It’s February 1943 and officials on the coast of Devon, England, are awaiting the arrival of Landing Craft Tank (LCT) 326. The vessel had set sail from Troon, Scotland, some days previously slowly heading south towards its final destination. But those waiting for it to dock would be waiting forever: LCT 326 vanished en route and no one had a clue what happened to it for nearly eight decades.
LCT 326 had a simple mission on the day it left for Devon. The specialized vehicle, designed to carry tanks and deliver them to shore, was part of a transit cruise from Troon. The flotilla made slow progress, perhaps a precaution because of the“heavy weather” that day, as described in an article by The Guardian newspaper published in May 2020.
But careful traveling didn’t save the LCT 326 from its mysterious fate. Somewhere along the way, the vessel disappeared with all 14 crew members on board. Of course, people had their theories as to what had happened. But it would take 77 years for experts to uncover the truth of what had become of the landing craft tank.
Some years previously, the extended evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk in 1940 had thrown a problem into sharp relief. Namely, during the retreat the troops had to leave behind otherwise good equipment because they hadn’t possessed a vessel that could bridge the impassable gap between the land and the sea. Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself was moved to ask: when would the military be able to transport tanks for overseas battles?
At first, the British forces modified a trio of shallow-draft tankers so that they had a hinged door at the bottom. This would open so that soldiers could unfurl a 68-foot ramp, which would provide the bridge they needed to drive tanks to and from shore. The temporary design wasn’t the best solution, but the idea was precisely what Churchill had in mind.
The British eventually entrusted their American allies to produce what would become known as Landing Ship Tanks, or LSTs. They built 328-foot-long vessels that could transport 2,100 tons of cargo. And each one came with an improved ballast system, which provided stability to the LSTs when sailing and could be jettisoned during landing duties.
The bow of each LST had built-in doors that opened up to create a 14-foot-wide pathway to shore. And the lower deck of the vessel could hold a whopping 20 tanks, making for easy entry and exit pre- and post-combat. Meanwhile, the upper deck of the LST could accommodate lighter vehicles and up to 160 troops – or, in some cases, a landing craft tank.
The massive LST earned the nickname “Large Slow Target” based on the speed – or lack thereof – with which it moved through the water. Obviously, such a vessel couldn’t be deployed in a sneak attack on the Allies’ opponents. So, they relied on the landing craft tank, or LCT, for such missions.
The Japanese first developed the landing craft category in the 1930s. Their vessels came with a ramp built into the bow, which allowed troops to quickly disembark into battle. British and American forces quickly came up with blueprints to replicate this feature, eventually working it into five dozen types of vessels and landing craft.
One of them was called the Landing Craft Tank, or LCT. The British developed this specific type of vessel, and nearly 1,500 of them were mass-produced in the United States. The Mk4 model stood as the most popular of all. It could carry a half-dozen medium-sized tanks on board for quick deployment on enemy shores.
LCTs played a pivotal role in the World War II effort, specifically during the Normandy invasion, which took place on June 6, 1944. On that day, British, American and Canadian troops arrived on five different beaches in the region, thus beginning a three-month campaign that liberated northern France from Nazi control.
Not all LCTs saw action at Normandy – some didn’t survive that far into the war effort to contribute. One such ship was LCT 326, built in Middlesbrough, England, and deployed in April 1942, nearly three years into WWII. By that time, the Allies were churning out huge numbers of LCTs to aid them on the front lines.
LCT 326 was meant to join the fold, but its story ended before it reached the front lines of WWII. Instead, the ship’s crew, which was made up of 14 sailors who hailed from both Scotland as well as Bristol, Manchester and parts of Yorkshire in England, set off on a routine journey that sparked a mystery which endured for nearly eight decades.
Although the Mk4 proved to be the most popular type of LCT in the WWII effort, LCT 326 was an example of the Mk3 class of vessels. It was built specifically to navigate short journeys across the English Channel to mainland Europe. Sometimes, though, such craft did make longer treks: to the Mediterranean, for example, although this meant sailors had to bunk in less-than-luxurious conditions.
In total, the Allies counted 311 LCT Mk3-class ships in their arsenal. The ships measured in at 191 feet in length, and they could reach a speed of up to 10 knots. Later updates added another knot to the vessels’ speed potential, but the LCT 326, ordered in 1941 and finished the next year, was part of the original batch of boats.
Nearly a year after her completion, LCT 326 and the 14 men on board joined up with the 7th LCT Flotilla, transiting from Troon, Scotland, to Devon, England. All of the vessels that made up the warship formation traveled under the watchful eye of the HMS Cotillion. And, altogether, they set sail on January 31, 1943.
On this journey, the flotilla crews encountered what was described as “heavy” weather, according to ship records. But the vessels sailed on, passing the Isle of Man on February 1st. That night, the weather cleared, and the HMS Cotillion team scanned their fleet: LCT 326 was bobbing along with the rest of the ships.
This recorded sighting of LCT 326 was the last one – at least, for the next 77 years. The HMS Cotillion crew pinpointed the vessel just off of Bardsey Island, which is situated two miles from Wales’ Llŷn Peninsula. After that, though, the WWII ship disappeared at sea, and no one on the flotilla could explain with certainty why or where it had gone.
Of course, there were always theories about what happened to LCT 326. In fact, the Admiralty – a one-time government office that commanded the Royal Navy – attributed the loss of its vessel to either inclement weather or the explosion of a mine somewhere off the Isle of Man. The truth would eventually come out, though, thanks to a renewed effort to identify shipwrecks in these waters.
Around the turn of the millennium Bangor University commissioned the construction of a research vessel called the Prince Madog. The £3.5 million ship – equivalent to $4.3 million U.S. – was built to aid the school’s teachers and students in the biology, chemistry, physics and geology departments. The state-of-the-art vessel would aid aspiring marine biologists, but it would end up helping historians, too.
Bournemouth University historian and archaeologist Dr. Innes McCartney joined forces with Bangor University’s team of marine technicians and scientists to survey Welsh waters from the decks of the Prince Madog. Since 2014, the program had pinpointed and examined more than 300 sites of interest from the state-of-the-art ship as of May 2020.
McCartney explained the purpose of their mission in a Bangor University news release in the same month. The historian said, “The aim of this particular piece of research is to identify as many offshore wrecks in Welsh waters as possible and shed light on their respective maritime heritage. This aspect of the project has resulted in many new and exciting discoveries relating to both world wars.”
The Prince Madog has the technology required to swiftly identify shipwrecks on the seafloor. Specifically, the vessel has been equipped with multibeam sonar systems, which produce three-dimensional renderings of the bottom of the body of water it explores. The resulting images are so clear that scientists have been able to positively identify ships and explain why they went down.
Obviously, this information helps historians to say with certainty what happened to long-missing vessels from the world wars. But experts expect to use the data gathered on the Prince Madog to understand the biological effect that shipwrecks can have on undersea ecosystems, too. This information might help shape further research into renewable energy creation from marine sources.
Specifically, Wales’ marine renewable energy, or MRE, sector has the potential to flourish, thanks to its ever-moving waves and churning tidal power. Before installing anything, though, experts are looking to shipwrecks as models for how their infrastructure – from cables to foundations to turbines – will survive on certain parts of the seabed.
The uncovered shipwrecks show how sediments and currents can wear down particular materials. They also show the environmental impact of such deterioration. On top of that, researchers look at sunken ships as potential artificial reefs, which can revive marine ecosystems with more fish, whales, birds and dolphins.
In a May 2020 Bournemouth University press release, head researcher Dr. Michael Roberts explained this mission further. He said, “Establishing the identity of these offshore wrecks and thereby determining how long they have been submerged is crucial in helping us understand how structures interact with marine processes on timescales that are of great interest to the marine renewable energy industry.”
Roberts added that uncovering shipwrecks saved them a lot of time in the lab spent sleuthing the same information. He said, “Wrecks […] and their associated physical and ecological ‘footprints’ can often provide us with preliminary insights on the nature and properties of the surrounding seabed without having to undertake more complex, challenging and expensive geo-scientific surveys.
But for researchers specializing in World War II-era ships – and shipwrecks – the Prince Madog survey would provide answers about the past, not the future. In 2019 the team found remnants of a shipwreck off Wales’ Bardsley Island, far from the Isle of Man, the hitherto suspected final resting place of LCT 326.
However, with sonar providing them clear details about the sunken vessel off of Bardsey Island, historians could positively identify it as LCT 326, a whopping 77 years after it had vanished while traveling with a fleet of similar ships. Finding its watery grave was an unexpected outcome for the Prince Madog team.
And it took a few steps for them to positively identify the 77-year-old shipwreck. Firstly, they used the sonar-provided data to map out the sunken ship’s dimensions and analyze its appearance.This step helped them narrow down the type of vessel they had found; soon they knew for sure it was an LCT.
Then, the Prince Madog team examined the archives to match the shipwreck with reported losses in the area. What they discovered aligned perfectly with the last-known movements of LCT 326, so they believed that the vessel was most likely the WWII ship that had mysteriously disappeared mid-transit.
The team hadn’t found the LCT 326 near the Isle of Man, nor was it directly off of Bardsey Island. Instead, they found the vessel approximately 25 miles south of its last logged location. If it sank there, then it had continued along its proper course after the HMS Cotillion made one final note of its coordinates.
But LCT 326 appears to have hit heavy seas: waters so rough that they managed to split the wartime vessel in half. Both pieces of the tank-transporting ship remained afloat for enough time that they could drift 130 meters, or 426.5 feet, apart. Then, they sank to the seabed.
Of course, this is only one possible explanation as to what happened to LCT 326. Experts still can’t rule out the possibility that the ship collided with another vessel, or that it struck a mine and cracked in half that way. But the evidence appears to confirm that it was just a huge accident – a heartbreaking one for the 14 crew members on board.
On that note, the discovery of LCT 326 means that the Admiralty’s records can be amended to accurately show what happened to the crew aboard the WWII vessel. Not only that, but each fallen sailor will have their resting place properly recorded in the Royal Navy’s records, as well.
The same sonar-based evidence has rewritten shipwreck records beyond Welsh waters, too. In the Irish Sea, a similar survey has found that 40 percent of the wreckages that they had previously mapped were incorrect. Now, undersea images, combined with historical records, are clarifying what went down and where.
And, as more shipwreck data comes to light, it paints a more accurate picture of the world wars and how they affected countries around the world. Although more famous battles and blitzes took place elsewhere, the United Kingdom’s coastline saw plenty of water-based conflicts, and every rediscovered shipwreck serves to reiterate that point.
And the ships trawling through British waters were not just Royal Navy vessels. Irish, French, Russian, Portuguese, Norwegian and even German ships made their way through the country’s seas and channels. Some of their long-lost ships – and sailors – may come to light with the help of such sonar-scanning techniques.
So, eventually, historians will be able to chronicle even more accurate accounts of what happened in the waterways surrounding the United Kingdom. And, of course, their work will serve another purpose: the shipwrecks’ ability to withstand life underwater since their untimely demise will inform experts as they seek to create environmentally-friendly infrastructure in the Welsh seas and beyond.