~ HIS MAJESTY'S LANDING CRAFT TANK HMLCT 821 ~
In common with most landing craft HMLCT 821 was destined to land on the Normandy beaches on many occasions. Their common purpose was to transport the Allied armies, their weapons, equipment and supplies across the English Channel... but the experiences and impressions of their crews were very individual. On D-Day Signalman Eric J. Loseby served with HMLCT 821 of the 42nd Flotilla of ‘I’ Squadron Landing Craft. This is his story.
The 4th of June 1944 was a day of intense activity amongst the flotillas of landing craft at Portslade Harbour in Sussex. The streams of military vehicles that had been pouring in were finally chocked and chained to their allocated deck-space and their personnel were making themselves as comfortable as possible aboard the Mk4 Landing Craft Tank 821 (LCT 821) of the 42nd Flotilla on which I served. All landing craft were flat bottomed and not much more than floating pontoons with a couple of powerful engines at one end and a heavy ramp door at the other. (Photo; Signalman Eric J. Loseby).
The previous day landing craft crews of the flotilla had been briefed by the "top brass" on the forthcoming landing on the French coast. Such was the secrecy that the briefing took place in a well guarded cinema in Brighton, Sussex. We were left in no doubt that this was not just another exercise, of which there had been many in the previous weeks and months. After returning to LCT 821 we were confined to the boat and, for the first time whilst keeping harbour watch, we carried service revolvers with live rounds.
My preparations for war began with 10 weeks of gunnery and seamanship training at HMS Ganges, a naval shore base at Shotley, Ipswich, Suffolk , followed by many months of Combined Operations exercises at HMS Dundonald on the Ayrshire coast.
At Dundonald, we were trained in the use of many types of small arms weapons and the improvement of our physical fitness by virtue of endless rounds of assault courses. At nearby Troon Harbour we gained our first experience of landing craft which included day long trips to Brodick Bay on the Isle of Arran. This gave us an insight into the many tasks to be carried out when we were eventually allocated to our respective craft as crewmen.
The flat bottomed landing craft were designed to land on the beach a little before high tide, speedily disembark their cargo and make their way back to England before the tide went out. If there was any delay the landing craft would be beached high and dry for about 12 hours until the next tide. In theory the quick turnaround was achieved by partly lowering the ramp, and with sufficient speed, forcing the bows of the craft on to the beach to secure a good hold. On the approach, the heavy kedge anchor would be slipped from the bed on the stern of the craft and the cable freely paid out. On beaching, the slack on the kedge anchor would then be winched in, and with with help from an occasional turn of the propellers, the craft would be held at right angles to the beach. Once in this position the ramp would be fully lowered giving added hold on the beach. 'Un-beaching' was achieved by winching in the kedge anchor after raising the ramp from the beach. (Photo; a scale model of HMLCT 821)
On completion of this phase of the training we were issued with the now familiar Combined Operations badge and given the option of taking up a specialist course for any of the trades applicable to landing craft crews. Having learnt Morse Code at school I opted for the signals branch, believing that my little knowledge might give me a head's start.
After a short period of leave I reported to HMS Pasco, a Combined Operations signal school at Strachur, eighteen miles north of Dunoon at the head of Loch Eck. The next ten weeks revolved around four subjects - Morse Code by Aldis lamp, Semaphore, Two-Way radio procedures and formation marching on the sports field, the formations representing the manoeuvres of landing craft flotillas as indicated by hoisted flags. The one light relief from all this was the occasional period of physical training (PT).
The ageing chief petty officer PT instructor had been brought out of mothballs as a war time stop-gap measure. With a lively sprint he passed by the guardroom with us bringing up the rear. To any onlooker the Chief appeared to be taking us on a cross-country run, but, after rounding the first bend in the road, we ‘left wheeled’ through a gateway into a plantation! For the next hour or so we lazed around under the trees. Strange how matelots always seemed able to produce cigarettes and a light even when only dressed in their gym outfits.
HMS Pasco was completely surrounded by mountains and forests so there was little to distract us from our training. On completion of the course we all displayed the crossed flags badge on our sleeves.
The average crew of such a craft comprised two officers and ten lower deck ratings. Of the crew members I can recall there were; our commanding officer Sub Lieutenant Rae from Croydon, Midshipman Hockings as ‘Number One’ from South Wales, Motor Mechanic Charles Bratt, two stokers, one being named Moore, Wireman (Electrician) ‘Jock’ Reaper from Glasgow, Gunners McQuade and Pitchford, the latter from Liverpool who manned two 20mm Oerlikon guns and Leading Seaman Albert Chapple as Coxswain, two seamen whose names I can’t recall one of whom acted as cook and myself, Signalman Eric Loseby. (Photo; the author right and Coxswain of LCT 821 the now late Albert Chapple taken in 1994 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This was the only occasion the two shipmates met after the war).
LCT 821 at this time was still a drab battleship grey but she soon acquired a refreshing coat of white paint, with accompanying Mediterranean Blue camouflage stripes. The painting job was undertaken by Dennys in Dunbarton a little down the Clyde from Glasgow. We then proceeded to Largs where our Oerlikon guns were tested and then to Troon to take our place amongst our sister craft of the 42nd Flotilla.
Midshipman Hockings was the only other member of our crew with a working knowledge of Morse and Semaphore. When he was not on watch I usually occupied the bridge with our commanding officer and was also often called to the bridge even when off duty to deal with the odd signal. As a consequence of my watches on the bridge with the officers I was constantly quizzed by other crew members for news. They were desperate for information since planned movements and destinations of craft were, as a general rule, never made known beforehand
Following modifications at Irvine, brief periods at Lamlash on the Isle of Arran and the quay at Castle Toward (HMS Brontosaurus), the 42nd Flotilla sailed out of the Clyde estuary northwards to Oban where a series of night time exercises took place. On leaving Oban we once more steamed northwards through the Sound of Mull, the Sound of Sleat and the picturesque Kyle of Lochalsh to Loch Broom. It was there that a Flower Class corvette took over escort duties to take us around the wild Cape Wrath at the north west tip of the Scottish mainland. En route we were diverted into Loch Eriboll for a few days during rough weather when a drifting mine was spotted. LCTs were difficult to steer at the best of times but in rough seas and high winds they were very difficult to control so appropriate avoidance action was by no means certain.
We made our way along the north coast of the Scottish mainland to Thurso where fresh supplies were taken aboard. We normally had adequate supplies of good food - tea and coffee were always on hand with egg and bacon for breakfast most mornings and roast beef for dinner several times a week, all, of course, washed down with the customary neat tot of rum. On leaving Thurso we took a southerly route down the north east coast of Scotland to the Beauly Firth near Inverness. This became our home for the latter half of the winter of 1943.
The landscape around us was completely snow covered throughout the whole of the time we were there. These cold conditions made life on board unpleasant. The condensation on the mess-deck was so bad that we slept with our oilskin coats draped over our hammocks to avoid being saturated come the morning. When at sea, the open bridge afforded little protection from the elements... it consisted of four armour plated sides but no roof. Those who occupied the bridge during exercises at sea spent many miserable hours thoroughly soaked and frozen.
As the early summer of 1944 approached the 42nd Flotilla proceeded to the south coast, along the way calling at Leith, Immingham and Harwich. We then passed through the Dover Straits under cover of darkness to arrive at Portslade. The south coast of England in summer was a far cry from that of Scotland in winter. With most of our training over we spent a good deal of our time in harbour with shore leave in Brighton and Hove.
One of our crew member, known affectionately as Jock from Scotland, arrived back on board, after shore leave, carrying a large wicker chair of the type often seen on the verandas of some of the plush hotels along the Brighton sea front. He had acquired a lift from a motor cyclist and we were left to imagine the sight of Jock and his wicker chair on the pillion seat of a motor cycle! The chair found a good home….on the quarter deck of LCT 821!
The day arrived when there was unusual activity in the harbour. It was clear that the time had come to put the many months of training to the test. Late in the evening puffs of smoke issued from funnels as main engines were fired up. One by one the vessels in our flotilla slipped their moorings and proceeded out of harbour to an assembly area off Newhaven where we dropped anchor. The change in the atmosphere amongst our crew and our army passengers was palpable. Conversation was reduced to a minimum and each of us retreated into our own private thoughts perhaps thinking back rather than to what lay ahead.
Rumours began to circulate that due to unfavourable weather there was to be a postponement and, with the arrival of dawn, LCT 821 still stood at anchor though now joined by many other craft and ships of various types. During the day of June 5th 1944 the military personnel were ferried ashore to Newhaven and exercised around the docks area while we rode at anchor from the stern capstan. This afforded little comfort in all but a calm sea as the flat stern of the craft reacted to each wave with a shudder throughout the length and breadth of the craft... and always present was the seemingly incurable ingress of water through the propeller shaft glands. This was made worse by exposure to an oncoming sea and, after a while, about a foot of bilge-water would be swilling around the mess-deck directly above.
With improving weather conditions in the evening of June 5th the vast assembly of craft and ships began to move, setting course to the southwards under heavy and darkening skies. We all received a copy of the now familiar message of good luck from General Eisenhower. Our passengers were a mixture of personnel, Royal Marines, Infantrymen and members of an RAF Signal Corps. Many suffered gravely from sea sickness - the luckier ones were offered our hammocks since none of our crew would find time to sleep that night.
For the greater part the outward journey was monotonous. There was little room and nothing to see other than the dim blue stern light of the craft ahead. The tedium was broken only by the occasional increase or decrease in engine revs to maintain a safe distance. By the first light of dawn on the morning of D-Day we arrived at the lowering position some few miles short of the Normandy beaches, the French coast being just discernible on the horizon.
At this point various groups of vessels began to break away to make for their assigned sectors producing in us a feeling of isolation and exposure. Before LCT 821 began her advance Sub. Lieutenant Rae produced an enormous White Battle Ensign to replace the usual one that flew from our mast. During our dash for the beach I tried to ignore a couple of water spouts on our portside. Obviously intended for us they were the first visible sign that the natives were not friendly.
The heavily laden and exceptionally low cloud reflected an orange glow from the fires caused by Allied shells and rockets in advance of the troops landing. As we drew closer to the beach we saw a typical seaside residential area with a promenade and a roadway at the top. The houses were closely grouped on the far side most of which were burning freely, others, already just smouldering ruins.
By the time we reached the shoreline the beach was cluttered with stranded vehicles, tanks and landing craft not to mention beach obstacles erected by the enemy.
Despite the difficulties our ramp was eventually lowered and unloading commenced. We soon attracted the attention of snipers installed in the upper windows of one the few houses left standing. I heard the hiss of a bullet as it passed between myself and Sub Lieutenant Rae as we stood on the open bridge. After that we decided to keep our heads down despite wanting to keep an eye on mortar bombs landing further along the beach which had been fired from gardens at the rear of the houses.
There were many unpleasant sights around us including a number of tin and enamel tea mugs floating a few yards from the water’s edge along the shoreline. When the tide went out we could see that they were attached to the knapsacks of earlier casualties floating face down in the water and now being deposited on the sand.
It usually took twenty minutes to unload our cargo but we planned to break all records as the Germans were expected to bring their heavy artillery into action, paying special attention to the beaches. On this occasion fate conspired to detain us as we discovered that our kedge anchor cable had parted having fouled one of the beach obstructions. It was this anchor cable that would normally be used to winch the craft off the beach. LCT 821 settled on the bottom and as the water receded we realised that we would be there for the rest of the day. With no sea water to cool the engines they were shut down which also shut down the lighting.
LCT 821 became a dark silent hulk except for the occasional rattle of flying debris against the hull. For once being equipped with an old fashioned coal burning stove had its advantages, we could at least have a hot drink. As a distraction from our exposed and helpless position I also had a shave! Later in the day a lone enemy fighter bomber flew under the low cloud ceiling along the coast. As it passed directly above us we saw the pilot bale out. Imagine our horror when we realised that it was a bomb which exploded a few hundred feet away along the beach.
By this time Sub Lieutenant Rae had contacted a Beach Control Party. We soon discovered that Midshipman Hockings, Coxswain Albert Chapple and I had volunteered to salvage the lost kedge anchor with the aid of a giant recovery truck. As the beach was not yet clear of mines we walked in the vehicle’s tracks as it towed the spare cable out for attachment to the kedge. We looked in awe at the many beach obstructions now revealed by the low tide, all of which, thankfully, LCT 821 had missed as she made her approach. These consisted of logs, with the bark still attached, forming enormous tripods at the top of which were lashed large calibre shells with impact fuses pointing seawards. There were also lengths of steel girder welded together in criss-cross fashion with pointed ends presenting a hazard in all directions.
After securing the anchor cable we hastily returned aboard to await the incoming tide. A party of Germans appeared at the top of the beach. It was a worrisome sight for us in their unmistakeable helmets and jackboots, and seemingly without guards or escorts. They split into groups of four and strolled down to collect the fallen ‘Tommies’ laying them in neat rows above the water line. One German in particular was calmly smoking his pipe as though he was pottering around in his garden.
Never had an incoming tide been more welcome than on this occasion. As the water lapped under the stern, Motor Mechanic Charles Bratt anxiously peered over the side at the cooling water intakes. Once these were submerged the main engines were started.
At that late hour we were informed that 130 German POWs and a few wounded Royal Marines would be embarked for the return trip and that no guards would be provided. We could spare only 2 crew members for guard duty which left us grossly outnumbered and vulnerable to attack, even by unarmed men. We placed a row of tank chocks across the well-deck as a boundary marker thus confining the prisoners to the forward part of the ship. Another crew member and I were armed with Lanchester rifles under strict instructions to use them if any prisoners crossed over the line. Our two officers also carried their revolvers.
It was a pleasure to feel the movement of the ship as the incoming tide lifted us clear. As we prepared to leave other craft were arriving on the high water and a couple of LCI(L)s [Landing Craft Infantry (Large)] beached alongside us. There was still occasional sniping from nearby houses and they immediately opened fire with their 20mm Oerlikons straight into the open windows. Being loaded with the usual assortment of tracer, incendiary, armour piercing and high explosive rounds the effect on the houses at that range was devastating. The resulting blazing inferno was a fitting end to our day at the seaside!
We cleared the beach area without further ado but, on gaining open water, it became clear that LCT 821 had broken her back on the uneven and churned up beach. However, since LCTs for the most part are constructed of separate watertight ballast tanks, there was not much to concern us, just so long as the plates held the two halves together.
Our prisoners soon settled down into their allotted space and after a while one of them came towards us holding up a kettle indicating that water was needed for brewing up. Watching over them for so many hours we came to realise that they were little different to ourselves. Some were dressed in civilian clothes and others in uniform. One spent a great deal of time scraping his uniform with a penknife in an attempt to remove what appeared to be the dried flesh and blood of a less fortunate comrade.
After steaming for a few hours darkness fell making it difficult to see what the prisoners were doing. All forms of lighting were prohibited at sea so we were thankful that it never really got dark. We were particularly warned to be on the look-out for E-boats as the enemy were now desperate to cut off supply lines to our forces established in Normandy. As it turned out the crossing was uneventful.
It was sometime after dawn that the Sussex coast appeared as a thin line on the horizon. When this was spotted by our reluctant passengers they began pointing and chattering amongst themselves. Then, about half the total number, who were still wearing their helmets, took them off and with great gusto threw them as far as possible across the water pausing to watch them sink.
When LCT 821 was some four miles off Newhaven I sent one of my more memorable signals to the harbour authorities informing them of our unusual cargo. As a result we were met by an assortment of army officers, armed guards, police and pressmen. A crane was on hand to lift off the wounded.
On completion of the unloading we set course for Portslade attempting to restore LCT 821 to her former glory on the way. While hosing her down we discovered that our passengers had rid themselves of their personal effects such as pay-books, photos and letters etc, tucking them behind various ship's fittings. We also cleared up an abandoned army bicycle with a buckled wheel which had generated great interest amongst the Germans. We found a neatly wrapped package in green waterproof material strapped to the carrier which contained a dozen fully primed Mills hand grenades. There was much speculation as to the outcome had the Germans been more inquisitive.
A few hours after arriving in Portslade 821 was hauled out of the water onto a slipway especially constructed for casualties. It was operated on by shipwrights brought down from Northern shipyards. In contrast to previous occasions, leave was granted to the crew, my watch being the first to depart. By a strange twist of fate the following evening I was sitting in the cinema of my home town watching the D-Day landings on newsreel, thinking to myself that I was the only one in the audience who had been there in the thick of it!
I reported back aboard to free the other watch for their leave. It was during this time I saw a strange flying object coming in quite low overhead from a seaward direction. It was trailing a ragged flame and emitting a distinctive chugging sound. As we gazed upwards in amazement we were witnessing one of the first buzz bomb attacks (also known as the V1).
With leave for both watches at an end 821 was once more seaworthy having been re-plated and strengthened. We proceeded along Southampton town quay and waited for another load to ferry to Normandy. This soon developed into a routine with nightly crossings in small convoys usually without escorts.
On our second arrival off Normandy we were forced to lie at anchor for several days due to bad weather and sea conditions. The front line was now several miles inland and during the hours of darkness the distant horizon was illuminated by shell-explosions and fires. Closer by, from seaward, a continuous streams of tracer shells indicated where enemy coastal forces, possibly E-boats, were attempting to penetrate the protected anchorages. Our first visit had been to an area just West of Ouistreham but this time the coast was mostly sand dunes and rural farm land.
When we attempted to beach, strong winds took us broadside on and heavy seas threw 821 against one of the steel obstructions resulting in a badly holed diesel tank. We dried out on the sand but this time in more peaceful surroundings. A naval repair party was close and they welded up the holes with an acetylene torch - a tricky job considering the proximity of diesel fumes.
We were re-floated with the aid of a bulldozer and remained at anchor for a few more days to await better weather conditions. During which time I celebrated my birthday on June 24. Even on my birthday there was a poignant reminder of the war when the body a seaman, supported by his lifebelt, floated along the side of the ship. He had been in the water for many days drifting on the tides. Perhaps my rum ration, on this day supplemented by that of my shipmates, dulled my senses since I don't recall feeling any sense of sadness.
Later in the summer, as the better weather returned, the trips became quite pleasant, with football on the fine sandy beaches and strolls along the sand dunes. On one such peaceful sunny day we were at anchor quite close to the shore with the mighty Battleship HMS Rodney at anchor in deeper water on the seaward side. Without warning the peace was shattered when an enemy shell came from behind hills which formed the skyline and scored a direct hit on a church close to the waters edge. Seconds later Morse signals were being passed between Rodney and a water tower protruding from the trees on the distant hills. Slowly, one of Rodney’s 16 inch guns elevated and, with a mighty roar and searing flame, replied in full followed shortly by a second round. This was probably one of the last actions involving the large guns of the Royal Navy such as those fitted to HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson. I felt privileged to have had a ringside view of that brief encounter and thankful that HMS Rodney was at hand.
As we notched up more and more channel crossings the engines of 821 began to feel the strain. We increasingly had to accept tows especially in the latter part of each trip if the sea was choppy. On return journeys we often carried damaged fighter aircraft, spitfires and hurricanes.
It was usual to sail from Southampton with a kite balloon (smaller than a barrage balloon) moored to the guardrail by the RAF and collected by them on the other side for further use. These balloons provided an additional safeguard for us from overhead attacks during transit. However, Sub Lieutenant Rae took a different view, and once out of sight of the Isle of Wight, I would release the balloon and watch it disappear into the clouds. Sometimes these balloons could be seen dropping into the sea as a tangled mess having burst in the upper atmosphere. The CO believed that the balloons would be spotted over a distance of some 30 miles pinpointing our position and more or less inviting the enemy to attack.
While casting off from a loading jetty near Gilkicker Point we lost one of our original crew members. Having loaded troops and their vehicles 821 was moving slowly astern with engines idling. One of the crew was paying out a large manila rope with a loose turn around the bollard. The rope caught around his ankle and he stumbled. As we moved slowly but away from the jetty he was pulled against the bollard where his leg took the full momentum of the ship. From my position on the bridge I clearly heard his leg snap as soldiers rushed forward to cut through the rope, an impossibility, given that it was still paying out. Our shipmate was eventually taken ashore in an unconscious state.
Several trips later on a return journey, and within sight of Spithead, one of the main engines disintegrated when a connecting rod penetrated the sump casing. We were directed to Cowes and moored some distance up the River Medina. That proved to be my last voyage on LCT 821. A few days later I was on draft to HMS Scotia, a signal school on the Ayrshire coast to begin a course, hopefully, to become a Landing Craft Signalman II.
The accommodation at HMS Scotia was luxurious after my cramped life aboard LCT 821. To shower, instead of washing out of a bucket of water heated on a galley stove, was a treat as was stretching out on a bed instead of coping with the restrictions of a hammock. However, the greatest pleasure of all was undisturbed sleep instead of the watch-keeping around the clock whether at sea or in harbour.
The course was for me very much a refresher but with more Morse by buzzer and the use of much bigger signalling lamps. With a star above my crossed flags I returned to Southampton but, this time, I was based ashore at the flotilla offices in the new docks, standing in as relief on various craft as and when required.
It was on one of these postings that the craft I served on arrived at the Mulberry Harbour where unloading was carried out at all stages of the tide. We were away from the UK for several weeks. We received orders to proceed to a Liberty ship riding at anchor in an isolated area away from all other shipping. There was good reason for this as we soon discovered... there were faulty batches of shells and bombs amongst its cargo! Alarmingly, we were to tie up alongside and take on the useable lots, the rejects to be lowered onto a pontoon for dumping at sea. There was great relief when, loading completed, we proceeded along the coast to Le Havre and tied up at the dockside.
We were able to do a spot of sightseeing in what remained of the city and I especially remember an occasion when several open-backed trucks passed along the street carrying German prisoners. The looks and waves exchanged between the prisoners and old ladies watching from the pavements gave the impression of mother and son relationships between many of them.
The Mulberry Harbour was now an area of concentrated activity around the clock. Landing craft and ships of every size continuously disgorged all types of vehicles and endless stores onto the Bailey Bridge type piers. DUKW amphibians loaded up with supplies, proceeded ashore, and onwards to the dumps inland. Such was the volume of traffic running in endless columns that, from a distance, it gave the appearance of a giant ant colony on the move.
As the larger ports along the French coast became available for shipping, the activity at the original beaches eased off. Eventually we spent most of our time at the Mulberry Harbour awaiting sailing orders. It was there we learned that the war in Europe was over. Immediate shore leave was granted and a DUKW came alongside offering lifts to Bayeux. The amphibious DUKWs allowed us to travel from the anchorage to a point several miles inland without having to change transport. From Bayeux we hitched a lift in an army truck as far as Caen. We returned to the Mulberry Harbour the following day in a similar manner. Shortly after, our craft returned to England where we moored on a mudflat alongside Hythe Pier.
There was a feeling of anti-climax now as one by one the crew was gradually drafted ashore. A few, like myself, went to Portland Terrace, a large building in the centre of Southampton. As my home was not too distant I volunteered for guard duties, which enabled me to make use of all my free time.
With more and more crews being brought ashore a large draft of us was moved to Westcliff on Sea in Essex where several streets of semi-detached houses had been cordoned off to form a temporary naval barracks. There we undertook a familiarization course on mines, torpedoes and depth charges and, occasionally, games of cricket on a neighbouring sports ground. For us the war had well and truly ended. (Photo; the author surrounded by models of Royal Navy craft from the war years).
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Gunner Pat McQuade who served on LCT 821 adds; "when LCT 821 was decommissioned we were ordered to sail to Bordeaux and hand her over to the French authorities to be used to transport timber up and down the river. When we left her for the last time we felt glad within ourselves that our craft would be doing good for the town rather than rusting away somewhere in a scrap-yard, which to us, would have been a sad end to a craft that had served us well. To this day (29th May 2010) I still wonder how long it kept sailing on the river..."
Tony Chapman of the LST and Landing Craft Association was advised of Pat's contact with this website. He informed Eric Loseby who provided the information for this page and within a few days the two RN veterans who served together on the same craft off D-Day's Normandy beaches, were talking to each other for the first time in 66 years. They intend to keep in touch. [Photos; top Pat in full colour and bottom a wonderful tongue in cheek family tribute to the man!]
German Prisoners of War. After unloading their cargoes on the
Normandy beaches the LCTs were loaded up with men and materials destined for
the UK. This included the sick and injured as well as German prisoners of
war. The photos below are of German POWs who were transported to the UK in
Eric & Pat's LCT 821. The notes below were taken from indistinct writing
from the reverse of the photos which were supplied courtesy of
Signalman Eric Loseby of LCT 821.
This account of HMLCT 821 is based on the notes of Signalman Eric J. Loseby and was transcribed by Tony Chapman, Archivist/Historian for the LST and Landing Craft Association. It was further edited by Geoff Slee for presentation on the website.