If it does – salute it! Long-standing Royal Navy joke. Here on Landing Craft Tank 7074, coming back to life in the Ship Hall of Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, there’s no saluting needed. Not least because Martin Hobson, the head of ML (UK) of Portsmouth, who are doing the work, creates the right atmosphere. People just get on with it. And there’s a lot of getting on to be getting on with, as the LCT comes back to life, paint roll by paint roll, brush stroke by brush stroke: camouflaged just as she was on D-Day as she headed for Normandy and Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. In fact, Martin himself has a direct and personal connection with 7074. His grandfather served at Gold Beach during the invasion – so he probably saw the very ship his grandson is now setting to rights.
So… when you clean up, you make dirt. In the case of Landing Craft Tank 7074, a mixture of rust particles by the million, paint flecks, and simple dust. Loads of it. Which is why the ship was covered in a giant marquee during her restoration – a sort of rectangular shroud, reaching right over her from tank ramp to stern and down to the floor of the Ship Hall in HM Naval Base, Portsmouth. Everything had to be kept inside there (including filming), as this is a full-time military establishment, with security to match. But where you get dirt you need to clean up. Step forward Martin Hobson with the ML (UK) Henry hoover, cleaning up the tank deck of the LCT. Not the first thing you’d expect to find a company director doing, but that’s Martin for you.
“We’ve got an awful challenge here” says Martin Hobson, MD of ML (UK) Ltd, the Portsmouth firm bringing Landing Craft Tank 7074 back to life – and fit to be an exhibit at Southsea’s D-Day Story Museum. Coming from the man who led the renovations of the submarine HMS ‘Alliance’, and Dardanelles veteran HMS M33 – not to mention HMS ‘Warrior’ and ongoing works with HMS ‘Victory’- that means something. 7074 sunk, abandoned, after a final role as a night club on Birkenhead Docks – where you might find yourself popping in for “just the last one” before getting back to your ship (setting as steady a course as possible up the gangway.) Above all – it’s rust. Rust everywhere. In fact, it’s a tribute to her steel and her 1944 builders Hawthorn Leslie that she’s got this far.
OK, so now you have your Landing Craft Tank, last D-Day survivor, safely in BAE’s giant Ship Hall in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard. An amazing building which has the effect of making ships of a substantial size parked in it look like enlarged pond-sailing models. LCT 7074 is safely enclosed in a kind of vast white carrier bag (bet it cost more than 5p…) stretched across scaffolding, to prevent the muck that must be removed from contaminating the rest of the Hall. And she’s brought a lot with her, mostly the bottom of Birkenhead Docks (and one very dead 3 foot eel), washed into her rust-riddled double bottom during her abandonment. This muck all has to come out. Step forward the youngest member of the ML team, complete with shovel, wheelbarrow, and skip. “It’s got to come out” he said, philosophically…
No-on can say that the National Museum of the Royal Navy is afraid of a challenge. And bringing Landing Craft Tank 7074, last LCT survivor of D-Day, south from the Mersey into her new Portsmouth home was certainly that. Cradled in the heavy lift ship ‘Condock V’, she completed her journey successfully, arriving in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard for the restitution work to begin. All to be done by ML UK Ltd – the Portsmouth engineering firm which has an unparalleled track record in this specialized work, from HMS Alliance, to HMS Warrior, HMS M33, and – continuing – HMS Victory, the most challenging of them all: a 200 year-old national icon, she will be in their care for many years, as her hull is stabilized and re-supported for her next century. But ML UK are indeed the proverbial safe hands.
And what a challenge! Landing Craft Tank 7074 had settled firmly onto the bed of the Mersey, in a mute reproach to those who’d let her fall so far. Not ‘The Ship that Died of Shame’, as in Nicolas Monsarrat’s famous story about a motor gunboat turned post-WWII to worse and worse purposes till she seems to wreck herself in expiation; more ‘The Ship that Died of Sorrow’, as 7074, abandoned, slowly sank at her moorings in Birkenhead. So it took a very big, powerful crane and a set of mighty straps to raise her, oh so gently, onto the heavy lift ship that would take her south – to Portsmouth, close to where she set off to deliver tanks and their crews to join in the assault on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. All filmed brilliantly, time-lapse, by independent producers True North.
A guy in a hard hat and a hi-vis jacket may not look like the proverbial US cavalry coming over the hill to the rescue… but as far as LCT 7074 is concerned, Nick Hewitt, (picture), Head of Exhibitions and Collections, National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), fits the bill. The ship is very dear to Nick’s heart: he’s been working to save her for many a long year. And now it’s happening – with highly developed plans bringing her south to a new home outside the D-Day Story Museum in Southsea, Hampshire, to highlight the museum’s display of artefacts, photos and vehicles from the greatest seaborne invasion in history. We’ll be filmng her new life for NMRN. Mind you, Nick is clearly fearless – because the state of 7074, after years of neglect, cannot but be a huge challenge…
This was one heck of a way for a ship that hit the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 to end up… sunk ignominiously into the mud at Birkenhead docks. But that looked like the last gasp for Landing Craft Tank (LCT) 7074, just visible above the dark waters of the Mersey, after a final phase of her career hardly more dignified: as an out-of-hours dance ‘n drinking club called ‘Clubship Landfall’ – the place to go to end a night out with that final “just the one”, before tottering back to your ship or weaving your way towards a taxi to get home. After the very last lager had been consumed, and the final revolve of the glitterball, 7074 was simply abandoned and slowly, sadly died into the water. But then… along came the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
Rob is a TV producer, reporter and camera operator with 30 years’ experience at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITN, in news, factual and documentary production. He is a four times award winner, whose awards include a coveted Royal Television Society award for his work on Channel 4 News. His association with The Maritime Foundation goes back to 1995, when he won the first Desmond Wettern Maritime Media Award for a series of reports that led to a major documentary on the loss of the bulk carrier Derbyshire.