Amphibious Warfare – Salvage & Repair Craft

by Chris Chant on 07/09/2015

By its very nature, amphibious warfare presents the men and equipment involved not just with the hazards of any military undertaking, but also with the possibility of destruction or damage as a result of the particular nature of the operation milieu. The most obvious problem faced by landing craft is that of becoming stranded as a result either of hitting the assault beach too fast and driving farther than intended onto the sand, or of being left high and dry by the ebb of the tide. In this circumstance, many of the smaller types of landing craft required only a comparatively gentle push by a bulldozer to be restored to the water, and even tank landing craft and other larger landing craft might be saved by such action after being stranded by the falling tide or an onshore wind, or even by being wedged against a rock outcrop. In the ‘Avalanche’ landing at Salerno in western Italy during September 1943, each engineer beach battalion was equipped with six bulldozers and 12 men so as to be able to perform salvage work of this type.

When a craft had suffered an engine failure, or lost its steering or had been badly holed, it had either to be hauled out of the water by the appropriate shore party or or to be taken in tow when eased off the beach and back into the water. If the the craft had been holed to a more severe degree, it would also require support by slings between two dedicated salvage craft so that it did not take in the volume of water that would cause it to sink before it reached the attack cargo ship allocated the task of lifting it from the water.

When there was surf during an assault landing, any minor craft which broached while beaching probably filled with water, and this was also a frequent result of the holing of the craft by rocks or enemy fire. In this circumstance the craft had to be patched and have the water pumped out of it before it was towed off the beach. In ‘Avalanche’ each attack transport carried a dedicated LCM Mk 3 outfitted for this task with a trailer pump able to shift 500 gallons of water per minute, a length of hose sufficient to reach stranded craft, and beefed-up towing cleats for the lines needed to tow a stranded craft off the beach. This provided a useful capability, but the commander of the US 8th Amphibious Force believed that improved salvage arrangements, offering greater flexibility among other things, could be created, and suggested the use of supply ships carrying with tank landing craft and other spares. Such an arrangement was already under active consideration by higher command echelons.

Size a factor

The re-floating of a beached tank landing ship, with a mass of more than 3,000 tons by comparison with tank landing craft’s figure of less than 750 tons, was an altogether more daunting proposition, but major landing craft such as an LST could in most circumstances be towed off the beach by companion craft or by the tugs which were no standard in amphibious assault forces. A beached LST could have become completely dried out between tides, but on a reasonable beach would generally not have suffered any structural damage unless the beaching was in a location that caused the LST to hog or sag. In the ‘Iceberg’ landing on Okinawa during April 1945, and indeed in the course of other landings, in the situation in which a beached LST blocked a berth and thereby imposed a major delay on the unloading programme, recourse was provided by tugs specially equipped with 3,000-lb (1360-kg) anchors by which they secured themselves to seaward of stranded medium craft and ships which had to be towed forcible off the beach: this practice allowed the tug to use her powerful winch most effectively to heave the stranded craft or ship off the beach.

Many different types of craft were used for the salvage role: these included large infantry landing craft and mechanised landing craft at Salerno, while in many of the island landings in the Pacific theatre vehicle/personnel landing craft moved forward in the wake of the assault waves for the specific task of salvaging craft and rescue men from any boats, craft and amphibian which foundered as a result of the sea conditions or damage. The steadily increasing use of amphibian vehicles meant that specialised equipment had to be carried and landed for damage to be repaired by welding: in this capacity, the recovery of an amphibian vehicle was comparable to that of the salvage of an armoured vehicle.

Hard knocks

Minor craft were designed for beaching, but as increasing reliance was placed on pontoon and other jetties to speed ferry work, many of these minor craft had to come alongside ever more frequently, inevitably suffering hard knocks. Such events could spring plywood sides, and once its frames had been broken – a craft was in need of a difficult repair. For major craft on a beach, the combination of factors such as runnels in the sand where there had been LSTs, pits left after coasters had floated off, and the accumulation of military jetsam along the tide line could impose severe but more importantly uneven strains on hulls, rudder and propellers. As a result, at Arromanches after the ‘Overlord’ landing in north-western France during June 1944, a floating dry dock for tank landing craft was in fact used to change bent rudder stocks, replace broken propellers and undertake a host of comparable repairs on craft up to the size of the LCT Mk 4.

The often extended nature of amphibious operations and the land campaign which followed them created the need for a servicing capability as well as a salvage facility, and this need was satisfied, in part at last, by work which minor craft maintenance teams could undertake on board infantry landing ships: this came to include many instances of remarkable running repairs on larger landing craft and ships. At other times the men of flotilla flagship landing craft could provide additional capability.

In the event of major task such as the replacement of heavy equipment, the work required was too long for ‘front-line’ repair unless appropriate lifting and other gear was available, and specialised auxiliary landing craft repair ships were equipped with such lifting gear in the form of a 44.5-ton derrick, and two 8.9-ton king-post booms. The auxiliary landing craft repair ship was a modified LST Mk 2 with the bow sealed and outfitted with electrical, pipework, sheet metal and other workshops (including a blacksmith’s forge) for repair work. The embarked stores of such ships included replacement parts for craft and probably also for LSTs. The ships also carried 10 balsa rafts to keep damaged minor craft afloat until they could be lifted from the water. The first six auxiliary landing craft repair ships came into service during 1943: 39 such ships were built or converted from LSTs while under construction, and two were allocated to the British as emergency repair landing ships.

Damage control

As on every other type of warship, the crews of LSTs and major landing craft were organised and trained to become damage-control parties able to effect temporary repairs in order to keep a craft or ship from sinking after being hit by bombs or shells. However, in combined operations there was little chance to provide men and junior officers with much of the specialised training provided to the damage-control parties of larger ships, though plugs for shot holes were carried, and on major craft a typical outfit of damage-control equipment might be six baulks of timber and a few hundredweight of quick-drying cement. Major damage was rendered sea-proof (not completely watertight) by being stuffed with hammocks, mattresses and other material to fill a gaping hole and allow the ingress of water only at a rate which could be handled by the craft’s or ship’s pumps. What cannot be argued, however, is the fact that the feature which made it possible for most landing ships and craft to survive heavy damage was their design with large numbers of separate watertight compartments sealed for each other by doors and hatches with heavy clamps, of which six to eight were turned against wedges to seal any door or hatch before the ship or craft entered action. The sill of the doors and hatches were set about 1 ft (0.305 m) above the level of the relevant deck, and this contained any moderate ingress of water within a compartment until the door could be closed.

Tank landing ships could survive enormous damage, though in their enclosed cargo spaces fire was the biggest hazard. In US service 12 LST Mk 2s were converted into auxiliary battle damage repair ships. These could effect temporary repairs to major damage suffered by any warship and LST, and operated with salvage vessels (converted minesweepers and other small ships) off amphibious assault areas to make it possible for damaged ships to make the passage back to a forward base.

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