The Triumph & Tragedy of Landing Craft LCT(A)2454
Part 1 - Triumph
On June 6, 1944, 150,000 Allied soldiers clambered aboard heaving landing craft and braved six-foot swells, waves of machine gun fire, and more than six million land mines to claim a stretch of sand in Normandy. Their mission was to carve out an Allied foothold on the edge of Nazi-occupied Europe for the army of more than one million that would follow them in the summer of 1944. This army would burst forth from the beachhead, rolling across Europe into the heart of Germany, liberating millions, toppling a genocidal regime, and ending a nightmare along the way. But it all began on this beach in France, with an army of teenagers on a day called D-Day.
Weymouth and Portland have the obvious historic connection with the D-Day landings as the major debarkation point for the American troops who landed on Omaha Beach, as is the presence of two Phoenix Caissons, part of the famous Mulberry harbour, which are still situated in Portland Harbour.
However, one link that is nearly always hidden and less well known is the wreck of a landing craft off Chesil Beach. This wreck is known for its tragic loss of nine crewmen and two coast guards who went to their rescue on Friday 13 October 1944, but less known is that four months earlier the landing craft had taken part in the most famous invasion force in history - D-Day.
The wreck is a well known site for divers, but the history of LCT(A)2454 is probably not so well known, so it is a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in the storm 65 years ago to commemorate the tragedy along with the other events that are taking place this June.
Landing Craft Tank (Mark 5) LCT454 was laid down at New York Shipbuilding Corp, Camden, New Jersey around September 1942, typical building time for an LCT Mk 5 was 35 days, with a new keel laid every three or four days.
LCT454 was delivered and transferred to the United Kingdom, under the Lend-Lease program and was originally destined for Mediterranean Theatre service. Armour plating was added in early 1944 in the United Kingdom prior to Reverse Lend-Lease to the US Navy and it was re-designated LCT(A)-2454 and assigned to the Gunfire Support Group which took part in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. She was struck from the US Naval Register on 22 December 1944 after being wrecked on Chesil Beach in a heavy gale on Friday 13 October 1944.
LCT (A)2454’s D-Day
Sometime in late 1943, the planners of Overlord, the code name for the invasion of France, decided they needed more close-in firepower to support the proposed landings in Normandy.
As a result the US Navy Gunfire Support Group was formed. A late addition to the group was the US Navy Mk5 LCT(A) or Landing Craft Tank (Armoured). The Mk5 LCTs were American built tank landing craft, which began arriving in England during 1942 and later many were carried in whole, or in parts, on the decks of merchant ships and dropped off in England to be assembled and crewed.
Prior to D-Day close to 160 craft had served with the Royal Navy under Lend-Lease and were dispersed amongst numerous LCT flotillas. To separate them from their American sister Mk5 LCTs the British craft had a 2 added in front of their original US Navy pennant number, thus, British Mk5 LCTs carried pennant numbers in the 2000 series and LCT454 became LCT2454.
At various times 48 craft were converted to the designation LCT(A) (Armoured), having a firing platform, made from 4 by 12 inch timber, fitted to the fore of the tank deck. The forward Sherman tanks were then able to fire over the bows as the LCT made their approach during the first assault waves. In addition to the firing platform they also carried increased armour plate, upto 21/2 inches thick, to the bows, bridge and wheelhouse sections. Fully loaded with tanks, plus the added armour, made for very little freeboard while crossing the channel, especially in the rough conditions that prevailed in June 1944.
Prior to D-Day these conversions were lent back to the US Navy to serve under ‘Lend-Lease in Reverse’ it was these craft that became part of the Gunfire Support Group 11th Amphibious Force. On the morning of D-Day they were divided across the Omaha and Utah beach landings. The craft assigned to Omaha beach delivering the tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the craft assigned to Utah beach, including LCT(A)2454, delivering the men of the 70th Tank Battalion.
LCT(A)2454, along with dozens of other craft, was moored in the Dart Estuary in Devon, where it loaded its tanks at Kingswear. Then the eight LCTs carrying C Company’s tanks under the command of Lt John Ahearn were ordered to Salcombe, where they moored up river, awaiting the start of the invasion on June 3rd when these craft would join Force U, as Cruising Disposition 3, for the invasion of Normandy.
At 1500 on June 3rd 1944, the Invasion Task Force began forming up for the crossing of the English Channel. At 1800 they joined convoy U-2A, in the swept channel opposite Salcombe Bay entrance, as part of Combat Team 8.
The convoy travelling at 5 knots, led by the destroyer USS Corry, headed into a force five gale and the worsening weather conditions caused the postponement of D-Day. At 1300 on June 4th the convoy reversed course and made its way to the lee of Portland, anchoring at 1900 on the new ‘D minus 2, June 4. (USS Corry was sunk on the 6th June).
At 0200 on June 5 they were ordered to get underway and to resume convoy position. Weighing anchor in the darkness and hunting for the correct positioning in the convoy resulted in near chaos. The convoy attempted to cruise at 5 knots, a feat difficult for LCTs even in calm weather, the intensifying winds creating an even rougher ride and three of the LCTs including 2454 were towing LCPL smokers, designed to produce smoke screens to obscure Allied movements, which slowed them down even more. The crew of ten and as many as twenty seasick army personnel had been at sea for over 36 hours, rolling and pitching in the difficult conditions and with only limited facilities onboard, nine bunks, limited food storage and one head!
At 0200 on June 6 the convoy arrived at the transport area 11 miles off the beach, at 0420 they moved to the rendezvous area with seas moderating and winds from the west at 18 knots.
The eight LCT(A)s were assigned to Utah, Tare, Green Beach and were in the third wave (See map on next page) which was scheduled to arrive on the beach at HHR+15 (15 minutes after the initial landings), carrying tanks of ‘C’ Company of the US 70th Tank Battalion. These consisted of four Sherman Deep wading M4 amphibious tanks and an engineer’s bulldozer tank designed to help demolish beach obstructions. As a result of the offshore current and poor visibility, Combat Team 8’s first and subsequent waves landed 2,000 yards south of the intended landing zone at La Madelaine, where the obstacles were less formidable and the assault proved to be easier.
By 0710 LCT(A)2454 along with 2478 had successfully beached on Tare Sector Green and each disgorged their tanks whilst under fire and retracted from the beach returning to the transport area with some damage, but minimal injuries.
The operational LCTs continued to offload vessels in the transport area and ferry men and equipment to the beach. Ten days later the worst Channel storm in years effectively closed down the beach. When the weather cleared many landing craft were stranded on the beach, of the five remaining LCT(A)s, four were towed to Southampton or Portland for repairs, exact movements of 2454 are not known, but she was back in Portland waters in October.
During the Invasion of Normandy,16 LCTs were lost with two from Utah Beach, personnel losses included 4 killed in action, 5 missing and 28 wounded on Omaha and Utah Beaches.
70th Tank Battalion
The American 70th Tank Battalion arrived for England at Liverpool on 28 November 1943. The battalion had demonstrated in North Africa and Sicily that the M5 light tank was badly outgunned by the German Mark IVs with 75mm guns; they were refitted in England with three companies of M4 Sherman medium tanks with 75mm main guns in December 1943.
It was during this time that the 70th adopted “Joe Peckerwood”, the “Truculent Turtle,” as their mascot, which was painted onto every sponson and every vehicle in the battalion.
At 0645 on 6 June 1944, after 18 months of training in secret, the 70th Tank Battalion rolled off of their landing crafts and onto Utah beach with the 4th Infantry Division.
Four landing craft in the third wave, including LCT (A)2454, were carrying C Company and although A and B Companies were supposed to have been in the first wave, due to a mix up in the rendezvous area, the first tank on shore was commanded by PFC Owen Gavigan of C Company. They arrived with 12 of their 16 tanks and under artillery and rocket fire, cleared obstacles with high explosive rounds and bulldozer attachments and took key gun emplacements under fire. Several landing craft sustained damage including 2454, however it did not prevent it unloading its cargo of tanks.
C Company broke through to the 82nd Airborne at Ste Mere Eglise on 8 June, and the battalion continued north, cleaning up pockets of resistance along the road north. The tankers fought continuously for days on end, doggedly clearing the last German resistance.
The 70th Tank’s losses during D-Day were the largest for any single day in the war. During the “Longest Day”, they had lost 16 tanks, with 22 men killed and 8 wounded. By the time the Cotentin Peninsula was cleared, the number of lost tanks had grown to 32, with 29 men KIA, 31 MIA and 48 WIA.
First Lt John Littleton Ahearn
First Lt John Littleton Ahearn, was in charge of C Company, US 70th Tank Battalion on D-Day which sailed in 8 landing craft, one of which was LCT(A)2454.
He’d already landed in Sicily and northern Africa as part of the 70th Tank Battalion, where he had lost friends and would lose more. His was the first tank unit to land on Utah, his own tank the second to hit the beach.
On landing he reported to General Roosevelt, the only general on D-Day to land with the first wave of troops. (One month after the landing Roosevelt died of a heart attack in France).
After fighting through the beachhead, Ahearn led his tanks inland, where they captured 30 prisoners. Ahearn’s tank then struck a land mine.
When the column stopped he discovered wounded American soldiers in a nearby minefield. He wouldn’t let any of his troops go after them, however. Instead, he went in himself. The mine he stepped on took his right leg below the knee and a portion of his left foot. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
John Littleton Ahearn, 89, of Phoenix, Arizona, passed away on June 23, 2004.
“Afterwards, you are struck by the horror and the danger, but I remember being excited as we moved toward the beach.”
LCT2454(A) Part 2