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~ UK LANDING CRAFT TANK (ROCKET) - LCT (R) ~

LCT (R) 363 - Juno Beach, D-Day

In approaching enemy held landing beaches from the sea the initial assault troops were likely to come under fire from machine guns, mortars, shells and snipers. If these enemy defensive positions and their communications could be disabled or destroyed and the enemy troops manning them could be disrupted and disorientated, the Allied troops would suffer fewer casualties in establishing their beachheads.

[Photo of sister craft LCT (R) 334; © IWM (FL 7047).]

 To assist in this, the Allies developed a number of secret weapons one of which was the Landing Craft Tank (Rocket) - LCT (R). In just a few seconds each LCT (R) could fire many hundreds of high explosive rockets, in rapid succession, onto the landing beaches just ahead of the first wave of assault troops. This is one story told by stoker Frank Woods, DSM.

Background

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 engineering 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 his civilian job was included in the Ministry of Labour's 'Schedule of Reserved Occupations and Protected Work.' HM Government thought he was more valuable to the war effort in his civilian job.

In September, 1942, by which time he had completed his apprenticeship, he left Iddons to work on the manufacture of torpedoes at Gourock on the River Clyde in Scotland. However, before he started he was redirected to the General Motors factory at Bamber Bridge, near Preston. Their Southampton factory had been bombed and was still a prime target for the Luftwaffe, so the factory was relocated to the relative safety of rural northern England. After just two months he was put in charge of the engine shop.

In November, 1942, he volunteered once more for the Royal Navy and  joined up at Gosport, Hampshire, in April 1943.

Landing Craft Training

He was transferred to Chatham, Kent in May, 1943, for 'square bashing' and rifle drill. Initially he was billeted in HMS Collingwood, a shore based training establishment then on a dilapidated ex-grain carrier, HMS Peking, which was notable for its infestation of cockroaches! Following his induction training he learned how to repair and maintain marine diesel engines.

On completion of this training in July, 1943, he took up the position of Acting Chief Motor Mechanic, 4th Class at HMS Quebec on Loch Fyne in Scotland. This was the naval part of the No 1 Combined Training Centre, which provided joint training exercises in amphibious landings using minor landing craft. In August 1943, he was attached to the Combined Operations Command and joined an Assault Flotilla on a Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP), which ferried undercover agents to the French Coast from Burnham on Crouch in Essex. He trained with Commandos and REME in countless joint RN/Army amphibious practice beach landings. A further spell of training on Hayling Island near Portsmouth was followed by a return to HMS Westcliffe near Southend, in September 1943 to continue his landing craft training programme and to provide instruction on the maintenance, repair and servicing of diesel engines.

[Photo; Frank in the centre with two other crew members of LCT (R) 363.]

In December 1943, he was drafted to Portsmouth to serve on Landing Craft Tank Rocket 125 - LCT (R) 125. However, the Regulating Office in Portsmouth to which he reported had never heard of a Landing Craft Tank Rocket let alone LCT (R) 125! LCT (R)s were due to be deployed for the first time on D-Day so their very existence was known only to those who needed to know. The element of surprise was paramount to prevent the enemy from taking counter-measures. He 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, he finally located LCT (R) 125 and was placed in full charge of the engine room and all the craft's ancillary engineering equipment. The engine room personnel comprised 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 prior to inspection visit by a Naval Officer and two POs came on board. With the inspection completed in under 2 hours, Frank 'sign here' and the inspector remarked "They're all yours.", and left. A very challenging but interesting few weeks lay ahead for the 23 years old Chief Engineer of the ship.

Three days later with fuel and water aboard they sailed out of Portsmouth and 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 an enemy magnetic mine which were an ever present danger. A month of sea trials followed off the Isle of Wight, which included some very rough weather. A serious structural crack appeared amidships and we returned to Southampton stern first to reduce stresses in the hull. We reached Southampton with the craft still in one piece.

All the ships company transferred to LCT (R) 363 a few days later when serious training for D Day began. For security reasons the rocket launchers were covered with tarpaulins when not in use at sea for training purposes. There were three British and three American LCT (R)s in our support group and we practiced several firings into Studland Bay, south of Poole, Dorset and again in April, 1944, at Slapton Sands south of Torquay, Devon as part of the ill fated, Operation Tiger.

His craft sailed from Southampton on 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 but recalls 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. Editor.]                                          

 'D' Day - June 6th 1944

Operation Neptune, the amphibious phase of Operation Overlord, had been meticulously planned down to the last detail including the precise order,  route and destination of thousands of vessels of all shapes and sizes. On the 5th of June, LCT (R) 363 left her mooring and formed up in convoy in preparation for the Channel crossing. The LCT (R)s were the last to leave the confined inshore 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 8 LCT (R)s, in common with similar numbers of  LCT (R)s at the other four landing beaches, sailed through the night. In the early morning light, Frank's craft arrived at its designated firing point off the Normandy coast near Aromanches. At the precise planned time they fired their rockets just ahead of the landing troops. 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. They obliterated an area of approximately 400 yards x 100 yards deep.

[Extract from the Admiralty's' Green List' showing the disposition of some landing craft bound for Juno Beach including LCT (R) 363.]

The rocket craft came under small arms and mortar fire but with little effect. 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. During this time the Germans released small radio controlled boats fitted with explosive war heads. 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 particularly 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 the much larger LST. They ordered 363 to get out of their way but became more conciliatory when they learned we carried 1,500 high explosive rockets! They stopped immediately to allow the crew to cut the 1.25" diameter anchor cable, which by then was wrapped around the propeller of the LST like a coiled up spring. When the ship's guillotine cut through the cable, it wildly slewed around causing damage to the guard rails and dinghy of 363. However, 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, the beaches were entirely secure so 363 was stood down and 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 ten days later was briefly returned to Normandy 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.

 Operation Infatuate, Walcheren - November 1944

On the 26th October, 363 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 from the town on October 28th. The 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 heavy guns and strong defensive positions, was proving to be a slow and costly process for the foot soldiers. The planners decided that an amphibious assault landing might dislodge the enemy and because 363 and her sister craft had remained in a state of readiness after Normandy, they were the obvious choice for this operation. On the 31st October they departed Ostend 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.

[Photo of a German heavy gun emplacement on the island. © IWM (BU 1273).]

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.

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.

Lieut. Rasmussen RN
Commanding Officer,
LCT(R) 363
GPO
London

6th December 1944

Hello Chief!

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.

Yours,

CO

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 was taken by King George VI

[Photo taken outside Buckingham Palace. Frank (centre) and Stanley William Winrow (2nd Right); both received DSMs.]

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.

Post War

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.

Further Reading

Visit http://www.combinedops.com/Walcheren.htm for an account of the wider Walcheren operation of which LCT (R) 363 was part.

Acknowledgements

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.

 

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