I don't think they even saw each other. The German sailors were shooting at blips on a primitive radar screen, and the British and Americans were just panicking, like chickens with a fox in their hen house. But in that confused melee on a moonless April night ten miles out in Lyme Bay off the English coast, Nazi Germany might have come within one torpedo of winning the Second World War. All they had to do was sink one more of those lethargic targets waddling across their sights at ten knots, and the Allied invasion of France would have been delayed for months, perhaps forever. But how could they know that, when the vital importance of these fat clumsy ships came as a surprise even to the man who inspired their creation? A year earlier Winston Churchill had complained that “ the destinies of two great empires . . . seemed to be tied up in some god-dammed things called LST's”
The need for such a ship occurred to Churchill in June of 1940 when 300, 000 British and French soldiers were rescued off the beaches of Dunkurque. The men were saved, but all their trucks and tanks and cannon had to be left behind. So, the need was simple - a vessel which could run up on a beach to directly load or disgorge heavy tanks. Of course in practice things were more complicated. The ship would require a shallow draft to “beach” itself, but a deep draft to remain stable while crossing the open sea. While loading and unloading it had to remain level with its stern afloat and its bow on dry land and pointing “up” the beach. Naval Architect Rowland Baker was ordered to design this floating contradiction. Luckily, he knew enough about ships to be a genius
Like all engineering problems, the most elegant solution was the source of the problem, in this case sea water – too little or too much. Impact with the land would require the strength of a double hull, while pumping sea water between the hulls would lower the draft, making the ship more stable in the open sea. Selectively pumping that water out of compartments between the hulls would allow the ship to come inshore, while balancing level. All it required was a bit of plumbing, which Baker ingeniously provided. Britain managed to convert three small oil tankers to the new design, but their ship yards were already stretched thin. So, in October of 1941 Baker was sent to Washington on a Lend -Lease shopping spree.
The U.S. Bureau of Ships considered the design submitted by Baker, and they assigned John Niedermair to fix it. He made the ship bigger (330 feet long), which allowed it to carry 2,100 tons of equipment, and he added a winch system to the anchor chain to help drag the ship off the beach. He even made the bow doors wider. In early November of 1941, Britain immediately ordered 200 of the new Landing Ship Tanks. And then in December Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and then Hitler, for some insane reason, declared war on America, as well. And suddenly the US Army and Marine Corps were demanding as many of this ship as possible, when two months earlier none of them had even heard of. And that created a new problem.
The U.S. Navy went from 790 active ships in December of 1941, to 6,700 in August of 1945. There was no room in U.S. shipyards for the last minute orders for LST's for our own military, let alone the British. So the decision was to open “cornfield shipyards”, with companies like Chicago Bridge and Iron on the Sennica River in Illinois, Dravo in Pittsburgh and American Bridge in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron in Evansville, Indiana. - all on the Ohio River, and all building LSTs. It took them six months to build the first ones. That was incredibly fast for ship building, but not fast enough.
The original plan to invade France called for just three divisions in the first wave, and the only American division was to land on the beach code named Omaha. It was clear, that would not be strong enough to guarantee success, but with only 300 LST's in Europe, they could not land more. In September of 1943 the head of the U.S. War Production Board, Donald Nelson, visited London and experienced Churchill's panic first hand.. Nelson cabled his staff that LST's were “most important single instrument of war”, and he added “the need for these ships has been grossly understated”
On September 8, 1943 the keel was laid for LST number 507 at the Jefferson Boat and Machine Corporation in Jeffersonville, Indiana, on a bend in the Ohio River. Like all 117 of her sister ships built here – like the 1,000 of her sisters built in America, the 507 was assembled from 30,000 separate parts, and built in sections, which were then welded together, mostly by women earning $1.20 and hour and working 9 hour shifts and a 54 hour work week. Building an LST Ten weeks later the 507 was launched sideways into the river, and after fitting out with her deck guns, she sailed to New Orleans, where she officially joined the U.S. Navy on January 10 – 124 days from laying keel to joining a convoy. She was just one of 62 brand new LST's that reached England that winter.
This amazing influx of LST's allowed allied planners to add two divisions to the first wave, and a second American beach, this one to be named Utah. But just inland from Utah beach, on Omaha's right flank, the Germans had flooded the land, leaving only two roads off the beach. That tactical problem could be solved, but the Americans needed someplace to practice, someplace with a lake just inland of a beach. And in December of 1943, three thousand British citizens were evacuated from the south coast of Devon in southwest England, around an area called Slapton Sands. It was a duplicate of the topography in Normandy. It was here that in April of 1944, the allies staged Operation Tiger, a full scale live-fire practice of the Normandy landings.
At 7:30 in the morning of Thursday, April 27, 1944, 30,000 men of the U.S. 4th division were to rush ashore on Slapton Sands from, among other ships, 300 LST's. But a glitch had thrown off the time table for the first wave. The gunnery ships were half an hour late, but some of the landing craft stayed on the original schedule. The gunnery officer on the cruiser HMS Hawkins, noted, “they had a white tape line beyond which the Americans should not cross until the live firing had finished. But...they were going straight through the white tape line and getting blown up.” About 300 men were killed or wounded. After that “glitch”, the rest of the first day's operations went smoothly, at least until after midnight, when the follow up units were preparing to practice their part.
It was after one in the morning of Friday April 28th, that eight LST's were plowing broad circles at ten knots in the calm, cold waters of Lyme bay, off Slapton Sands. Their crews joked that the ship's initials actually stood for “Large Slow Target” or “Large Stationary Target”. This morning they were about to be proven correct. These eight ships carried quartermasters, engineers, and even a graves registration unit, the house-keeping support without which an army cannot fight for long. Bearing down on them were nine German Schnellbootes, (fast boats), each 120 feet long, armed with four torpedoes and cannon and machine guns and capable of 42 knots – or four times the top speed of the LST's. All of the German boats carried radar. Only one of the LST's did.
According to the official U.S. naval history, issued in 1946, “LST 507, the first attacked, was hit by several torpedoes which failed to explode, then was set afire by a direct torpedo hit. Another struck five minutes later. The enemy craft strafed the decks with machine guns, and fired on men who had jumped into the water. LST 507 began to settle. About the same time, LST 531 was hit and set afire... About 0210(am), LST 289 was hit by a torpedo which destroyed the crew's quarters, the rudder and the rear guns...” Amazingly, with its stern almost blown off, LST 289 was able to make it safely back to port. But after burning for two hours, LST 531 sank. Finally a British destroyer arrived to pick up survivors, and was ordered to sink the wreckage of the pride of Jeffersonville, Indiana, LST 507. She had been in existence for six months, from birth to death. Her remains now lay 200 feet beneath Lyme bay, at 50°29′N, 2°52′W. The cost of that April night was 198 dead American sailors, and 551 dead American soldiers – 749 total, plus wounded. So tight was security surrounding the invasion that all survivors, the wounded and their doctors and nurses were sworn to secrecy, and many of the dead were buried in unmarked graves.
For the planners, the loss of three LST's meant that on D-Day, June 6, 1944, there were no LST's in reserve. One more sinking would have meant a weakening of the invasion. That was how close the German sailors came to stopping D-Day. They never knew it, of course. They never saw what kind of ships they were shooting at. On June 6, 1944, the landings on Omaha Beach came perilously close to a disaster. After losing 3,000 casualties, American troops were able to push barely 1 ½ miles inland. Meanwhile, on Utah, the beach added because of the rush the previous summer to produced LST's, 23,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles pushed almost 5 miles inland, at the cost of only 200 casualties.
As of May 1st, 1944, the full production of LSTs was assigned to the Pacific. During a war, the key to success, is to not look back. But looking back after the war, it was clear the invasion of Normany was the product of total war - in this case, the genius of a British design, improved by an American, implemented by the entire American economy, including thousands of women who had never before had a job outside the home, and never dreamed they would build a sea going ship, who strained to build enough, to build that one ship more than was needed to give the allies a chance at victory. When you speak of war, it is best to remember not only how many lives it costs, but also the unimagined demands it makes on the nation. Because you can never know in advance, what God-damned thing will be vital this time.
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