A work in progress – the fuller biographies will emerge in due course: please sign up to the Newsletter (bottom of the page) and we’ll let you know when we’ve done more justice in writing up our extraordinary signatories.
Lt Thomas A SUTTON RNVR for the contribution of LANDING CRAFT and for those lead ships for the NORMANDY INVASION, here onto GOLD BEACH, and later for the important capture of WALCHEREN.
Born in 1921 Battersea, Tom, after working for Bird’s Eye, had volunteered for the RAF with the ambition to fly Sunderland flying boats, passing all tests except for a hearing test problem from an inflammation possibly tricky if exposed to rapid air pressure changes. Receiving call up papers for the Army he was not too keen after hearing Dunkirk stories of long marches, so volunteered for the expanding Royal Navy, with the usual three months at HMS Collingwood, before being sent north to the new battleship, HMS HOWE as a seaman spotter to the Gunnery Officer, who was Commander the Viscount Curzon and son of Earl Howe, whose name was that of the ship now at the beginning of its six months of commissioning. and sea trials. In battle obedience had to be immediate and instinctive – the naval system worked.
“We were all allocated and my battle station was five decks down and I was actually in the cordite room – there were 40 Ib wads of cordite which you had to pick up and put on a tray and that tray was automatically shunted across and went up five decks to the gun and that was all I was doing. Then there was another group holding the shells. They went up first of all and it was all done in order, a shell, then the cordite. One was rammed after the other regardless to who was up there.”
On Howe Tom’s recommended application for a commission was approved, with his going down to Hove to HMS King Alfred .for a full three months of general training, naval history, navigation, seamanship and that knowledge of everything which sailors must do. He was commissioned into Combined Operations, the main choice in the Spring of 1943, with Dieppe having been and gone – other choices open at that time were Minesweepers, Gunnery and Wireless which included Asdic. Having been on a battleship with 1,600 men, Tom did not want to go back to them as they were such massive organisations and he wanted to be more of his own boss in a small unit. He went straight up north to Scotland and Rothesay on the Clyde and trained initially on a Mk 3 British Landing Craft (Tank) often going round the Clyde and coast to Jura, one of the places where they had beaches suitable for practising their landings on. The all important drill was to learn to drop the anchor on the beach in different conditions and then tow yourself off by hauling on the anchor, called kedging.
Early in 1944 Tom was promoted to command his own LC 2233, an American-built LCT, at age 23, which had a crew of twelve with one other officer, a coxswain, two stokers, a signalman and six seamen. Three of these would set sail down south and round Land’s End with their cruising speed of only six knots, once being ordered to be a seaward shield for the Destroyer Holt, which was coming out of Devonport to go to Portsmouth. It was just a show really, a destroyer with three landing craft on the outside of it with their tiny draught of 6 ft, underneath which torpedoes would go only too easily – this was purely for show and took almost a week, with their landing up in Southampton. Briefed in a massive hangar with other naval commanders by Admiral Ramsay, he had been told to expect 50% casualties for the invasion of Normandy.
Since these LCTs were to be right in the vanguard on to Gold Beach near Le Hamel, heavy extra armour plate was bolted on around the bridge, wheelhouse and engine room, only a few weeks before D-Day. This meant that in the rough weather of the D-Day crossing from Beaulieu, constant use of the bilge pumps hardly kept up with seawater ingress and only half of his flotilla of a dozen craft made it across.
Tom’s sight at dawn of so many hundreds of craft was unforgettable. Arriving ten minutes ahead of H-Hour, the naval bombardment was still in progress but shortly they had used their two Oerlikon guns. Tom’s LCT was right at the front on Gold Beach. Holding two Centaur tanks and one Sherman, two approaches had to be made after the Sherman’s engine refused to start for their first landing and were too high in the water without the weight of the other two tanks – conveniently others’ supporting fire gave some protection. 15 or so shells burst, with the nearest about 10 yards from the bow, as they kedged back out on and over their anchor. In their second landing, successfully releasing their now driveable Sherman tank, their LCT suddenly hit one of the underwater anti-invasion obstructions and sank in a five foot depth of water. Emergency repairs with quick drying cement helped them re-float. Attached to a buoy, they had to remain there for two weeks after, not sensibly, being refused permission to be towed back to England, until the craft eventually broke free in the big storm of 19-22 June.
With sides stove in after engine-less collisions with other beached craft, LCT (American) 2233 became useless and more craft damaged after not being towed clear as Tom had wished. Issued with a further LCT 1132 and, after a short period of training with it, they went back to France and did a number of ‘taxi runs’ across the Channel from Southampton to Arromanches carrying stores.
Later Tom would deliver Royal Marines and their small rubber Weasels into the savage fighting for Walcheren, his most frightening experience. There wasn’t very much support because the weather was so bad, making this his fastest ever landing onto the beachhead and a rapid withdrawal under German 88mm fire. Reverting to the Invasion Fleet for Normandy Tom said:
“Almost the whole of that fleet were RNVR with but a few RNR, the older ones. When the Navy first started off, there was a bit of snobbery but that was in the early wartime days, when they quickly realised that these youngsters were able to do the job”.
At Arromanches during the celebrations for the Fiftieth Anniversary in 1994, Tom, first in on D-Day at Gold Beach, would be given a place of honour among and at the front of the Normandy veterans, when all the Royal Family except the Queen took a platoon each in what was a total march-past for their part played in the liberation of France and of Western Europe.