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.
Curator Clare Hunt (picture) at The National Museum of the Royal Navy and her team are making good progress in preparing RML 497 for her future at the NMRN in Hartlepool. A conservation management plan will soon be unveiled, and in the meantime, much work is going on to support the construction of a new facility to display the Fairmile B Rescue Motor Launch – a rare survivor of the hundreds of warships like her that served in WWII in a wide range of roles, from gunboat to submarine chaser. In the new facility, 497’s full history will be told – along with the story of the Royal Navy, right up to the present day. Other ideas include a panorama of shipbuilding and engineering in the North-East – a world centre of ship construction during the industrial revolution, and beyond.
The “chummy ship” is a long-standing Royal Navy tradition- where two ships’ companies develop a special friendship. RML 497 is going to have the best possible chummy at The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool – because the museum is also home to HMS ‘Trincomalee’, a 19th century frigate built in Bombay by the Wadia family of shipwrights. Extraordinarily, ’Trincomalee’ still has 60% of her original timbers – because she was built from Malabar teak, a very strong wood with a high oil content, which has protected her for over 200 years. Now, she floats in her own dock – and it’s a thrill to go on board, feel her move with sea around her, and know that the deck you are treading on once resounded to the slap of sailors’ feet as they rushed to make sail!
… exactly what the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool has done for RML 497. Here in the car park a prefabricated shelter has been built for this greyhound of the seas. The aim now, over many months, is to let her settle and dry out, while planning continues on how best to display her to visitors. Dry out..? Well – she’s a wooden ship, and her hull has done half a century’s hard work, and her “double diagonal” construction (effectively two hulls with planking laid at opposing angles, separated by specially treated calico) though very strong, is prone to rot. Since these doughty ships were hardly expected to survive WWII, we are lucky still to have RML 497. So she deserves all the TLC that Curator Clare Hunt and the NMRN Hartlepool team are going to deliver.
Early on a sunny, windy morning, RML 497 inches her way towards her new berth at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. A few hardy onlookers watch as she progresses gracefully up the road from Hartlepool Docks towards a special temporary facility, built to protect her from the wind and weather. It’s a slow but steady progress as the Fairmile – her graceful lines for all to see – moves along on the extraordinary ‘Self Propelled Modular Transporter’, carrying her without apparent effort in another totally new environment for 497 – a dual carriageway! The police escort, helping with traffic, seems a most appropriate honour for this WWII veteran. Walking backwards, constantly making fine adjustments, the SPMT operator shows all his skills, negotiating roundabouts and a hard turn to port onto the museum site. Safe home indeed!
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.