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The D-Day Story Museum

Reviewing the best military history exhibitions, with MHM's Calum Henderson.

The D-Day Story Museum
Open 10am-5.30pm daily (10am-5pm from October to March)
Clarence Esplanade, Portsmouth, England, PO5 3NT
www.theddaystory.com
+44 (0)23 9288 2555

Last year, MHM reported on the hectic procedure that was involved in moving LCT 7074, a fully restored landing craft from the Second World War, to its new home in Southsea, Portsmouth.

The craft only had to make a short journey by barge around the bay from Portsmouth naval base, where the National Museum of the Royal Navy had been restoring her. But the task was not an easy one.

LCT 7074 outside its new home at the D-Day Story Museum in Southsea, Portsmouth. The museum and craft are now open to visitors.

‘There were parallels with D-Day itself, which I think stopped being funny quite quickly once things started getting a bit difficult,’ explained Andrew Whitmarsh, curator at the D-Day Story Museum, the craft’s new home.

I got the chance to see it for myself in early June, not long after the museum had reopened. While there, I spoke to Whitmarsh about the history of LCT 7074, as well as its most recent – and final – voyage.

‘It was landed on a kind of pad made of shingle that was specially built so that the barge could come as close to the road running on the seafront as possible,’ he explained.

‘That could only happen when there was a particularly high tide, and if there was bad weather just before that then it could wash away this platform.’

As if that were not tricky enough, the craft then had to be wheeled up the seafront and along to its new destination, under a specially designed canopy attached to the museum building.

‘It was all a bit of a nightmare,’ Whitmarsh added, ‘and it took a couple of goes, but they managed to do it eventually.’

The craft was moved to its present location in August last year, in a complex process that involved a barge, a high tide, and good weather.

As we spoke in the museum’s outdoor café on a glorious summer’s day, Whitmarsh was keen to point out that he and his colleagues at the D-Day Story Museum were mere observers of this difficult task, which was undertaken solely by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), also based in Portsmouth.

With a £4.7million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the NMRN had spent the previous six years painstakingly restoring LCT 7074 to its original 1944 look.

Last of its kind

There used to be more than 800 LCTs (Landing Craft Tanks) in existence, of many shapes and sizes. They were built specifically to ferry troops and supplies across the English Channel during the Normandy Landings, which began on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Today, 7074 is the last of its kind, making its preservation unquestionably important.

And the great thing about this particular craft, Whitmarsh told me, is that we know so much about its own history. As part of Naval Force L, 7074 arrived off Gold Beach late on D-Day, but did not unload its tanks until early the following morning.

Over the next few months, it saw almost continuous use. Like most other LCTs, 7074 visited multiple ports on both sides of the Channel, undertaking any tasks that were necessary in the ‘battle of the build-up’, the epic competition between the Allies and the Axis to conquer Normandy that summer.

Then, after the war, 7074 enjoyed a long and unexpected retirement. With the Allied navies no longer having any use for the craft, which in any case were not built to last, most were scrapped – with a few converted into houseboats.

LCT 7074, on the other hand, was sold off, initially to the Master Mariners Club in Liverpool, where it was converted into a clubhouse (called Landfall), a place where members could congregate. This was in 1948. Down the years, its ownership changed hands, until it ultimately saw use as a floating nightclub.

LCT 7074 moored in Liverpool before its restoration. It saw use as a nightclub for many years, whereas most other craft of its kind were scrapped.

As Whitmarsh pointed out, it was 7074’s second life that, in a bizarre way, meant it survived where its counterparts did not, although by the time it was rescued by the NMRN in 2014 it was in a truly dire state – almost beyond repair.

Covered with various roofs and other structures added by its post-war owners, LCT 7074 had sunk at its moorings in Birkenhead docks, little more than a forgotten, rusting hulk that was almost completely underwater.

As restoration began, it was discovered that the LCT’s spacious deck could no longer take the weight of a tank. So, as part of the long process by which the craft has been renovated, that area had to be specially reinforced.

It now holds two tanks: a Sherman Grizzly and a Churchill Crocodile, both of which were formerly outside the D-Day Story Museum’s entrance.

Several types of Landing Craft Tank can be seen here in operation on Gold Beach, on D-Day, 6 June 1944. The LCTs were used to ferry tanks, troops, and supplies across the English Channel throughout the campaign.

Restoration

Clambering around the craft just before I spoke to Whitmarsh, I was struck by a number of things. First of all, the paint job alone is terrific, and the LCT glistened beautifully in the sun as I walked aboard via the landing ramp at the bow.

At the stern, the engine room has now been refitted with a digital display telling the history of the craft. Directly above that, visitors can climb up stairways to see the wheelhouse, the bridge, and the gundeck, as well as the officers’ quarters.

The restored interior of the LCT looks almost comfortable now, but was much less so during the craft’s wartime use. Crews on board often experienced very dark and dank conditions.

LCT 7074 carried ten tanks of the 7th Armoured Division – the Desert Rats – on 6 June 1944, and, on at least one other occasion, a contingent of US airborne troops. For those men, it was never a particularly enjoyable experience. They slept and ate next to the engine room, in a steel box with no natural light.

Whitmarsh told me that the Royal Navy, recognising the poor conditions on board, gave the crews a special allowance in their pay. But the experience was still ‘fairly basic’.

‘My favourite story to illustrate this’, he said, ‘is apparently, sleeping in their hammocks, crews would often spread waterproof clothing over the hammock because, as you had a number of men sleeping in a small steel box, you just get so much condensation building up that it would drip on to the sailors from the ceiling.’

‘Visitors get a good idea of this kind of thing,’ said Whitmarsh. ‘One of the great things about the landing craft is that people can look round and explore it.’

A view of the deck of LCT 7074. During its restoration, the deck had to be reinforced so it could again handle the weight of a tank, such as the Churchill Crocodile visible here.

Indeed, as a museum about the Normandy Landings, you could hardly ask for a better advert than an original vehicle from the event parked right outside the front door. Especially if the vehicle is 59 metres long and weighs over 300 tonnes. I noticed several people stopping to look as they walked past, with many making the decision to go in and get tickets.

The museum, which originally opened in 1984, was rebranded and revamped in 2018. Its goal today, as its new name suggests, is to bring out the ‘stories’ of some of the 10,000 objects relating to the Normandy Landings that it holds.

One of these objects is the Overlord Embroidery, an epic work of art commissioned in 1968 by Lord Dulverton as ‘a tribute to our Country and Countrymen over the part played in defeating a great evil that sprang upon the Western World.’

Made by London’s Royal School of Needlework, based on designs by artist Sandra Lawrence, it is over 83 metres long and comprises 34 different panels.

‘People sometimes don’t know what to expect – you know, what’s an embroidery doing in a museum about D-Day?’, says Whitmarsh. ‘But when they see it, they definitely get it and they’re very impressed.’

During the war, the words Dum spiro spero were painted above the bridge. It is a Latin phrase meaning ‘While I breathe, I hope’.

I certainly was, and I would encourage all visitors to walk around the embroidery, housed in a special doughnut-shaped room, at least twice to pick up some of its extraordinary details.

The D-Day Story Museum on the whole is definitely worth a visit, and, credit where credit is due, their counterparts at the National Museum of the Royal Navy have done a fantastic job in restoring LCT 7074 – and getting her safely back ashore. •

You can listen to the full interview with Andrew Whitmarsh, curator at the D-Day Story Museum, here: Episode #10: How a D-Day landing craft tank was restored to its former glory.

Images: Calum Henderson, Wikimedia Commons, National Museum of the Royal Navy.