City’s Link to D-Day
LCA’s used in the Normandy Landing : Wiki Commons
Seventy years ago, a Wakefield firm of shop-fitters and joiners made a unique contribution to D-Day – by building Landing Craft, despite being located equidistant from the East and West Coast, and over a mile from the nearest river!
Drake & Warters Ltd., founded by Charles Henry Drake and Robert (Bob) Warters in 1925 in an old railway coach on Back Lane in Wakefield, had, by 1939, moved to a purpose built factory at New Wells, Wakefield, with an annual turn-over which would be rated in millions today.
The Factory was put over to war work in 1939 and Mr Drake ‘moved heaven and earth’(remembered his eldest daughter, Jeane Cresswell née Drake) to get his key employees registered as ‘reserved occupation’. Large contracts were obtained from the MOD for thousands of fold flat chairs and wardrobes for the RAF, innovative designs by Mr Warters, bedside cabinets, and officers’ folding camp beds. 250,000 bunk beds were also made for the American Army, and the construction of thousands of workbenches and cupboards to equip shadow factories, such as those for Rover. The building department of Drake & Warters (formerly Messrs. Judge & Co who Drake & Warters bought-out) built thousands of air raid shelters in the Pontefract and Castleford area, an army camp at Hessle near Hull, and a huge defensive ditch was dug at Tranby.
Several search light emplacements were built near Ripon, and in the Wakefield area. Concrete tank traps and gun emplacements were built on the North East Coast. Surprisingly, beach material could not be used in the concrete, so river sand and gravels had to brought on to the sites.
The most unusual contract, however, was for 16 – later 72 – Landing Craft Assault (LCA), in 1943. Prior to 1941 LCAs had been produced exclusively by Messrs. Thornycroft of Southampton, but in April 1941 due to demand outstripping production, the Admiralty sub-contracted a simplified design to boat builders and joiners or cabinet makers across Britain. In total between 1942 and 1944 some 1,694 LCAs were built; in the build-up to D-Day some 60 were produced in a month!
In order to fulfil this contract a quick expansion of the labour force was required and 800 girls were taken on. So unique was this development that the BBC Radio interviewed Charlie Drake and a newsreel was made by British Pathé ‘starring’ LCA 1147. LCAs were simple flat-bottomed craft with armour on them, 43feet long, with a 10 foot 6 inch beam, and weighed 12.5 tonnes. Fully laden with 50 troops, and equipped with machine guns and mortars, the craft had a draught of less than 2ft and the propellers were shielded in shallow tunnels to prevent damage upon landing. The engines that were fitted to the original 16 were conversions of car engines, carried out by Harry Warters, often ford V-8’s. The later LCAs were fitted with two purpose-built Austin engines capable of developing 390hp each.
The LCAs were built on specially produced jigs in the factory, and due to shortage of teak and plywood, mahogany was used in their place. Wearing their grey overalls, and forged into a team by Bob Warters, the girls could be found tapping screws and hammering rivets; they not only planked the hull and built the frames, but they made the internal fittings, oil and water coolers. Female electricians made the instrument boards and switch panels. Highly skilled girls worked on the adaptation of aero engines to marine use; they manufactured the armour plate, assisted in the installation of engines and gave the craft their final coat of grey paint.
The craft had two half decks to afford the infantry onboard protection during landed and had plate armour capable of turning a machine gun bullet. Mrs Cresswell remembered ‘The preferred age of the women workers was15 to 30, and one noticed the number of educated women working in the factory; but skill, the experienced foreman would tell you, had nothing to do with education. The vast majority of the girls had never worked before and some had come from offices where they worked as typists or receptionists.’ One of the girls was Peggy Tailor who worked as a cinema usherette and one of the painters, Mrs Pickering, was a mother of ten!
Initially built from scratch in the factory, under the supervision of a Mr Lehman from the MOD, in 1944 a ‘central brain’ was established to oversee and manage the production of the LCAs. Production was out-sourced to numerous small factories, each of which produced a singled element or part of each LCA. These parts were then delivered to the factory, remembered Mrs Cresswell, ‘like a conveyor belt, by road or rail, at the precise moment that a place needed them. Central stores were set up, and daily lorries or the railways collected the next portions of the craft required. You could have an LCA delivered to the factory in pieces like a giant jigsaw in its component parts.’
The first LCA took 72 days to build and was launched with great ceremony at Earnshaw’s Timber Yard on the River Calder, more than a mile away from the factory, where a special dock had been excavated. The LCAs were loaded on to the ‘Queen Mary’ (Drake & Warter’s low-loader) and carefully transported by road through the streets of Wakefield. The firs LCA, number 1144 was launched by Mrs Lilly Drake (the wife of Charles) on 13 October 1943 and it was ‘a thrilling day for the employees of Drake & Warters and the citizens of Wakefield who flocked to see ‘Wakefield’s War Effort’.’ Before acceptance by the MOD each craft underwent trials on a measured mile on the River Calder, usually conducted by Sub Lieutenant Geoffrey Canadine or Lieutenant Charles Warren. By the time the first launch, seven LCAs were nearing completion and through the rest of 1943 and with the build-up to D-Day, there was one launch a week.
LCA 1144 was lost during the Normandy Landings transporting her cargo of troops; of the others built by Drake & Warters, LCAs 1143, 1146, 1149-1151,1155, 1156 were all lost between June and July 1944 during ‘Operation Neptune.’
To watch the Pathe newsreel visit:
Written by Anthony Dawson
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