By the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany had gained a fearsome military reputation. Having effectively torn up the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, its army once again possessed tanks – while the Luftwaffe’s Stuka dive bombers had ruled the skies over the beaches of Dunkirk. Combining both had been the vision of such military planners as Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel and the resulting Blitzkrieg – or lightning war – had seen first the Maginot line bypassed and then France – which fielded more tanks than Germany – surrender. Against a Nazi invasion of Britain stood the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and most implacably the English Channel: In 1940 the best anti-tank ditch in the World. Tanks were most at home on open flat or rolling ground like the deserts of North Africa or the Steppes of Russia. Projecting them across water would need either specialist transport or modification.
Invasions from the sea are of course not new – they date back even before the Vikings and the Romans. But landing a modern technological army at the end of a long supply chain in the face of prepared opposition was to be the most severe strategic challenge of 20th Century warfare. While Tritton and Wilson had been experimenting with their experimental Little Willie tank in 1915, an Imperial expeditionary force had tried to open a sea supply route to Russia through the Black Sea by invading the Dardanelles. Due to earlier naval actions in the area, the Turks knew that the invasion force – mainly comprising troops from Australia and New Zealand – was coming and prepared the hillsides above the narrow beaches with artillery and machine guns. As a result, men of the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the Hampshire Regiment landing off the converted collier SS River Clyde were mown down as they disembarked one by one. Of the first 200 to leave the ship only 21 made it to the beaches. Protection in the form of armoured vehicles would become a future necessity.
However, the Gallipoli campaign also saw the introduction of the first modern landing craft. In February 1915 Admiral Lord Fisher commissioned London shipwrights James Pollock and Sons to modify a design of Thames barge with a spoon shaped bow incorporating a drop down ramp. Plans were drawn up in just four days for a fleet of vessels 105’ 6” long, 7’6” deep and with a light displacement of just 135 tons. Power was to come from a range of oil engines and construction of 200 units took place in north east England and on the Clyde. Most of these were used to land stores, field guns and horses although some were converted as water and fuel tankers. Painted black and known as Beetles, some of these flat bottomed vessels even survived to help evacuate the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940. However, functional as the black Beetles were, their engines and steering positions at the rear made them difficult to control and the flat bottoms and ramps reduced their sea worthiness in less than calm conditions.
During the 1920s Britain had little money spare for developing new weapons but in 1926 a new series of Motor Landing Craft emerged from the Cowes, Isle of Wight, shipyard of J. Samuel White. Powered by an extremely noisy Hotchkiss petrol engine, MLC1 used steerable water jets for propulsion rather than a propeller which could easily be fouled in shallow water. This in turn led to the development of the Landing Craft Assault (LCA) which the Royal Navy specified had to weigh less than ten tons so that it could be hung from the davits of a passenger liner. The Thorneycroft designed LCA also had to be able to land a platoon of 31 soldiers in only eighteen inches of water and its inner hull was made of mahogany to further silence its already quiet Ford V8 engines.
The United States and Royal Navies would later be supplied with the Landing Craft Personnel (Large) designed by Andrew Jackson Higgins of the Eureka Tug Boat Company of New Orleans. This was in turn developed into the Landing Craft Personnel (Ramped) which, like the British LCA, allowed rapid troop egress through a front ramp. What became best known as the Higgins Boat however was the Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP), which could carry 36 troops or a Jeep and trailer. The LCVP design was in turn influenced by the Daihatsu class of landing craft used by Japan from 1937. All the landing craft so far mentioned were a definite improvement on the rowing boats used at Gallipoli and before – but getting tanks rapidly ashore required a larger class of vessel known as Landing Class Mechanized. Due to the long standing Airfix kit with its load of a 30 ton Sherman tank, the LCM Mark III is probably the best known of a range of specifications built both in Britain and the USA. The LCM Mark III was an American design, distinguished by its tall armoured wheelhouse while the LCM Mark IV had special bilge pumps and ballast tanks. The final Mark 8 could carry an M60 tank or 200 troops.
While the LCM could land one Sherman tank after a relatively short sea crossing, projecting large numbers of armoured vehicles into an opposed amphibious assault over a long distance required categories of vessel known as Landing Craft Tank – seen here – and the even larger Landing Ship Tank. The Landing Craft Tank (LCT) concept was created in 1940 by Winston Churchill himself who demanded a vessel capable of landing three Churchill heavy tanks directly on to a beach but be able to sustain itself at sea for at least a week. It also had to be easy and cheap to build. Naval architect Sir Roland Baker produced the initial drawings for the new LCT design in three days with Fairfields and John Brown ship builders developing the concept. The first LCT Mark 1 was launched by Hawthorn Leslie in November 1940 and featured a steel door behind the ramp to seal off the tank deck. The side bulwarks were also hollow and buoyant while fuel and ballast tanks in the double bottom allowed the Landing Craft Tank to be pitched back for beach landings. Key to operating the petrol engined LCTs was the stern mounted kedge anchor which stopped the vessel from slewing. As well as the existing winches to pull on the kedge anchor and haul the LCT off the beach, the Mark II LCT was longer and wider than the highly unseaworthy Mark I with more powerful petrol or diesel engines. The Mark III was shorter but wider while the Mark IV could carry six Churchill tanks. The American built Mark V could be transported in sections and assembled aboard a Landing Ship Tank and the LCT concept eventually evolved into the Landing Craft Medium, capable of carrying eight large tanks and 50 fully armed troops.
Rather than just a large open floating box though, the Landing Ship Tank was a proper ship, capable of landing or evacuating thirty 25 ton tanks and 217 troops. Indeed, the requirement for such a vessel was prompted by the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, where the famous “little ships” plucked thousands of soldiers from the beaches while their vehicles had to be abandoned. The first Landing Ship Tanks were converted oil tankers with shallow draughts but proved unfeasibly slow. This led Winston Churchill to intervene again and suggest vessels which could deliver thirteen Churchill Tanks, 27 other vehicles and 200 fighting men at 18 knots. As such capacity and speed was incompatible with a shallow draught, the first purpose-built LSTs had long ramps stowed behind their bow doors. The American built LST Mark II however had trans Atlantic range at a slower 10 knots and buoyant hollow sidewalls. These could be flooded to give a deeper draught and more stability for ocean travel but pumped out close to the landing beach so that the ship would only draw three feet of water and could still float with a flooded tank deck. Many LSTs were built by yards on inland waterways rather than at the coast and a number were erected by bridge and steelwork manufacturers rather than shipbuilders.
However, none of the many Allied landing craft already described would have been designed, let alone built and used, had a German invasion of Britain in 1940 been successful. As such, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider how and why Operation Sea Lion finally failed. In the broadest strategic and ideological sense, Hitler was much more interested in conquering Russia and hoped that Britain and its Empire would come round to his point of view and make peace with Germany. The Royal Air Force also enjoyed a home advantage and the Royal Navy enjoyed numerical superiority over the Kriegsmarine. On a practical level too, Germany was ill equipped to make any kind of amphibious landing. Engineer Landing Boat Type 39 was a self-propelled shallow-draft vessel which could carry 45 infantrymen, two light vehicles or 20 tons of cargo. It unloaded through a pair of clamshell doors at the bow, but by late September 1940 only two prototypes had been delivered. Recognising the need for an even larger craft capable of landing both tanks and infantry, the Kriegsmarine began development of the 220-ton Marinefahrprahm (MFP), the equivalent of the Allied Landing Craft Tank. However, the first of these not being commissioned until April 1941. Instead, 2 400 Rhine and other European inland waterway barges were requisitioned and modified with bow doors, ramps, internal steel stiffening and concrete floors to take either three or four medium tanks. However, only 800 of these were powered, the rest requiring tugs to move them.
Of these barges, a number were also adapted to launch Tauchpanzers, or diving tanks, at some distance from the beaches. These Tauchpanzers would have been made waterproof with rubber seals which would then have been blown off with explosives once on dry land. An 18 metre hose supported by a float would have provided breathing air for the crew and engine as well as a radio aerial. In tests, Tauchpanzers were found to sink into the seabed if stopped underwater and were confounded by large rocks. For this reason they could only be recovered between and high and low water marks. Based on the smaller, lighter Panzer II rather than the Panzer IIIs and IVs which had defeated Poland, the Schwimmpanzer had the advantage of floating courtesy of the two large hollow sponsons fitted to each side and being able to use its 20mm artillery and machine gun while rolling up a beach. However, the width of the sponsons meant that schwimmpanzers had to be launched from the stern of their own specialist barges, albeit further out than the Tauchpanzers.
It is also worth noting that the German army had its own prototype versions of the later Allied Mulberry Harbour built by Krupp Stahlbau and Dortmunder Union. In 1942, long after Operation Sea Lion was cancelled, these “Heavy Landing Bridges” were erected on the Channel island of Alderney where the so-called German Jetty lasted until 1978. Similarly, the Wehrmacht realised the need for a vehicle to pull unpowered barges up the beaches and also deliver ammunition and supplies from offshore vessels to the fighting front at low tide. This resulted in the Landwasserschlepper amphibious tractor which makes an interesting comparison to the later Allied DUKW amphibious lorry and Buffalo swimming armoured vehicle. However, mass producing enough Landwasserschlepper for Operation Sea Lion was problematic although some did serve in North Africa. Perhaps the most telling of the reasons why Operation Sea Lion failed however was that despite the mechanized images of Josef Goebbel’s propaganda films, most of the Wehrmacht’s vehicles were horse drawn and thus far less suited to being loaded on to ships and discharged on to beaches. There was also the problem of the six hour gap between high tides at Lyme Regis and Dover, robbing such a broad fronted invasion of the element of surprise.
However, even concentrating an invasion force on one port could be a recipe for failure as the Allies found out to their cost on 19 August 1942. Operation Jubilee – the raid on Dieppe in northern France – was a practical experiment driven by a number of circumstances. One of these was to draw the Luftwaffe’s new Focke Wulf 190 fighters into the air much further north than usual, giving RAF Fighter command the chance to engage and destroy them on more equal terms. Pressure was also being exerted by Soviet leader Josef Stalin for the Western Allies to open a second front and relieve his forces in the east. As it was, November 1942 would see Operation Torch – the air and sea invasion of Morocco and Algeria from Britain – which would ultimately remove the Germans from North Africa and pave the way for the Allied invasion of Italy. However, because the success of Operation Torch relied on Vichy French forces in North Africa not offering heavy resistance, it was decided that to avoid civilian casualties, Dieppe would not be softened up by air or sea bombardment.
Similarly, the shock and awe of enemy soldiers and tanks suddenly appearing on the beaches of Dieppe was compromised by the German garrison – numbering many more than Allied planners had predicted – being prepared through French double agents working in Britain and increased Allied radio traffic in the area. In addition, nearly half the Canadian manned Churchill tanks that landed never made it off the soft shingle beach and those that did move beyond Dieppe’s sea wall were defeated by anti-tank obstacles. None of the tanks returned to Britain with crews being killed or captured. The lessons learned at Dieppe essentially became the textbook of “what not to do” in future amphibious operations, and laid the framework for the Normandy landings two years later. Most notably, Dieppe highlighted the need for preliminary artillery support, including aerial bombardment; the need for a sustained element of surprise; the need for proper intelligence concerning enemy fortifications; the avoidance of a direct frontal attack on a defended port city; and the need for proper re-embarkation craft.
More specifically, the Dieppe experience led to the creation of a fully integrated Tactical Air Force to support major ground offensives while on the ground much more care was taken in appraising the nature of the beaches on which armour was going to land. Vital to this were covert cross-channel canoe missions by Combined Operations Pilotage Parties. During these Naval officers assessed the gradients of beaches and Royal Engineers took sand samples to check sites were firm enough for tanks. Along with the range of the Spitfire as fighter cover, the findings of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties helped determine the location of what became known as Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno invasion beaches. None of these were near major ports, making them easier to attack but also obliging the Allies to bring their own pre-fabricated Mulberry Harbours to allow sufficient vehicles, fuel, ammunition and food to be supplied to the fighting front. The hinging, bridge-like “Whale” sections linking the concrete elements of the Mulberry Harbours to the shore were built by the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company.
To counter the soft blue clay underlying the British army’s Sword and Gold beaches, the Bobbin was developed to lay down a strong hessian mat over which its Churchill derived hull and other tanks could advance without getting bogged down. Once a path for advancing armour had been established, the hessian could be replaced by more durable steel mesh and planking while the bobbin reel could be jettisoned to allow a petard mortar and machine gun to be deployed. In fact the Bobbin was one of the specialised so-called “Funny” tanks developed during World War II by Major General Sir Percy Hobart, along with the flame throwing Churchill Crocodile and the Sherman Crab – designed with a rotating flail at the front to detonate buried mines. Perhaps most relevant to this article however is the Sherman Duplex Drive tank – seen here with its flotation screen lowered and ready to go into combat.
Using the flotation screen held up by compressed air to displace water and the duplex drive arrangement of twin propellers at the rear made the DD Sherman a more elegant solution to the challenge of getting a tank ashore alone that the either the Tauchpanzer or Schwimmpanzer proposed for Operation Sealion. There were no awkward sponsons to be jettisoned on hitting the beach and the DD Sherman could be launched from a conventional rather than specialised landing craft. The drawback to the DD Sherman however was the shallow freeboard of the canvas screen. This could only cope with foot high waves but opposite Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944 the LCTs launched their swimming tanks too far out, allowing them to be caught in currents and be swamped by a six foot swell. As a result only two of the 27 DD Shermans launched made it to the shore where embedded German defenders caused huge American casualties.
Once General Hobart’s “Funnies” and more conventional gun tanks had broken out from the beach heads however, the six wheeled DUKW and tracked LVT 4 Buffalo were vital in keeping the fighting front supplied. This had been the case in America’s island hopping war against Japan and the earlier Allied invasions of North Africa and Sicily. The DUKW was based on the American General Motors 2 ½ ton truck while Buffalos eventually used their cleated tracks to cross the Rivers Rhine and Schelt. Perhaps one of the least remembered vehicles of the opposed amphibious invasions though was the Caterpillar D7 bulldozer. As well as clearing obstacles and filling in craters, the D7s were also used to push landing craft back off the beaches and haul other vehicles out of holes. Conversions to armoured specification were carried out by Caterpillar importer Jack Olding & Company Ltd of Hatfield in Hertfordshire: in a sense taking the story of landships and tanks at sea back to the Holt Caterpillar tractors of the Edwardian era. After 1945, DUKWs and Buffalos fought alongside more advanced gun tanks in Korea and during the later Suez Crisis of 1956. By then however, technology was changing the nature of amphibious warfare as helicopters could reliably insert troops directly to inland areas. Compared to earlier parachute drops and glider attacks, helicopters made up for their approaching noise by being able to evacuate personnel just as easily as they arrived. In this picture, Royal Marines are preparing to fly into Egypt aboard piston engined Westland Whirlwind helicopters from HMS Theseus.
From the mid 1950s too, compact powerful geared gas turbines facilitated not only larger helicopters capable of lifting heavy internal and external loads but short take off and landing turboprop transport aeroplanes. Although still requiring enough space to land if not a recognisable runway, aircraft like the Hawker Siddeley Andover and Lockheed Hercules could bring large numbers of troops and light fighting vehicles rapidly to a conflict. By the 1970s meanwhile, turbofan engines allowed giant transports such as the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and Antonov An-124 Condor to be built: capable of intercontinental ranges and carrying loads such as this Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle on its articulated lorry – yet capable of landing and taking off in less than 3 000 metres of runway. Impressive though these aircraft lifting abilities seem however, the C-5 can only carry two combat ready Abrams main battle tanks at a time. For this reason, a large build up of heavy armour will still require either intensive air activity or delivery by ship.
The combination of modern air power and the ability to launch and recover vehicular landing craft is characteristic of the latest assault vessels. Floodable stern docks were a feature of Her Majesty’s Ships Fearless and Intrepid although this picture is of the 1989 vintage USS Wasp. Above the stern dock is an aircraft carrier style flight deck capable of launching Harrier jump jets as well as the Osprey tilt rotors seen here. However, what makes the LHD-1 and its classmates special is that it was the first to be built around the concept of the Landing Craft Air Cushion or LCAC. The LCAC was developed from Sir Christopher Cockerill’s original hovercraft principle and once again uses geared gas turbines to deliver an Abrams M1 main battle tank – or equivalent load – at over 40 knots. As well as being much faster than a conventional landing craft, the LCAC is less susceptible to floating mines and other obstructions and can land on more beaches and further up them. Most importantly too, the LCAC can be launched from 50 nautical miles from the target beach, thus keeping the assault ship safely over the horizon. However, the LCAC is noisy and difficult to recover if damaged.
However, much as the gas turbine has allowed transport vehicles to lift larger loads, it has also allowed main battle tanks such as the Abrams M1 to become even bigger and heavier. Although they cannot swim or easily wade, these main battle tanks come close to H.G. Well’s vision of Land Ironclads, roaming the open spaces of the Middle East. The possible asymmetric urban warfare of the future however might favour such small tanks as the Russian Platform M. Only 5’ 2” long, it is fitted with rocket propelled grenade launchers and machine guns and can be air dropped on to a battlefield. Currently it can be radio controlled from up to six miles away using a laptop and games console but could one day be fully automatic: seeking its enemies in extreme temperature or radiation conditions or when human casualties would be politically unacceptable.
As a footnote, this article is connected to my earlier Warships On The Rails article by the name HMS Thruster. This was first applied to an R Class destroyer launched by Hawthorn Leslie on 10 January 1917 and scrapped in March 1937. The second HMS Thruster was one of the earliest purpose built Landing Ship Tanks, being erected by Harland and Wolff of Belfast and launched on 24 September 1942. After winning battle honours at Sicily and Salerno, HMS Thruster was refitted as a fighter direction ship for the 1944 Normandy landings and transferred to the Dutch navy in 1945. The third HMS Thruster began life as LST 3520 when launched by Vickers of Montreal, Canada, on 2 May 1945 but was renamed in 1947. HMS Thruster was then transferred to the Ministry of Transport 1956 and renamed Empire Petrel. It was sold in Singapore 1968. Class 43 diesel hydraulic locomotive D853 Thruster was built by The North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow and entered British Railways service on 30 August 1961. It was withdrawn on 3 September 1971 and scrapped at Swindon on 16 June 1972. It is seen here on a Cardiff to Manchester Express at Crewe on 24 February 1963