One of the Allies secret weapons for D Day
The Allies had a few secret weapons to surprise the defending German forces on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. One such was the Landing Craft Tank (Rocket) or (LCT(R) which, in just a few seconds, fired dozens of rockets carrying high explosives on to the landing beaches in advance of the first wave of assault troops. The aim was to destroy, disable, disrupt and disorientate the enemy forces. This is one story told by stoker Frank Woods, DSM.
Frank was born on the 29th November 1919 at Houghton House Farm, Euxton, Chorley. He was educated at Euxton Church of England School up to the age of 14. From the age of 14 to 18 years, he attended night school at St Marys, Chorley and Chorley Grammar School. He started a 7 year Apprenticeship at Iddon Brothers, Leyland on the 12th February 1934, earning 3s 9p (19p) per week during the first year. In October 1939, he volunteered for the Royal Navy, but was turned down because the work he did was on the Ministry of Labour's 'Schedule of Reserved Occupations and Protected Work.'
With approval from the appropriate authorities, he left Iddons in September 1942 with the intention of travelling to Gourock on the River Clyde in Scotland, to work on the manufacture of Torpedoes. However, this was cancelled and he soon found himself at the General Motors factory at Bamber Bridge, near Preston in the north west of England. Their factory had been bombed in Southampton, which was a prime target for the Luftwaffe, so they relocated the business to this relatively quiet area of rural England. After two months he was put in charge of the engine shop. He volunteered once more for the Royal Navy in November 1942 and joined up at Gosport, Hampshire, in April 1943. [Photo; Frank in the centre with two other crew members of LCT (R)363.]
He was transferred to Chatham, Kent in May 1943 for 'square bashing' and rifle drill. Initially he was billoted in HMS Collingwood and later on a very old iron, ex-grain carrier, HMS Peking, which was notable only because it was full of cockroaches! He then took instruction on the repair and maintenance of diesel engines.
He was transferred to HMS Quebec on Loch Fyne in Scotland in July 1943 where he received the rank of Acting Chief Motor Mechanic, 4th Class. In August 1943 he was attached to an Assault Flotilla on a Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) ferrying undercover agents to the French Coast from Burnham on Crouch in Essex. By this time he was attached to the Combined Operations Command where he trained with Commandos and REME in the operation of landing craft through countless practice beach landings. He completed a further spell of training on Hayling Island near Portsmouth, and then returned to Westcliffe near Southend, in September 1943 to continue his training programme. He also gave class instruction on Diesel engines.
In December 1943, he was drafted to Portsmouth to serve on Landing Craft Tank Rocket 125 - LCT(R) 125. However, late one evening when he arrived at the Regulating Office in Portsmouth, they had no knowledge of such a craft, let alone LCT (R) 125! LCT(R)s were due to be deployed for the first time on D-Day to soften up enemy defensive positions on the landing beaches, so their very existence was known only to those who needed to know. The need to maintain the element of surprise was paramount. Frank was given overnight accommodation on half a destroyer which had been torpedoed in the Atlantic but was still being used as a billet in the dockyard.
Next day, after a lot of enquiries, he finally got on board LCT (R) 125. He found himself in full charge of the engine room and all the craft's ancillary engineering equipment. The engine room staff consisted of himself (Act Ch MM 4th 1 Log MM) two Electricians, one PO Stoker and two Stokers. He familiarised himself with the instruments and the engines as best he could and next day, at 11.00 hours, a Naval Officer and two POs came on board to test the engines and equipment. At 12.30 hours, with the inspection completed, they just asked Frank to 'sign here' and departed with the remark "They're all yours." This was the start of a very challenging but interesting few weeks. He was 23 years old and already Chief Engineer of the ship.
After three days, they took on water and fuel and sailed out of Portsmouth, down the Solent, to test the degaussing equipment. It was designed to reduce the magnetic forces generated by the craft's metal hull thereby reducing the risk of detonating a magnetic mine. They then returned to a berth at Southampton. After month long sea trials off the Isle of Wight, they ran into very rough weather, which caused the ship to crack in its centre. The CO decided to return to Southampton, stern first to reduce stresses in the hull and, hopefully, to reduce the risk of the craft breaking in two. The craft reached Southampton safely.
All the ships company were transferred to LCT (R) 363 within a very few days. Then began the serious training for D Day. The rocket launchers were always covered with tarpaulins when not being used for training purposes out at sea. These rocket craft, in our case three British and three American, were one of the D Day's secret weapons. They did several practice firings into Studland Bay, south of Poole, Dorset, and in April 1944 at Slapton Sands south of Torquay, Devon as part of the ill fated, Operation Tiger. His craft sailed from Southampton on the 27th April and arrived at the firing position. Frank was below deck in the engine room and cannot remember if the rockets were fired or not. Shortly after, an urgent order to ‘Make Port All Haste’ was received, which translated into everyday language meant ‘get the hell out of there!’ They safely returned to Southampton but months later heard rumours that the timings had gone wrong, killing mainly American soldiers "defending" the beaches. Nothing more was heard until long after the war. [Undoubtedly this was true, but the order to return to port was triggered by German E Boats sinking fully loaded personnel carrying, landing craft. See Operation Tiger for more information about this. Editor.]
The planning for Operation Neptune, the amphibious phase of Operation Overlord, had been meticulously planned down to the last detail including the precise order and route of thousands of vessels of all shapes and sizes. On the 5th of June, LCT(R) 363 left her mooring to form up in convoy in preparation for the Channel crossing. The LCT(R)s were last to leave the confined waters because the high explosives they carried posed a serious threat to other vessels in the event of enemy action or accidental discharge.
Once in open waters, the 6 LCT(R)s, in common with countless other LCT(R)s along the length of the five Normandy beaches, sailed through the night and the vast armada of ships. In the early morning light, Frank's craft arrived at its designated firing point off the coast near Aromanches, and at the precise planned time, they fired their rockets just ahead of the landing troops. They devastated all the property in an area of approximately 400 yards x 100 yards deep. The rockets were fired in ten salvos of 120 - 1200 in all. Within each salvo they were fired in rapid sequence to reduce the risk of the downward force damaging the structure of the craft. Each rocket had the blast power of a 6 inch shell but without the penetrative power. All the rockets were fired in less than 1 min 30 seconds. [Photo of sister craft LCT(R) 334; © IWM (FL 7047).]
The rocket craft then came under small arms and mortar fire but without causing much damage. Their job was done and the CO pulled out to a safer distance where the rocket racks were refilled with the help of the Royal Marines. It took about 22 hours. At one point the Germans released small radio controlled boats with war heads fitted to their bows. These damaged several ships until gunners destroyed or disabled them before they could do any damage. It was a great relief to the crews of the Rocket craft which were vulnerable. Any explosion had the potential to detonate the rockets they carried with disastrous consequences.
On D Day + 2, an American Landing Ship Tank (LST) of around 25,000 tons, picked up LCT(R) 363's anchor cable with its propeller. It was an unequal struggle as the 1000 tons of the LCT were pulled downwards under the stern of much larger LST. They instructed the Rocket ship to get out of their way but became much more conciliatory when they realised that 1,500 high explosive rockets were on board. They stopped immediately which allowed the crew to cut the 1.25" diameter anchor cable which by then was well and truly wrapped around the propeller of the LST. The cable was coiled up like a spring and the energy released, when the ship's guillotine cut through the cable, caused it slew around wildly, doing much damage to the guard rails and dinghy of 363. The LST was in much more serious trouble. It took divers two or three days to free the cable from their propellers.
After about seven days, it became clear that there would no further need for rocket salvos so 363 the returned to the U.K. It berthed on the River Beaulieu just across from the Isle of Wight. Lord Beaulieu's estate was close by. The craft remained in a state of readiness for further action, and briefly returned to Normandy ten days later but did not take any further part in the landings. In early July, it returned once more to the Beaulieu River where it remained in a state of readiness. Frank was promoted to Chief Motor Mechanic.
On the 26th October they received orders to rendezvous with a destroyer in the English Channel together with other landing craft. From there they proceeded in convoy to Ostend, very shortly after the Germans had retreated on October 28th. Their task ahead was a daunting one. They were to become part of Operation Infatuate, the codename for the invasion of the Dutch Island of Walcheren. The island stood at the mouth of the River Scheldt and blocked Allied access to the captured port of Antwerp, some 60 kilometres inland, which was urgently needed to supply the advancing Allied armies.
Dislodging the entrenched German garrison of 10,000 soldiers on the island, with their big guns and strong defensive positions, was proving to be a slow and costly process. The planners decided that a new approach was required - an invasion from the sea. Because they had remained in a state of readiness after Normandy, the crew of LCT(R) 363 and their sister craft, were ready to depart on this operation. So, just a few days later, on the 31st October they set off arriving off Walcheren early on the 1st November. The rockets were targetted on predetermined targets and, according to later reports, with great accuracy & devastation. However, as they turned to make their way out, they received around 40 hits from the German shore batteries, luckily all passing over the magazine space which contained around 1200 explosive rockets and 12 smoke rockets. Had the magazine received a direct hit that ignited the explosive rockets, the craft, and everything on it, would have been totally destroyed.
When they were a mile or so from the shore, they received a direct hit from a 105mm German Naval gun fixed ashore. Frank was on duty in the engine room as the shell came through the stern quarter, penetrating the hull and the 2 1/4" steel plate that protected the engine room, missing his head by inches. It took away an exhaust pipe from the main engine and generator and did considerable damage to the generator itself. Sadly, it killed one of the seamen.
It then carried on through the main fuel tanks, cutting its way through an 8" x 6" RSJ beam and finally coming to rest amongst the smoke rockets which immediately ignited. It was all over in a split second and seawater was pouring in through the hole in the stern quarter. The crew dropped the rope of a hammock over the side of the ship and pulled it back through the hole from the inside. As they pulled on the rope the hammock appeared, became stuck in the hole effectively stemming the flow of water entering the craft. [Photo of a German heavy gun emplacement on the island. © IWM (BU 1273).]
Thick smoke belched out of the magazine storage space and the crew were far from certain about the condition of the high explosive rockets. Frank was badly wounded in his back and buttocks by steel fragments and his left ring finger was hanging off. Amongst this chaos and mayhem, toxic exhaust fumes were escaping from the shattered exhaust pipes and all the while the possibility of a mighty explosion was uppermost in their minds. Frank made repairs to the electrical wiring from the generator which powered up the fire pumps and activated the sprinkler system. The immediate crisis was over but the crew still had no idea what was on fire in the magazine hold.
Frank reasoned that their chances of survival in the North Sea in November, for any length of time, were extremely poor, so abandoning ship was not a sensible option. Their best chance of survival was to stay on board and to make the craft as safe as possible by attempting to undertake further repairs. He worked with the assistance of a wireman and rerouted the electrical cable to the other generator, which provided more electricity to power the pumps. This also allowed the hoses and sprinkler system to operate.
A Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) came alongside to rescue the crew, but unfortunately the sea was far too rough. As the two vessels rode the waves one was on the crest and the other in the trough and vice versa. At one stage the gunnels of the MTB rode up and over the gunnels of 363 causing a split in the MTB's deck. With no rescue in prospect, and mindful of the risk of explosion, the MTB retired to a safer distance. Our HQ ship put out a signal advising all vessels to stay well clear of 363. After about four hours, the smoke abated sufficiently to allow and inspection of the damage. As anticipated most of the damage had been caused by the large naval shell. Remarkably, the explosive part of the shell broke away on impact otherwise 363 and all her crew would have been lost.
After about eight hours, Frank collapsed from the effects of his wounds and from sheer exhaustion. HMS Erebos, an Erebos class Monitor from WW1, sent across a large rowing boat called a whaler. 363's cook, who had chest wounds, and Frank, were carefully lowered over the side in Robinson Stretchers and transferred to the sick bay on the 'Erebos'. Frank was operated on in the sick bay to remove the shrapnel and to tidy up his wounds. Erebus was a very old ship in need of decommissioning as exampled by the water swishing about in the sick bay. It was so deep that the surgeon had to wear Wellingtons!
On the 2nd November, the Captain came down to see Frank and informed him that the 'Erebos' had just fired its final salvo. He said it would be something to tell his grandchildren in years to come. Frank returned to Portsmouth and transferred to the Haslar RN Hospital on the 4th November for further treatment on his back & hand. After 3 weeks he moved to a commandeered ancestral home at Horndean, for convalescence. Whilst in there, he received notification of his 'Mention in Dispatches' for services on D Day. He also received a very complimentary letter from the CO of LCT(R) 363 with news that a further decoration was to follow.
6th December 1944
I should have written to you long ago, but I knew you were all right and besides, I have been too busy having leave. As you know we have all had one long leave, but I hope to be able to send some of the boys home for Christmas, which is not very far away now. Some of the boys have had 14 days at home and some only 11 and they all seemed to be satisfied. I only wish you were with us, you did a hell of a good job that awful morning and I can now safely say that you saved the ship and all on board and I do not know how to thank you.
Still I hope we meet again some day Chief and I shall buy you a pint of beer then; that is if you are not too snooty to talk to me.
I was very pleased to hear about your 'mention' and you will most probably have something else coming along after this show. You may be interested to know that we were the only ship to hit the target and that we have a very good name amongst the rest of our squadron.
Well Chief, sorry I am not able to write any more, so I'll wish you all the very best of luck and I hope that you will get home for Christmas.
Whilst on Christmas sick leave, Frank was in The Bay Horse at Euxton when the Chorley Guardian reporter, George Birtills, came in and informed him that he had been awarded the DSM for outstanding service in the attack on Walcheren. Everybody had a good celebration on the spot and then returned back to the farm for more. Frank later returned for further convalescence to Horndean and shortly after received an invitation to attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace on the 13th of March 1945. He attended accompanied by his sister, Hilda and a friend. The investiture w as taken by King George VI.
After a little more convalescence, Frank was discharged and returned to Southampton to take up his duties once again aboard LCT(R) 363, which was undergoing repairs in dry dock. He caught up with all the news and was informed that the105mm German shell had been found in the magazine storage space and that it had been sent to the Ballistics Department in Southampton for examination. He made a request to the department and finally retrieved it. He polished and varnished it and secured it to the quarter deck as a souvenir. [Photo taken outside Buckingham Palace. Frank (centre) and Stanley William Winrow (2nd Right); both received DSMs.]
The Victory in Europe (VE) celebrations were held in Southampton, which, for us, were followed by preparations for further operations in the Far East. However, with the surrender of the Japanese in September 1945, all training ceased and the planned trip to the Far East was abandoned. Frank spent a further 3 months in Poole and then sailed round Cornwall to Appledore in North Devon where the ship was paid off. A sad thing - someone stole his souvenir shell! He was de-mobbed at Chatham on the 24th of May 1946.
He started work back at Iddon Brothers in June 1946, and married Elizabeth Joan Nightingale at Leyland St Andrews Parish Church on the 28th December 1946. The Reception was held at The Masonic Hall, Leyland. He was promoted to charge-hand in 1952. He did a lot of installation work of the products manufactured by IBL for the Rubber & Plastics industry and worked in France, Spain, South Africa and Yugoslavia. He worked alongside Dr. Vole from ICI on the first extrusion of plastic belt on one of IBL rubber extruders, which was the start of the development of plastic covered cable, clothes line, terylene rope, coaxial cable, plastic bags, plastic sheet, bottles, dustbins - a very interesting time. Frank was promoted to Foreman in 1958, Works Manager in 1965 and Works Coordinator in 1982. He retired 29th November 1984.
Visit http://www.combinedops.com/Walcheren.htm for an account of the wider Walcheren operation of which LCT(R) 363 was part.
This account is based upon original notes prepared by Frank Wood which were updated by his daughter, Doreen Bullivant, in May 2013. The final draft, with factual additions and photos, was undertaken by Geoff Slee for website presentation. The final draft was approved by Frank and Doreen before publication.
Raymond Woods, Frank's nephew, wrote on 11/03/17; It is with sadness that I inform you that Frank Woods, DSM, passed away on March 27th 2017 from phenomena after a short illness. RIP.