Tom Carter. Beachhead Normandy: An LCT's Odyssey. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012. 242 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59797-710-4.
Reviewed by Zoe Rose Buonaiuto (Princeton University)
Published on H-War (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
There is an insatiable demand for the history of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. The work of Antony Beevor, Max Hastings, John Keegan, and Cornelius Ryan anchors the historiography with broad strokes of the invasion and highlights the experience of armies and soldiers. In these accounts, the story of D-Day is told from the beaches and the hedgerows—a narrative that privileges the army’s experience. But D-Day was launched from the water and could not have been successful without the work of sailors and naval vessels. Chief among the latter were the landing craft: amphibious assault ships responsible for ferrying troops and materiel across the water, onto shallow beaches, and back within minutes. These were the steel workhorses of D-Day. While photographs are a testament to their presence during the operation, the landing craft are barely referenced in print and official histories. Tom Carter identifies this gap in the literature in Beachhead Normandy: An LCT’s Odyssey. While he admits his book is not intended to be “the definitive history of LCTs” (landing craft, tanks) (p. xix), he succeeds in crafting an engaging study of the machine and its crew at war.
Carter has an intimate connection to his subject: his father, at age fifteen, enlisted in the US Navy and served on an LCT christened “LCT 614” that operated in the Dog Red sector of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. His father’s death in 1984 and the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994 spurred Carter to explore the landing craft’s role in the invasion. Using his father’s wartime diary and photograph collection as a launching point, Carter tracked down and interviewed several other members of LCT 614’s crew to corroborate his father’s account. Private correspondence and personal interviews with these men buttress the central chapters of the book, and Carter makes clear in the preface that his primary intent in writing the book is to tell their story: “Without knowledge of these men and what they did, there can be no true knowledge of the LCT” (p. xix). Carter, now an associate professor in English and communication studies at Roanoke College in Virginia, had a naval career of his own before entering academe, making the descriptions of life and work at sea all the more vivid.
Beachhead Normandy, therefore, is biographical on two registers. It weaves in the life stories of several members of the LCT 614’s crew during the war and thereafter, using the experiences of the author’s father—Luther “Luke” Carter—as the backbone. The book also treats LCT 614 as a historical character itself, tracing its birth in 1943 from parts forged at the Pidgeon-Thomas Iron Company to its baptism in Plymouth waters, its Channel crossing to Normandy, its later journey to the Pacific theater, its difficult work on China’s Hei Ho River, and its eventual death—“disposal by salvage”—in 1948.
Carter does not dwell on the invasion’s objectives or its larger place in the history of the war—a welcome change for readers familiar with such details. Rather, the bulk of chapters 4 through 8 describe life aboard LCT 614 as it crossed the English Channel and maneuvered into position to drop and retract its ramp on Omaha. This is the real strength of his book: Carter’s depiction of the stress and difficulty LCT 614 encountered is representative of the work of all landing craft on D-Day. The most common depictions of combat on D-Day are those of infantrymen or paratroopers, so the perspective from the water is useful.
Once the story of LCT 614’s duties off of Normandy end, Carter could have concluded the book. Instead, the book loses its thrust because it follows the movement of LCT 614 (now called LST 1008) to the Pacific theater and then to Operation Campus-Beleager in China. Carter closes the book with short biographical anecdotes about the original crew of LCT 614. This pivot out of Normandy and to the Pacific and postwar operations takes up unnecessary space that Carter could have used to reflect on his analysis of landing craft operations in Normandy. Ultimately, the book suffers from trying to balance the history of LCT 614, the history of other landing craft, and the history of the crewmen. Is this a book about LCT 614’s entire naval history or about its work in Normandy? Is this a book about the men who worked on the ship or a nod to his father’s memory and legacy? Carter is admirably trying to do all of these things in Beachhead Normandy but loses focus in the process. Additionally, the lack of footnotes or documented citations—one of the great joys in reading history—make it difficult to follow his archival trail.
These criticisms aside, Carter is a talented writer and storyteller and this is a contribution to naval scholarship and histories of D-Day. Beachhead Normandy will not disappoint readers seeking the lived, tedious experience of these landing craft under fire and the crewmen that “run them and fight them and paint them and scrape the paint off and paint them again” (p. xix).
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Zoe Rose Buonaiuto. Review of Carter, Tom, Beachhead Normandy: An LCT's Odyssey.
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