach during the first wave. Having completed this task we regrouped for the landing of our own troops and tanks. The weather at the time was atrocious but the men were safely off-loaded at a time when resistance appeared to be lessening apart from mortar bombs and small arms fire.
The men of the 3rd British Infantry Division had had enough. They could not get ashore quick enough and appeared not to care about the enemy. They just wanted to get on dry land and away from all the buffeting and heaving up and down……they were a great bunch of men. [Photo; the author of this section; Leading Seaman Coxswain Richard Fawcett.]
Having off-loaded our cargo we proceeded to kedge off the beach-head only to discover that our port engine had failed, making it doubly difficult to release our bows from the beach. However, our kedge anchor held and with our remaining engine we managed to drag ourselves free. Around this time scrambling nets were slung over the port side (left) of LCT 861 in an abortive attempt to rescue two paratroopers who had fallen well short of their destination. I recall Seaman Dyatt and Stoker Turnbull struggling to recover them but the rough sea conditions and the drag of the boat coming astern made recovery impossible.
During this time I was at the helm looking through the wheelhouse observation slots. Although my vision was somewhat restricted I saw an LCF (Landing Craft Flak) and an LCTR (Landing Craft Tank, Rocket). The former took a direct hit from a shore based heavy gun and fire immediately spread through the craft and the whole of the top deck was swept clear. It was all very a terrifying sight. The latter was next in line and she too was hit. 861 was astern of the rocket ship so we too were at risk. Then, what I believe was the monitor HMS Roberts was brought into play. Roberts was standing a few miles off shore and, having laid a shell for direction and distance with the help of a spotter plane, she opened fire on the shore based gun. It was silenced much, it must be said, to our relief. [See 2 below.]
As LCT 861 came away from the beach-head on that June morning I had the opportunity of waving farewell to my uncle whose craft was making for the beach. It was to be the last I would ever see him as he was killed soon after. My brother, Coxswain William Fawcett, was aboard the HMLST 403 on June 6th 1944 thus my family provided two D-Day coxswains. [See 3 below.]
My uncle's name was John (Jack) Tait. He was second in command of another LCT making for Sword beach. He was officer in charge of the foc’sle party whose task was to lower and later raise the bow door. His craft and flotilla escape me as this is written. [See 4 below.]
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1. The Mk 6 USLCT 776 is recorded under the command of C W Hasee and Arrat. Intended for Dog Red sector of Omaha beach at H-Hour+120 minutes on the morning of June 6th 1944 to deliver men of 149 Beach Engineering Battalion. She is recorded as being damaged and sinking after undergoing repairs but that detail appears to be incorrect, since she went on to see service in Vietnam.
2. I am unable to confirm that it was indeed the monitor H.M.S. Roberts of Acting Captain R.E.C.Dunbar R.N. with her 15" guns as mentioned above. She was certainly in the vicinity, she arrived off Sword beach at 0520 hours on the morning of June 6th having departed the Solent at 1730 hours on June 5th as part of Bombarding Force D, arriving with Assault Convoy S6.]
3. HMLST 403 of Temporary Acting Lieutenant Commander W R G Garling RNR was a unit of the 8th LST Flotilla of FORCE L FOLLOW-UP out of Harwich and the River Thames. Prior to her time in Normandy she had seen service in Sicily, Reggio de Calabria, Salerno and Anzio as part of the 1st LST Flotilla.
4. Sub. Lieutenant John (Jack) Tait was second in command of HMLCT 980 of the 41st Flotilla of ‘E’ LCT Squadron of Assault Group S3. Click on the link to read the story of 980.
Transcribed by Tony Chapman, Official Archivist/Historian for the LST and Landing Craft Association (Royal Navy) from information provided by Commanding Officer Temporary Lieutenant Eric Crees RNVR and Leading Seaman/Coxswain Richard Fawcett. Further edited by Geoff Slee for website presentation.