CRAFT FLAK ~
Providing Anti-Aircraft Cover for the Invasion Fleet
Craft Flack (LCF) were converted Landing Craft Tank (LCTs) with the front ramp
welded in position and the hold decked over as a platform for the guns. There
were a number of variants (Marks) but most were around 150/200 ft long with a
beam of around 30/40 ft.
LCTs were designed to carry tanks and heavy transport, while the LCFs were equipped with anti-aircraft guns to provide air cover for
the invasion fleet, particularly the troop carrying Landing Craft Assault (LCA)
flotillas, which were poorly equipped to defend themselves against air attack.
Hector Holland's light-hearted,
tongue in cheek commentary belies the hazardous situations he found himself in,
when death and destruction were his companions on
occasions. This is his story.
LCF 37, tied up.
Not the author's craft but similar. © IWM (A 19420).]
Generally speaking, the lower deck of His Majesty’s Royal Navy can be split
into two main types of sea-going animal life, viz., ‘Big-ship’ sailors and
‘Small-ship’ sailors. ‘Big-ship’ sailors are those poor, weak minded facsimiles of seamen, who serve
on battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers and the like, whilst ‘Small-ship’
sailors are the hard-drinking, hard-working, hard-headed heroes, who made the
world safe for democracy. The men of the destroyers, sloops, frigates and
corvettes etc., were as decent a band of rogues, thieves and vagabonds as
ever picked a pocket, or slit a throat…needless to say, I was a ‘Small-ship’ matelot!
I joined my first ship only three weeks after entering the service and said
goodbye to her only four weeks later. She was a sloop, which is something
between a destroyer, a prefab and a Japanese banana boat, built on the Clyde in 1917.
She was hardly the latest
thing in naval sea power and had the distinction of having a bomb dropped
down her after funnel at Dunkirk, from which she had never
author in naval uniform.]
She and I parted company one morning in mid-Atlantic, when part of the German
Underwater Brigade (U Boats) decided she had outlived her usefulness. They saved
the admiralty the trouble of scrapping her. She
went down in twelve minutes, taking my brand new No.1 suit, purchased
only three days before and a months ‘nutty’ ration (chocolate) which I’d been saving
for the kids back at home. So ended episode one of my naval career.
Shortly after this, I
was ‘persuaded’ to volunteer for Combined Operations, where I was drafted to an
LCF. I arrived in Glasgow one cold, wet morning to join her at Barclay Curle’s yard. Never having seen
or heard of an LCF, I was prepared for almost anything. Despite this, I passed
by her three times, mistaking her for local bomb damage or some other
misfortune, when an
obliging dock worker pointed her out to me. The shock was so great that it was not
until I’d had my tot of Rum and rolled myself a ‘tickler’, that I could sit down
and calmly wonder what, in the name of the wee man, I had let myself in for!
She was long, thin and flat-bottomed with square bows and a blunt stern. Her
entire upper-deck bristled with gun-turrets, which bulged out on either side
like blisters. She looked like no other ship on earth and how she’d float and
maneuvre in rough weather caused me considerable worry from that day forward.
Every time we left port for the channel was an adventure, like going to sea for
the first time. I’d gaze longingly at the slowly receding coast, wondering if
I’d ever set foot on dry land again. To see her heading out to meet the Atlantic
rollers was indeed an awe-inspiring sight; she did not so much sail as ‘waddle’
in an ungainly manner, like a huge, grotesque duck! Her motion played havoc with
the cold, greasy atrocities, which masqueraded as meals.
General view of the guns of an LCF.
The gun platforms protruded over the sides of the craft.
© IWM (A 19423).]
a destroyer flashed us a signal as we wallowed in a
heavy sea, which read, ‘Please settle an argument. Are you a U-boat surfacing
or a trawler sinking?’... Just one of the many witticisms we had to endure during our
early days aboard.
Our crew consisted of sixteen seamen and sixty marines.
The purpose of the latter was to man our four double pom-poms and ten, double
barrelled, Oerlikons. Our craft was many times smaller
than a corvette, which carries a crew of eighty or thereabouts. The cramped, overcrowded conditions on board
our LCF was such that if someone hiccupped during the night, the man two hammocks
away would probably say ‘excuse me’ and someone on the other side of the
mess-deck would likely fall out of bed!
Our cooling system
in the summer was a very small porthole about the size of a fully grown cabbage.
In the winter, our heating plant was a two bar electric fire about the size of a dog biscuit.
Its output could not have
toasted a slice of bread, let alone warm up our shivering carcasses or thaw out
our frozen clothes after four hours on the open bridge. How I blessed my tot of
‘grog’ and looked forward to the most popular ‘pipe’ in the navy…’Up Spirits’.
Every day, at twelve o’clock, it transformed me from two yards of frozen pump
water to something resembling a human being!
My rating in the navy was
‘telegraphist’, commonly known to the other branches as ‘sparkers’ or
‘comic-singers’. There was no provision whatsoever for a wireless cabin aboard
this floating sardine tin, since none was considered needed in the original LCT
design. By the time their lordships discovered their mistake, the craft were already
well under construction. When wireless communications were being used, I found
myself squeezed into a corner of the wheelhouse, between the compass and the
wheel, with a wireless set jammed between my knees while seated on an upturned bucket. How I hated
the sight of that bucket and the mark it left on my tender posterior!
they fitted me out with a proper office,
complete with chairs, etc. They even sent me three more ‘sparkers’ to hang
around and make the place look untidy.
For a long time we
undertook countless training exercises with LCTs, LCIs, LCAs,
LCGs, etc. in a long succession of ‘D’ days, ‘H’ hours and mock beach
assaults. Some bright spark ashore even organised a prolonged endurance exercise
for the communications ratings. For three days and three nights I sat in a
stuffy smoke-filled cabin, drinking
innumerable cups of ‘kye’ (tea) in a vain attempt to keep me awake. Signal
after signal came through until the Morse code became a meaningless jumble of
sound. I had to take a break for a few minutes or scream.
All our officers were RNVR,
so their knowledge of wireless telegraphy and
the organisation and structure behind it, was almost nil.
responsibility for all communications and signals, therefore, rested with me.
One early morning in June 1944, I was called to the skipper’s cabin and
instructed to close the door, the porthole, the ventilation hatch and my big
mouth! I was about to learn of
plans and developments
of great consequence, which I should
tell to no one.
At approximately 5am, on the morning of June 4th,
we would ‘up kedge’ and set out from Southampton for the coast of France. At 0600 hours on the 5th,
we would cruise up and down the beaches of Normandy playing tag with the German
pill boxes and gun emplacements on the shore. However,
the meticulous detail formed a mountainous pile of closely typed documents, which
I was ordered to digest. It was important not to raise suspicions of the
impending operation, so I should lock myself in the wireless cabin. Operation Neptune, the amphibious phase of Operation Overlord
was only days away.
secrecy in the manner proposed was more difficult
to accomplish than you might imagine. I had allowed my wireless cabin to be used by all and sundry as neutral
territory where: loafers could escape from the eagle
eye of the coxswain; gasping nicotine addicts could indulge in an illicit
‘tickler’ during non-smoking hours and lonely Romeos could pour out their hearts on
paper to their Juliet’s away from the din, banter and
leg-pulling of the mess deck, where gossip,
scandal and tit-bits were freely exchanged.
As if that wasn't enough, on HM ships it was well
known that all rumours and speculation originated in the W/T office... then
there were the opportunists, who would poke their snouts around the door to
enquire ‘What’s the latest buzz, Sparks?’
W/T cabin was a busy,
unofficial information hub and to suddenly
revert to its intended exclusive
use for ‘comic singers’ would defeat the object of
the exercise. I had a
big problem on my hands and I knew it!
However, all was not lost, I asked the coxswain to place a notice on the mess deck
inviting all ratings, with no duties,
to draw a paintbrush and pot of paint from the
stores and report to the W/T office
forthwith. Needless to say, I spent two
full days in almost complete seclusion, working out
the details of Operation Neptune as they affected us!
As everyone knows now,
D-Day was postponed for 24 hours. We
arrived off Normandy on June 6th, where
we created a lot of noise but did
very little damage. The Luftwaffe mostly kept well out of
range or didn’t show up at all, perhaps due in
part to the reception they knew awaited them!
After a few quite boring weeks, we ran out of
fresh water and provisions and returned to Southampton
to re-stock. There were so many Yanks in town drinking what little beer
there was, eating what little food there was and finishing off the war
for us there and then. We were not sorry to leave for the beachhead again.
Things were very different on our return to Normandy. The Germans
were now trying to break through our defensive cordon of craft around the beachhead.
It was vital to protect the supply ships as they discharged thousands of tons of
desperately needed vehicles, munitions and supplies for the
advancing armies ashore. Any break in the
supply chain might give the enemy a chance to regroup and counter attack.
We became part of ‘the Support Squadron, Eastern Flank’.
During daylight hours we patrolled around the beachhead but, at dusk,
we anchored off the
enemy held part of the coast, forming a line out to sea. The object
was to detect and destroy midget submarines,
and Explosive Motor Boats (EMBs), as they tried to
penetrate the line.
could do forty knots and were packed with high explosives. They were remotely controlled by a
parent ship but each carried one man,
who aimed the craft on its final approach
to its target
before jumping into the sea, with very little chance of being picked up. We
were not allowed to move from our position under any circumstances,
even when our searchlights picked out a dozen or so EMBs
heading straight for us. Fortunately, such was the
intensity of our collective fire power that we always managed to blow
them up at a safe distance.
midget submarines and human
torpedoes were, however, a different proposition entirely.
We could not hear them and
they were difficult to spot with only a little Perspex observation bulb above water.
of our craft in line were
blown up with no warning whatsoever.
Looking for survivors was futile. Our only consolation was that no
midget submarine ever escaped after attacking a craft.
also laid mines from the air just ahead of our positions. On the flow, the tide
carried them past us during the night, entangling themselves in our screws and
kedge wires. On the ebb, the tide carried them back again in the morning. As
some craft pulled in their kedge
anchors or engaged their
starting up their main
engines, they simply disappeared in the midst of a high
hazards we faced at that time also included shells fired from long-range shore batteries,
guided by feedback from forward observation positions . We
regularly moved around, sufficient to prevent them
homing in on our positions. The boredom we felt on our first visit had been
replaced by concerns about these many hazards . However, after the individual Allied
beachheads joined up and pushed the Germans inland, this intense activity decreased
and we survived to fight another day.
There was a German
garrison of 10,000 on Walcheren that was proving very difficult to
dislodge. With their heavy guns overlooking the estuary to the River Sheldt,
they prevented the Allies from using the port of Antwerp,
already in their hands, to supply their armies
as they fought their way towards Berlin.
November 1944, an amphibious raid took place during which we lost eight craft out of ten
from our flotilla. The German gun
emplacements concentrated their fire on our LCFs, while the Commandoes
slipped ashore unmolested. We were told it was good strategy but it
was very difficult for us to
little shells simply bounced off the ten feet thick
concrete walls protecting the Jerry guns, while
our craft were systematically blown to pieces
by their big guns; one shell for'ard, one
shell aft, one shell amidships...
another one to Davy Jones’s locker.
There’s was nothing we could
do about it, because we had been
ordered to stay on station. Still, I
suppose, there must have been a reason for it in the
big picture of the war. Anyway,
the Sunday papers
made a big splash about it and we all donated something to build a memorial to
the blokes who didn’t make it.
It was a successful
operation and Allied supply ships were soon unloading their vital cargoes much
closer to the front. 6 months later the war was over. Full story of
Operation Infatuate here.
Shortly after returning to the UK, I had a spell in hospital. On
discharge I was to rejoin my LCF but its whereabouts was
unknown. The powers that be advised, ‘get a ship at Tilbury docks and see if you can find
her anywhere on the other side’. I had a very enjoyable trip
through France, Belgium and Holland, taking in most of the principle towns and
cities on the way. I finally traced her to a canal at 03.00 hrs
in a small Dutch village called Wemeldinge, in North Beveland,
not far from Walcheren. The rain was teeming down and the bank of the canal
was a sea of mud.
It was an odd sight to see the white ensign sticking up
in the middle of a village miles away
from the sea.
were now attached to the Marine Commandoes for as long as they required us and
Most of the crew had grown beards to distinguish themselves from the ‘Land
Service’ Marines. We encountered German ‘frogmen’ there, who were
attempting to destroy canal lock gates and to block the shipping
lanes of the Scheldt Estuary.Their aim was to paralyse the port of
Antwerp, then under a constant hail of V2
[Photo; the author at the 50th anniversary
commemorations at Walcheren in November 1994.]
frogmen swam over to our territory from an island
called Scowen, about half a mile away.
They were a constant nuisance, as were parties of SS troops, who would steal ashore
in the middle of the night and grab a couple of sentries or Dutch civilians for questioning.
The original reason for our being there was, I
believe, to take Scowen,
but a couple of attempts fell through. Anyway, the war in Europe finished and we returned
home to pass the time knitting and growing
flowers until we were demobbed. All in all, it was nothing if not interesting but, don’t think it hadn’t
been fun…because it hadn’t!
"There is no glory in war... only death,
destruction, shattered bodies and disturbed minds."
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My grandfather gave me the badge/emblem from
his WW2 Landing Craft LCLF21 (Landing Craft
Large Flak) which formed part of the Trout Line.
My grandfather is still alive and his war
memories are amongst the easiest for him to recall !!
This account of life on a WW2 Landing Craft Flak was written by
Holland and published here with the kind permission of the author's son,